THE HARD YARDS

Tommy Con­lon on how Katie Tay­lor took road less trav­elled

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - TOMMY CON­LON THECOUCH@IN­DE­PEN­DENT.IE

AF­TER Lon­don 2012, the yel­low brick road that lay ahead of Katie Tay­lor was sup­posed to be strewn with more gold and more glory.

Six years later, and against all ex­pec­ta­tion, it seems that the Olympic medal which crowned her jour­ney back then will re­main for all time the apex of her fa­bled ca­reer. It was in­con­ceiv­able that at 26 her dom­i­nance and her willpower would not lead on to fur­ther great achieve­ments.

In­stead her story since then has ta­pered down into a sort of poignant anti-cli­max, be­set by per­sonal heart­break, trau­matic de­feats and a twi­light ex­is­tence in the pound shop world of women’s pro­fes­sional box­ing.

A new doc­u­men­tary film, made with her co-op­er­a­tion and cur­rently show­ing in cin­e­mas na­tion­wide, charts this af­ter­life; it makes for a sad­den­ing watch, de­spite her sto­ical ef­forts to put out the sunny side and keep on keep­ing on.

In the two years af­ter Lon­don, and now a ver­i­ta­ble na­tional trea­sure, she con­tin­ued to pros­per, fi­nan­cially as well as com­pet­i­tively. In Novem­ber 2014, she won her fifth con­sec­u­tive World Cham­pi­onship ti­tle; her first had come in 2006; the ob­ses­sive de­vo­tion to her trade had sur­vived in­tact the dan­ger­ous com­forts that come with celebrity and suc­cess. The Olympic gold medal and all that flowed from it had not soft­ened her am­bi­tion nor com­pro­mised her work ethic.

What sun­dered her ca­reer and rup­tured her emo­tion­ally was the break-up of her par­ents’ mar­riage. By the time she fetched up for the Euro­pean leg of the Olympic qual­i­fiers, in April 2016, Pete Tay­lor was no longer in her cor­ner. Her fa­ther, men­tor and life­long coach had left the fam­ily home. He’d be­gun a new re­la­tion­ship; his daugh­ter would not tol­er­ate work­ing with him any­more. Un­beaten in 62 con­sec­u­tive fights spread out over the pre­vi­ous five years, she lost that qual­i­fier in Turkey. Six weeks later, she duly qual­i­fied for Rio at the World Cham­pi­onships but was beaten again, in the semi-fi­nals. And at the Rio games in Au­gust she was beaten in the quar­ter-fi- nal, her dream of a sec­ond Olympic gold medal ter­mi­nated.

She could not speak in the min­utes af­ter that de­feat; when RTÉ tried to in­ter­view her, she lit­er­ally could not speak. Tay­lor was shocked into si­lence. It re­mains the most har­row­ing mo­ment of her ca­reer.

There is a scene in the doc­u­men­tary where she is in her tro­phy room. It is a stun­ning sight; a mu­seum would strug­gle to hold all the tro­phies that line the walls. She says she can­not even iden­tify half of them. But she can vividly re­mem­ber the one that isn’t there. “The Rio gold. It’s all I think about. It’s eat­ing away at me. I don’t know how to get over it.”

And it seems that noth­ing in her pro­fes­sional ca­reer will ever com­pen­sate for that loss. A few months later she turned pro and had her first paid fight in Novem­ber 2016. No one with a firm grip of re­al­ity will judge any­one for seek­ing to se­cure their fi­nan­cial fu­ture. There is a long his­tory, for ex­am­ple, of clas­si­cal ac­tors leav­ing an im­pe­cu­nious life in the theatre for the lure of Hol­ly­wood’s dol­lars. The work might not be se­ri­ous but the money is.

Tay­lor is an ath­lete of in­cor­rupt­ible in­tegrity. Her work is her life; she wouldn’t know how to take a short cut if she tried. But she now finds her­self in a cul­ture where few other peers share her monas­tic ded­i­ca­tion. All the cred­i­bil­ity in women’s box­ing is at the elite ama­teur end.

Tay­lor’s pro­fes­sional op­po­nents have been ac­tual am­a­teurs, part-timers with day jobs, hob­by­ists of the ring. It is the an­tithe­sis of ev­ery­thing she has stood for in terms of her stan­dards. And it is a tragic irony that there isn’t even the money to com­pen­sate. Women’s pro box­ing is still in such a fee­ble state that she is re­ceiv­ing but­tons rel­a­tive to her stature.

Hav­ing pi­o­neered the growth of the ama­teur game al­most on her own, she now finds her­self hav­ing to do it all over again with the pro game. Oth­ers will reap the re­wards, just as Eng­land’s Nicola Adams and Amer­ica’s Cla­ressa Shields fol­lowed their wins in Lon­don with gold in Rio too.

Tay­lor’s trainer, the Amer­i­can Ross Ena­mait, is based in the town of Ver­non, Con­necti­cut. When she goes on camp there she stays in an apart­ment on her own. It seems like a lonely life. She goes to Church on Sun­days. She doesn’t have a part­ner; a few re­la­tion­ships came and went, she says. “I have to start mak­ing a few friends,” she re­marks in pass­ing to the film crew as she watches a stir fry siz­zle on the pan, not sure how to cook it be­cause she never had time for cook­ing. She is filmed run­ning on empty ru­ral roads sur­rounded by fields of snow.

Twelve months ago, in just her sev­enth fight as a pro, she won the WBA light­weight ti­tle, against an Ar­gen­tine op­po­nent who failed to make the weight. There was no big home­com­ing in Bray for that one. She has de­fended her ti­tle four times since, to a col­lec­tive shrug of the shoul­ders al­most ev­ery­where. It’s not the Olympics and it never will be.

She strug­gles to sub­due her dis­tress when the time comes to dis­cuss her fa­ther. She never saw the day com­ing when he wouldn’t be in her cor­ner. The first morn­ing she drove to train­ing with­out him, she had tears stream­ing down her face. “I never thought I’d have to do this with­out him.” She knew it wouldn’t be the same; ev­ery time she stepped in the ring af­ter­wards it felt like “I was miss­ing my right arm.”

But she keeps on go­ing, day af­ter day, as she has done since child­hood: the speed ball and the punch pads, the big tyre and the sledge­ham­mer, the push-ups and the stom­ach crunches. Know­ing no other life and not look­ing for an­other one ei­ther.

She is re­ceiv­ing but­tons rel­a­tive to her stature

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