Tarver won’t count himself out in Dawson rematch
Antonio Tarver (left), here splitting the guard of Chad Dawson with a left uppercut in their first fight, which he lost by unanimous decision, wants to have more moments like this one when they fight again on Saturday in Las Vegas. Photo / Ray Kasprowicz-Fightwireimages.com
Most fans who watched the first fight between Chad Dawson and Antonio Tarver, in October, believe there’s no reason for a rematch.
Dawson, an athletically gifted 26-year-old light heavyweight contender, dominated the former champ with an aggressive stick-and-move strategy that made Tarver look all 39 of his years.
Dawson, faster, busier and more dynamic during their exchanges, won a unanimous decision by scores of 117-110 (twice) and 118-109; the young southpaw even scored an off-balance technical knockdown in the final round to punctuate his resounding victory.
So why are Dawson and Tarver fighting again this Saturday in Las Vegas on HBO?
Two words: rematch clause.
Three more words: Tarver enforced it.
You may not think Tarver can do anything different against Dawson, but he has the utmost confidence in his abilities.
That belief has fueled Tarver’s stay at the top of the light heavyweight division for more than 10 years.
That, along with his crafty southpaw technique and powerful left hand, enabled him to win three rematches against fighters he lost to in their first bout.
Eric Harding broke his jaw en route to outpointing him in their first match, in 2000, when Tarver was a ballyhooed young contender much like Dawson is today.
Tarver brutally knocked out Harding in the fifth round of their rematch 2¾ years later.
For more than a year after the Harding rematch, Tarver relentlessly pursued a showdown with Roy Jones, then the sport’s pound-for-pound king, and he gave his fellow Floridian hell for 12 rounds in their first match in November 2003 before losing a majority decision.
Jones, who had defeated John Ruiz for a heavyweight title prior to the first Tarver fight, claimed that coming down from a solid 200 pounds to the light heavyweight limit of 175 zapped him of his usual superlative speed and reflexes.
In their rematch, six months later, Tarver barked, “You got any excuses tonight, Roy?” to Jones during their pre-fight instructions and then shocked the sports world by knocking out the boxing icon with a single overhand left in the second round.
“Having seen what Tarver did to Jones in their rematch, I don’t see how fans can completely count him out against Dawson,” said longtime HBO commentator Larry Merchant. “They say he can’t do anything different the second time around, but what he did to Roy was pretty different from their first fight.
“Maybe that’s his best chance against Dawson, somehow trapping him and catching the younger man with that big left hand of his. Maybe Dawson will come with his own agenda that might help Tarver. Dawson is lauded as a talent but he’s also been criticized for not being more of an exciting fighter. Will he get overaggressive in trying to impress the fans?”
Most fans and members of the boxing media believe Tarver’s only hope of even being competitive is if Dawson comes into the bout overconfident.
Even if Dawson is downright reckless, many believe that Tarver lacks the legs to capitalize on it.
The general consensus is that Tarver, now 40, is a spent bullet.
The most damning evidence, according to his critics, is the first Dawson fight.
While Tarver was able to block a good percentage of Dawson’s incoming punches as he stalked forward for much of the fight, he was not able to cut the ring off on the mobile boxer. When Dawson stopped to get off with three- and four-punch combinations to Tarver’s body and head, all the veteran could do was cover up. He lacked the reflexes to effectively counter-punch his young antagonist.
Tarver wasn’t beat up by any stretch of the imagination; he was simply out-sped, out-maneuvered and out-hustled by the younger, fresher fighter. He did well in rounds three, six and eight, and he had moments in other rounds, but there were too many lulls in his activity that Dawson took advantage of.
In other words, Tarver wasn’t consistent enough to compete in his last fight.
Inconsistency just happens to be the main knock Tarver’s critics have on his otherwise successful career.
He didn’t capitalize on his awesome KO of Jones because he was outworked and narrowly outpointed by Glen Johnson in December of 2004, dropping a split decision and losing his RING title to the pressure-fighting workhorse.
True to form, Tarver beat Johnson in their immediate rematch in June of 2005. He regained THE RING championship with a unanimous decision, but he faded badly in the final two rounds. His legs didn’t look 100 percent in his sloppy rubber-match victory over Jones later that year.
In his only bout of 2006, Tarver was thoroughly outclassed by former middleweight champ Bernard Hopkins.
Some thought he would fade away after the one-sided decision loss, but Tarver never left the light heavyweight rankings.
In fact, Tarver is the longest RING-rated contender in any one division. He has been among THE RING’s Top 10 light heavyweights for 555 consecutive weeks, which means the Orlando, Fla., native has been recognized as a bona fide contender for more than 10¾ years.
No other active RING-rated fighter has more than 500 weeks in a single division.
“It speaks to the consistency of a fighter who is not thought of as a consistent fighter,” Merchant said of Tarver’s longevity in THE RING rankings. “It says that he’s been a quality fighter for a long time.
“And he has. We’ve been talking about Tarver since the 1996 Olympics.”
Tarver won a bronze medal at the Atlanta Games. The previous year he took gold at the Pan-American Games and won the World Amateur Championships in the 178-pound division.
He turned pro in early 1997 and gained a RING rating by the end of 1998. Over the next 10 years he defeated RING-ranked contenders like Harding, Chris Johnson, and former titleholders Reggie Johnson and Montell Griffin, before engaging in his five-bout series with Jones and Johnson.
Tarver won three in a row after losing to Hopkins, including a one-sided decision over IBF titleholder and RING-rated contender Clinton Woods.
He was confident going into the first Dawson fight.
He sounds even more confident now.
“I'm bringing my ‘A’ game. I'm focused,” Tarver (27-5, 19 knockouts) said during Thursday’s final press conference. “That wasn't me in our last fight. I'm going to make amends for that loss. I've never lost a rematch and that streak will continue.”
To continue the streak, Merchant believes Tarver must take the initiative.
“The question I have for Tarver, who is a smart fighter and a smart guy, is will he let it all hang out?” said Merchant, who is not working Saturday’s broadcast. “Does he think this is his last shot, and will he fight accordingly? Will he pressure Dawson and make an opening for himself.
“That’s generally not his fighter personality, but he’s always been a guy who knows when he has to step it up, and he’s done so when it counted.”
Tarver has proven to have that ability throughout the last 10 years.
He says he is ready to prove it again against Dawson.
“I'll be laying it all on the line,” Tarver said. “I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. I'm ready and I love the position I'm in.”
Doug Fischer can be reached at dougiefischer[email protected]