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

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Johnny Wat­ter­son:

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.”

Res­i­den­cys­ta­tus

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.”

No­body’s busi­ness

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.

Great­est mo­ment

“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.”

Na­tional at­ten­tion

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

Me­di­at­sunami

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.

Unification year

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

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: JAMES CROM­BIE/INPHO

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.

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