Go­ing the dis­tance

Katie Tay­lor takes off the gloves

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY DON­ALD CLARKE

Katie Tay­lor might be the clos­est thing we have to roy­alty. Tell peo­ple you’re about to meet her, and watch their jaws shud­der just a lit­tle. They could hardly be more im­pressed if you were in­ter­view­ing Su­per­man. Now 32, cur­rently holder of the IBF and WBA world ti­tles, the boxer has shuf­fled and thumped her way to suc­cess without mak­ing any ap­par­ent en­e­mies among the pub­lic.

Just re­call her stag­ger­ing ar­rival into the Ex­CeL arena in Au­gust of 2012. Many be­lieved that women’s box­ing would never have made it into those Lon­don Olympics without her in­flu­ence. Ex-pats, trav­el­ling sup­port­ers, grand­chil­dren of em­i­grants, box­ing fa­nat­ics, box­ing ag­nos­tics, part-time Pad­dies, proud fem­i­nists: all gath­ered to de­liver one of the most stir­ring en­tries any sports per­son has ever en­coun­tered.

“The pres­sure was ab­so­lutely huge,” she says. “I was the favourite to come back with a gold medal. It was all I’d ever talked about as a child. It was all I dreamt about. Look­ing back on it, I don’t know how I han­dled the pres­sure. I think I just put my­self in a bub­ble. I turned my phone off a few weeks be­fore the com­pe­ti­tion.”

She tri­umphed. She re­turned a hero. Then she en­coun­tered a few of those bumps that clut­ter the life-paths of even the most suc­cess­ful per­son­al­i­ties. A per­sonal fall­ing out with her dad, Peter Tay­lor, Katie’s trainer since child­hood, led to him leav­ing her corner. She lost in the quar­ter-fi­nals of the Rio Olympics.

Never fear. Katie then went pro­fes­sional and – demon­strat­ing the strength of pur­pose that has made her a daunt­ing role model – fought her way back to the cur­rent lofty heights.

A new doc­u­men­tary by Ross Whi­taker named sim­ply Katie ad­dresses these ad­ven­tures with sen­si­tiv­ity and en­thu­si­asm. This is how we come to meet. On a balmy sum­mer day, Katie, with Ross at her side, sits up­right in one corner of a func­tion room at Dún Laoghaire’s Royal Ma­rine Ho­tel. Prepa­ra­tions for a wed­ding clank in the other corner.

As you might guess from watch­ing her post-fight in­ter­views, she seems calm, but a lit­tle in­tro­verted. There are down­sides to ex­pe­ri­enc­ing naked awe wher­ever you go.

“I don’t think I ever get used to it,” she says. “But the re­ac­tions from peo­ple are very en­dear­ing. They’re very nice.”

“I was a bit in awe of her,” Ross adds. “You do recog­nise that some­body has achieved a lot and, without nec­es­sar­ily want­ing it, has a cer­tain po­si­tion in so­ci­ety.”

Now and then, when meet­ing a celebrity, you note some phys­i­cal fea­ture that fails to come across on the screen. With Katie it is her strik­ing eyes – the colour of a well-pol­ished brown snooker ball – that knock you back. This morn­ing a cau­tiously wel­com­ing face sur­rounds them, but I can see how they might un­nerve an op­po­nent wary of an im­mi­nent jab.

Tay­lor’s ap­par­ent shy­ness only en­hances her enig­matic ap­peal. We like her. But we’re not sure we know her.

“I am nat­u­rally a very quiet per­son and, be­fore all this, a very pri­vate per­son,” she says. “When I sat down with Ross we were adamant that we had to be hon­est. I wanted to do it the right way.”

As a pri­vate per­son it must be un­com­fort­able to watch her life un­fold in Ross’s film.

“I ac­tu­ally haven’t watched it,” she says. “I don’t like watch­ing my­self on screen. My fam­ily have all watched it and they are all happy with it. I know what hap­pens in the story. Ha ha! I wanted to en­sure it came across as real and hon­est. I have tried to do doc­u­men­taries in the past but they never worked out. I didn’t have the trust there. The minute I met Ross I knew I could trust him.”

Let’s go back to the start. Raised in Bray – hence our meet­ing part­way be­tween the cap­i­tal and that Wick­low town – she was an ea­ger sports en­thu­si­ast from child­hood. Peter Tay­lor, born near Leeds, worked the Bray ar­cades as a young man be­fore tak­ing up the gloves and se­cur­ing the Ir­ish light heavy­weight cham­pi­onship in 1986. Katie’s mother Brid­get, now es­tranged from Peter, raised her four chil­dren within the Pen­te­costal­ist faith that still sup­ports the boxer.

I get the sense Katie could have had a se­ri­ous crack at any num­ber of sports. She also played soc­cer, Gaelic foot­ball and camo­gie. She was a mem­ber of Bray Run­ners.

“I think when I started box­ing it took over my heart,” she says. “It was al­ways my num­ber one sport. Even though it was strange to be a fe­male boxer. I had to en­ter a few com­pe­ti­tions pre­tend­ing to be a boy. It’s funny, I guess. But it’s all part of the jour­ney.”

Noth­ing more force­fully com­mu­ni­cates her strength of will than that child­hood de­ter­mi­na­tion to suc­ceed in a sport that barely even ex­isted. Seven­teen years ago, then 15, she fought against Alanna Aud­ley in the first women’s fight sanc­tioned by the Ir­ish box­ing au­thor­i­ties. She helped make that change

It was al­ways my num­ber one sport. Even though it was strange to be a fe­male boxer. I had to en­ter a few com­pe­ti­tions pre­tend­ing to be a boy. It’s funny, I guess. But it’s all part of the jour­ney

hap­pen. Her fa­ther built a rough gym in the back gar­den, and taught her how to wal­lop the bag. It’s a re­mark­able tale.

“I just kept fight­ing and fight­ing,” she says (us­ing the word lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively). “I was onto the box­ing as­so­ci­a­tion try­ing to get them to sanc­tion it – to pass fe­male box­ing. It was a big bat­tle right from the start. When I be­gan I’d be with all these guys and they’d be go­ing off to these com­pe­ti­tions and I had no com­pe­ti­tion to go to. I was in the gym train­ing with them. But I al­ways felt in my heart it was go­ing to hap­pen.” No­body can un­der­es­ti­mate the im­por­tance of Tay­lor’s re­li­gious faith. She men­tions it in post-match in­ter­views. She and her mother are seen pray­ing to­gether in Ross’s film. That seems to have given her fo­cus and com­fort.

“My mam brought us all up as Chris­tians. I grew up know­ing that God had a pur­pose for my life. I al­ways felt that from the start. I was born to box. I knew God had plans for me. That kept me go­ing.

“It is my role to over­come all these bat­tles, all these ob­sta­cles, and God was go­ing to make a way for me. That prob­a­bly sounds strange to peo­ple. My faith has al­ways been the most im­por­tant thing to me. Not just in my box­ing ca­reer, but in my ev­ery­day life.”

There was, when she started out, a lot of hyp­o­crit­i­cal guff from crit­ics about how box­ing was not safe for women. She and her com­peti­tors have got past that. But there are gen­uine ques­tions to be asked about the dam­age that box­ers of ei­ther gen­der can ac­crue over a ca­reer. Too many fight­ers end up con­fused and dis­turbed. This is not some­thing to take lightly.

“There is an el­e­ment of risk in any com­bat sport,” she says. “That is why you have to train so hard. Ev­ery time you step into the ring you’re aware of that. You can’t take any­thing for granted. You have to be dis­ci­plined and that’s one of the ex­cit­ing parts of the sport: the com­mit­ment it takes. There is an el­e­ment of risk. But I am pre­pared to take that risk to do the thing I love.”

The shadow of that dis­pute with her fa­ther hangs over our con­ver­sa­tion. All kinds of gos­sip floats around the dig­i­tal air­waves. We do know that their pro­fes­sional part­ner­ship ceased in 2015 due to “per­sonal rea­sons”. It was around this time that her par­ents sep­a­rated.

The story be­came fur­ther com­pli­cated ear­lier this year when Peter Tay­lor was se­ri­ously in­jured in a shoot­ing in­ci­dent at Bray Box­ing Club that took the life of his friend Bobby Mes­sett. Katie sub­se­quently is­sued a state­ment com­plain­ing about “the mis­use of my name and im­age dur­ing the re­port­ing of this in­ci­dent”. It hardly needs to be said that she is not in a po­si­tion to say much more on that story.

It can­not, how­ever, be de­nied that Katie’s first slump in form co­in­cided with the breakup with her dad. She lost an un­prece­dented three fights in 2016. In the doc­u­men­tary we hear her ex­press­ing de­spair at her un­der­per­for­mance in Rio. That just wasn’t sup­posed to hap­pen.

“It was ob­vi­ously a dif­fi­cult tran­si­tion, step­ping away from my dad. I am glad that was doc­u­mented. That was a low point in my life. When you are look­ing at so­cial me­dia, peo­ple only doc­u­ment the highs. Life is full of moun­tain­tops and val­leys.”

So does she ac­cept that the slump had some­thing to do with the rift with her dad?

“Yeah. It was a tough time for the whole fam­ily. It was tough to go into those com­pe­ti­tions. I went through a lot of emo­tions in those times. I don’t know if that’s the rea­son I lost. But I was go­ing through a hard time in those months.” She shrugs and swerves a lit­tle. “Ah, there are ath­letes who have been through worse and still go away with a vic­tory. So, I can’t blame any loss on that. I am ac­count­able for my per­for­mances.”

That re­fusal to give into self-pity char­ac­terises much of her com­ment on the sport. Her tol­er­ance and hu­mil­ity per­sists through­out. But there are mo­ments when the con­ver­sa­tional so­lu­tion turns just the tini­est bit acidic. I men­tion that at the 2012 Olympics there were some fight­ers – the Rus­sian So­fya Ochi­gava among them – who felt that judges were bi­ased in the Ir­ish woman’s favour.

“I re­ally never heard that be­fore,” she says with a heavy dol­lop of irony. “I thought it was the op­po­site way. I thought all the judges were against me. That is part and par­cel of box­ing. Through­out my whole am­a­teur ca­reer peo­ple have had things to say. And it’s a lot more now I am in the pro game. That’s just part of it.”

The pro­fes­sional game is a step up in many ways. The fights are longer. There’s a greater in­ten­sity to the build-up. You don’t get the full-strength trash talk that sours the men’s game (and mixed mar­tial arts, of course), but ev­ery fighter know that a loss knocks them sev­eral rungs down the lad­der.

“They have a meaner streak. That is def­i­nitely a thing,” she says.

I won­der how some­body so ap­par­ently agree­able copes with that ag­gro. One just can’t imag­ine her ques­tion­ing an op­po­nent’s parent­age or de­mean­ing her courage. That would re­quire a per­son­al­ity trans­plant.

“I don’t un­der­stand that at all. We’re go­ing to get into the ring and fight any­way. So I find all that a bit cringey” And she was raised to have good man­ners? “I al­ways have re­spect for my op­po­nents. I have noth­ing against any­one I step into the ring with. But even in the am­a­teur game I wasn’t too friendly with any of my op­po­nents. Noth­ing changes there for me. I al­ways kept my dis­tance with any­one I was fight­ing.” Where do we go now? Next week, she will de­fend her WBA and IBF light­weight ti­tles against Cindy Ser­rano in Bos­ton. At time of writ­ing she is an un­back­able 1/25 to win.

Bar­ring in­jury, Tayor has got a few years to go yet. She tells me she’s “short-sighted” when it comes to the more dis­tant fu­ture, but, af­ter re­tire­ment, she does want to stay in­volved in the sport. That de­ci­sion will loom soon enough. We know that it is the box­ers who go on too long who are most at risk of brain dam­age.

“Ab­so­lutely. I want to get out of the sport with my mind in­tact. I will know when the time is right. I feel that I have got a good few years ahead of me. I am just get­ting started. But box­ers some­times take a few more fights than they should. Ninety-nine per cent of box­ers come out with their mind in­tact. Peo­ple don’t speak about that part of it.”

She seems pretty sen­si­ble. It doesn’t sound as if she’ll be mak­ing a rash re­turn in late mid­dle age. At the sug­ges­tion, she drags out an ir­re­sistible broad smile.

“No? Have you never seen Rocky VI?”

Katie is re­leased on Oc­to­ber 26th

I want to get out of the sport with my mind in­tact. I will know when the time is right. I feel that I have got a good few years ahead of me. I am just get­ting started. But box­ers some­times take a few more fights than they should

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: RICHARD HEATHCOTE; BRYAN O’BRIEN; AP/FRANK FRANKLIN; GETTY IM­AGES

Above: Tay­lor looks on as Anahi Sanchez is given a count dur­ing their WBA Light­weight World Cham­pi­onship fight in Oc­to­ber, 2017. Right: back home in Dublin af­ter win­ning Olympic gold in Lon­don in 2012. Be­low: af­ter win­ning the WBA and IBF World Light­weight uni­fi­ca­tion bout against Ar­gentina’s Vic­to­ria Noelia Bus­tos in New York last April.

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