Katie Taylor: ‘Stepping away from my dad was difficult’
The boxing champion on fame, and keeping her mind ‘intact’
Katie Taylor in Ross Whitaker’s documentary
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, and 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. Expats, 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 returned from the London Olympics a hero. Then she encountered a few of those bumps that clutter the life paths of even the most successful personalities
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.”
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
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 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.”
The shadow of her dispute with her father hangs over our conversation. All kinds of gossip floats around the digital airwaves
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.
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
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 persist 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 want to get out of the sport with my mind intact. Boxers sometimes take a few more fights than they should. People don’t speak about that part of it
“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?”
FIVE GREAT BOXING DOCUMENTARIES
When We Were Kings (1996) Well, obviously. Leon Gast’s joyous film captures the moment when Muhammad Ali passed from mere mortal to an avatar for the ages. Relating the great fight with George Foreman from 1974, the picture revels in talking heads such as Norman Mailer, George Plimpton and Spike Lee.
Southpaw: The Francis Barrett Story (1999) A highlight of the 1996 Olympics was Francie Barrett’s emergence as a fighter and personality. The boxer carried the flag at the opening ceremony and became an icon of the Traveller community. Liam McGrath’s doc is a great primer.
Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004) The indefatigable Ken Burns tackles the sad story of Jack Johnson, first African-American heavyweight boxing champion of the world, in a typically rigorous and gripping film for PBS. Great score by Wynton Marsalis. Effective voiceover from Samuel L Jackson.
Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story (2005) The most likely subject of Lenny Abrahamson’s next feature, Emile Griffith is best known for a notorious fight against Benny Paret in 1962. Paret, who had taunted Griffith, a bisexual, with homophobic remarks, died 10 days after losing the bout. A rigorous doc featuring top-notch contributors.
Saviours (2008) A decade before Katie, Ross Whitaker delivered this stirring film following three fighters at the admirable St Saviour’s Olympic Boxing Academy in north Dublin. The film is at least as valuable as a snapshot of Dorset Street and surroundings in the opening years of the 21st century.
Katie is released on Friday, October 26th