LAS VEGAS – Meet Ozell Nelson, chief trainer, surrogate father and now, primary Ghostbuster for ex-middleweight champion Jermain Taylor.
Nelson is the guy with the unenviable task of replacing Emanuel Steward as Taylor's trainer on the eve of the most crucial fight in the boxer's career. He'll be Phil Bengston to Steward's Vince Lombardi or, in the best possible scenario, Gene Bartow to Steward's John Wooden.
Saturday on HBO Pay-Per-View, Taylor will fight Kelly Pavlik, the man who violently snatched the title from him with a dramatic seventh-round knockout in Atlantic City, N.J., in a rematch at the MGM Grand Garden.
Taylor says he plans to do some Ghostbusting on Saturday, a play not only on the hit 1984 movie but also on Pavlik's nickname of "The Ghost." Taylor is so serious about exacting revenge that he's thinking of walking to the ring to Ray Parker Jr.'s theme song.
He'll do so without the guy considered one of the best strategists in the history of the game on his side. Instead, he'll take instructions from a man whom he regards as a father but who freely admits he wasn't qualified for the job when Taylor turned pro after the 2000 Olympics.
"I didn't know the pro game anywhere near well enough to do that," Nelson said Friday, conceding that he mulled the idea of training Taylor in the pros himself from the start. "There was too much at stake, and I didn't want to make a mistake."
Instead, Taylor hired former Olympic coach Pat Burns, one of the game's most respected voices, to train him. Nelson would be at his side all the way, but admits he was learning as quickly as Taylor was.
Under Burns' tutelage, Taylor quickly became one of the game's bright young stars. But after guiding Taylor to the title and back-to-back victories over longtime middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins, Burns was summarily dismissed.
Taylor chafed at Burns' authoritarian manner, which largely went unnoticed but was indicative of a growing problem. As Taylor racked up wins, piled up money and became a fixture on HBO, he became enamored with being a star.
And the small-town country boy from Arkansas, who at one time would, without complaint, do whatever his trainers asked him to do, started to think on his own.
Steward was brought in to replace Burns, but instead of showing a dramatic improvement, Taylor regressed dramatically. He was lucky to get a draw against Winky Wright, a bout most ringside media believed Wright deserved to win by a wide margin.
He was lackluster in wins over Kassim Ouma and Cory Spinks before Pavlik knocked him out in September.
Steward got the boot after the loss to Pavlik, but the problem was Taylor. Nelson knew it, though he wouldn't say it in so many words.
Taylor wasn't in shape and didn't train with the passion he did when he was largely unknown and eager to prove a point.
"Jermain just didn't have the gas in the tank to do the job," Nelson said of the fight with Pavlik. "If Jermain had been in the kind of shape he should have been in, when Kelly went down (in the second round) it would have been all over, and you and I wouldn't be having this conversation. But Jermain was running on fumes."
It's Nelson's job to reverse that trend, and so far, he has said all of the requisite things. Taylor, he said, never has worked harder or looked better.
He has done everything he has been asked because he is embarrassed by what happened in New Jersey.
"Jermain's not running halfway; he's running like it's the last run of his life," Nelson said. "Everything has been top rung. He's training like he used to. He's going harder than I can remember him going in a long time, maybe ever. He's so hungry right now because he knows he can win this fight if he's simply in the kind of shape he needs to be in."
There are many around the fight game who question whether Taylor has gotten it. One veteran boxing man with no ties to either fighter was in the cramped old Tocco's Ringside Gym in Las Vegas one day recently as Taylor was preparing for a training session when he saw something that nearly floored him.
One of Taylor's assistants ran over and tied Taylor's shoes for him, said the man who has been around the fight game for years.
Nelson denies it and suggested that the man saw someone putting tape around Taylor's shoes after Taylor already had his gloves on. If the story is true, however, and Nelson is just covering for Taylor, it's indicative of the fact that Taylor hasn't rid himself of the star syndrome that resulted in a series of increasingly lackluster performances.
And this time, if things go right, there will be no one to fire. Nelson knows that by accepting the job, he put himself in a nearly untenable situation.
If Taylor wins, he'll get all the credit for picking himself up and turning things around. If Taylor loses, Nelson is bound to get the blame, not only for jettisoning Steward but also for making mistakes himself.
"I'm comfortable with whatever happens because I know I've done the right thing for Jermain all along," Nelson said. "I could have had this job (in 2000), but I wasn't ready for it then. I didn't know the ins and the outs of the business. But I've been around Pat Burns and Emanuel and I learned, and I know Jermain better than anyone. Jermain is my only concern, and he always has been.
"You have to understand that Jermain didn't get from Point A to Point Z by magic. He didn't happen overnight. This was a kid I saw that I thought had some talent. We went from the beginning days together to the top amateurs to the Olympics and into the pros.
"I'm a construction worker. I used to be a bricklayer, and I know how to read a blueprint. I can see how a job is supposed to go and take it from start to finish. With Jermain, I saw how this was supposed to go, and I think we've done great together getting from the beginnings in Arkansas when nobody ever knew either of us to where we are now."
Nelson has such a devotion to Taylor, you sometimes get the sense he's like a Secret Service agent and would dive in front of a bullet to save him.
He knows the scrutiny will be intense should Taylor lose again, but he's convinced that it won't happen.
"If something bad happens to Jermain, I'll deal with whatever comes," Nelson said. "But I can tell you this: It's been a long time since I've seen Jermain with the kind of attitude he has now. If he had this attitude all the time, I don't think anybody would beat him. To tell you the truth, I don't think anybody would really come close."
- Jermain Taylor