When Carl Froch battered Jermain Taylor to defeat last Saturday night in Foxwoods, it marked another blow against inauthenticity in boxing. The ring, after all, is where bad faith is exposed with pitiless force.
Against Froch, Taylor showed his usual shortcomings, including limited mobility, sub par infighting skills, a tendency to coast, inadequate defense, an inability to adapt, an underdeveloped killer instinct, and poor stamina. He also showed some of his attributes: a snapping jab, superior hand speed, a quick counter left hook, and a flashy uppercut. What is surprising, after all these years, is how the flaws still outweigh the attributes.
But it has been clear for years now that Jermain Taylor is merely a body double for the superstar he was manufactured to be. For Taylor and his team this may be an overstatement. After all, Taylor was middleweight champion of the world, earned millions is purses, and became a local, if not national, idol in Little Rock, Arkansas. But behind the story of this charming young man is the story of branding and marketing, a story whose key player—HBO—remained outside of the ropes.
With the decline of boxing on network television over the last fifteen years, media outlets, particularly HBO, set about trying to invent marketable fighters in order to plug a growing “celebrity gap.” HBO, and boxing itself, was left with a serious star drought and its thirst to manufacture new stars led the network on an over zealous marketing/promoting campaign involving fighters whose dull performances never matched the hype. Jermain Taylor was one of the major beneficiaries of this policy. Handsome, personable, and supplied with a great human-interest story, Taylor had all the makings of a superstar. But his talent often never measured up.
Creatively matched as a prospect, Taylor stopped scoring knockouts after his 23rd fight and never resembled anything more than a paper champion during his middleweight title reign. Perhaps the quality of competition, as his cheerleaders were always quick to claim, had something to do with his struggles. But after two debatable decisions over Bernard Hopkins and a fortuitous draw against junior middleweight Ronald “Winky” Wright, even his marketing team knew something was amiss. Soon Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward was brought in to sharpen Taylor and a dragnet for lesser opponents was launched. But finding a patsy to make Taylor look good proved as simple as gaining entrance to Area 51.
HBO, desperate for its in-house star to shine, allowed Taylor to face Kasim Ouma, who began his career as a welterweight. Ouma not only lasted the distance, but actually pushed Taylor around the ring at times and had the defending champion backing up in the late rounds. So the Taylor braintrust searched for an even less threatening opponent and dragged out Cory Spinks, until recently practically blackballed by the networks because of a style that practically reduces boxing to a non-contact sport. So radioactive is Spinks that his last title defense in 2008 against Verno Philips was aired over the Internet due to lack of interest. Spinks, who was a contender at junior welterweight and was once knocked out by Zab Judah at welterweight, used his highly polished junkball skills to frustrate Taylor at every turn in a fight so dreadful it resembled the 186th hour of a marathon dance. It took a brutal albeit thrilling knockout loss to Kelly Pavlik to partially redeem Taylor.
Since then Taylor has lost a close decision to Pavlik in a rematch and outpointed Jeff Lacy, who remains a hazard to himself every time he steps into the ring, over twelve rounds. At no point in the last five years has Taylor resembled a distinguished fighter. Not even Emanuel Steward, jettisoned after the first loss to Pavlik, could fine tune Taylor. Somehow, however, this affable young man became the undisputed middleweight champion of the world and a multimillionaire without ever having beaten a solid opponent convincingly, without ever scoring a knockout in a championship fight, without ever appearing to progress. Has the career of Jermain Taylor been nothing but smoke and mirrors? Has he, like many of his contemporaries, been little more than a good, but unexceptional, fighter blessed with powerful corporate backing? Perhaps there is some sort of clue to the “Jermain Taylor Mystery” in the fact that HBO did not renew his contract after his humdrum decision over Jeff Lacey in 2008.
As for Froch, aside from chutzpah and a titanium chin, he has little going for him. His poor footwork leaves him in a tangle whenever he throws a combination, his slow jab is easily timed, and his cavalier defense is a serious flaw for a fighter with world-class pretensions. His susceptibility to right hands was savagely exposed by Taylor in the third round. Luckily for Froch, Taylor is a poor finisher and proved it yet again when he let the groggy Englishman survive. Years ago craftier fighters would often lower their lefts to draw rights in hopes of countering, but Froch, like many contemporary fighters with this defensive tic, merely keeps his left lowered to demonstrate some sort of an attitude. Froch does not have the speed or the reflexes to get away with his unorthodox style for long against elite fighters. The question is: where are the elite fighters who can take advantage of his amateur moves? Incredibly, in beating Taylor, an ex-champion with four defenses of his middleweight title, Froch bested a man as raw and as unpolished as himself.