Doubts remain despite undefeated record

Kevin Iole

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – The problem with Jermain Taylor is one of perception.

Never in recent boxing history has an unbeaten world champion with such an illustrious record been more maligned.

Taylor is built like a young Michael Jordan. Watch him glide through a room and you think he could win the Olympic 100 meters, take the NBA slam dunk contest or lead the NFL in interceptions, whichever he decided to do first.

He relishes nothing more in a boxing ring than to stand and swap haymakers. The only backward step he takes during a fight is when the bell rings and he turns to walk to his corner.

But for all that is good about Taylor (27-0-1, 17 KOs), he's surrounded by more doubts than any major world champion.

He defends his WBC middleweight title against unbeaten Kelly Pavlik on Saturday in an HBO-televised bout at Boardwalk Hall with a lot of people wondering what has gone wrong. The "Just Win, Baby," philosophy hasn't been good enough for Jermain Taylor.

"You fight the kind of guys Jermain has fought and you're not going to come out with a highlight tape every time," said Emanuel Steward, Taylor's sage trainer.

Taylor won the title from and then made his first defense against Bernard Hopkins, who is about as easy to figure out as defusing a bomb while walking a tight rope.

He retained it in defense No. 2 by earning a controversial draw against Winky Wright, who at the time was widely regarded as the best fighter in the world not named Mayweather.

He then reeled off back-to-back decision victories against a pair of awkward southpaws, Kassim Ouma and Cory Spinks.

Taylor has gone 4-0-1 against those men, all of whom either held or recently had held world titles, and two of whom will one day wind up in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

But for all the glory in which he's bathed, Taylor has spent much of the past year explaining what's gone wrong. He has a reputation as a fearsome puncher, but he hasn't knocked anyone out since he stopped Daniel Edouard more than three-and-a-half years ago.

He's heard the banter as he's walked down the streets in his native Arkansas, where he's nearly as revered as the legendary ex-football coach, Frank Broyles.

He's been asked what's gone wrong so much he's had to have begun wondering if folks have been mistaking him for Charlie Weis.

He professes not to let it other him, but the fact that he talks about it so readily belies his denials.

"The people have a right to look at the fight and see it how they want to see it," Taylor said. "That's the right you have as a fan. I'm not worried about the fans. I'm glad they expect me to win. I expect myself to win."

Taylor has gotten increasingly gruff in his pre-fight talk. Where once he treated his opponents reverentially, he's now apt to talk a piece of trash.

He said Pavlik, whom he defeated in the 2000 Olympic Trials, isn't particularly impressive.

"Nothing special about him," Taylor said.

He's nearly salivates at the thought of standing across from Pavlik because he knows that Pavlik will engage him. Taylor's like a dead fastball hitter who's faced a week's worth of junk ball pitchers who is suddenly desperate to see something hard.

Steward calls Taylor the meanest man he's ever trained and said at a news conference on Wednesday that he expects Saturday's bout to be competitive – for one round.

Taylor, whose vocabulary is still largely dominated by "Yes, sir," and "No, sir," isn't that outlandish yet, but he is adding to the perception problem that's plaguing him.

When he talks about the slew of awkward fighters he's faced, he's constantly answered by saying, "I just come to fight."

And he says it with a conviction that creates an impression of this Thomas Hearns-style gunslinger with deadly power in either hand.

The truth is, Taylor isn't a particularly overwhelming puncher. Pavlik, on a punch-for-punch basis, has far more power.

But Taylor punches hard enough to demand the respect of anyone he faces. He's quick enough that he can take advantage of openings that most fighters fail to see. He's agile enough to spin and throw punches from odd angles against unorthodox foes like Hopkins, Wright, Ouma and Spinks.

The public, though, sees Taylor and everything about him exudes power. He looks as if he has the kind of power that would get him banned in 30 states.

So, the public expects Taylor to be racking up knockouts like Britney piles up parking tickets.

It's a tough problem, because nothing he can do short of scoring knockouts against most everyone he faces is going to be enough to satisfy the blood lust of his fans.

But, as Taylor points out, it's better than the alternative.

"I'd rather they criticize me when I win instead of praising me when I lose," Taylor said. "I'm a winner. That's what I do. I win. And you know what? I'm going to keep on winning."

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