Webster’s defines the word comeback as follows: “A return by a well-known person, especially an entertainer or sports player, to the activity in which they have formerly been successful. Example: 'The boxing champion is set to make his comeback.'”
It’s no surprise that even the dictionary uses boxing as its principle metaphorical example.
Boxing has the potential to ignite the hearts of combatants and fans alike. For soul-pounding, memory-etching, last-minute reversals of fortunes, nothing can compare to boxing. Sports fans have their favorites. This is mine.
On March 17, 1990, at the Las Vegas Hilton indoor amphitheater before a sellout SRO audience of 9,375 and millions more watching on ABC Wide World of Sports, two undefeated champions squared off. Observers recalled the bout as one of the greatest fights in modern history. Billed as “Thunder Meets Lightning” it pitted the 27-year-old, hugely popular, three-time World Champion Mexican light-welterweight Julio Cesar Chavez, 66–0 with 56 KO’s (Thunder) against Meldrick “The Kid” Taylor 24–0–1 with 14 KO’s (Lightening) four years younger at 23, both in their prime.
The build-up to the fight was several years in the making. Thankfully, it had none of the hype associated with fighters who either genuinely, or not, hated each other. Chavez and Taylor were both soft-spoken, reserved men who let their fists do the talking. For twelve spellbinding, riveting rounds no words were spoken.
Their nearly identical outward physical characteristics, both 5’ 7” tall and 140 lbs. with 67” wingspans, favored neither fighter.
Chavez was and still is an adored Mexican hero. A ringmaster with no weaknesses except a penchant for slow starts, he was blessed with knockout power evidenced by his 85% finishing results.
Taylor wore the proud mantle of the Philadelphia fighter where gym sparring sessions were often tougher than most sanctioned bouts. Despite his superior hand speed, quicker lateral movement, elusive style and his own knockout power, Taylor was the slight betting underdog at 7–5. The late money, presumed to be the mobs, rushed in. By fight night, most odds were even.
The three ringside judges were the most reputable in Las Vegas, unstained by the numerous fiascos common in boxing. The ring referee, Richard Steele, was considered the finest, most impartial of his era. The great former Welterweight and Middleweight World Champion Ray Leonard, along with the knowledgeable Larry Merchant served as the ringside announcers. The irrepressible Lou Duva, along with former champion Georgie Benton, manned Taylor’s corner while Chavez had the same handlers from his amateur days in Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, Mexico as his trusted corner men.
During the nine months of nonstop training, Taylor’s handlers drew a circle inside the ring. He sparred hundreds of rounds against Chavez-style boxers staying exclusively inside the circle. The corners and ropes were outside the circle and the goal was to keep him away from these perilous spots where Chavez could pin and trim him. To the surprise of ring tacticians, they also wanted him to combine foot and hand speed while staying as close to Chavez as possible within the circle. The theory was that Chavez’s power would be diminished by close infighting and shorten his lethal punches.
It worked like a charm. As was his bad habit, Chavez indeed got off to his usual slow start. Taylor outpunched Chavez by nearly 2 to 1. By the start of the tenth round, the ringside pundits had Taylor ahead 90 to 81, winning all nine rounds. What they didn’t factor, nor give Chavez points for, was Taylor's badly swollen face. Both his eyes were nearly shut and he was bleeding profusely from a cut in his mouth, hampering his breathing.
Remarkably, Chavez was unblemished and never changed expression. His corner was shouting, “You’re too far behind to go to a decision, if you don’t knock him out, you’re going to lose!” Chavez knew this too although he thought the fight much closer than the judge’s scorecards eventually did.
Chavez came roaring out for the tenth with Taylor moving slowly within the confines of the circle. For the first time, Taylor inexplicably retreated to the ropes above his corner.
Frantic with fear, Duva and Benton howled at Taylor to get off the ropes and fight his way back to ring center. Chavez, anticipating Taylor’s next move, deftly stepped sideways in his path and pummeled him against the ropes.
During the 60-second interlude before the 11th round, Taylor’s corner tried to convince him that the decision was still his and all he had to do was stay upright for two more rounds and he’d be the new Super Lightweight Champion of the World. Inspired, Taylor started the 11thround by charging out to meet Chavez, but within 20 seconds was back on the ropes taking powerful combinations turning his face into mush. To his credit, Taylor counterpunched effectively, each time momentarily moving Chavez backward, only to get waltzed back onto the ring ropes each time.
As the 12th and final round began, Ray Leonard said, “Chavez’s only chance to win is by knockout or by somehow having the fight stopped. Otherwise, in three minutes, Taylor’s the new champ!”
Chavez stalked and rained punches on Taylor while the clock droned and ticked ominously. Then it happened. With 15 seconds left, Chavez landed a left hook to the body which caused Taylor to drop his gloves and awkwardly bend down, followed quickly by a devastating straight right-hand square on his jaw, dropping him into a heap in his own corner.
Forcing his way up at the count of five, referee Richard Steele looked into his eyes and asked him, “Are you OK? Do you know where you are?” Taylor stared vacantly and Steele waved him off, signaling the end of the fight by knockout with two seconds left on the clock.
Predictably, the aftermath inside and outside of the ring and all over the world was chaotic, filled with vitriol by Taylor’s camp and his followers, and misguidedly directed at Steele.
“I’m the referee, not the timekeeper,” Steele later said. “Taylor could not continue and was in grave condition, perhaps one more blow away from unconsciousness or worse.” Nobody except Taylor’s camp disagreed, and one of the greatest comebacks in the history of all sporting contests was in the books forever.
About The Author
Mark Paul Brown lives in Seaside, Calif., where he writes essays, short stories and cultural opinion pieces with his friend Sonny by his side. He may be contacted at 510-301-2644 or emailed at email@example.com