Andres Taylor officially got the key to the City of Johnstown on Wednesday.
In some ways, it’s hard to believe he didn’t already have it.
The 30-year-old cruiserweight, who will fight in the Flood City for the fourth time on Saturday night, is as good a representative of the area as any.
He’s a blue-collar, hard-working, real-life personification of Johnstown’s image.
Taylor didn’t move here until 1989, but he’s not only seen the city’s struggle to survive, he’s lived it. Growing up in Coopersdale, he faced some of the same hardships of his adopted hometown.
He had a son at age 16 and, when he saw Andres Jr. die six months later of SIDS, he could have given up on life. But Taylor is a fighter, literally and figuratively.
“It was rough for me as youth,” Taylor recalled on Thursday in the lobby of Cambria County War Memorial Arena, where he received the key to the city from Mayor Tom Trigona. “I did things that I’m not proud of, but through Christ and the community, I really changed my life.”
He graduated from Johnstown High and accelerated his amateur boxing career, winning a Golden Gloves state championship in 2006.
Even then, something was missing in Taylor’s life. He did not realize what it was until a year later, when he was fighting for a spot in the Olympic trials. Taylor was set to box the second-ranked fighter in the nation, and the pressure was weighing on him.
“I was a little nervous because everybody said ‘This guy hits like Mike Tyson,’ ” Taylor said. “So I was a little afraid. I went back to my dorm ... opened up my bible and right there, in Isaiah 41, it said ‘Do not be afraid.’ The words jumped out to me. Right there, I knew that God was real and that my life was going to change.”
He went on to win the Western Olympic Trials, and though he didn’t make it to the Games, Taylor did represent the U.S. in Romania in 2007. He has since turned pro, going 10-1-1 with six knockouts.
Saturday’s “Fright Night Fights” event at the War Memorial gives Taylor the chance to do two of his favorite things – box and bring recognition to Johnstown.
“As a youth, when you get into trouble doing things, you’re taking from your city,” he said. “Now, I have the chance to give back, and I’m happy for that.”
The card, which is highlighted by Taylor’s rematch with the only man to beat him as a pro, Leo Bercier, will be televised on Nov. 17 by Fox Sports Pittsburgh. It will be rebroadcast by the network, which reaches 1.5 million people, as well as other networks throughout the United States and the Caribbean.
“I told everybody from Day 1 that I was going to bring national television here,”Taylor said. “I brought it here. Now, I want the people to come out and support it. It’s not about me. No matter what, I’m still getting paid if one person comes or 100,000 people come.
“But the thing is, I take some investment in this. This is my hometown.There are going to be 130 million people looking at my hometown and me as the hometown fighter. If there are only a thousand or two thousands fans in those stands, I’m going to be embarrassed. This is our hometown. A hundred and thirty million people are going to be seeing Johnstown. If they see the stands packed, they know something is going on in Johnstown.”
While Taylor does have a financial stake in every one of his fights - bigger crowds mean bigger purses in the future - his love for his hometown seems genuine. He promotes Johnstown almost as much as he does his own career.
That’s especially impressive given that Johnstown wasn’t an easy place for him growing up.
“It was pretty hard,” he admitted. “I came from a family of seven kids. Just my mother raised us. It was hard. We lived in the projects. We hardly had enough food. We hardly had enough clothing to go to school. I’m just happy to go through everything I went through and be here today. I didn’t fully make it - I’m not a millionaire or anything - but I’m happy to see the road I’m on. I have the potential to be the guy to bring stuff to Johnstown. I’m happy to give back to Johnstown.”
Johnstown gave back to Taylor on Wednesday, when Trigona presented the boxer with a plaque featuring a ceremonial key.
“Here’s the story of a young man that’s changed his life, from a tough street kid to an admirable young man,” Trigona said. “Andres not only changed his life around, but he’s helping others through his anti-drug stance and his work with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.”
Taylor’s ability to persevere through personal and economic hardships is an inspiration not just to fight fans, but also to the city to which he now holds the key.
Eric Knopsnyder is the sports editor of The Tribune-Democrat.