LAS VEGAS – The second round of Jermain Taylor's first fight with Kelly Pavlik has been scrutinized in greater detail over the past five months than the Zapruder film.
Taylor was defending his WBC and WBO middleweight titles against Pavlik at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., on Sept. 29 when a looping right hand caught Pavlik above and slightly behind the left ear.
Pavlik immediately lost his equilibrium and began staggering around the ring like the last person at a New Year's Eve party before collapsing in a heap in a corner.
But Pavlik not only managed to rise before the count of 10, he also managed to survive the remaining 90-odd seconds in the round without being hit by another significant punch. His head was so clear that he won the third round and eventually, the fight and the titles by knocking Taylor out in the seventh.
Taylor, apparently, is basing his hope of gaining revenge in tonight's pay-per-view rematch at the MGM Grand Garden on being in better condition, which would allow him to, as he says, finish the job.
"If he goes down this time, he's going out," Taylor said brusquely the other day.
But the truth is, Taylor is a vastly overrated fighter who hasn't had a truly exceptional performance in several years.
Taylor largely frowned his way through the final 72 of his obligatory public appearances in what seemed a veiled attempt to convince everyone he's coming to fight. Pavlik was joking and laughing most of the time that Taylor was carrying that dour expression, but there will be no one among the expected 10,000 in the house tonight who will need to be convinced that Pavlik is serious about throwing down.
Taylor is largely a creation of television. He's a guy who won a bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics and parlayed good looks, a sunny disposition, decent but hardly great skills and shrewd management into a world title and a perception as one of the game's great fighters.
From the time he turned professional in 2000 until he faced Bernard Hopkins for the middleweight title in 2005, Taylor faced a collection of boxing misfits who were set up for him to knock down. The public got to see nearly every one of what were essentially setup fights on HBO, which built the façade of Taylor as superstar.
But Taylor was even fortunate in the timing of his back-to-back fights with Hopkins. Hopkins was 40 when they first met and had been the champion for more than a decade. Hopkins had outgrown the middleweight division, but was so invested in his string of consecutive successful title defenses that he refused to move up.
Hopkins subsequently proved that by looking superb in a pair of wins at light heavyweight over Antonio Tarver and Winky Wright. He didn't deplete his body by forcing it to cut to a weight it not longer could make and he regained the strength and the endurance that he had lacked against Taylor.
Wright exposed Taylor in their 2006 bout, earning a draw in what was one of the worst verdicts of the decade.
The fight that is perhaps the most telling about Taylor's status was his win over Kassim Ouma that followed the Wright bout.
Yes, Taylor won a 12-round decision. Yes, he was in control of the fight.
But Taylor was also a significantly bigger and stronger man. Ouma was a guy who could have made 147. Taylor is the guy who felt the need just three fights later to move up to 166.
Ouma also throws hundreds of little pitty-pat punches, a style that should have created openings for Taylor to use his superior size and power to blast Ouma and end the fight by about the fourth round.
Ouma, though, was around until the end and doing better at the finish than he was at the beginning.
It was a sign, however discreet, that Taylor's power was not what it was perceived to be.
Some may argue that he had Pavlik down and was just one punch away from a second round stoppage and use that as proof of Taylor's power.
But Taylor caught Pavlik with a punch behind the ear, which almost always causes a reaction like Pavlik had.
"I took a lot of right hands from him right on the button with no problem," Pavlik said. "But he hit me in that spot behind the ear and that's rough. I got hit there a lot, actually."
Taylor's best chance to avenge the loss is to do the opposite of what he says he's going to do. Taylor has repeated for anyone who listens that he plans to trade power shots with Pavlik again, with the caveat that he's trained better this time and will be able to take advantage when he hurts Pavlik.
Doing that simply plays to Pavlik's advantage as a puncher. Taylor would be much wiser to slow the pace down and to make it an ugly fight. If Pavlik is able to get into a flow where he's firing right hands, eventually one will land and he'll use that to end the fight.
If Taylor can frustrate him, slow things down and limit the amount of punches that are thrown, it will be to his advantage.
The problem for Taylor is that Pavlik isn't one of those puny guys moving up a weight class or two to meet him, nor is he a once-respected veteran on the downside of his career.
Rather, Pavlik is a fit and powerful young athlete in his prime. He's flawed and far from the greatest middleweight ever, as Bob Arum proclaims he could become, but he's the more powerful and complete fighter.
Taylor is athletic and determined, which are always good qualities for a boxer to have, but he's lacking in too many areas to make a significant change in the outcome.