Katie Taylor: Four rounds to excel
In the second extract from her new book, ‘My Olympic Dream’, Katie Taylorlooks back on the gold medal bout that felt more like a game of chess
It must have been for less than half a minute, but when the bell sounded for the start of the fight, although I was bouncing around and seemed to be moving well, I couldn’t get going. I could see every punch that was coming, but I didn’t seem to be able to react to them in the way that I usually could. I had to step back and clear out of Ochigava’s way to stop her from scoring. Meanwhile, I almost had to force my left hand to leave my face in order to get my jab going.
It seemed as though I was going through the motion of pushing out the shots, but there was a resistance. That first part of the fight seemed endless, but in real time it was no longer than the opening moments. This had never happened before. It was like there was a weight bearing down on my shoulders and my head was cloudy. I couldn’t concentrate on what I needed to do. I’m not sure if it was simply the pressure of the occasion or something deeper, but either way I thank God it lifted and my punches started to flow. After the two minutes of the first round had come to a close, I was content to get back to my corner to see Dad and coach Zaur Antia.
I felt the round had gone well despite the concerns of the opening moments. I thought I might have been a point up but the score was level at 2-2, and I was satisfied with that. With that round behind me, I felt a lot more relaxed and happier than I was in the first 20 seconds. It’s amazing how moods can shift in a fight; within seconds you can go from being in an uncomfortable struggle to being in charge and confident. That was what happened here, because by the break I really did feel sharper. Dad was saying to me: “Everything is great, everything is going well. Keep doing what you’re doing and continue to be patient”. He also added: “Try to get a little bit closer to her before you start your attack, sometimes you’re too far out”.
It’s amazing how moods can shift; within seconds you can go from being in a struggle to being in charge.
For a lot of the time in the second round I was feinting – trying to make her react with some punches so that I could then counter-punch her. It was tit-for-tat all of the time, a thinking match where we were both inviting the other to throw the first punch so that we could score with our own counter-attacks. Like all of our fights before, it was again turning into a game of chess more than a punching brawl. We were circling the ring and watching each other, both of us waiting for the other to do something, to show their hand. There would be a flurry of activity as we both tried to snatch some scores and then it was back to the tense game of chess.
In retrospect, I was a bit too passive in round two and I paid the price; the score after the round was 4-3 to Ochigava. To the pundits, this was the nightmare situation for me: to be behind against the girl widely regarded as the best out-and-out counter-puncher in the world wasn’t exactly ideal. But I wasn’t scared by the situation. I knew exactly what I had to do as I came back to my corner for a second time.
I believed my Dad when he told me I could pull back the lead from her. I just had to execute Dad’s tactics better. Honestly, at this stage, I was still very confident; I was a point down, but we were composed.
I think that a few years ago, when I was in my early twenties, I might have become uptight about it and started to worry more about the clock ticking down. With my experience, I knew that trailing by one point or even two at this stage of the bout was absolutely nothing; it was part of the natural ebb and flow of any contest. I had been attacking from too far away throughout the second round and I got caught with a couple of shots. Towards the end of the round, I started to get back into it and I landed with a one-two. But I needed to get closer when I was trying to score, if I attacked her from too far out, it was too easy for her to time her counter-punches.
We had prepared for this situation well in advance of the final, back in the gym in Bray and in my training camps leading up to the Games. I went into the third round knowing that I could turn it around, largely because Dad had hand-picked my sparring for this type of fight against a boxer like Ochigava. Before I came to London, I had been doing a lot of rounds with Eric Donovan, who is a brilliant Irish southpaw, and an established international boxer. He also came to the Olympic training camp in Assisi with me so I could get as much practice as possible against his southpaw, counter-attacking style.
Eric told me that he thought I was in the best shape of my life when we left Assisi. Dad has always tried to find the right sparring partners to help prepare for specific opponents, and we had done quite a lot of work with southpaws in the weeks before heading to London. Michael Nevin, another strong southpaw, was also brought in. He met John Joe Nevin (who went on to win a silver medal in the Olympics) in the finals of the Irish Senior Championships earlier in 2012.
I also sparred with Dean Walsh, who is the nephew of Ireland head coach Billy Walsh. He is a really tall boxer, and I had done some work with him in case I came up against the Chinese fighter Cheng Dong at some point during the Olympics. Cheng, at six feet, is one of the tallest fighters in the women’s game.
Although it’s never possible to completely imitate a fighter in training, I did try as much as possible to spar against people who adopted the same style as my likely opponents, or even found people with a similar body shape to work with. These small things can make a difference. And that is especially true when you consider that the guys I was training with were faster and stronger than anyone I was ever going to meet in the Olympic Games.
Lads like Eric Donovan and Bray club-mate Stephen Coughlan were exactly the calibre of spar I needed, and Dad would even remind me of the quality of my sparring partners to give me confidence before fights. When preparing me for Ochigava, he would say to me: “This girl is nothing compared to Eric Donovan” or “This girl isn’t nearly as strong as the men you spar in the club”.
For years now, I have worked with some great-quality sparring partners in Ireland, boxers who were better than the girls I was competing against in championships. When you consider that among those I spar with are double Olympic bronze medallist Paddy Barnes, Olympic bronze flyweight Michael Conlan and even sometimes bantamweight silver medallist John Joe Nevin, you can see that I was working with the best that Ireland has to offer. There is no doubt that being surrounded by this kind of talent has played a part in my own success.
Sparring with the top male boxers doesn’t make for an easy life when it comes to training, because I have to be able to raise my level to hold my own. But that’s what you need in any sport: to push yourself hard when you practice. It’s especially true in boxing, for as Dad says: “In football if you have a bad day, you may lose a game, but in boxing if you have a bad day, somebody is probably punching you in the face!”
That ability to raise my level of performance had rarely been more crucial than it was now, and I did exactly that in the defining third round against Ochigava. By the end of the two minutes, I had overturned the deficit. I was now two points ahead overall after my best phase in the fight, with the score reading 7-5. I had to be more aggressive in the third round, but not in the same way I was against Jonas in the quarter-finals; this fight required a more controlled and tactical aggression. I was getting closer before letting off my combinations and then avoiding her attacks at the same time. I won the round 4-1. It was the pivotal spell in the contest and entirely changed the fight around in my favour. I knew then that she was going to have to move out of her normal pattern and attack me more in the last round if she wanted to win. I would have to be ready for her.
The scales had tipped. She now had to chase me and everyone in the stadium knew she would be coming. It would make for a tense two minutes. I couldn’t give away any cheap shots – one good shot could change the momentum and I couldn’t let that happen during the final round. The last thing I wanted to give her now was a glimmer of hope.
I kept her on her toes all of the time during that last round with a series of feints. The two-point advantage was no more than a small cushion, but it had been clear throughout the whole week that the final round was generally win-or-bust for the chasing boxer as they tried to claw back the score.
I knew that a bad spell of ten seconds could have changed the whole course of the fight, so it was probably the most cautious round of my life. I was reluctant even to exchange punches in case the judges saw her punches and not mine. I tried to stay out of reach, pumping out my left any time she stepped into range.
At the end of the fourth round, the bell sounded and I looked across at Dad and Zaur in the corner and asked “Is it me?” I didn’t know what the score was, but I was sure that it was close. It’s not always easy to guess what way the judges are seeing a fight. Important incidents in the round raced through my mind: the couple of times we exchanged combinations, what way did the judges score them? What about when I slipped on the canvas, did they score that? Did I do enough to hold her off for the win?
I hadn’t a clue how they would call it. I find it hard to judge fights when I’m actually in them. But at the end, Dad and Zaur were confident. They knew I was two points up going into the last two minutes and they thought the last round was pretty even, so they were confident it would be fine.
Usually the judges’ decision is announced quickly once the fight is over. But this wasn’t one of those days – it seemed to be taking ages for them to make their announcement. The delay didn’t help my nerves. Dad kept reassuring me that the decision was going my way and that there was no way I lost the last round by two points, but the longer it went on, the more doubts ballooned in my head.
Then I thought the decision was going to a count-back, which is what happens when the judges score the fight even by the usual scoring method. We were waiting so long that Dad had stopped reassuring me and I think even he began to wonder if it was going to go to a count-back, and then the decision could be something of a lottery.
You could hear a pin drop in the stadium as we waited. The crowd had fallen from megaphone levels of uproar to a complete silence. Nobody knew what was happening.
Finally, they began to announce the decision: “And the winner of that contest by a score . . .” I’m waiting to hear the words “in the red corner”, but before I could make out what was said, the crowd had erupted in pandemonium at the announcement.
Then I felt the referee begin to raise my right arm, and I knew it was me . . . I was the Olympic champion!