Champions need rivals worthy of their talent
Competition is essential in top-class sport and Katie Taylor is suffering from its absence
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