Katie Taylor: 10 years at the top of her trade
Bray boxer not fussed about milestone, only the new targets ahead
Katie Taylor celebrates winning a gold medal at the 2015 European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Typically, she let it pass without fuss. Katie Taylor has never been one to pore over the record books for dates or statistics, come up with anniversaries or benchmarks to mark a growing roll of honour.
One of the constants of her boxing life has been a reluctance to bask in success or stop for long to reflect. In her big world where minimal is king, a reluctance to live life as a sports celebrity keeps her feet firmly rooted. It’s an old-fashioned twist to a worn-out theme of head down and hard yards, one she continues to follow.
But there are unavoidable career marks, reasons to pause. For more than one-third of her 29 years, Taylor has been ranked as the number one female boxer in the world in the lightweight division.
When the clock for 2016 ticked down and tumbled into the New Year she was into her 10th successive year as the world’s top boxer at 60kg.
There is a timeless quality about Taylor, as if all the kilo watching and dietary requirements, the gym routines and the frugal lifestyle – that changes little whether she’s on an island off Korea or in Bray – has slowed down the natural wane.
She will be 30-years-old in Rio, although it will not be a decade of number one perfection until she reaches November 23rd, the day she won her first world title.
As a 20-year-old unknown she beat Argentina’s Erica Anabella Farias in the final of the 2006 World Championships in New Delhi and since then has not lost in a major championship, not a single bout to an opponent at world, European or Olympic level.
Words of praiseAnn Marie Saccurato
But the ringing in of the New Year even urged career sports politician Ching-Kuo Wu, president of the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA), to direct some words of praise towards Bray.
“What Katie Taylor has achieved over the last 10 years in international competition, including the Olympic Games and AIBA World Women’s Elite Championships, has been absolutely outstanding,” said Wu.
“The International Boxing Association congratulates and salutes Katie. To remain at the top of our lightweight rankings for a decade is extraordinary.”
“Ten years . . . I didn’t really know it. Pat Ryan said it. My da as well,” she says. “Yeah, it’s a lovely feeling starting the year as number one. I’m hoping there are a another few years in me still to come. I think there’s plenty left.
“I became number one just after the World Championships in India. I was very young then and I remember it was just a great feeling, my first World Championship.
“Since then I have always wanted to be the best and be the number one but no, it’s not something I would constantly think about. It’s not something I really chased, you know, to be number one for 10 years.
“But as I’ve always said and I’m sure other people will say it as well, you don’t do it on your own. I’ve a great group of people, a great family behind me all the way, all the time. You cannot underestimate that.”
Ten years behind but the one ahead is always her most important and this year sees her defending both a World and Olympic title.
The nuances have changed for the Olympics. It is no longer the inaugural women’s event and rather than seeking to win the first gold lightweight medal, she is defending it.
The sport is now flooded with new faces although a constant is her mug shot on the wanted posters in far-flung places such as China, Azerbaijan and Mexico.
Rivals on the rise
They will all come in the mix this year. First there are Olympic qualifiers, fraught and nervy, then the World Championships in May before Rio.
“I never think too far ahead. There are many things I have to organise myself before Rio,” she says. “I tend to think year-by-year and tournament-by-tournament. I never envisaged that it would be five World Championships in succession either and a possible sixth now just a few months away. I didn’t set out with that number in my head.
“But what I do want to do is remain at the top for as long as I can, continue to compete there. That’s what I’ve always set out to do and other things just fall in place.
“Of course I know that time moves on and that there are physical limitations to the sport and I know that I can’t keep boxing forever. But I think I’ll be aware of that myself, when the time comes for me to stop. It’s nothing to do with age. I think your body tells you and anyway I tend to keep myself well.
“Sure, I definitely struggle a bit more now to make 60kg but not as much as other boxers do. I can feel a bit tight at the weight, shedding those last few kilos, you know.
“It definitely takes discipline. But at this stage in my boxing it’s instinctive to do that. I know my body. I know I will lose 0.5 of a kilo when I go to bed . . . yeah it’s around a pound overnight when I sleep. Experience is everything.”
The first test of that experience will come at the Olympic Games qualifying event in Istanbul, Turkey at the end of April. In what is a pretty unusual schedule of events, the World Championships begin in Astana, Kazakhstan on May 19th, just 18 days after the Olympic qualifiers finish.
The World Championships end on May 27th with a strong likelihood Katie will be boxing on the final day. That gives her a couple of months before the Olympic Games begin on August 5th in Rio.
It’s an incredibly condensed string of tournaments requiring three peaks over four or five months.
“Before Christmas it wasn’t too intense but everything is definitely full-on now until the Olympic qualifiers. The Worlds and Rio are very close, yeah, but I will look at the Worlds as great preparations for Rio . . . that’s if the Olympic qualifiers go well.
“So if things go the way I’d like them to go, I’d qualify for Rio in Turkey and then go to the Worlds and do well there and maybe use it as preparation for the Olympic Games. That’s just the way it is. I’m ready for anything.”
Dr Wu grandstands to applaud the best female boxer they have ever had but in 2014 the organisation threw her into a World Championship event in Jeju, South Korea where it was an open draw with no seeding, begging the question why they have rankings at all.
She faced Olympic silver medallist Ochigava in the quarter-finals and received a walkover because the Russian was injured, then faced China’s Yin Junhua, the current world number three, in the semi-final before meeting the current world number four, Yana Allekseevna, in the final.
The governing body, in its edict-driven style, also switched the dates of this year’s World Championships from early in the year to the May date at short notice and without explanation.
But 10 years of it and the world number one is sanguine. The heartbeat doesn’t rise or fall any more with the senseless decisions or the AIBA altering the landscape.
“Yeah,” she says with weary resignation. “Jeju was an open draw. It makes no sense to have world rankings if they do that. I think it’s better that the best boxers meet the best at the latter stages of the tournament. But the qualifiers for Rio in April are the first peak. That’s all I’m thinking of, has been since the Irish National Championships before Christmas.
“People may think it comes easy, but it’s not easy. All those girls emerging from around the world now . . . I think of Rio and it’s what everyone is talking about but it’s in the distance and I can’t really have that in my mind until I get qualification sorted out.”
She manages her body more cautiously now, a persistent shoulder issue and wrist complication offering a brief glimpse of the mortal Taylor.
After so many hundred thousand jabs and feints, the joints rebel. But she knows now how to put down the rebellion or at least bring it to order.
“I’ve had a few niggles over the years and have to be careful,” she says. “They are things to manage and I’m experienced enough at this stage to know that. Two things the wrist and shoulder, I need to keep an eye on them.
“The wrist was either an injection or an operation, which would have kept me out of boxing for a few months. It doesn’t hamper me so you know I just have to manage it and anyway an operation was not a realistic option until after Rio. I don’t need to do it now. It’s not essential.”
She currently tops the world rankings on 2,700 points with the next closest opponent Estelle Moseley from France at two on 1,550 and China’s Yin in third place on 1,350 points.
And yet she keeps setting goals. Forward-looking, forward-thinking is one of the mantras that prevents career vertigo or falling into a championship-wrecking comfort zone.
Felix Savon, the great Cuban heavyweight, hit a mark of six World Championship gold medals in succession between 1986 in Reno and 1997 in Budapest. In boxing, Savon possesses a godly status.
After five World Championship wins, that is the historical context she is aiming to place herself this year. Her desire to stand alongside the man who refused to leave Cuba for a multimillion dollar deal to fight Mike Tyson, could, from the mouth of anyone else, be construed as a grandiose notion.
“There is an element of truth in that I don’t look back, that I only look forward,” she says, reluctant to dwell on the 10-year winning streak. But there are minor concessions.
“I don’t give myself time to look back,” she adds. “But yeah, I suppose I do give my time occasionally to look at the medals.”
Marvin, the year-old Italian mastiff pup, is barking the house down. Walk, pee, food, who knows? Taylor snaps from career talk back into the comfort of the mundane. No place in the world she’d rather be.