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The winner

Jermain Taylor is our Arkansan of the Year

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AT HOME: Jermain and Erica Taylor.
  • AT HOME: Jermain and Erica Taylor.

After winning the middleweight championship of the world, then successfully defending his title in a rematch, Jermain Taylor remains, to all appearances, wholesome, good-natured and unboastful. These are not qualities found in all sports heroes. That Taylor possesses them while competing in a sport renowned for seaminess is all the more remarkable.

Taylor’s popularity in Arkansas is heightened by his tireless promotion of his home state, which includes displaying its name on the boxing trunks he wears for his televised bouts. It’s a measure of his broad appeal that Gov. and Mrs. Mike Huckabee are Taylor fans and so is the Arkansas Times, the Times to the extent of naming Taylor its Arkansan of the Year for 2005.

“I love Arkansas,” Taylor says, convincingly. “It’s the place I was born, it’s the place I’m going to raise my kids, it’s the place I want to die.” An attitude like that, and a world championship belt, will take you a long way in an Arkansan of the Year contest.

An out-of-state sportswriter said Jermain Taylor was the biggest thing to come out of Arkansas since Bill Clinton. Certainly much has been written and spoken about him in the last year, the broad outlines of his life recounted often for a 27-year-old. He grew up in a low-income, single-parent home on Maple Street in Little Rock, the oldest of five children, but he doesn’t dwell on the low-income aspect. Lots of people have low incomes. Similarly, while some acquaintances say that Taylor’s environment demanded constant fighting, Taylor himself told the Times that while he got in a lot of fights in his youth, they weren’t bad fights, but more often bouts with cousins over whose turn it was to ride the bicycle. He is not the sort of person to feel picked on.

An older cousin who’d been doing some organized boxing took Jermain to the gym with him, and “I fell in love at first sight. … You can’t be a boxer unless you love it.” Running track at McClellan High School was his only other athletic involvement.

He proved an apt pupil of the manly art. He won Golden Gloves championships, and by 2000 he was fighting in the Olympics at Sidney, where he won a bronze medal. He turned professional, compiled an impressive winning record against what were sometimes unimpressive opponents, and eventually became the top challenger to the middleweight champion, Bernard Hopkins, an aging but still skillful fighter.

Taylor won a split decision in their first fight, on July 16, though some journalists disagreed with the judges’ decision. As did Hopkins, naturally.

There was nothing but joy in Little Rock, where Taylor was paraded through downtown, drawing a crowd that was black and white, rich and poor, young and old, male and female. Taylor seemed glad to see them, thanked them for their support.

The preparation for a champ-ionship bout entails more than skipping rope, boxing shadows and punching bags. Sometimes it requires going mano a mano with Elvis Presley.

On Nov. 15, Taylor arrives for Media Day at the Memphis Police Athletic League gym, where he’s training for his Dec. 3 rematch with Hopkins. Other people are in the car with him, but Taylor carries his own equipment bags into the gym. To a reporter, this suggests something, if only that Taylor is still new to the business of being champ. It’s doubtful that Hopkins carried his own bags for the 11 years he held the title.

Taylor works out in front of a gang of media members armed with TV cameras, still cameras, recorders, and even notebooks. By now, he is past being embarrassed by the scrutiny. He punches the light bag, jumps rope for a really long time, shadow boxes, then gets in the ring with a fellow wearing thick sparring pads on his hands. Taylor gives those pads a good pounding. They resemble catchers’ mitts and when Taylor gets a good lick in, they sound like a catcher’s mitt receiving a Roger Clemens fast ball. The fellow wearing them must have very tough hands. And courage too — a blow that missed its target and landed on an unpadded chin would be no fun at all. Taylor’s trainer, Patrick Burns of Miami, is in the ring too, giving instructions: “Circle him.” “Get him in the corner.”

The reporters watching all this are tiring badly — the gym is short on chairs — but Taylor seems as fresh as when he walked in. He punches the heavy bag for a while, then does some strenuous calisthenics, including a routine that starts out like sit-ups — Taylor with his back on the ring mat, Burns holding his feet — but doesn’t end like sit-ups. Instead, Taylor pulls himself all the way up to a standing position. “How many of those do you think you could do?” one reporter asks another. Taylor does a bunch.

Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton shows up to declare Taylor an honorary Memphian: “This is his second home.” Then comes the Big Moment. A man from HBO, which will televise the coming fight and is hyping it heavily, announces that “Elvis is in the building.” And there he is, in a white suit open to the waist, chest hair spilling out. He’s The King, he says, but Taylor is The King of the Ring. The real Elvis looked more like a fighter, at least when he was young, but this version gamely puts on the gloves and spars a little with Jermain for the cameras. Nobody gets hit. Afterward, the two sing “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, cryin’ all the time.” Taylor says this is for Hopkins’ benefit. Ever since the first fight, Hopkins has been complaining that he was robbed. (It was indeed a close decision. Taylor hopes for a more decisive win in the rematch.)

Finally, Taylor cleans up, sits down, and takes questions from the media, in a relaxed fashion. He has a little bit of a stutter, but he doesn’t let it bother him, and so it doesn’t bother others either. He never stops smiling, never seems exasperated at having to answer the same questions over and over. Helping promote the fight is part of his job, and if that means sparring and singing with Elvis, he’s happy to oblige. Willing, anyhow. Never did a nickname — “Bad Intentions,” the promotional materials call him — seem more inappropriate. He says the name applies only when the bell sounds.

Discussing his upcoming rematch with the more experienced and more unpleasant Hopkins, Taylor tells one interviewer, “I know he can’t beat me. I know he can’t knock me out. I don’t think Hopkins can change anything.”

It is widely believed among boxing fans that Taylor will someday move up to a heavier weight class. “Eventually I’m going to move up,” he says, “but right now, I’m comfortable at one-sixty. If King Kong was one-sixty, I’d fight King Kong. I’ll fight anybody.” If King Kong weighed 160 pounds, he wouldn’t be King Kong, but Taylor’s point is understood.

People looking for a knockout, or the semblance thereof, are disappointed in the second fight too. The wily Hopkins is hard to hit, Taylor says later. But Taylor clearly wins the fight, and this time the judges’ decision is unanimous. USA Today names Taylor Fighter of the Year.

Back home in Arkansas, Taylor and his wife, Erica, have purchased a big new home in North Little Rock for themselves and their three children. She was an accomplished basketball player at Louisiana Tech, and was drafted by the Washington Mystics of the WNBA. She chose to be a stay-at-home mom instead, but Taylor says she may play pro basketball next season.

What does he like about being champion? “I started getting a lot of stuff free.” In restaurants, people want to buy his meal. Everywhere he goes, people recognize him; many want his autograph. He obliges. “I will never turn down an autograph.”

Much as he loves boxing and being champion, he is aware of the danger inherent in his line of work. A friend died as a result of a beating in the ring. Taylor grows untypically solemn when he says, “I just keep my hands up and pray to God that nothing happens to me.”

Negotiations are under way for his next bout. It may be in March or April. It may be against the number-one contender. It may be in Alltel Arena in North Little Rock, before an overwhelmingly pro-Taylor crowd. Arkansas cherishes its champions. We don’t get many.

Nor do we get many black heroes so beloved by white people. Sidney Moncrief is the only comparable figure who comes to mind. A white reporter asks if Taylor ever felt discriminated against in Little Rock because of his race. “No sir!” he says. He seems shocked by the question.

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