LAS VEGAS (AP) – The lights bothered Jermain Taylor, and so did the media. He was overwhelmed by the moment, and awed by his opponent.

Once his middleweight title fight with Bernard Hopkins began, Taylor made the rookie mistake of chasing the champion around the ring. The fight ended with Taylor out of gas and taking a beating in the final rounds.

Somehow, though, Taylor became the new middleweight champion.

“That was the worst night of boxing I’ve had in my life,” Taylor said. “But I still won the fight.”

Taylor not only won the fight, but he made history, too. He stopped a record streak of 20 consecutive title defenses by Hopkins, who hadn’t lost in 12 years, and left the ring as the undisputed 160-pound king.

Now the two get back in the ring Saturday night to do it again.

And Taylor says his best is yet to come.

“I know I didn’t prove myself the last time but I did enough to win the fight,” he said. “Everybody who knows me knows I’ll take care of business this time.”

Taylor climbed out of the ring July 16 with a split decision that not only irritated Hopkins but was controversial among ringside observers. Most felt Hopkins, who gave away the early rounds to his younger opponent, did enough in the late rounds to pull the fight out.

If not for judge Duane Ford giving Taylor the 12th round when the other two ringside judges and most of the people watching thought Hopkins won it easily, the fight would have been a draw.

“It’s not good for Jermain Taylor to get back in the ring with me,” Hopkins warned. “I beat the guy the first time and I’m going to do it again. This time it won’t go the distance.”

Taylor and his handlers would beg to differ.

There’s an old adage that winning a title makes a fighter 25 percent better the next time out, and Taylor thinks he will be even better than that.

“I’m stronger than he is, I’m faster than he is and, of course, I’m younger,” Taylor said. “I do everything it takes to be champion. Experience is all he has. He had the belts but he doesn’t even have that anymore.”

No one disputes that the 27-year-old Taylor has the talent to rule the middleweight division. Even Hopkins agrees that the 2000 Olympic bronze medalist is the future of the 160-pound class.

Oddsmakers, however, view the fight at the Mandalay Bay hotel-casino as a pick em match because of the way Hopkins, once he got untracked, seemed to control the late rounds the first time they met.

Hopkins (46-3-1, 32 knockouts) turns 41 next month, an age when most boxers have long since found another way other than taking punches to the head to make a living.

“Zebras can’t change their stripes and he is 41 years old,” Taylor’s promoter, Lou DiBella said.

“I don’t think he can fight 12 full rounds. As great as his skills are and his boxing mind is, the fact is he’s 41.”

Taylor (24-0, 17 knockouts) was already a major sports star in his native Arkansas and considered a top middleweight contender when the two first met. But he wasn’t quite prepared for everything that surrounds a big fight.

Hopkins, meanwhile, was an old pro who owns big wins over Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad and had fought as a middleweight champion for 12 years.

“All the hype around the fights, all the light and the media surprised me,” Taylor said. “I learned a lot from the mistakes I made dealing with it.”

The win in July was not only big for Taylor but for DiBella, who used to promote Hopkins and won a $605,000 slander suit award from him. Both fighter and promoter used his distaste for Hopkins as motivation in the fight.

Things are somewhat quieter this time around, though DiBella is angry at Hopkins for making fun of the speech impediment that Taylor has worked hard to correct.

“I don’t like the guy but that’s a closed chapter,” DiBella said. “This is about Jermain and him.”

That’s fine with Hopkins, whose belief that everyone in boxing is after him was only magnified by the decision that he lost.

“They got their boy who they can control,” Hopkins said. “I’m not controllable the way they want me to be.”

AP-ES-12-01-05 1639EST


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