LAS VEGAS -- When Meldrick Taylor burst upon the amateur boxing scene as a mid-teen in the tough, gritty gyms of Philadelphia, boxing people there weren't sure what they had.
Was he a future featherweight champion or a future heavyweight champion?
He sure could fight, everyone acknowledged. But he could eat like Orson Welles, too. Some even gave him a shot at evolving into another Buster Mathis, who made a good run through the heavyweight division during the 1970s.
Luckily, however, Taylor's gym ethic was such that he could work off the Twinkies, cheeseburgers, potato chips and pizzas.
By 1984, he was already a solid candidate to make the U.S. Olympic team as a featherweight -- 125 pounds. In a key test that year, he had to face the great Cuban, Adolfo Horta, at the United States-Cuba matches in Reno, Nev., in February.
Horta was in his late 20s and a three-time world champion. Taylor was 16.
The night before the matches, U.S. Olympic Coach Pat Nappi prowled a hotel corridor, making unannounced room checks. He burst in upon Taylor and found him in bed with . . . a giant pizza.
Furious, Nappi threw out the pizza. Then, at high volume, pointed out to Taylor that he was only hours away from a weigh-in for the most important engagement of his life.
Taylor made weight the next morning, possibly because Nappi had posted a sentry outside the fighter's room to guard against pizza deliverymen.
Taylor went on to the Los Angeles Olympics and became one of the Games' youngest gold medalists. He turned pro three months later and has lost only once.
Tomorrow night, at the Mirage, he faces his toughest challenge since his last-second defeat by Julio Cesar Chavez two years ago.
Taylor, with a 29-1-1 record, meets Terry Norris (31-3) for Norris' World Boxing Council junior-middleweight championship. And this time, Taylor's people vow, his eating ethic has matched his gym ethic.
In Philadelphia, Taylor's gym workouts are the stuff of legend.
"I used to work out at the same health club Taylor did," Philadelphia columnist Bill Lyon said.
"He came in from six or seven miles of roadwork one day, immediately got on the Stairmaster machine next to mine, set it ** to the 'death zone' setting [the highest possible] and did 30 minutes without holding onto the railings. I've never gotten over that."
Given that kind of work ethic, some in boxing wonder if Taylor wouldn't be a more formidable fighter at, say, 135 or 140 pounds, on a leaner diet.
Tomorrow's fight is at 150 1/2 pounds, even though the junior-middleweight maximum is 154. Dan and Lou Duva, Taylor's promoter and trainer, wouldn't take the Norris fight unless all agreed on a weight midway between the welterweight limit, 147, and 154. Taylor holds a piece of the welterweight championship, but it isn't at stake tomorrow night.
Through his eight years with the Duvas, it's been one victory -- and one battle over eating -- after another.
"For the first time, I think, we don't have to worry about what Mel's eating," Duva said Wednesday. "He's finally got his head on straight over food. He weighs 148, 149 right now. He weighed 150 10 days ago. So it looks like we'll have no problem with the weight."
Taylor had to make 140 pounds for the only fight he has lost, his epic match with Chavez in March of 1990.
"I lost too much [weight] too close to that fight," he said of the crushing defeat, when Chavez beat him in the final seconds of the fight. Referee Richard Steele stopped it with two seconds remaining, awarding victory to Chavez. Taylor was ahead on all the judges' scorecards at the time.
Taylor, who lives in Cherry Hill, N.J., has fought five times since the Chavez war, with mixed results. He was tentative in his next outing, winning a lackluster decision over Primo Ramos at Stateline, Nev.
Co-trainer George Benton was also unhappy with Taylor's next outing, a decision over Aaron Davis nearly a year after the Chavez fight.
"He won decisions, but he wouldn't take it to Ramos or Davis in the late rounds," Benton said.
"If that was from the Chavez fight, I don't know. But you can bet he'll do what I tell him Saturday [tomorrow]."
And to those who say he has lost something since Chavez, Taylor says they are wrong.
"I haven't lost anything since that fight," he said. "The people who say I've lost something don't understand me as a fighter. Fighters don't look great every time. With the exception of Michael Jordan, no professional athlete can always be at his best."
Taylor says he wants to springboard from a victory over Norris to boxing's biggest paydays. He will earn $2 million tomorrow. Norris gets $1.3 million.
"A win over Norris will propel me to being the boxing superstar of the '90s," he said.
"After that, I want a rematch with Chavez. If I can't get that, then I'll fight anyone in the middleweight classes."