By: Sean Crose
Those of us who saw it live remember where we were at the time. Me, I was at a friends’ house in Springfield, Massachusetts that Saint Patrick’s night. My friends and I knew Julio Caesar Chavez was a big deal. We knew Meldrick Taylor wanted to be a big deal. We knew they were fighting at the Las Vegas Hilton to unify two of the major junior welterweight titles. What we didn’t know was how infamous their battle would become. Yet, thirty years to the day later, Chavez-Taylor I remains fresh in the collective memory of fight fans.
It was 1990. Mike Tyson had just been stunned by Buster Douglas a mere month earlier, and Chavez was currently considered the best fighter on the planet. Sixty-eight wins, some of them against top notch competition, and no defeats has a way of making a fighter well known in any era.
Being a young man, I had first been exposed to Chavez when he brutally broke down Edwin Rosario for Rosario’s lightweight title in November of 1987. What struck me at the time was that I had never before seen a fighter so deliberately destructive. Chavez was more than a terrific boxer. He was a frightening one, too.
Taylor, on the other hand, was an Olympic gold medalist, one with lightning fast fists and a dizzyingly high punch output. He had all the ingredients make things tough for the slower Chavez. And indeed, Taylor showed Chavez right away just how good he was. Perhaps Chavez’ mind was elsewhere (he was already speaking of facing Hector “Macho” Camacho before he stepped in the ring with Taylor). Perhaps Chavez had never met a fighter of Taylor’s unique skill set before. Whatever the reason, Taylor was the one making his mark early on in front of the sold out crowd of over 9,000 fans at the Las Vegas Hilton.
Chavez, though, was Chavez. As long as he could somehow land, he could start hurting you. It didn’t seem like Chavez’ shots were effective early on, but it would be worth noting that Taylor began to bleed from his mouth in the second. Although Taylor controlled the fight, the steady assault of Chavez began to slowly and surely take its toll (“He’s inflating, Julio” Chavez’ trainer eerily told him at one point in between rounds). Taylor, though, was a Philadelphia man, which meant he came from a fighting town whose boxers simply didn’t fold under pressure. Chavez may have been gaining ground, but Taylor buckled down and prepared to hold strong and earn a legitimate decision win.
The Philly fighter almost pulled it off.
All the way into the final minute of the fight, Taylor remained in control. Then, with a mere 16 seconds left, Chavez put his man down. Taylor got up, but when referee Richard Steele tried to communicate with him, Taylor appeared confused. It was said he was listening to his cornerman Lou Duva’s advice outside the ring. True or not, Steele subsequently stopped the bout, giving Chavez the victory with five seconds left until the final bell.
Taylor was stunned. The HBO broadcast team was stunned. My friends and I were stunned. No one, but no one, expected that kind of ending. While there was no doubt Chavez had won the fight, it was well worth wondering whether or not he had won the boxing match. This, after all, wasn’t a brawl, but a sporting event. Steele, a high quality referee, took an awful lot of heat for his decision – more than he should have.
Although the fight is still controversial (there were only five seconds left, after all), true boxing fans know the importance of erring on the side of caution. Yet knowing Taylor was so close to seeing his dream come true, only to be denied at the bitter end, can be a tough pill to swallow.
It may not have had the definitive conclusion fans craved, but Chavez-Taylor I certainly proved it wouldn’t be a match that was quickly forgotten. The fight was promoted as “Thunder and Lightning.” In a sense, the storm still rages on.