In March 1990 there was just two seconds left on the clock in the fight of the year, the fight of the decade. Two short seconds, but that was long enough and in the boxing business it takes less than two seconds to injure a fighter for life. Still, it was just two, tiny seconds and there was a lot on the line.
The fight was a beast on both sides of the ropes: In one corner with 68 wins and no defeats was Julio Cesar Chavez, the lord of Mexican boxing and a fighting genius. In the other corner was Meldrick Taylor, unbeaten in 25 fights, an Olympic darling. Both were world champions, they came from viciously rival camps, backed by opposing promoters. It was like a gang war, fought for the pleasure of thousands in attendance in Las Vegas and the millions watching on television.
What a fight it was.
Taylor was brilliant, too slick, too fast, and too smart. He won rounds, he controlled Chavez. It was impossible to take your eyes off it. Chavez was simply relentless and he still hurt and marked Taylor in rounds that he lost. Was Chavez losing the battle, but winning the war? Taylor was in front as the bell for the last round sounded, but his mouth was busted, his eye sockets damaged and he had been swallowing his own blood. One judge incredibly had Chavez up, but the other two had Taylor in front by five and seven rounds. All that Taylor had to do was survive the round, survive three minutes, and that would be victory.
In the last round, contrary to the tricks that memory can play on any fan of any sport, it was not a massacre for Chavez, not a one-sided slugfest. There is nothing in the fight for the first two minutes, they are both tired, both marked, hurting and desperate for the last bell to end a quite brilliant fight. It was, long before the end, a fight of painful fractions, seconds of pain, seconds ticked off.
Taylor lands a left hook on Chavez (Getty)
Taylor pushes Chavez back with about 38 seconds left, throwing punches he does not need to throw. The fight was won, he should have been moving in the last minute, running with what little strength he had. And then, with 23 seconds left on the fatal clock, Chavez hurts Taylor and Taylor staggers. Chavez sets himself for the only finish that could save him. Chavez moves to the side, finds a bit of extra room and connects.
Taylor is caught and dropped in the corner with 16 or 17 seconds left on the clock. It is heart-breaking for Taylor, ecstasy for Chavez. It is thrilling, unbelievable, hard to invent, it takes away your breath even now. There is pandemonium at ringside, in both corners – part delirium, part distress.
There is nothing like that in sport, nothing that quite captures that final-round moment – it is that rare moment when a finish in the last few seconds will alter a fight forever, will change the result, ruin any plans and break a fighter’s spirit. It is boxing’s ultimate finish.
Taylor is down, but he is not out.
He somehow scrambles up, using the ropes, desperate to get back on his feet. His face is swollen and bloody. He is up, still not steady on his legs with ten seconds left. Richard Steele, the referee, is right in his face. There is a camera in the corner that perfectly captures the drama, the moment. Steele and Taylor, separated by inches – one in control, one out of control. The seconds tick. There is now just five seconds left in the fight, then four – Steele is asking questions, listening and looking for answers as Taylor stands in front of him. There are no answers for Steele and no more time for Taylor. Time stops. Then Steele waves it off at 2:58 of the twelfth and last round.
Chavez celebrates his dramatic victory (Getty)
Chavez is too exhausted to celebrate at the end and Taylor is arguing with Steele, he wants to fight the last two seconds and be the first man to defeat Chavez. “I was fine, I was fine,” Taylor has been saying ever since. Steele would have to defend himself – he still does – against all sorts of outrageous accusations when the fight is over. He did his job, maybe saved a soul.
Chavez would have another 46 fights during the next 15 years, remain at the top for a long time and retire a Mexican idol. It is possible that Taylor never fully recovered from the brutal fight, never got back what Chavez beat out of him in that ring in Las Vegas. Taylor fought for 12 more years and had 21 more fights. They had a rematch four years later, an odd affair and Chavez won in round eight.
It was a unified world title fight, two unbeaten boxers, in Las Vegas, unforgettable quality and then it delivered the fantasy ending with just two seconds left. It does not get much better.
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