Star Boxing

February 25, 2015

Bad Intentions: Is Jermain Taylor’s case an outrage?

Jermain Taylor's run-ins with the law over the last six months have his career on the ropes.

It's been a big week for boxing. Gennady Golovkin once gain asserted his legitimacy and what is starting to look like greatness with his 11th round stoppage of Martin Murray. And of course nobody who gives boxing the slightest notice missed the grand announcement: the seven seals ruptured, the sky was flooded with white light, animals struck curious poses, and a swarm of winged living creatures, each with the faces of Bob Arum, Al Haymon, Stephen Espinoza, and Les Moonves, turned rings in formation, trumpeting that the big fight had finally been made.

In the meantime, Arkansas' Jermain Taylor, one of the sport's faded stars, is on lockdown at a mental hospital, awaiting and evaluation that will determine whether he is fit to stand trip for two gun-related incidents over the past year.

Starting in 2011, and almost coinciding with his return to the sport after a 26-month absence, Taylor exhibited a run of troubling out-of-ring behavior with escalating frequency, severity, and legal ramifications, punctuated along with way with bizarre and often semi-coherent Instagram monologues that, in retrospect, could look like dispatches from a crumbling psyche.

Taylor's first run in with the law took place in July 2011, five months before his return to the ring, when police responded to a public altercation between Taylor and his mother, Jeannie Reynolds. During the argument, Taylor reportedly smashed the window of his mother's van. Reynolds declined to press charges, saying that her son had "recently been under extreme pressure concerning his career and relationships with family and friends."

In May 2012, authorities were summoned to a disturbance at a motel in Maumelle, AK. There they arrested a woman on suspicion of possession of a controlled substance. The woman claimed to have been at the motel to have sex with Taylor in exchange for money and that they had quarreled. She said the boxer had raped her. The woman recanted her story before charges were issued.

In August 2014, Taylor was for shooting his cousin Tyrone Hinton multiple times at the boxer's home. Taylor claimed that Hinton, who had a record of hard drug use, had come to his property uninvited asking for money and became belligerent when turned away, leading to the altercation. Taylor was charged with domestic battery, aggravated assault, and terroristic threatening (based on Taylor's comment overheard on the 911 call placed by his wife Erica Taylor, "Better come get him before I kill him")- charges with a maximum penalty of 26 years. Taylor was released on $25,000 bail and given permission to leave the state for training with his upcoming bout against then IBF Middleweight champion Sam Soliman.

During that fall, an odd Instagram video got some web-circulation as a curiosity. Taylor addressed the camera: "I forgive you for trying to make you like me. I'm not like you. I'm better than you. You ain't shit. Fuck you. God bless you."

In December, Taylor was accused of throwing a brick at a woman's car, smashing her window. Taylor admitted to the deed, claiming the woman was driving right at him. Neither party was arrested.

The kicker came last month at the Martin Luther King Jr. Parade in Little Rock, AK. Toya Smith, who was attending the parade with her husband and three young sons, claimed that an intoxicated Taylor had approached her and asked to take a photo with one of her children. Taylor, who was carrying his championship belt, dropped it while trying to hand it to the child, became enraged, produced a firearm and discharged two shots into the air. He allegedly put the gun to the head of Smith's husband and threatened to shoot the entire family, including the kids. The gun was discharged again, injuring her husband's ear. Taylor was arrested and charged with five counts of aggravated assault, three counts of endangering the welfare of a minor, and misdemeanor drug charge for a small amount of marijuana found on his person.

Taylor was released on $50,000 bail, but ordered back to jail after a judge revoked his prior bond for the Hinton incident. Before turning himself in, Taylor issued another strange, rambling video over Instagram, sort of apologizing for his behavior. The bulk of the video was devoted to criticizing the MLK parade ("Little kids didn't have no candy. Y'all need to get it together.") It also contained this curious statement: "I'm not gonna say I have no problem with no drugs to get out of jail. No, I'm not gonna do that. I'm not gonna say I'm a drug addict. I worked too hard for my life to put that in it." Later he posted another video of himself lounging in bed with a woman (not his wife) indicating that he would soon turn himself in, which he did.

His upcoming fight against Sergio Mora was cancelled, and he was stripped of the middleweight title he had won from Soliman (David Lemieux and Hassan N'Dam will compete for the vacant title). Taylor was ordered to undergo a mental evaluation, which the boxer's legal team accepted. "Everybody is saying this isn't the Jermain Taylor they know," said Hubert Alexander, the boxer's attorney. "We're trying to figure out who the heck it is."

This recent spate of trouble certainly doesn't seem in character with the prime-Taylor, the one who beat Raul Marquez, William Joppy, and twice defeated the hard-to-defeat-even-once Bernard Hopkins. That Taylor, at least in his public persona, was articulate, impeccably polite, seemed to have a level-head and a stable family life, and, despite his nickname "Bad Intentions," was generally on good behavior.

As Taylor's public flame-out developed, much of the speculation about its root has been focused on the period of his career from 2007-2009. Taylor's first loss, in September '07, was a tough one. Taylor faced Kelly Pavlik in his 27th bout, and after a strong start, was left slumped in the corner of the ring, unconscious. It was the beginning of downturn for the boxer, one that would include more brutal turns. In April 2009, Taylor ended his fight with Carl Froch on the canvas with glassy eyes and blood in his mouth. In his next match, facing Arthur Abraham in Berlin, the German hit Taylor with a right hand that had the ring doctor rushing through the ropes before the referee had finished his count.

Taylor was hospitalized with a sever concussion. He was experiencing short-term memory loss, a result of a subdural hematoma, or brain bleed. The severity of the Abraham K.O., especially following Taylor's prior encounters with inflicted unconsciousness, were distressing enough to make the boxer's longtime promotor Lou DiBella step away from his fighter. "It is my belief that the continuation of Jermain's career as an active fighter places him at unnecessary risk. While he is undoubtedly capable of prevailing in future bouts, I cannot, in conscience, remain involved given any assessment of such risk," DiBella wrote.

In 2011, Taylor was granted a boxing license by the Nevada State Athletic Commission by unanimous vote, cleaning him to return to the ring. He had undergone numerous neurological tests at the Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic and the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas- both hubs of sports-related brain injury expertise- as well as by his own doctor in Little Rock. All had cleared him to fight. NSAC's consulting research physician, Dr. Timothy J. Trainor, wrote in a letter to the commission, "It is noted that his physical and ophthalmological examinations were found to be completely normal. In addition, is current ECG, CXR, HIV, hepatitis panel, chemistry panel, CBC, and unialysis are all unremarkable. Furthermore, his current cerebral MRA and MRI are normal...all these evaluations have demonstrated him to be medically fit to compete in boxing, not discounting the risk of head and brain injury that all unarmed combatants take."

One dissenting voice came from neurologist and former ringside physician Dr. Margaret Goodman, who accused NSAC of playing Russian roulette with Taylor's life. "I think it is unconscionable that Jermain was relicensed," Goodman said. "It is not about whether his brain has healed or how he looked in the gym. Jermain has shown a predisposition to cerebral hemorrhage, and irrespective of whether of not he bled, he has shown he cannot adequately handle a punch."

Though Taylor has won all five of his matches since returning the the sport, his performances have given every indication that he is shot as a fighter. In April 2012, Taylor was floored hard by journeyman fighter Caleb Truax, and the Soliman victory in October looked to be as much a result of the 41-year old Soliman's knee injuries as any effective work by his opponent. This, coupled with Taylor's errant conduct and apparent personality change, has drawn much criticism of those who allowed the fighter back into the ring, from NSAC to Haymon to DiBella. Following the Soliman bout, Thomas Hauser wrote, "Just because a boxer passes a ‘head test' doesn't mean he should be in the ring. Muhammed Ali received a clean bill of health from the Mayo Clinic before he fought Larry Holmes. There comes a time when the dangers inherent in boxing outweigh the benefits to be gained from fighting."

Patrick O'Connor, writing for The Queensbury Rules, seized on the comparison of Taylor to Riddick Bowe, who racked up several domestic battery charges after retiring from boxing, culminating in the kidnapping of his estranged wife and children in 1998. Bowe's defense team asked for leniency based on brain injuries the fighter had sustained from blows to the head. After a prison term, Bowe was relicensed by the Oklahoma Athletic Commission in 2004. "The licensing of fighters who have no business stepping into a ring and lax communications is but one way fighters are failed, and but one crack in a nearly-broken system," O'Connor writes. "Quite simply, there is no incentive for a fighter to stop fighting. There is no pension, no support system or institution stepping in when a fighter who knows no other profession ad has no way of making money needs help. There is no incentive for promoters to work together, or for non-participants no to excise their pound of flesh."

This story is a couple of weeks old, and I haven't weighed in on it before because I've had a difficult time coming to a comfortable stance. That something is wrong with Taylor seems unambiguously so. I am certainly glad to see that his fighting career has likely ended, and in retrospect, his return seems questionable in the first place. O'Connor's criticism of boxing's lack of support-infrastructure and advocacy for its fighters feels on point to me.

But callous as it may seem, I'm also inclined to ask what could have been done differently without the benefit of hindsight. It seems clear that Taylor, who does not seem to have financial problems, was determined to return to the ring. "What else am I supposed to do?" he said after his 2013 fight with Juan Carlos Candelo. "I've been doing this job since I was 12. This is my life. When I took those years off, I sat back and thought about it. ‘What am I supposed to do?'"

Unfortunately, the occasion of rapacious suits milking a fighter for every cent his body can generate is no rarity in boxing. But Lou DiBella is known for having uncommon concern for the well-being of his fighters. Prior to Taylor's first comeback fight against Jessie Nicklow, DiBella said, "I'm confident that he's at no greater risk, but that being said, if he shows an inability to take a punch in his comeback, then that's gonna raise a flag to me." Later, before the Soliman bout, he remarked "I didn't want Jermain to be licensed and fight King Kong. I believed that if I was involved, along with Al [Haymon], we offered a checks-and-balances system for Jermain, even though he had been given a clean bill of health. We didn't want to see him thrown in with a really tenacious puncher...You have to remember, he's fighting a 42-year-old man with no punching power for a world title...Jermain was going to fight anyway, OK? In my heart, I firmly believe that he has been safer on this comeback because I got involved again."

Taylor's long-time trainer Pat Burns concurred. "I had to be totally convinced that he would be able to come in and computer for a world title, not to just fight...Not only to be be able to give punches but to take punches. I needed to be totally convinced of that before I would take him on again. As a result of all that, he went through a battery of numerous tests, numerous exams. Also, there was a mini-camp with me...After all of that, I felt I could put my head on my pillow at night and go to sleep knowing he would be fine."

Taken in the context of his troubles over the last few years, Taylor's far-out Instagram videos- at least those that have been frequently re-posted- look like red flags. But paging through his Instagram page, the Taylor's life in 2014 and the first months of 2015 looks, well, pretty normal. Prior to his on-the-lam bathtub and bed monologues, there are only two or three eyebrow-raising videos (and those perhaps given their fine point by the knowledge of what was to come). Mostly, it's Taylor at the gym, Taylor posing with his dog, Taylor hanging out with his kids, Taylor driving around and rapping along to the radio. To me, a social media account is not particularly reliable source for any in-depth character study, but to the extent that it indicates anything, it may be that Taylor's day-to-day life appeared to many observers to have the auspices of normalcy.

The other thing I noticed about Taylor's Instagram record- and let me say here that I have no special information and I don't float this idea as anything other than passing conjecture- is that he appears to be drinking alcohol in an awful lot of pictures. Taylor doesn't have a reputation as a hard-partier, per se, but there are indications over the course of his career that intoxicants have been a player in his development. During Taylor's decline in the first leg of his career, he was regularly quite heavy between bouts, and many of his camps were disproportionally focused on shedding that weight. Speaking of this period, DiBella said (rather diplomatically), "I knew he had issues before he walked away. I think he had tasted the high life, he had tasted big success and big money for the first time, and he was doing things and living a lifestyle that he hadn't lived previously that wasn't in the best interest of his boxing career. His training wasn't what it should have been, his partying was a lot more extensive than it should have been, and he wasn't the same Jermain I knew when he turned pro." Indeed, one can't help but note the recurrence of these hints, from the spectral presence of drugs at the Maumelle motel incident to the persistence of a drug-using cousin at the boxer's home to Taylor's state at the MLK parade to his emphatic assertion in the bathtub video that he doesn't have a drug problem.

I don't know if this amounts to anything, and I certainly don't wish to dismiss the idea that Taylor's mental and physical health have been affected by damage to the head. But from a certain angle, one does see a pattern that works counter to or in concert with the brain-damage narrative. The fact is, we know that getting hit in the head is not good for you. It has a clear, well-established to chronic traumatic encephalophathy, of which dementia pugilistica (commonly known as "punch drunk") is a strain. This is not a hazard that will ever disappear from boxing.

I still don't know how to feel about the Jermain Taylor case. What do you guys think? Should Jermain Taylor have been relicensed to fight? Is this a case of particularized misfortune or indication of a systemic failure? What could have been done differently for Taylor, and moreover, what could be done differently in future cases?

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