Taylor still packs a competitive punch
Rio was the fulcrum for a stunning recovery for the lightweight IBF and WBA champion who has set her sights on another two belts
Really it has never been much different than it is now. Katie Taylor has always folded a boxing career into life on her own terms. If she can look after the moment, the next one will take care of itself. It almost always has.
She knows the shape of her past and the outline of her future. She doesn’t fuss too much over either.
“I don’t tend to look too far ahead,” she says. “I don’t tend to look back. It is all about the here and now. I wake up every day. I put in as much work as I can.”
It has been just over two years since she began to draw together a new body of work after the wreckage of Rio. The Olympic ending was brutal and traumatic and, maybe for the first time in her adult life, there was some doubt about what would come next.
Now, just as five successive World Championships felt like an incomplete amateur career without the crowning glory of an Olympic gold medal, two professional world belts feel a little light around her waist when there are four available.
Today her home in Bray is no longer her home. These days she visits home from the US. Vernon, Connecticut, a town of less than 30,000 people, is where she lives. This Bray house is a short walk across town from the council estate where she grew up.
Things change. They never change. As her own best iconoclast, she doesn’t tire of stripping off the layers of varnish. Her natural state is unpretentious – even withdrawn, certainly anti-celebrity, a word that makes her lightly sigh. Comfortably unadorned she looks at the ceiling, casting a glance at her mother Bridget.
“I grew up in Old Court,” she says. “A very modest home I guess. This for us is extravagant.”
Her history and heart are in the old streets, her future is in this house where she now sits and the present is a one-bed apartment in a place she had never heard of until after she lost in Rio, more badly bruised than she could have imagined. The 2016 Olympics had changed everything.
“That little town called Vernon. I moved there to be close to my coach Ross [Enamait],” she says. “The apartment is perfect. It has everything I need. It is pretty spare. I live a very simple life. I don’t need anything other than what I have.
“It would probably be boring for other people. But for me . . . I love the simple life, the boring life. No, the US hasn’t changed me at all. I mean I’m living in a little one-bed apartment in America.”
This week has been about the serious stuff of filling in forms, getting the vaccinations, doing the interview in the US Embassy for residency status. The US is where professional boxing is. The east coast is where the Irish are.
Given how her private life and family are cards held close, the change hasn’t been easy. But adversity has always yielded to her ferocious ambition.
“I used to get upset and feel for her in the early days,” says her mother Bridget. “Also how brave she was. It’s a daunting thing to do, Katie taking herself out of her own comfort zone.
“That all takes a bit of guts. Now when I’m leaving I don’t feel I’m leaving her on her own. I did in the beginning. Also people don’t understand that we literally didn’t know, literally didn’t know how it was going to go.”
Defeat in Rio didn’t close options. But the nature of it and the troubled year in which the losses were minted demanded change.
She handpicked her trainer Enamait, her manager Brian Peters and her promoter Eddie Hearn. The rest was up to her.
The move was intimidating. But notions of pain or struggle have never been far away. Her experience, her character, her faith embraces struggle, or, that’s how it seems.
“Never in a million years thought I’d be able to move away from home, from my family,” she says. “But this is the way it was meant to be. The first few months were tough, very, very lonely.
“The weekends went so slow. I wasn’t seeing or having contact with anyone. It dragged. Now I have found great people.
“That to me was the most important thing. The good connection. I have that now. I definitely get good days and bad days, I get days where I’m saying, ‘God I wish I was home right now,’ days where I definitely get homesick. But for the most part I’m busy.
“I have always taken the isolated approach. I train. I come back and rest. I train. I come back and rest. I have learned to enjoy my own company.”
She looks up, sensing what she is saying may appear like a cry out for a soft shoulder.
“I don’t feel sorry for myself over there,” she quips. “I get on with it. I suck it up. It’s always worth it.”
From the top of the world, the amateur career slide was seismic. It lasted less than a year. It began after November 2015 when she beat Shauna O’Keefe in the national lightweight final with her brother Lee in her corner. It was the first time in memory her father and coach, Pete, was not by her side.
The relationship between Pete and Bridget had broken down. The details, she rightly says, are nobody’s business. She took a principled decision to be with her mother. It’s all anyone needs to know.
The team partnership with her father, that had helped her dominate for a decade and win the first ever lightweight gold medal in London 2012, was over. Rio was less than a year away.
The boxer who never lost, the Irish lightweight who was voted the best pound for pound fighter on the planet, the sport’s figurehead, began to lose fights.
In April 2016 she was beaten by Azeri boxer Yana Alexseevna at the Olympic Qualifiers in Turkey. In May she qualified for Rio reaching the quarter-finals of the World Championships and two days later lost again to Estelle Mossely, the French fighter she beat the previous summer in the European Games final.
In August her uncomfortable year finally nose-dived and crashed, the defending Olympic champion losing 2-1 in the Rio quarter-finals to Mira Potkonen of Finland, another boxer she had routinely beaten.
“My heart was broken after Rio,” she says. “The disappointment of that year. I wasn’t sure how my career was going to go, what I was going to do. Everything was up in the air.”
Having done things nobody else ever had meant the more she sought privacy and clung to her celebrated outlier lifestyle, the more people wanted more.
Like an act of cruelty she became assailable and exposed. Her personal became public, the structures of her boxing life were shifted or removed. The Rio crash, in hindsight, was an inevitability.
“It’s a normal thing that people have relationship problems,” she says. “I don’t think anybody in the world can say they don’t have relationship problems with someone close to them. It is very, very common.
“That’s one of the reason’s people related to the documentary [Ross Whitaker’s
Katie] so much. It’s a pretty honest account.”
“My success in the ring doesn’t mean as much to me as my integrity . . . that is definitely the most important thing to me,” she tells Whitaker.
“The first time I had to go training without him [father Pete], I was driving in by myself and the tears were rolling down my face. I was thinking, you know, this is actually a reality for me. I never thought I’d have to do this without him.” A wrecking ball in the ring, her public face and voice have always been a large part humility with vulnerable never far away. “It was a different fight, wasn’t it,” says mother Bridget. “Yeah,” replies Katie. “There are mountain tops and valleys. People go through hard times and they have high points as well. It’s definitely the low points that make you who you are, how you deal with it. “My brother Peter said something to me during the week. Talking about the Rio Olympics, he said he thought that was actually my greatest moment. That to me is incredible to hear. He always knew that I could fight. But how I responded to that loss . . . because he knew how difficult that year had been. “He only said it to me last week. I don’t know how we went back to speaking about Rio. I was in the car with him and he said it. Maybe it is my greatest moment.
“I felt that a weight had just come off my shoulders. You have people’s perceptions. But also how God sees it.”
Her brother Peter understood Rio in the context of a year of emotional short circuitry. She failed to medal but coped, regathered and 18 months later was the WBA world champion. Rio was the fulcrum for a stunning recovery.
“Exactly. He always knew that I could fight. I guess it was how I responded to that,” she says.
“I don’t think I’d be in the position I am in today if everything had gone great in Rio. I don’t think I would have made the decision to turn pro.
“I wouldn’t have had these opportunities to box on the biggest stages in the world. It is definitely part of God’s plan. He’s been so faithful in my career. He is never, ever going to fail me.
But a natural response would have been to doubt. It would have been easy to feel that way.
“I don’t think I ever did doubt it. I was thinking about it on holidays in Portugal after Rio. Even then I still felt there was a lot more to come. I always had confidence. I didn’t know what it was going to look like. But I always knew that wasn’t going to be the end. You have to suck it up.”
You can’t knock on the door of Bray Boxing Club. A semi-circle of orange and white plastic rails with sandbags on their mounts to hold them in place keep the public at arm’s length. The building is
unused since the town council changed the locks.
On the outside wall that faces towards the harbour is a large canvas hanging with the words: “There is no excuse.” Beneath sits an engraved granite stone on a shallow plinth with the name of the club. Beneath that an inscription.
“Officially opened by Mr Michael Ring TD Minister of State for Tourism and Sport, Katie Taylor and Adam Nolan.” It is dated 28th January, 2011.
The gym is closed because of a spectacular act of violence that took place last June, over two years after Katie had stopped training there. Member Bobby Messitt was killed and Katie’s father Pete seriously injured in a shooting that still hasn’t been explained or resolved and which drew national attention.
Papers called it Katie Taylor’s gym. It wasn’t. By then she had relocated to the US. But the name was irresistible. Katie Taylor was headline gold.
“Yeah it’s sad I think,” says Bridget. “We do walk down around the seafront. The odd time you throw your eye at the building and think what could have been. But there’s no real point in it.
“We have had to deal with a lot of stuff, the media, who like telling the stories, or their own version of it. Everybody wants their private life to be private. In that respect it has been a difficult journey.
“At times you just don’t know what’s going to be printed. We have just said ‘it is what it is’. Also there are a lot of good things happening.”
That little town called Vernon. I moved there to be close to my coach Ross [Enamait]. The apartment is perfect. It has everything I need. It is pretty spare. I live a very simple life. I don’t need anything other than what I have I don’t think I’d be in the position I am in today if everything had gone great in Rio. I don’t think I would have made the decision to turn pro. I wouldn’t have had these opportunities to box on the biggest stages in the world
It was an uncomfortable space in the eye of a media tsunami. It came with the unwanted, unwritten terms of agreement for any athlete who inhabits the world of six European Championship gold medals, five World Championship gold medals, one Olympic gold medal and two professional world title belts.
In that wattage you can’t dive for cover. Used to governing control in her sport, powerless she was put back in a world she no longer inhabited. It hurt.
“I understand. People want to know about you,” she says. Her tone is more abject than stoic.
“The stuff that has happened can floor you if you don’t get back up,” her mother says, introducing a calming hand.
“It ends up defining you completely. Katie said to me anything that’s happened in the past and the boxing in Rio, it doesn’t define me and it’s not going to define me.”
“That’s what I think,” adds Katie. “I think of the good things. The good times. I’m actually a very positive person about stuff like that. I look at that and see all the great times I had there. Yeah, World Championships there, Olympic Games there. But that year in 2016 . . . I feel like I’ve gone over this so many times . . . It is in the past,” she says glancing up. “I don’t really want to go back there.”
The door is firmly closed. For good.
As a professional boxer you don’t live until you box in the Garden– Madison Square Garden. Her 12th bout against Eva Wahlstrom last month on Seventh Avenue came after spending the previous six in the US without returning to Ireland. A proper little Yank? “Don’t say that,” she warns. “I want to be the best fighter in the best arenas. After London I made the decision to defend my Olympic title. I don’t have any regrets. If I had any regrets I’d say I should have turned pro earlier.”
It’s on a smaller scale but Hearn has been trying to do with Katie as he has done with heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua. Allow the markets see what a quality product is available. She went with Hearn because he had three things; clout, enthusiasm and a plan.
Now looking towards March the next fight is all-consuming. Doesn’t know who. Doesn’t care. But it’s all within a bigger picture. This year is unification year. She holds the lightweight IBF and WBA titles. She wants the WBO and WBC with opponents now looking for purses upwards of ¤200,000.
“I told him [Hearn] that I wanted to do what Ronda Rousey did with the MMA. He was the only one that really believed that,” says the 32-year-old.
“But I think [manager] Brian made the right decisions to develop me as a pro fighter. It is very, very different. I didn’t realise. I had to adapt. I had to change.
“There is a different mindset too. More ruthless. More mean with big heavy shots. Try and hurt. That’s the name of the game. The judges are looking for heavy shots. Power shots. But I’m lovin’ it.”
Inflicting hurt and pain is not what people think of her. They never have. That’s her gift.
“March is coming,” she adds. “I want those two belts – Rose Volante and Delfine Persoon. Yeah, I will be disappointed if that doesn’t happen this year.”
Fourteen years on from her first amateur European title and really it is not that much different – there is a world out there that needs to be conquered.
Katie – the Ross Whitaker award-winning documentary – will be aired on RTÉ on Tuesday
Katie Taylor in York Hall, London, ahead of her WBA lightweight title bout against Jessica McCaskill; and (below) with her mother Bridget after winning the fight.