- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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It wasn't about boxing in the beginning. Long before boxing, it was about hope and fear, about a man who cared and a kid who needed to belong. Like so many of these stories, it was about poverty and opportunity, too much of one and not nearly enough of the other. It was about a kid who could barely speak and a man who was willing to listen. Boxing was there, as an outlet, an excuse, the vehicle that drove the kid to a feeling he'd never felt before. In the beginning, that was enough.
The man's gym in Little Rock consisted of a ring and a few bags hanging from the ceiling of a converted gas station. Summers were unbearable, the building a blast furnace that could reach 120°. The man was a missionary of sorts, intent on helping disaffected kids in a city with such an alarming gang problem in the 1990s that it spawned the documentary Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock. The man liked banging back with his own influence. Only one problem: he hated baking in that gym.
In the summer of 1994, when the kid was 16, the man decided to take a break. He wanted to replace his 15-year-old Chevy pickup, which meant he needed to spend more hours at his job laying bricks and fewer hours listening to the kid. He assured the kid the closure was only temporary, just for the heat of the summer.
The kid looked at his shoes and shook his head and said, "You can't close the gym." He said it over and over, although his severe stutter wouldn't allow the words to flow as smoothly as the sentence implies. "If you close the gym, I'll get in trouble. I know I will."
The kid's father was by then a rumor, gone when the boy was just 5. Since then the kid had spent his after-school hours changing diapers for his three younger sisters and cleaning house while his mother worked as a nurse's assistant. All those hours on his own made him a perfect candidate for the Crips, Bloods and Folk gangs who recruited his street. When he was 13, he convinced his mom to let him go to the man's gym. She hated boxing, but her will eroded as the kid begged louder and the streets grew deadlier.
So he showed up one day with a few friends. After a few weeks, the kid was the only one left.
Now he couldn't abide the thought of the gym closing, not even for just one summer. The man listened to the kid's pleas and said, "If you get in trouble, it'll be your own fault. Don't blame me or the gym." But the kid just kept shaking his head. He looked sad, pathetic even. "I'll get in trouble," he repeated.
The man decided to give it a week. He closed the gym to everyone but the kid. He picked him up every day in his '79 Chevy, just like always, and then went about the business of breaking the kid's will.
Inside that no-frills, low ceilinged, heat-infested building, the man carefully positioned the gym's only fan on himself. For two or three hours, he worked the kid harder than ever: jump rope, speed bag, heavy bag, sit-ups, shadow boxing, push-ups. The man wanted that new truck. The kid just kept working and sweating, never asking why he was the only one there. Day after day, he stood on the curb, waiting for the man to pick him up. The man shook his head at the kid's determination.
He kept expecting the kid to say, "Okay, Coach. I've had enough." That moment never came. The kid had always worked hard, but this was crazy. At some point in the week-probably after one of those times when the kid shook the sweat from his eyes and said, "What's next?"-the man had a thought: This kid is possessed.
In truth, the kid just wanted to make the man happy, to belong, to hold on to this feeling as long as he could. Someone believed in him, and he was determined to believe back. It wasn't about the boxing, at least not yet.
Besides, the kid knew the man had power. Two years earlier, when the kid was 14, the man had taken him out of state to a Junior Olympics tournament. They went all the way to St. Louis, 400 miles north and west. Out of state was exotic, extravagant, something other people did. The kid kept asking the man, "Are you sure St. Louis isn't in Arkansas?" The man grew exasperated. He wasn't a world traveler, not back then, but crossing the state line was not akin to an epiphany. When the '79 Chevy rolled into Missouri, the kid couldn't believe it. He stared out the window and said to himself, "I'm out of Arkansas."
The man was magical. He knew what to say and when to say it. When the kid climbed into the ring in St. Louis, the man thought about the trip they'd taken and whispered in his ear, "Represent your state, son. Represent Arkansas." The kid never forgot those words. They made him feel part of something bigger. He needed the connection. Outside the ring, his stuttering compounded the problems created by poverty and his family situation. In school, speech therapists tried to teach the kid techniques to counter the affliction. They told him to tap his hand on his knee in time with each syllable, giving rhythm to his cadence. The kid tried-"How [tap] are [tap] you [tap] to [tap] day [tap]?"-but he couldn't get his mind around the impracticality. "How am I going to meet a girl, slapping my knee every time I have to say a word?" he asked.
Teachers made the kid read aloud in class. Did they think they were helping? They might as well have entered a paraplegic in the 100-yard dash. His words got stuck between his tongue and his lips and never came out. They hung there, one consonant at a time, like someone running in place, until he heard the cruel laughter from the others. He'd stop and look around, identifying the culprits with eye contact before stammering out the words, "After class, cuz. I'll see you after class."
The man took that anger, that frustration, and gave it an outlet. After all, he knew the feeling. Because you know what's crazy? The man has a stuttering problem too.
It was part of the bond. Their phone calls … oh, their phone calls. They were pure torture, one guy stuttering and the other guy stuttering and neither one getting his message across. The kid wanted to tell the man, "Maybe we should just write each other a letter," but he never did.
After the kid's hell week in the hot gym ended, after he endured every day without a word about the heat or a whine about the direction of the fan, the man sat him down. They needed to talk.
And at that moment, something happened that would link the kid and the man for a long time, maybe forever. Because at that moment a Little Rock bricklayer named Ozell Nelson looked across the space between two stools and told a tireless young boxer named Jermain Taylor, "Son, I'm going to keep the gym open."
It was all the kid could do to keep from reaching out and hugging the man. Instead, he smiled and his eyes flashed like blinking neon. Even then he had the smile that removes all menace and the neck that becomes shoulder with no evident transition.
Even then he looked like a warrior when he was working and a model when he wasn't.
Defeat conceded, Ozell Nelson got down to business. "Here's the deal," he said. "I'm going to take a gamble on you. If you make it, I make it. If not? What the heck, we tried. But you have a chance to make millions, and I'm never going to make millions laying bricks. The truck can wait."
Taylor nodded his head and stammered and said, "Coach, if I make it big, I make you a promise: I'm going to buy you a truck."
THERE CAME a time when it became about boxing. Maybe it was during the conversation that struggled to bridge the distance between the two stools. Maybe it was after that, when traveling became a bigger part of their lives and they spent more and more weekends eating bologna sandwiches in the cab of the '79 Chevy and sleeping in cheap motels. At some point, Taylor went from being just another hard-luck kid with a dream to winning those tournaments.
Or maybe it happened when the two of them started interviewing each other on a camcorder. Sometimes the results were comical, their stuttering making the words indecipherable, but over time they grew proud of their improvement. The man always said, "Someday they're going to want to talk to us. We better be ready."
The man imbued the kid with big dreams: to go to the Olympics and turn pro and win a world title and represent Arkansas. But they aren't just dreams if they happen, and there was the kid in Sydney in 2000, winning a bronze medal two years after another of his life's traumatic events: the murder of his beloved grandmother by one of her sons, the kid's uncle, who committed suicide by drinking poison as he confessed.
The kid took that punch, and many others. And then there he was, signing a pro contract in late 2000 and using part of the bonus to buy the man a new Denali. A promise made, a promise kept.
The man was still powerful; the man was still magical. With his encouragement, the kid decided he'd fight anybody. They would build a record first, a bank account second. Most contenders fight only when they're guaranteed a hefty paycheck, but the kid fought outside his contract to boost his record and accelerate his rise to the big time. After one 2002 fight at an Indian casino in Tulsa, he had to write a check for $35 to cover expenses.
The strategy worked. And the record shows that on the night of July 16 in Las Vegas, Jermain "Bad Intentions" Taylor became the first man in more than 10 years to beat Bernard Hopkins. Although it was the first time Taylor had lost so much as a round in 24 pro fights, he won, by split decision, no matter how much the 40-year-old Hopkins protests.
Now the kid is the middleweight champion of the world, a dream come to life, a 27-year-old, 160-pound slab of thick muscle held up by stalklike legs and feet that bounce with the lightness of air. He's a bull, a straight-ahead mauler with a terrific jab and a powerful left hook. He hasn't found a fighter yet who can put him down.
Sometimes, truth be told, the kid has to pinch himself. He's got a big-time trainer in former U.S. Olympic coach Patrick Burns. He has a 1-year-old daughter, Nia, with wife Erica, who was once a basketball star at Louisiana Tech. The couple has his-and-hers silver BMW 745s with the kind of rims that cost more than most cars. Taylor's mother, Carlois Reynolds, has a new house outside Little Rock. After her kid won the title, he and Ozell went to New York, walked into an office in Harlem and met with Arkansas' other favorite son, former President Bill Clinton.
One other thing: the longer the kid spent in the gym and the more successful he became in the ring, the less he stuttered. Funny how that happened.
He can't explain it except to say, "I'm confident, I'm the champ. And, you know, I'm rich. You can think whatever you want about me." He's sitting on a stool in his Memphis training camp this November day, laughing at his own bravado as Burns does an exaggerated stutter in the background.
Back on that July night, as the music played and the lights flashed and all those people in the MGM Grand stood as The Executioner stared from across the ring, the kid felt like they were asking him to read in class one more time. He was anxious, nervous, and it showed in the way he chased the dancing Hopkins around the ring for seven rounds, wearing himself out before holding off a furious late-round rally by the longtime champ.
There's no anxiety now, though, no apparent nerves as Taylor prepares for their Dec. 3 rematch in Vegas. Hopkins complained so vociferously about the split decision that Taylor says, "I lost all respect for him. I gave him way too much respect the first fight, and he gave me none. He tried every trick in the book, which shows me he's not a true champion. I won't cheat you to beat you. Fight like a champion fights, and keep your mouth shut."
There is no Taylor entourage, unless you count a trusted Little Rock friend named Nook and a 49-year-old man named Ozell Nelson. Yes, the man's still there, still in the kid's corner. He's assistant trainer and co-manager and whatever other subordinate title you want to hang on him. Only he and the kid know the real story.
Because when the kid needed it most, when he needed to win the 12th round against the intimidating, caustic Hopkins, or else be marked as just another of the champ's conquests, the kid heard that voice again. After Burns barked his instructions, Nelson got up from his spot in the corner and leaned toward the kid's ear. The kid leaned toward him, too, because the man's words still mean something after all these years.
When he got close enough for the kid to hear, the man said, "Son, this is what all that work was for. I know you can do it."
Once again the world was pared down to the kid and the man. They looked each other in the eye and felt something pass between them. By then, with 12,000 people screaming and 350,000 more paying $50 to watch from home, you could say it was all about boxing. But if you saw Jermain Taylor take a deep breath and summon the strength to convince one judge he won that 12th round, you might say it was about something deeper, something more important.
If you looked closely, you might say it wasn't about boxing at all. It was about hope and fear, about a man still caring and a kid still needing to belong. And if you looked even closer than that, you might even say the kid looked possessed.