Taylor Looks to Leave His Marks on Wright

"I just feel like this is where I'm supposed to be," said Jermain Taylor, above, who will defend his WBC middleweight title tomorrow night against Winky Wright. (By Charles Rex Arbogast -- Associated Press)
By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 16, 2006

MEMPHIS, June 15 -- In each of his 25 victories as a professional boxer, Jermain Taylor always had trainer Pat Burns in his corner. Burns was the calming voice credited with harnessing Taylor's enormous strength and grit, transforming the rough-and-tough fighter from the Arkansas amateur circuit into the undefeated and undisputed middleweight champion of the world.

Burns trained Taylor last year before both of his victories over former middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins. But when Taylor, 27, agreed earlier this year to defend his WBC middleweight title against dangerous Winky Wright at FedEx Forum on Saturday night, Taylor's managers believed the fighter needed a more polished teacher.

Wright, 34, who was born in the District and now lives in Tampa, is considered one of the best tactical fighters in the sport. A predominantly left-handed puncher, Wright (50-3, 25 knockouts) swings from awkward angles and holds his gloves high to shield his face. To combat Wright's refined skills, Taylor's managers persuaded legendary trainer Emanuel Steward to join their camp as an adviser. But when Taylor left for Steward's Kronk Gym in Detroit to begin training about six weeks ago, Burns remained in Miami.

So Steward, who has trained 33 champions, including Thomas Hearns, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis and Oscar De La Hoya, set out to transform Taylor into a more polished fighter on his own.

"He has more natural talent than any fighter I've worked with," Steward said. "He has not even been developed."

Taylor (25-0, 17-0 KOs) was born and raised in Little Rock, where boxing wasn't very popular. His father left when he was 5, which meant Taylor often cared for his three younger sisters while his mother worked as a nurse's assistant. Taylor didn't begin boxing until a relative introduced him to the sport at age 13. Ozell Nelson, a trainer at a gym that was once a gas station, saw potential in Taylor and began preparing him to fight as an amateur.

Taylor began winning national amateur tournaments in the 1990s and was a two-time Golden Gloves national champion. He won a bronze medal at the 1998 Goodwill Games, but tragedy overshadowed the achievement. Taylor's grandmother, Gussie Robertson, was murdered by her son (Taylor's uncle) in 1999; Taylor's uncle killed himself three days later. Taylor's medal from the Goodwill Games was buried in his grandmother's coffin.

Determined to leave the housing projects in Little Rock, Taylor began training for the 2000 Olympic Games and a professional career. He won a bronze medal in Sydney, and then signed a contract with promoter Lou DiBella. For four years, Taylor fought in relative obscurity, dominating lesser opponents, sometimes in bouts in his home town.

But with impressive victories over former middleweight champion William Joppy and undefeated Daniel Edouard, Taylor had earned the reputation of being perhaps the heir apparent to Hopkins, who seemed to be nearing the end of his impressive career. Last July, Taylor won a controversial decision against Hopkins to win the middleweight championship belts and then defended them with a unanimous decision against Hopkins less than five months later.

Taylor's second defense comes against Wright, an even better defensive fighter than Hopkins.

"I feel like a totally different fighter," Taylor said. "After I beat one champion, everything was going to step up a notch. I'm just a lot more relaxed in the ring. I'm slipping a lot more punches and throwing a lot more punches. I just feel like this is where I'm supposed to be."

Taylor also is content outside the ring. In August 2003, he married former Louisiana Tech basketball player Erica Smith, who last year was selected by the Washington Mystics in the second round of the WNBA draft. The two have a daughter, Nia, 18 months, and Smith-Taylor is pregnant with their second child.

"I've still got a lot to prove," Taylor said. "This is my chance to prove to everybody that I'm here to stay and I'm not going anywhere."

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