Katie Taylor: “I knew this was a history-making fight”
Bray boxer overcomes hand injury and tough opponent to triumph in tactical battle
Katie Taylor exchanges punches with Yana Allekseevna, Azerbaijan, during their 60kg lightweight final at the Women’s World Boxing Championships in Jeju, Korea. Photograph: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
After her hand was raised, she was nudged into position, the sponsor’s brands on the backdrop framing the old and the new world title-holder.
“You are a fifth-time world champion. Only one other person in the history of this sport has achieved that,” said RTÉ’s Hugh Cahill. Pete, her father, was standing by her side.
She threw her head back and as the tears welled up; she couldn’t speak. For perhaps 20 seconds we watched on as intruders in her unguarded moment as she made a nonsense of the week-long talk of the cold mechanics of how to win fights.
It was an eloquent summing up, a glimpse into Taylor’s world of internal pressure, of what it has been like to be in her head for the month she has spent on this island and what it will continue to be into next year and the European Games, a seemingly neverending merry-go-round of international events, her quest for more and more success.
But there is always the suspicion with Katie that there are anxieties and fears she privately holds; there is a stress she wears at every event. It’s the small cost.
There is also the hint that while she is sensitive to public acclaim and expectation, the thought sometimes passes through her mind that they, the public, sometimes see her success as inevitable and easy.
She said this week that people “only ever see the wins”.
We stood there as voyeurs with cameras and microphones and demands and watched her for that endless moment.
Then that was it. It all passed with a gulp and a breath and as the Bulgarian anthem blared out in the background for the bantamweight medal ceremony, rock-solid Katie was back.
“I think the five titles were always there really,” she said. “It was always a challenge for me and such a pleasure to equal that record. I knew this was a history-making fight. The motivation was there but I was going into each fight under pressure because this is a big pressure competition.
“I didn’t know really how the decision was going to go at the end. I just didn’t know after the rounds were over what way they were going to score. But I think trading shots was going to make it even harder for me to score so it was single shots. That was better I think . . . I’m just delighted.”
Her father Pete remembers what Katie forgets and while she steals the scenes, he has been sitting in the director’s chair with the jovial Georgian, Zaur Antia. Pete can also stand back from his greatest work and see the girl for what she has become.
“It’s a 10-year domination of the sport . . . remaining number one for the last 10 years . . ,” he says. “I mean nobody has ever done that, especially in boxing. Five world titles is an unbelievable number and now the competition gets stronger every two years.
“You can see that in the girls coming in and the old girls dropping off . . . There’s young girls coming in now and reaching the finals, girls that we haven’t seen before at these tournaments.
“But Katie is so hungry for it. And she keeps me hungry as well. Every fight we have, we write something down, make a few notes. We’ve lots of work when we go back. The final was a great fight. But over the tournament it wasn’t one of her best performances. And she knows that as well. We will be better for the next one.”
The eight-minute bout was a highwire act, the two athletes walking a fine line between fighting and being risk-averse, Taylor pushing forward looking for openings, the Azerbaijani backing away, her left hand coiled and ready for each time the defending champion lurched forward and into her hitting zone.
They circled each other and Taylor feinted, her missing jab wrapped up in tape under her gloves because of the wrist injury following her semi-final win over China’s Junhua Yin.
Once more the three judges were calling it close, with a dissenting voice in the first and third rounds favouring Allekseevna. But in the second round all three of them called it 10-9 it in Taylor’s favour.
The Irish camp had decided that it would be a bout settled on single punch scoring and few prolonged engagements.
The team’s fear was to leave it too close and invite in a subjective decision that could go against Taylor. And so she incessantly pressed, looking to land back hands as well as avoiding her opponent’s southpaw catching her on the journey in or out.
In the fourth round, both boxers’ patience held to the point of the Argentinian referee, Gerardi Poggi, stepping in and telling them to box. Neither would break the tactics fed to them from their corners.
Taylor was scoring more heavily, the single body shots adding to the growing score.
She also won the few physical exchanges, and it was she who pushed the stalking nature of the bout more towards a fight. Her intentions were aggressive and willing but calibrated. There were no solo runs or headlong charges. The would be no war.
“She was a great counter-puncher and it was just a very, very tricky fight,” said Katie. “She was very elusive as well. It can be subjective and every round was close and I didn’t really know after I came back from each round what way the decision was going to go. They are the sort of fights where I have to be so patient.”
In the end the final was more fraught than they would have wanted. But the three judges saw it as one – 40-36, 39-37,39-37. There was no subjectivity. But Katie’s injured wrist prevented her from punching with her lead hand, the left, for the entire final. She played that aspect down.
“It was fine,” she said. “It didn’t bother me. It just swelled up after the previous fight. I just couldn’t hit the pads beforehand. I’ll get an X-ray when I go back [to Ireland] . . . It’s rest now, a few weeks off when I go back . . . the best part.”
It was Pete, who decided the Irish team would come to Jeju two weeks before the tournament began. They have been here a month now. Ireland, under his guidance, is always the first to arrive.
Pete found a local gym in Jeju that the boxers could use. He sourced the running track just a five-minute walk from the team hotel. Nothing is left to chance. “We were a little bit worried before this fight,” he says. “She had the wrist injury going into it. She didn’t use her lead hand much. It was all back hands so she couldn’t really punch with the lead hand . . .
“We were a little bit conscious of that and she didn’t use her jab much . . . But it’s no excuse. She boxed absolutely brilliant.
“The fight was real tactical. But we had expected that. I’m delighted with her performance. We didn’t want the fight to be subjective. We wanted Katie to score and get out, score and get out and make sure she [Allekseevna] missed everything. It was great. I’m delighted with her performance.”
The win adds to the Taylor myth and the gold-plated reputation. Pete called her a legend after the final, a much misused term. Yesterday it seemed oddly appropriate except that she’s still moving forward. The body will tell her when to sit back, but her instinct is to always face the next challenge.
“It’s always exciting when you leave a competition with a gold medal,” she says. “But in your head you always know there is something to improve on as well. I love that. You go into training with a goal and a focus.
“I know what I need to do. I know what I need to improve on and that makes it exciting for me, really fresh. I suppose that’s the beauty. You never stop learning.”
She is being courted by the World Series of Boxing (WSB), who have ideas about incorporating some of the top women into the professional brand of boxing permitted by the governing body, AIBA.
The WSB do not use headguards so there are issues there to be resolved. Irish Olympic medal winners, Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan are both involved with the Italian Dolce & Gabbana WSB team.
Mariana Caballero, the competition manager with the WSB, was at the championships and said Katie will be one of the first names they will talk to about taking up another challenge. That may appeal to her.
Undeterred, she’s looking ahead as the body of work accumulates and becomes something bigger and more important than a succession of boxing matches won.
Now she has another world gold medal hanging out in Bray, a fifth title and a share of a record. But with Katie you know deep down that although it’s life and death with her, nothing has really changed at all.