Taylor has reason to hold his head up

Under Pavlik's heavy fire throughout the fight, Taylor, left, refused to wilt. AP Photo/Isaac Brekken

LAS VEGAS -- In the ring after Jermain Taylor's seventh-round knockout loss to Kelly Pavlik in September, the deposed middleweight champion insisted he would exercise his contractual option for an immediate rematch. A few weeks later, he made it official.

People within his own inner circle were unhappy with the decision. They would have preferred he take an easier confidence-builder first.

That decision also was questioned hard by the media.

Then trainer Emanuel Steward was fired. In the rematch, Taylor would ride with Ozell Nelson, his surrogate father, amateur coach and professional assistant, who had never served as a professional head trainer. Some in his circle wanted him to bring back original pro head trainer Pat Burns.

Again, Taylor took a swarm of criticism for a decision.

But when the rematch finally happened Saturday night before 9,706 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Taylor's decisions looked as though they were the right ones, even though Pavlik won a hard-fought unanimous decision in an entertaining 166-pound nontitle fight.

"I definitely wouldn't change a thing except for the outcome of the fight," Taylor said.

Lou DiBella, Taylor's promoter, was one of those who questioned the decisions. Afterward, he was singing a different tune, proud of the man he has promoted since Taylor turned pro after receiving a bronze medal in the 2000 Olympics.

"I think his performance vindicated all those decisions," DiBella said. "These were two sensational middleweight fights, and I am guessing they will meet again at a higher weight class. What would he have gotten out of an interim fight? He fought a great fight, and a lot of people had him winning or had it a draw.

"I'm not arguing with the scorecards. It could have gone either way. I think the other guy [Pavlik] is a big, strong monster and Jermain was trying to box to a win, and I think he came damn close. I thought he pulled it out, but he has nothing to be ashamed of. This is not the kind of fight you argue about. It's the kind of fight you appreciate."

Indeed, it was another classic sort of fight, and although the judges' scorecards said Pavlik won -- 117-111, 116-112 and 115-113 -- Taylor fought a much more disciplined and smarter fight than he did five months ago. There were many close rounds. It could have gone either way.

ESPN.com scored it 114-114.

But if there is such a thing as a moral victory in boxing, this was one of them for Taylor.

He stayed off the ropes, which is what got him in trouble last time.

He fought at a more controlled pace.

He carried his usually lazy left hand much higher than usual and avoided a lot of the powerful right hands thrown by Pavlik (33-0, 29 KOs), who went past nine rounds for the first time.

He consistently landed his jab, a weapon he often had neglected in previous fights.

Taylor, 29, wearing dark glasses at the postfight news conference to hide the swelling around his eyes, was obviously disappointed. But there was also a sense of pride in his voice because of the way he fought.

On changing trainers, Taylor (27-2-1, 17 KOs) had no regrets.

"I have known this man [Nelson] since I started boxing. I love this man," Taylor said. "I know what he is thinking. I was comfortable going back to the corner."

Larry Merchant, the sage HBO analyst who has called so many of Taylor's fights, agreed with Taylor's assessment.

"By fighting a disciplined, professional fight, he helped redeem himself," Merchant said. "He just lost to a better, busier man. I would say he proved his point, but he didn't win the fight. But he becomes a player at super middleweight. If he fought any of the top guys there, heck, he could be favored. He's still the only guy to beat Bernard Hopkins in 15 years. That has to count for something."

The Pavlik camp, excited about the victory, was gracious in defeat.

"Jermain taking the rematch made the sport better," said Pavlik, 25, who was headed for the hospital to have both of his hands x-rayed; he thinks he broke his right hand in the seventh round. "Taylor was better tonight than in the first fight, but I was better too."

Pavlik trainer Jack Loew, who had a war of words with Steward before and after the last fight, praised Nelson, who proved he could handle a top professional on his own.

"Ozell put together one hell of a game plan," Loew said. "Jermain showed a lot of movement. He would not let himself get trapped on the ropes. But once we got Jermain going backwards late in the fight, we were doing a lot better in the fight."

Said Nelson, "I think tonight [Taylor's decision] speaks for itself. I thought I did a pretty good job, but we came up short."

Even Steward, who was in the awkward position of calling the fight for HBO PPV (HBO will replay the fight next Saturday at 9:30 p.m. ET along with live coverage of the Wladimir Klitschko-Sultan Ibragimov heavyweight unification fight), praised Taylor for his decisions. Well, at least for taking the immediate rematch.

"He took the fight for one thing," Steward said. "No title. He just wanted to redeem himself."

Despite the defeat, consider it a job well done.

Dan Rafael is the senior boxing writer for ESPN.com.