Taylor must use bread and butter or risk being toast

LAS VEGAS -- Middleweight champion Jermain Taylor's left jab is widely considered one of the best in boxing, the bread and butter of his impressive arsenal.

But that wasn't always the case for Taylor, who defends his title for the first time on Saturday night (HBO PPV, 9 ET) at Mandalay Bay in a rematch against Bernard Hopkins, whom he beat on a controversial split decision in July.

When Taylor was 16 and a blossoming amateur in Little Rock, Ark., he was, as he likes say, "right-hand crazy."

All Taylor was concerned with was pounding his opponents with his right hand. He admits that he gave very little thought to setting up his shots or using strategy to win.

His left jab was nonexistent, a deficiency noticed by Ozell Nelson, Taylor's father figure and amateur coach who now assists head trainer Pat Burns.

"When Jermain first came into my gym in Little Rock as a 13 year old, he was more of a street fighter, a brawler, just toe-to-toe. But with his long arms, for him to be successful in boxing he had to use his reach instead of brawling. So a jab was a big part of it," Nelson said.

"Jermain had bad intentions, trying to knock you out [with] that right hand," Nelson said, chuckling at the memory. "He could kill you with his right hand, but he wouldn't use his left. I said, 'I'm gonna fix you, boy. I'm gonna make you use a jab.' I was trying to think, how can I make him use a jab?"

The answer turned out to be quite simple.

"Ozell took a pair of hand wraps and used them to tie my right hand up, so all I had was my left hand to work with," Taylor said. "He did it because I was going right-hand crazy in the gym."

Day after day, Taylor would come to the gym and Nelson would tie his right hand up, connecting it to his head gear through the ear hole.

This went on daily for two months.

"He could block punches but he couldn't throw punches with it," Nelson explained. "If he threw it more than a couple of inches, it would spin his head gear around and he wouldn't be able to see. So he had to use that left hand, either jab or hook or uppercut. He could not spar with two hands."

Taylor did not like it initially and would try to throw the right hand. But it was tied tightly, and he spun his headgear around more than a few times. Eventually, Taylor adjusted.

"I thought the man was crazy at first, but you know what? It worked," Taylor said. "He explained to me why he was doing it. I didn't like it, but he said it would help, and it did. I owe it all to Ozell that I have the jab that I do and that it is as good as it is."

Said Nelson: "Yeah, when I first did it, he thought I was crazy. But he got good at it. He caught on, and he used that left hand. He was whipping good guys with one hand. After two months, I thought he was ready to go back to two hands."

When Taylor's right hand was finally free, he found that he was relying on it less than he had before.

"He had tied my right up for so long that I got used to using the left," Taylor said. "I got so used to it that when he untied my right I wouldn't even throw it at first."

Eventually, Taylor (24-0, 17 KOs) did use the right again, and his two-handed attack carried him to a 2000 Olympic bronze medal and ultimately the undisputed title.

"I'm thankful that Ozell did that because this kid's jab is a beautiful thing," said Lou DiBella, Taylor's promoter. "It's a beautiful, damaging punch. Some guys use the jab to control the fight and to set up other punches. Jermain does that, but when he's really on, his jab will hurt you.

"Very few guys in the modern history of our sport have had jabs that were weapons. Larry Holmes' jab was a weapon. Jermain has hurt people with his jab. His jab is also a weapon."

Although it was effective at times, Taylor's jab was not the weapon it figured to be in the first fight with Hopkins (46-3-1, 32 KOs).

After landing almost 40 percent of his jabs in the four bouts leading up to Hopkins, Taylor landed just 36 of 264 against him, a paltry 14 percent, according to CompuBox statistics.

"He knows he didn't use [the jab] enough last time," Nelson said.

"We've told him he's got to use it more. That's really his bread and butter. You can make a fight hard or easy for you depending on if you use that jab. In this rematch, I'm just looking for us to use it more and for Jermain to let Bernard know he's got one of the best jabs out there."

Taylor admitted that he got away from using his jab as much as he intended, which he said made the fight a lot tougher than it should have been.

"I made a lot of mistakes in that fight but it will not happen again," Taylor said. "I chased him around the ring and I should have stayed on my jab. But I still won. This time I am bringing my 'A' game. I will be more relaxed. I will use my jab more."

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.