March 17, 1990: Chavez vs Taylor I

Few “super fights” fully live up to the expectations aroused when they are initially announced, and even rarer are the ones that surpass them. But only a handful completely blow away all preconceived conjectures, and in doing so instantly become part of boxing lore, ensuring that debate about their outcome and significance will be passed on from generation to generation. The first great battle between Meldrick Taylor and Julio Cesar Chavez is just such a fight.

Looking back, it is impossible to overstate the esteem in which Mexico held Chavez. Born into extreme poverty, his family living in an abandoned box-car, Chavez had promised his mother he would one day buy her a home. A few years he later found his way into a boxing gym, and with it, the road out of misery. By 1990 he was an undefeated, three-division world champion, sporting an intimidating record of 66 wins with 56 knockouts. A hero to his people, he gave millions a reason to feel proud of their country after years of political scandals and economic hardship.

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A gifted athlete with blindingly fast hands, Meldrick Taylor learned his trade in the gritty gyms of his native Philadelphia, one of America’s great boxing cities, starting his apprenticeship at the age of only eight. His innate talent led him, at age 17, to a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics. He then promptly joined the pro ranks and in less than four years won a world title. He would defend that belt only three times before facing one of the two best fighters in the world, Julio Cesar Chavez, the other being Taylor himself.

The buildup to the showdown remains memorable in its own right, centering as it did on the contest’s huge significance both in terms of unifying the light-welterweight titles and in yielding an answer to the question of who was the very best in boxing, pound-for-pound. Other fascinating story-lines emerged: Mexico vs. the United States; power against speed; hard-won experience vs. God-given talent, all of it summed up by the title stamped on the promotional posters: “Thunder and Lightning.” The match-up brought back vivid memories of other classic boxer vs puncher rivalries: Robinson vs LaMotta; Ali vs Frazier; Leonard vs Duran.

Thus, the Vegas hype machine ran full steam, taking advantage of fight fans’ rediscovered interest in the lower weight classes after Mike Tyson’s shocking loss to Buster Douglas. At the same time, media south of the Rio Grande patriotically swept away any pretense of objectivity as they fully backed Chavez, all Mexicans united behind their hero. While the bout did not transcend the sport and impinge on the larger culture — boxing having begun its slow fade from mainstream popularity — it definitely was the fight to see for all boxing fans. Jim Lampley called it “the greatest little fight money can buy,” a rare clash between great boxers in their primes. It was destined to profoundly alter the two warriors who fought it and leave an indelible mark on the sport itself.

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From the opening bell the battle was waged at a furious pace, with Taylor– in full use of his outstanding boxing faculties and remarkable physical attributes — largely dictating the terms, scoring with lightning-fast combinations. Displaying tremendous conditioning, the Olympian threw piercing flurries with the firing frequency of a machine gun, determined as he was to keep the stalking, relentless Chavez at the end of his punches.

All this made it difficult for “El Cesar del Boxeo” to assert his infighting strategy and bring his power to bear on Taylor’s ribs and spleen. The Sonora native chased after the Olympian, but failed to mount a sustained attack, instead settling for landing one punch at a time. Undeterred, Chavez took what he could get in the hopes of eventually corralling Taylor and trading shots on the inside, the comfortable office in which he always preferred to do business.

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But Meldrick was a scoring machine, and the number of clean shots he landed would have severely dented the armour of any other foe. But while Taylor outscored Chavez by a wide margin, the Mexican’s chin proved as tough as advertised and he endured the Philadelphian’s punches stoically: slipping a few, rolling with others, but never pausing in his quest to close the distance. It took several rounds before he did so, but in the meantime, he made the most of each blow he could land.

It was largely believed that the outcome of the contest would rest on the answers to two questions: would Chavez be able to land enough body blows to cut Taylor’s speed? And would the confident Taylor restrain himself from engaging in an all-out brawl? The questions, and their answers, were inextricably linked. Had Taylor opted to box from a distance, scoring with quick combinations before moving out of harm’s way, a winning outcome would’ve been virtually guaranteed. But Taylor had always been a warrior, a brave battler who had to be chased out of the sparring ring by his trainers. The quintessential “Philly fighter,” he loved to rumble and he was driven now by a desire to both honour the City of Brotherly Love and to beat the tough Chavez at his own game.

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But the moments where Meldrick bravely mixed it up were also the ones on which Chavez best capitalized. For evidence, watch the Mexican’s rally at the end of round two. As Taylor elected to trade, Julio consistently beat him to the punch, landing hard overhand rights and leveraged left hooks. In the fifth Taylor again granted Chavez the chance to fight inside, and even though he outscores the Mexican,Taylor’s puffed up eyes at the end of that stanza showed who dished out the more painful punishment. And yet, as the rounds sped by, there was no denying that more of them belonged to Taylor.

But in round ten a change in momentum was evident and the more pressure Chavez applied, the more Taylor chose to stand his ground, as a result not only of his courage, but also of his diminishing stamina. As Chavez’s attack mounted, the fight became a grueling war of attrition. The largely Mexican crowd–stirring itself into a frenzy–by now disdained their seats and cheered the bull-like Julio on. Rounds ten and eleven were the most furious of the fight and the most damaging for Taylor. As the two warriors returned to their corners with a mere three minutes to go, victory remained within reach for both. For Taylor, by decision; for Chavez if somehow, in the final round, he could cash in on the punishment he had mercilessly meted out in the last few rounds.

Then came the finale, a finish as dramatic and controversial as any in the long history of the sport. The sequence transpiring in the bout’s dying seconds was a direct result of the pounding Taylor had absorbed, punishment that left him with a broken orbital bone and made him urinate blood after the fight. While Meldrick’s corner must have known that Taylor held a sizable lead on the scorecards, and despite watching him spit blood and peer out from horribly swollen eyes, they inexplicably urged him to go after Chavez in the final round. Meanwhile Chavez’s corner knew they were fighting a losing battle and only a knockout could keep the Mexican’s undefeated record intact. Drama was all but guaranteed in the final chapter of an already epic battle.

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For the next two minutes and 58 seconds, an exhausted Taylor fought with the courage of a man drifting into a storm-ridden ocean who will do anything to stay afloat. With Chavez doggedly pursuing the knockout, Taylor, following his corner’s instructions, refused to yield ground, firing off flurries while exposing himself to further damage. With 25 seconds to go, a potent right cross sent Taylor backwards. Chavez caught up with his quarry, threw a combination but then backed off, setting a trap for Taylor who duly chased after him on uncertain legs. With just 18 seconds left, as Chavez finished off a combination, he moved away from the ropes and then swiftly turned to throw a crushing right hand that Taylor didn’t see. The shot sent the champion reeling to the canvas in his own corner, at the same time liberating from the throats of millions of Mexicans a long-held cry of joy.

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As the crowd lost its collective mind, Taylor’s arms searched for the ropes and referee Richard Steele counted. By six, Meldrick was vertical; at nine he looked to his corner, which was frantically yelling, either at Taylor or at Steele. Amid all the noise, and while quite possibly trying to ascertain what trainer Lou Duva was shouting, Taylor did not look at referee Steele as he asked the downed fighter if he was okay. Deciding the champion was no longer fit to continue, Steele waved his arms and ended the fight, granting Julio Cesar Chavez an incredible victory with just two seconds left on the clock.

Chavez vs Taylor I was universally deemed the Fight of the Year for 1990 and would later be called The Fight of the Decade by Ring magazine, and it’s hard to argue against either judgement. But for all the savage action and incredible courage on display, the bout will be forever stained by Richard Steele’s call, which unfairly robbed Taylor of the opportunity to finish on his feet and celebrate a clear points victory after an amazing performance.

Steele’s decision has been analyzed and discussed endlessly ever since but even now, after three decades, his actions merit consideration. First, there is no way Steele did not know that scant seconds remained before the final bell. Atop the ring post behind Taylor and facing Steele were blinking red lights counting down the final ten seconds of the round, and Steele’s assessment of Taylor’s condition and fitness to continue, unduly brisk, appeared influenced by this fact. Having completed the mandatory eight count, Steele quickly asked “Are you okay?” twice, without first getting Taylor’s attention or, in the second instance, even giving Taylor any chance to reply. He then immediately waved the fight off.

Steele’s actions, which unfortunately determined the outcome more than any punches landed by Chavez, including the right hand which decked Taylor, were, strictly speaking, in line with refereeing procedure, while at the same time, breaking with tradition in terms of giving a champion boxer who has beaten the count with time to spare a chance to redeem himself. Examples of the latter abound: think Jack Dempsey vs Luis Firpo, Juan Manuel Marquez vs Manny Pacquiao I, Larry Holmes vs Renaldo Snipes.

To further illustrate, had Richard Steele been the referee, there’s no chance the great Archie Moore would have made it out of the opening round to defeat Yvon Durelle in their fabled first fight. In any case, if any champion deserved a thoughtful evaluation from a referee, it was Taylor, and had Steele taken two seconds to wipe off Meldrck’s gloves or have him take a step forward as he continued to assess him, the bout would have ended before he had to make a decision.

Finally, consider Steele allowing Thomas Hearns to continue after getting decked in his first fight against Iran Barkley in 1988. Hearns barely beat the count and was clearly out on his feet and yet, without responding to any questions, he was still given a final chance to compete before Barkley knocked him out of the ring. Had Steele used the same standard for Meldrick Taylor, decades later boxing fans would be able to appreciate this great fight and the inspiring performances of both combatants without having to include the referee in the discussion.

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Steele waves his arms with two seconds left.

It’s been said before, but that doesn’t make it any less true: those twelve rounds of combat irreversibly changed the lives of Chavez and Taylor. After the Chavez fight, Taylor was never the same dazzling, lightning-quick phenom who could box circles around his opponent. He would win another world title before eventually losing to Terry Norris and Crisanto Espana, continuing to compete until 2002, despite his loss of reflexes and speed, and, tragically, the noticeable slurring of his speech.

That first meeting with Taylor also marks the birth of the suspicion that Chavez’s career had become a script dictated by powers greater than he possessed in his fists. Future chapters—including the outrageous draw verdict in a fight he clearly lost to Pernell Whitaker—would only add fuel to the speculation. But on that truly legendary night in Las Vegas, Chavez brought a whole nation to its feet with one crushing right hand, and Richard Steele made a truly regrettable call that stole victory from a warrior who left a piece of his soul in the ring. It’s a moment that will live on in the collective mind of boxing fans long beyond our lifetimes, for all kinds of reasons, both good and bad.

–Rafael Garcia

15 thoughts on “March 17, 1990: Chavez vs Taylor I

  • August 29, 2015 at 5:52 pm
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    Nice writing, but why not include the opposing final assessment – which I espouse: Steele said it best, as I paraphrase: “When I see a man get hammered and hammered and I see he’s had enough, I’m gonna stop it. I don’t care what the time is.”

    That’s a referee’s job.

    Sure, in hindsight there would be no more time for another blow, but Steele couldn’t be sure of that. He saw a man who had had enough and he stopped the contest.

    Taylor’s future diminished performances – physically he would never be the same – are solid proof for Steele’s decision: within the limit, Chavez had inflicted enough punishment to render his opponent unable to continue. The definition of a technical knockout. Without time constraints, it would have been near criminal to send Taylor out again in the condition he was in.

    I agree this is one of sport’s all-time great finishes. Kudos for a well-written piece.

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  • March 16, 2016 at 9:29 pm
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    I don’t have a problem with the stoppage either way. Chavez earned it. But Steele’s record, full of countless examples where he blatantly favored house fighter, whether Tyson/Ruddock or even De La Hoya/Oba Carr, show that his decision wasn’t quite the noble one he’s made it sound.

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  • March 20, 2016 at 8:19 am
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    Jim Lampley recently did a podcast with Bill Simmons where he highlighted the perceived conflict of interest between referee Steele and Chavez Sr. via Don King. I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but it is damning. I do believe in hindsight, knowing the round was coming to an end, that Taylor could in fact have continued those last two seconds. He was robbed of his greatest victory.

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    • May 8, 2017 at 10:56 am
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      Taylor was hit by one of the cleanest right hands you will ever see. That right hand was delivered by a man with numbing punching power. Taylor was on queer street and staggered into the corner from two previous rights Chavez landed seconds earlier. It was not a one punch knockout. Taylor fell so violently that he blew out his knee as well. Taylor got up because he is a warrior with incredible guts, but how could any ref look at his condition and say he could continue? There so many hypothetical questions. If Steele would have let the fight continue, then Chavez would not have had time to throw another punch. If that knockdown happens earlier in the round and Taylor is allowed to continue, Chavez would have hurt him even worse (Taylor blew ligaments in his knee, had a facial fracture, and was urinating blood). Any questions who wins a 15 rounder? It was an amazing fight with one of the most dramatic endings in pugilistic history.

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    • December 28, 2017 at 2:51 am
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      Steele saved his life. To start, Taylor had to pull himself up with the ropes. Look at him when he gets up. He couldn’t even stand straight. If he had been knocked down in the middle of the ring he would’ve been all over the place trying to drag himself up. If he would’ve answered the questions and been allowed to continue Chavez might have had time to run across and land one more power punch that probably would’ve killed Taylor if it landed clean like the one that dropped him. Taylor suffered a broken orbital bone, brain damage and he pissed blood for days after the fight. One more clean punch might have ended his life.

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  • July 4, 2016 at 1:32 pm
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    The fight was much closer than the biased HBO commetators made it seem. Had Taylor been allowed to continue he would have won via split decision – not a land-slide decision. Duva knew this. That’s why Taylor was told he needed the last round. Duva saw the damage his fighter was taking. Steele also saw the carreer-ending beating up -close: better view than any writer watching it from a safe distance. Steele’s decision was influenced by this. If anything, Steele should be criticized for not having the fight stopped sooner. It still amazes me how Duva, being witness to the beating, allowed Taylor to go out in rounds 11 and 12. Taylor bled two pints of blood in his corner and was visibly demolished by the 10th rd. Chavez’s defense is subtle, but extremely effective and underrated. Had Taylor landed as often as he is given credit, Chavez would have been k.o.’d. Chavez ended the fight tired but unmarked. It was an incredible fight, but the contraversy should be focused on why the fight was not stopped sooner; allowing Taylor to recieve a horrible beating that was likened by his doctor to having been hit by a truck.

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  • September 27, 2016 at 6:59 pm
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    One of the greatest fights I’ve ever seen. Saw it live and still remember it like yesterday. Amazing performance by both fighters. No one came close to beating Chavez in his prime. This fight by Taylor was the exception and respected by Chavez as one of his first comments he said in the post-interview “he deserves a rematch”.

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  • February 10, 2018 at 3:08 am
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    If you’re going to question this stoppage then I hope you question many more. We can’t use what’s convenient. It’s unfair. We need one rule and that’s that. When outcomes are determined by judgement we will always have controversy. So I suggest rules based on facts. The fact is Taylor was not responding to the referee. Only two seconds left so he should be able to continue since nothing can happen? That’s an opinion. And a danger to making the sport more fair. If he was okay to continue then you are saying someone in the 8th round with 2 mins left should also be allowed to continue. If you don’t agree then we are talking about grey areas, which is the biggest problem in politics, business, and of course boxing.

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  • March 20, 2018 at 7:38 pm
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    Be smart, Taylor was seconds away from certain death.
    Taylor is no bitch Floyd hugweather runweather. He and other who lost to Chavez Sr shouldn’t feel like a loser. Chavez Sr is a generational talent, a game changer, a once every thousand year talent.

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  • March 18, 2019 at 6:27 pm
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    Two seconds can be a long time.Chavez very well might have landed one more fatal punch.Whatever Steele’s motives were we can see with hindsight he absolutely did the right thing.HBO’S team was so biased it drove me nuts.If you were neutral you could see very clearly who was getting beaten up.

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  • March 18, 2019 at 6:35 pm
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    And I call b.s.on that “2 seconds”.I just watched the fight again(thanks Fight City) and Steele waves it off between 4 and 5 seconds.Check it out.

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  • March 19, 2019 at 1:51 am
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    Steele sees the real world equivalent of a zombie when Taylor gets up. Can’t really fault him for not seeing the red light

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  • March 26, 2019 at 6:30 am
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    Taylor was unjustly stopped.
    But we all know who would have won a 15 rds fight.

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  • January 9, 2021 at 10:27 am
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    The fight should have been stopped in the earlier rounds when Taylor’s eyes became swollen to the point where he was almost blind. This man was so physically damaged by Chavez, that it impacted the rest of his life.

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  • July 6, 2021 at 7:59 am
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    Regardless of how the judges may have had it, looking at the faces of the fighters anyone can see who won that fight. The stoppage merely confirmed the true winner.

    Reply

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