The boxing world championship fight held on March 17, 1990 between WBC Jr Welterweight world champion Julio César Chávez of Mexico and IBF world champion Meldrick Taylor of the United States in Las Vegas, Nevada was a historic boxing match. Nicknamed "Thunder Meets Lightning" as an allusion to tremendous punching power of Chávez and blinding speed of Taylor, the bout was expected to be a rousing and exciting fight, but few, (if any) could have foreseen the intense action it would produce, and its lasting fame in boxing history due to its sudden, dramatic, and controversial ending that continues to be widely debated. It would later be named Ring Magazine's "Fight of the Year" for 1990, and later still the "Fight of the Decade" for the 1990s.
From the mid 80s until early 1990 almost all of the attention given to boxing, particularly by the casual fan, was devoted to Mike Tyson. This served to overshadow a number of bouts and emerging stars in the lower weight classes. However, after Tyson lost to Buster Douglas in February 1990, it would give other bouts and fighters a new chance to shine. As Chávez-Taylor took place only a month later, it was one of the very first bouts to benefit from this. The fact that both Chávez and Taylor were undefeated champions with vastly different personalities and fighting styles certainly did nothing to diminish the pre-fight hype, which was intense, especially for a fight not taking place in the heavyweight division.
Julio César Chávez was a legend in the making. Already a three-time world champion in the Jr. Lightweight and Lightweight divisions, he brought an impressive undefeated record of 68-0 with 56 wins by knockout. In many ways Chávez was the epitome of the "Mexican" style of boxing. He relentlessly stalked and closed in on the other fighter, ignoring whatever punishment he took for the chance to dish out his own at close range, particularly in the form of a crunching body attack that would either wear down his opponents until they collapsed in pain and exhaustion, or became too tired to defend as Chávez shifted his attack to the head and went for a knockout.
Meldrick Taylor was nearly a polar opposite to the methodical Chávez. Something of a boxing prodigy, Taylor was gifted with astounding hand and foot speed and had won an Olympic gold medal at just 17 as a member of the 1984 boxing team which featured future legends such as Evander Holyfield and Pernell Whitaker. Taylor's rise through the professional ranks was also quick, as his speed and reflexes proved to be nearly impossible to counter, and while not known as a prodigious puncher, his strength was to be respected and earned him 14 KOs in his 25 victories prior to the Chávez bout. If anything, Taylor had proven to be more than willing to brawl with his opponents, a tendency that, combined with occasional showboating, led many to label him as cocky.
Taylor's brilliant hand and foot speed and boxing abilities gave him the early advantage, allowing him to begin building a large lead on points. He frequently hit Chávez with dazzling combinations and danced around the other man, only to suddenly stop and trade punches with Chávez, often outlanding Chávez by a margin of anywhere between 3-5 to 1. Chávez, however, was relentless and his punches, which were far more devastating than Taylor's, began to take a terrible toll. Coming into the later rounds, Taylor was bleeding from the mouth, his entire face was swollen, the bones around his eye socket had been broken, he had swallowed a considerable amount of his own blood, and Taylor's love for brawling had him exchanging blows with Chávez more and more as his reflexes and foot speed slowed, which only served to further the damage Chávez caused. While there was little doubt that Taylor had solidly won the first three quarters of the fight, now the question was whether he would survive the final quarter, especially after the end of the 11th round when Taylor was so dazed that he nearly went into Chávez' corner between rounds, until referee Richard Steele directed him back to his own.
Going into the final round, Taylor held a secure lead on the scorecards of two of the three judges, (Dave Moretti and Jerry Roth had the score 107-102 and 108-101 respectively for Taylor, while Chuck Giampa had Chávez ahead 105-104), and the sense for everyone watching was that Chávez would have to knock Taylor out to claim a victory, whereas Taylor merely needed to stay away from the Mexican legend. However, in a strange scene between rounds, Taylor's trainer Lou Duva told him that he needed to win the final round, and as a result Taylor did not stay away, but continued to trade blows with Chávez. Taylor showed signs of extreme exhaustion, including staggering and wobbling around the ring and at one point falling to the canvas after missing Chávez with a wild left. Still, every tick of the clock brought Taylor closer to victory... until Chávez turned the tables.
With about a minute left in the round, Chávez hit Taylor squarely with several hard punches, and Taylor responded by mockingly feigning weakness, but Chávez was not convinced by Taylor's bravado and stayed on the attack, continuing to hit Taylor with well-placed shots. Finally, with about 20 seconds to go, Taylor staggered towards a corner, forcing Chávez back ahead of him. Suddenly Chávez stepped around him, positioning Taylor perfectly so that he was trapped in the corner, with nowhere to go. Chávez then nailed Taylor with a tremendous right hand that dropped the younger man. For a moment it seemed that Chávez must have surely knocked Taylor out and saved both his title and remarkable unbeaten streak, but Taylor used the ropes to pull himself back up to his feet. However, after taking the mandatory 8-count, he was still grabbing the ropes to hold himself up, and he seemed to be unable to respond to Steele, who was asking him if he was ok and whether he could continue. Steele stopped the fight in favor of Chávez with only 2 seconds to go in the bout.
To this day, Steele's decision remains controversial and hotly debated. Many fans believe Taylor should have been allowed to continue because there were mere seconds remaining in the fight and that he was ahead on the scorecards, or that he should have been allowed to continue because he appeared to give a slight nod to the referee when asked "Are you okay?" Others agree with the decision, arguing that another good punch would have caused irreversible damage to Taylor, especially considering the tremendous damage Taylor had absorbed already and that he needed to spend weeks in the hospital recuperating.
Some also cited that two years before this match, Steele was refereeing the bout between Thomas Hearns and Iran Barkley, and when Barkley first knocked his opponent down in the third round, Hearns was apparently not in the shape to be able to continue but Steele let him go on, stating after the fight when asked about his decision that such a great champion like Hearns should be given the chance to pull himself together (nevertheless, still in the third round Barkley knocked Hearns down again and out). In contrast with this, after the Chavez-Taylor fight, Steele told that when he sees a hurt fighter he is stopping the fight, regardless of the time left.
Because Chávez was promoted by Don King and Steele had made decisions that some felt were questionable in other King promoted fights, it was questioned whether Steele might be "bought". Taylor's trainer Lou Duva was especially concernced about Steele being chosen. While never proven and strongly denied by both Steele and officials like Mark Ratner, the head of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, it has remained a dark mark on Steele's otherwise exemplary career as a boxing referee.
Chávez' status as an emerging legend was cemented by the bout, and for the next several years he was widely considered the best fighter in the world. His unbeaten streak would stretch to 89-0-1 before he suffered his first loss, to Frankie Randall. (Although the nature of the draw was also considered controversial, as it was the result of a decision in a bout with Taylor's friend and Olympic teammate Pernell Whitaker that most observers felt Whitaker won). Towards the end of his career Chávez began to cut easily, a tendency that would cost him several fights. Like many fighters he continued to fight even after time had diminished his skills, and would go in and out of retirement several times. He appeared to retire for good after a loss on September 17, 2005, in a bout where he claimed to have injured his hand. His final career record stands at 108-6-2. He holds several records, including for most title defenses and fights, and the second longest winning streak in boxing history.
It is popularly believed that Meldrick Taylor was never the same physically or professionally after the bout. Famed sportswriter William Nack said he had never seen a boxer give so much as Taylor did in the fight. Nack pointed out Taylor's "prime" was literally beaten out of him and it was thus gone forever. Dr. Flip Homansky, who examined Taylor following the fight and immediately sent him to the hospital, summarized his injuries by saying "Meldrick suffered a facial fracture, he was urinating pure blood, his face was grotesquely swollen... this was a kid who was truly beaten up to the face, the body, and the brain". Although Taylor would continue fighting and succeed in winning another championship, the brilliance that he displayed both during and before the Chávez fight would prove elusive afterwards. A crushing fourth round knockout loss to Terry Norris in 1992 spelled the end to Taylor's career as a top-level fighter. He was also knocked out in a 1994 rematch with Chávez. Taylor continued to fight on and off for years, but never again in fights of any note. At the same time, rumors of brain damage circled around him, and eventually numerous boxing districts within the U.S. refused to grant him a license to fight. Perhaps most stunning was his appearance and speech during Legendary Nights, an HBO documentary series that profiled some of its most famous bouts. The episode dealing with Chávez-Taylor showed Taylor's speech to be extremely slurred and at times nearly incomprehensible, quite a change from the articulate young Taylor that many fans remembered. Taylor's final record stands at 38-8-1.