Cham­pi­ons need ri­vals wor­thy of their tal­ent

Com­pe­ti­tion is es­sen­tial in top-class sport and Katie Tay­lor is suf­fer­ing from its ab­sence

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT -

ISEE a well-known Ir­ish foot­ball fig­ure wants to see a stronger Rangers side pro­vid­ing bet­ter com­pe­ti­tion for Celtic in the Scot­tish Pre­mier League. There’s al­ways one, isn’t there? Who is this treach­er­ous hun-lov­ing West Bri­tish shon­een? Come out you Black and Tan and iden­tify your­self, if you’re not too busy tak­ing tea with Lord John Kil­clooney. It’s Martin O’Neill.

Oh. Ahem. Ex­cuse me while I put away my tri­colour and turn down this Wolfe Tones CD. Given that O’Neill was Celtic’s best man­ager since Jock Stein, I don’t think any­one would claim he’d ever have any­thing but the club’s best in­ter­ests at heart. He’s 100 per cent right in this case.

Celtic need Rangers be­cause great clubs need great ri­vals. Sat­is­fy­ing though last week­end’s hu­mil­i­a­tion of the old en­emy might have been, there’s very lit­tle glory in a per­pet­ual cake­walk. Apart from any­thing else, re­newed Old Firm ri­valry would be good for Celtic from a prag­matic point of view. It’s be­come ob­vi­ous in re­cent sea­sons that the ease of their do­mes­tic progress leaves them ill-equipped for Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tion. It would also make the club’s vic­to­ries sound a less hol­low note.

That’s why even Celtic fans should hope Steven Ger­rard can mas­ter­mind some kind of re­vival at Rangers, once he’s got over his puz­zle­ment at find­ing that quite a few Ir­ish­men think an English­man is com­mit­ting trea­son by tak­ing over a Scot­tish club.

Com­pe­ti­tion is es­sen­tial to top-class sport and some­one else suf­fer­ing from its ab­sence is Katie Tay­lor. We all delight in Tay­lor’s tri­umphs but there has been some­thing of a rote qual­ity to the way in which we talk about her world ti­tle fights. It’s all ‘icon’ and ‘na­tional trea­sure’ and ‘to­tal leg­end’ and so on with very lit­tle men­tion of the fight it­self or what it means in the over­all scheme of things. Ev­ery­one respects the achieve­ment but there’s not much buzz about it.

Per­haps that’s be­cause we don’t re­ally know what those vic­to­ries mean. Last week­end’s op­po­nent, Vic­to­ria Bus­tos, had been IBF light­weight cham­pion for five years but had never be­fore fought out­side Ar­gentina and only once be­fore fought against a non-Ar­gen­tinian. The light­weight rank­ings are awash with Ar­gen­tini­ans, which lends the di­vi­sion a sus­pi­ciously parochial ap­pear­ance.

As in her pre­vi­ous world ti­tle fight Tay­lor never looked in any dan­ger of los­ing against Bus­tos. Yet the ease of her progress casts doubt over the merit of her achieve­ment. It’s easy, and pop­ulist, to say that the com­pe­ti­tion looks lim­ited solely be­cause Katie Tay­lor is so great. Tay­lor is great but women’s pro­fes­sional box­ing does seem to have a strength in depth prob­lem.

Uni­fy­ing the WBA and IBF ti­tles would seem to place Tay­lor on a col­li­sion course with Delfine Per­soon, who’s held the WBC ti­tle since 2014. Per­soon has a 39-1 record and is gen­er­ally re­garded as the sec­ond best pound-for-pound per­former in the world be­hind the phe­nom­e­nal Nor­we­gian Ce­cilia Braekhus. Yet Per­soon has only once fought out­side her na­tive coun­try where her most re­cent fights have taken place in the towns of Zw­evezele, Izhegem, Roe­se­lare and Gits. It seems a far cry from the high-pro­file world in­hab­ited by Tay­lor.

Small won­der that there has been talk of her even­tu­ally mov­ing up to fight the wel­ter­weight Braekhus or of all-time great Holly Holm re­turn­ing from the world of Mixed Mar­tial Arts or even of some con­test be­tween Tay­lor and for­mer MMA queen­pin Ronda Rousey. The lat­ter con­test, with its echoes of the McGre­gor-May­weather hy­pe­fest, would seem an­ti­thet­i­cal to ev­ery­thing Katie Tay­lor stands for, but she does seem to be in the in­con­ve­nient po­si­tion of al­most be­ing big­ger than her sport.

It is a po­si­tion the Bray woman is fa­mil­iar with. With­out her un­remit­ting ex­cel­lence it is un­likely that women’s am­a­teur box­ing would ever have been el­e­vated to an Olympics slot. For the guts of a decade she was streets ahead of the com­pe­ti­tion. Yet per­haps the best thing about her 2012 Olympic vic­tory was that she had to pull out all the stops to achieve it. When, at the half­way stage of her fi­nal bout against So­fya Ogichava, we saw that Tay­lor was be­hind on points, I think the na­tion re­alised our cham­pion’s vic­tory was not in­evitable and re­mem­bered there is no such thing as a soft Olympic gold.

It may be harder to win an Olympic gold in women’s box­ing than to win a world pro­fes­sional ti­tle. Harder in terms of the depth of com­pe­ti­tion rather than the phys­i­cal de­mands. The win over Bus­tos was a world away from the some­what blood­less tech­ni­cal con­tests of Tay­lor’s am­a­teur days. Th­ese days her op­po­nents are tougher and more durable but they are also ut­terly out­gunned.

Some box­ing cognoscenti in­sist the great­est per­for­mance Muham­mad Ali ever gave was his third-round knock­out of the dan­ger­ous Cleve­land Wil­liams in 1966. Ali’s box­ing achieved a kind of for­mal per­fec­tion that night yet for most peo­ple his ca­reer is de­fined by one fight against Ge­orge Fore­man and three against Joe Fra­zier.

The leg­end of Ali largely rests on the abil­ity he showed to take pun­ish­ment and over­come ad­ver­sity in Kin­shasa and Manila par­tic­u­larly. With­out Fra­zier and Fore­man, Ali would not have been the Ali we knew. Katie Tay­lor needs a sim­i­lar ri­valry. She needs a tal­ented, hun­gry, ag­gres­sive op­po­nent to bring the best out of her. She needs some­one like Katie Tay­lor.

Look at Wil­lie Mullins. He amassed his first ten Ir­ish train­ers’ ti­tles with ease and with­out arous­ing much in­ter­est in the Ir­ish sport­ing pub­lic. But the emer­gence of Gor­don El­liott in the past cou­ple of years has seen the con­test be­tween him and Mullins cap­ture the at­ten­tion of peo­ple whose in­ter­est in the des­ti­na­tion of the ti­tle would pre­vi­ously have been min­i­mal. It not only brought the best out of Mullins, it also brought the mag­ni­tude of his achieve­ment into fo­cus.

At Punchestown, Mullins achieved a kind of apoth­e­o­sis. In over­haul­ing his young ri­val he dom­i­nated pro­ceed­ings to such an ex­tent that from the Tues­day to the Sat­ur­day, Mullins won more money than any trainer other than El­liott had won all sea­son. Michael O’Leary re­sponded by say­ing that Gig­gin­stown would be seek­ing more and bet­ter horses from now on, some­thing which must surely have sent a shiver down the spine of ev­ery trainer out­side the top two.

In the same way, Bay­ern Mu­nich’s fail­ure to over­come Real Madrid on Tues­day will prob­a­bly re­sult in the Ger­mans strength­en­ing their team for next year’s Cham­pi­ons League cam­paign. Which is bad news for the Bun­desliga which the Bavar­ian giants cur­rently lead by 22 points. This will be their sixth vic­tory on the trot in a league which up to three sea­sons ago no-one had ever won more than three times in suc­ces­sion.

It’s been that kind of sea­son in Europe’s big leagues. Paris Saint-Ger­main lead Ligue 1 by 19 points. It is their fifth ti­tle in six sea­sons af­ter they were de­nied last year by a freak­ishly tal­ented young Monaco side, the best play­ers from which were quickly sold and dis­persed all over Europe. Yet PSG are get­ting rid of their man­ager, Unai Emery, and will no doubt spend more in an ef­fort to gain the Cham­pi­ons League suc­cess which con­tin­ues to elude them. Next sea­son’s Ligue 1 and Bun­desliga ti­tles have al­ready been de­cided.

In the Pre­mier League, Manch­ester City lead by 16 points, a gap which if main­tained will be the sec­ond high­est in the com­pe­ti­tion’s his­tory. Barcelona are 11 clear in La Liga. All th­ese teams are wor­thy cham­pi­ons but who, apart from their fans, would not pre­fer a ti­tle race like the one cur­rently rag­ing in Turkey where four points sep­a­rate the top four with two rounds re­main­ing?

Big money drives the com­pet­i­tive deficit in foot­ball. The oli­garchi­cal ten­dency in foot­ball seems to mir­ror that in so­ci­ety where with ev­ery year the gap be­tween the pay of CEOs and the av­er­age worker in the or­gan­i­sa­tion they head grows larger and where a growth in perks and profits at one end of the scale is mir­rored by an in­crease in ca­su­al­i­sa­tion and pre­car­i­ous­ness at the other.

Iron­i­cally the US, where this ten­dency is most glar­ing in so­ci­ety, does its best to keep it out of sport. The Amer­i­can sport­ing pub­lic sim­ply wouldn’t put up with the kind of un­bal­anced ti­tle races Euro­pean foot­ball fans have to en­dure. So in the last ten years, nine dif­fer­ent clubs have won the Su­per Bowl and eight the World Se­ries.

The Amer­i­can draft sys­tem is some­thing which can’t re­ally be repli­cated over here and the soc­cer au­thor­i­ties seem to have lit­tle de­sire for the kind of salary cap sys­tems em­ployed in the US ma­jor leagues. UEFA’s ‘Fi­nan­cial Fair Play’ sys­tem is lit­tle more than a joke. For the fore­see­able fu­ture the big­gest leagues in Europe’s most pop­u­lar sport will prob­a­bly be no more com­pet­i­tive than a Katie Tay­lor world ti­tle fight.

That’s a pity be­cause in sport, as in life, we can al­ways do with more democ­racy.

With­out Fra­zier and Fore­man, Muhaxm­mad Ali would not have been the Ali we knew

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