The difficulty with any winning streak is that the longer it lasts the more likely it is to end. No athlete has come to these European Games with a longer winning streak than Katie Taylor, or indeed more determined to make sure it lasts.
That’s not saying it will be easy. There was a timely reminder of that after yesterday morning’s draw, with Taylor lined up against old lightweight rival Denista Eliseeva from Bulgaria – the last boxer to actually defeat Taylor, over four years ago, albeit in highly dubious circumstances.
The decision not to seed the women's boxing here has, as her father and coach Peter Taylor predicted, also made for a particularly treacherous competition: there are 16 entrants and Taylor's opening bout against Eliseeva, set for next Sunday, certainly looks tricky.
Now 34, Eliseeva may be somewhat past her prime, although she won’t fear Taylor: in February 2011, at the Strandja Multi-Nations event staged in Pazardzhik in Bulgaria, Eliseeva beat Taylor, 5-1, in what was immediately disputed as a “home” decision. The Eliseeva camp actually apologised to Taylor afterward, and for good reason, given everyone else in attendance had Taylor at least 10 points ahead at the final bell.
Even now, her father doesn’t consider it a defeat: “Whenever people say that she [Eliseeva] is the last girl to beat Katie I always correct them and say she was the last to get a decision over her,” says Taylor. “Nobody outside of the judges at that fight thought that Katie lost it.”
Indeed, the Bray boxer has put that decision straight on more than one occasion since: in March 2013, Taylor fought and beat Eliseeva in Castlebar as part of the Brian Peters Road to Rio promotion: and last year, in the semi-finals of the European Championships in Bucharest, Taylor beat her again, convincingly, before winning a sixth successive European title.
Yet for Taylor, who turns 29 next month, the quest to win her first-ever European Games title won’t get easier after Eliseeva (assuming she beats her). There is no Sofya Ochigava, the Russian boxer who Taylor defeated in the final of the London 2012 Olympics, but the leading Russian in Baku is Zinaida Dobrynina, the former world number one featherweight (57kg), who has now moved up to Taylor’s lightweight division (60kg). Dobrynina actually won her world featherweight title in Jeju, South Korea last November immediately before Taylor won her lightweight title.
Adding further spice to the mix is the fact local gold medal hope, Yana Allekseevna from Azerbaijan, is also on the same side of the draw as Taylor and Dobrynina. It was Allekseevna who Taylor beat in her final bout in Jeju, and if everything goes to plan, Taylor will face either her or Dobrynina in the semi-final. That fight, on Friday week, might decide the gold medal. The fact Taylor hasn’t had a serious test since winning that fifth successive world title last November perhaps adds further pressure: a wrist injury, sustained during that gold medal-winning campaign, kept her out of the ring for almost four months, although she has returned for some domestic competitions.
While certain events in Baku do come with the bonus prize of qualifying slots for next summer’s Rio Olympics, women’s boxing is not one of them. Taylor’s qualifying campaign for Rio won’t actually begin until the World Championships in Kazakhstan, early next year.
The rest of the 12-strong Irish boxing team are completing their Games preparations in Baku, with three in action in today’s opening sessions. Limerick flyweight
will make his own little piece of history when taking part in the opening bout of the Games, against
from Belarus. For Casey, a younger brother of former European pro champion Willie Casey, moving up through the national rankings has left him with plenty of ambition to progress.
Also in action on day one of the boxing is Ireland captain and heavyweight Darren O'Neill (who faces the Romanian Ionut Jitaru) and also bantamweight Kurt Walker (who faces the Russian Nazirov Bakhtovar). Dean Walsh (light welterweight) and Dean Gardiner (super heavyweight) both received byes into their last 16. There is the bonus of enhanced prospects of Rio qualification for the men, although only in the form of the three medallists, in each weight division, getting an automatic slot at their World Championships in Doha, Qatar, in late October.
Among the Irish action yesterday was gymnast Kieran Behan, who continued his good start by making the finals of the all-round individual competition, having already made the final of the floor exercise. In the canoeing, both Andjrzej Jezierski (C1 200m) and Jenny Egan (K1 500m) have to be satisfied with B Finals (places 10 to 18), both those races taking place later today.