In the last seconds before the 12th and final round of last Saturday night's super lightweight title fight in Las Vegas, Lou Duva was hunched over the puffy, battered face of Meldrick Taylor, screaming at his fighter above the din of the crowd. Duva, Taylor's comanager, pleaded with Taylor to do what he had been doing so flawlessly for 11 rounds against Julio César Chávez, the WBC's undefeated super lightweight champion.
"Get close to him!" Duva shrieked. "Stay inside. Don't stand up and let him hit you. Do like you've been doing: Put your head on his chest and keep turning him around."
Taylor, the finely chiseled 23-year-old U.S. Olympic 126-pound gold medal winner in the 1984 Games, and at the moment the IBF's 140-pound champion, was putting on the most smashing performance of his life. From the opening bell he had been beating Chávez to the punch, leaning on him and at times forcing him backward with flurries of hooks, jabs and straight right hands in bewilderingly quick combinations.
Chávez, a 27-year-old native of Culiacán, Mexico, had arrived at the Hilton Center with a record of 68-0, including 55 knockouts, and with the reputation of being, pound for pound, the finest fighter in the world. But now, suddenly, near the close of a tumultuous evening during which many in the crowd of 9,130 were waving Mexican flags, repeatedly chanting Chávez's name and rising whenever he landed a punch, it seemed clear that all Taylor had to do was survive the last round to seize Chávez's title.
Then Taylor made the very mistake that Duva feared he would. With only a minute to go in the fight, Taylor backed away from Chávez and stood up. Seeing his opportunity, Chávez staggered Taylor with a quick, powerful overhand right to the face. Chávez is a relentless, remorseless fighter when he has an opponent in trouble, and now he was stalking a weary, wounded Taylor like a cat circling its prey.
With 25 seconds left, Chávez caught Taylor with another right hand. Badly shaken again, Taylor reeled after Chávez along the ropes. Chávez landed a hook and a grazing right hand, then missed with an uppercut, which Taylor countered with a weak, pawing jab. Dropping the jab as it fell short, Taylor left himself open, and that was all Chávez needed to rescue the hour.
Setting himself, Chávez drove a vicious right over the jab. It struck Taylor on his left cheek and sent him collapsing on his back in a neutral corner, the back of his head nearly striking the ring post. He reached out his hands to grab a strand of rope. Slowly, groggily, Taylor found his feet as referee Richard Steele, standing squarely in front of him, picked up the count from the timekeeper at five. At almost the same moment, the red light began flashing on top of the ring post, indicating that fewer than 10 seconds were left in the bout.
Meanwhile, Duva began climbing the stairs leading to Taylor's corner, screaming at Steele that one of his own assistants had told him that time had already run out in the fight. Duva was pursued by Kenny Bayless, an inspector from the Nevada State Athletic Commission; had Duva set foot in the ring, Taylor could have been disqualified by Steele.
Afterward, Steele said he had not known how much time remained in the fight. "I don't think about time when I'm in the ring," he said. "I think about the fighter's condition." Steele also said that he had not seen the red light blinking, despite the fact that it was going on and off directly behind and above Taylor's left shoulder. As he finished his standing eight-count, Steele was looking hard at the only two things that mattered at that point: Taylor's eyes.
"Are you O.K.?" Steele asked him. Taylor, who later said that he could not hear the question above the noise, did not answer.