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Original Issue

A New Ringleader

Terry Norris laid claim to the title of pound for pound the best fighter by KO'ing Meldrick Taylor
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For more than a year now terry Norris, the World Boxing Council super welterweight champion, has been quietly but insistently telling anyone who would listen that he needed only "that one great opponent" to establish himself as a great fighter in the eyes of the boxing world. Last Saturday night in Las Vegas, at The Mirage hotel's outdoor arena, Norris encountered that opponent—and then calmly and methodically destroyed him. Norris's brutally efficient defense of his title, a fourth-round knockout of World Boxing Association welterweight champion Meldrick Taylor, one of the most gifted boxers of his generation, certifies the 24-year-old Norris as the leading candidate for the office of best fighter, pound for pound, in the world.

It took Norris only three rounds to zero in on Taylor. Then, in the fourth, he hammered him to the canvas twice and had him dazed and staggering when referee Mills Lane wisely stopped the bout with five seconds left. "Once I caught up with him, I knew I was going to walk right through him," Norris said afterward.

"Tonight was a signature fight for Terry Norris," said Dan Duva, Taylor's promoter, after the match. "He's going to be the superstar of the '90s."

In the days before the fight it seemed as though more people in boxing were talking about the '80s than about the '90s. Again and again the names Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler—the heroes of the sport's past decade—were invoked. These days the heavyweight division, boxing's showcase, is in disarray. Its champion, Evander Holyfield, seems committed to defending his title only against old men; its best fighter, Mike Tyson, is in prison. In Las Vegas last week the hope was that the Norris-Taylor fight, a rare matchup between two young champions in their primes, might signal a renaissance of the lighter weight divisions, a return to the big-money glory days of the Leonard era.

"This fight is in a great tradition. It will be a very great fight with which to head into the 21st century," rhapsodized WBC president José Sulaimán early in the week. Lou Duva, Taylor's co-manager, put it more reasonably: "This is a crossroads fight for both guys, and for boxing."

Ironically, it was Norris himself who put an end to the Leonard era, battering the 34-year-old Sugar Ray into retirement in February 1991. Despite that performance and four successful title defenses since, Norris, whose record going into the Taylor bout was 31-3, had not received the recognition he felt he deserved. While he has been known to make such grand third-person proclamations as "Someday, Terry Norris will be the Michael Jordan of boxing," Norris is a soft-spoken young man who is more comfortable letting his fists do the talking. Against Taylor he knew he had an opportunity to make a definitive statement. After winning a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics, Taylor had embarked on a brilliant pro career, winning world titles at 140 and 147 pounds and losing only once in 31 fights—on a controversial last-second TKO by Julio César Chávez in March 1990. Like Norris, the 25-year-old Taylor has a strong desire to prove himself against the best. When Norris offered to meet him at a maximum of 150½ pounds—midway between their respective weight classes—Taylor took the match. Both Norris, who earned $1.3 million, and Taylor, who took home almost twice that, had the biggest paydays of their careers.

The fight offered Taylor's flash against Norris's size and punch. Taylor's trainer, George Benton, devised a plan in which the smaller Taylor, who stands 5'6¬Ω" and usually lights at around 147 pounds, would crowd Norris (5'10", about 152) while staying in constant motion, never giving Norris a chance to set and throw a big punch. Benton was banking on Taylor's dazzling hand speed to offset Norris's superior power. "I got a machine gun, you got a damn rifle. Who you going to bet on?" was how Benton put it.

Still, by fight time Norris—who, like Taylor, had weighed in at 149—was a 2-to-1 favorite, and he made his intentions clear from the start, entering the ring with the word KNOCKOUT shaved into the hair on the back of his head. At the opening bell Taylor came out fast, moving well behind a flicking jab and firing rapid combinations. For a while he made Norris miss, but by the final minute of the round, Norris was finding the range. He caught Taylor with a thudding left hook to the body and clipped him with a couple of rights. Taylor won the first round on two of the judges' cards, but in the corner between rounds, Taylor told Benton, "He's so strong. I'm picking punches off, but I can feel them right through the gloves."

Benton urged Taylor to stay close to Norris—in an effort to rob Norris of punching room—and to keep working the jab. But Taylor couldn't reach Norris, and Norris's chopping right was landing again and again. A minute into the third, Norris flashed a little smile. "That's when he knew he had him," Norris's trainer, Abel Sanchez, said after the fight.

"[Taylor] fought a somewhat foolish fight," Norris said. "He stayed right there in front of me."

In the end Taylor had no choice. He made his last stand at the opening of the fourth, catching Norris with a hard right that made Norris clinch. Taylor tried to follow up, but again he was reaching, unable to get inside without taking Norris's heavy shots. A minute into the round, Norris landed a hard combination followed by a right and then a left that knocked Taylor to the canvas. A warrior when he's hurt, Taylor rose immediately and fired back with leaping hooks and combinations. He was woefully outgunned. With 35 seconds left in the round, Norris drove Taylor to the ropes. A hard right caught Taylor on the cheek. Taylor lurched forward, and Norris threw another right, which landed on the back of Taylor's head. Taylor pitched to his knees. He was up by four, bleeding from the mouth, his legs gone. With Duva howling, "Move!" from the corner, Taylor tried to escape, but Norris was on top of him. He landed five more chopping rights before Lane jumped in front of him, waved the fight over and gathered Taylor into his arms.

Later, a subdued Taylor—who still has his welterweight title to fall back on—praised Norris's skills and power. "He's a very, very strong, strong puncher," Taylor said with a weary shake of the head. "He should be considered the best fighter in the world."

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RICHARD MACKSON

Taylor (left) favored a hit-and-run strategy, but he couldn't hide from Norris's power.

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RICHARD MACKSON

Norris's haircut proclaimed his intentions, a promise that he delivered on late in Round 4.

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V.J. LOVERO

Taylor came in like a tiger, went out like a lamb.