Katie Taylor is the Olympic champion. For the week that’s in it, here’s an Irish Post interview with the nation’s heroine, recorded earlier in the summer – before her dream became a glorious reality.
WHEN chronicling the terrible consequences of Johnny Owen’s failed attempt to win a world title in 1980, which subsequently ended in the Welshman’s death from boxing inflicted injuries, the most gifted sports writer of the 20th century, Hugh McIlvanney, poignantly observed: “It is his tragedy that he [Owen] found himself articulate in such a dangerous language.”
Boxing is Katie Taylor’s means of self-expression, too. Like Owen, the Wicklow woman is painfully shy outside the ring but transformed into a wonderfully self-assured athlete once she steps through the ropes. “I love boxing but hate doing interviews,” she says. “It makes me nervous.”
Nerves are what consumes the opponents of this 26-year-old phenomenon who know her solely as the girl who won her first major title, the European lightweight championship, at 19, and who has won 12 further gold medals at World, European and EU level since.
Yet one prize awaits. This summer’s Olympic Games represent her last frontier, the one thing preventing her achieving sporting immortality.
“There’s more expectation surrounding Katie than any other Irish athlete in my time,” says Billy Walsh, the IABA’s head coach.”It is warranted though, because she is the best athlete Ireland has ever produced. But if she doesn’t win a gold medal in London, she’ll be seen as a failure. Probably similar to Sonia O’Sullivan’s quest for an Olympic gold. But we’re very aware of that. She’s aware of that, her father Peter, who coaches her, is very aware of that.”
Yet seeking a sports psychologist to assist with this mental strain is pointless. “God is my psychologist, the bible my sports psychology manual,” she says.
Quietly religious, this girl’s obsessive dedication to a career which has operated in the sporting backwaters, has been fascinating to watch, not just in her consistent accumulation of the game’s biggest prizes but also in the manner with which she has dealt with setbacks.
Two years ago, she indulged in a game of brinkmanship with the amateur authorities over their refusal to allow her fight on a pro-am bill. In the end, with the threat of Taylor going pro a distinct possibility, an agreement was reached and Taylor got what she wanted: regular, competitive fights against equally ambitious opponents.
If that was one show of strength, then her brave decision to turn down a lucrative endorsement deal in 2007 told us even more about her nature. “It would have impacted on my training,” she said. And that was that.
Except that now, she has seen the commercial light, sharing an agent with Damien Duff which has seen her bank account swell. Yet she, and everyone, knows her stock will rise considerably if she returns home from London with gold.
She says: “All I want is to box. The Olympics is the dream and has been since I was a little girl. I would have been heartbroken if I never get the chance to fight in the Games.
“As a little girl I watched all the Games. Sonia O’Sullivan winning silver in Sydney was my inspiration. She did it under pressure. I suppose I am under pressure too – because everyone always expects me to win. But the standard of these girls is getting better and better all the time, so it’s important I keep a few steps ahead.”
Staying ahead has, to date, been easy. The superb physique, incredible hand speed, technical excellence, sharp reflexes and intuitive awareness of the geometry of the ring, have allowed her dominate opponents without pain.
Her boxing method, Walsh believes, is unique in the female game. “She spars with men, beats men, fights like a man,” he says.
And in doing so, she has won over many moralists who are put off by the idea of one woman trying to inflict pain on another. With Taylor, the skill levels are the first thing you notice, the devastating destruction of an opponent’s morale, the second.
Speed is her strength. Using an orthodox stance, her ability to deliver six, seven and eight punch combinations within seconds has had the effect of overwhelming opponents more used to a leisurely pace. If there is a weakness – and it has yet to be exploited – it is when she goes on the attack that her defensive system is exposed to counter-raids.
Yet it will take a talented, and brave, woman to take advantage of this during the London Games. Instead, the reality is that Taylor will win Gold and fame will follow.
That’s the big worry. Having lived a simple life – observing the rituals of training and praying – she is sweetly loyal to her family and disinterested in the trappings that come with being instantly recognisable in the public eye. Her modesty and shyness appeals to middle-Ireland whose knowledge of women’s boxing barely extends beyond watching Million Dollar Baby. Yet boxing purists respect her skill and warrior spirit.
“I’m just so proud of her,” says her father and coach, Peter. “I’d be protective too – because while she has been successful, I’d be the first to step in and stop a fight if she was getting hurt.
“Some coaches, mainly in the professional game, would let their fighter get killed. They wouldn’t show any compassion. But I’d never see Katie get hurt.”
Nor, it seems, will anyone. The girl is simply too good.