Katie Taylor: ‘I want to become one of the most decorated boxers of all time’
Boxer eyes a fifth world title knowing only way to fulfil her dreams is to keep improving
Katie Taylor arrived on Jeju Island in South Korea two weeks before the start of the Women’s World Boxing Championships. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Jeju. A sub tropical, volcanic island in the East China Sea. Okinawa is one way, Japan another and South Korea 64 kilometres to the north. A World Heritage Site, there are grapefruits growing by the side of the road, bright tangerines in people’s gardens. Where else to meet Katie Taylor but Starbucks.
Her choice of venue is deliberate. Where she sits herself to eat or drink is as dialled in as the mileage and shadow boxing. Preparation for a World Championship defence is by its nature cautious and risk averse and there is nothing she doesn’t know about it. The Korean tteok and kongbap can wait for another time. Starbucks is just fine
For the Olympic and world lightweight champion, the exotic strangeness of the surroundings has, over the years, become something less to conquer. Hers is a routine that creates its own world in Jeju City, as well as New Delhi, Barbados, Ningbo or Qinhuangdao, the venues for her four previous wins. It’s in that closeted world where she is most content.
“This is a lovely place,” she says. “You have plenty of nice coffee shops and places to walk. That’s all you need. You won’t go hungry because the food is okay. But it doesn’t matter where we are. We always just stick to our own programme and get on with things.
“We haven’t ventured too far. We went to the city centre for a walk. I went to a salon for a massage. That was a different experience. I came out battered and bruised. They were standing on top of us. They had Michaela [Walsh] in a head lock at one stage. I think I felt good after it.”
“It’s normal for me,” she adds with a barely perceptible shift of her head towards the outside. “What we do no matter where we go is get into our own little routine. We do the same thing. It doesn’t matter where we are in the world, it’s the same. You create your own world and remind yourself of the job. I’m here to win a gold medal and nothing less.”
Corrosion of will
From her lips, it all sounds so normal. She’s 28-years-old now, will be 30 by the time Rio comes around and 34 in 2020.
There is no loss of the vision that has already made her a standout achiever. And she believes her age is good and time is not her enemy.
Her low mileage, careful lifestyle and the ease with which she wins most of her fights have been kind to her body. It was only at the beginning of her career as a 17-year-old and against some top opponents that she really had to go to war.
“Twenty eight years old now. Yeah. Getting old. Glad you asked,” she says. “Making history, adding to the legacy, that’s what keeps me going. I want to add to what I’ve already done, become one of the most decorated boxers of all time. I’m a fresh 28-year-old. I haven’t been in that many tough battles over the years and I’ve always said the best is still yet to come. I can see that I’m getting better and better every year.
“I want to defend my title in 2016 and I would also like to defend it in 2020 as well. One step at a time I know that, but when you’re thinking of the greatest amateur boxers in history like Lazlo Papp [three successive gold medals] and Felix Savon [won three Olympic gold medals and six world heavyweight titles], they are the people you really look up to.
“They have won the most gold medals. It would be an unbelievable achievement to match. Obviously you have to go one step at a time. But I have big dreams and that’s what gets me up in the morning. That’s what drives me.”
These championships also have a different feel to others. A team of four is the biggest Ireland has ever sent to a world event. Michaela Walsh from Belfast, DCU student Clare Grace and Joanna Lambe from Carrickmacross all have hopes.
Walsh lost out to Olympic gold medal-winner Nicola Adams in the final of the Commonwealth games in Scotland. Adams is not in Jeju because of injury, but the Holy Family boxer has moved up to the 54 kg division anyway.
Lambe boxed well but lost a tough battle in the European Championship quarter-finals in Bucharest earlier this year, while Grace won a bronze medal at the same tournament. The three are dipping their toes into the World Championships for the first time but they hit Jeju City two weeks ago and there’s real hope Taylor may not be the only one pushing for medals.
The week has been one of tapering down after training twice a day since they arrived. With none of the elite Irish boxers around, the sessions included Taylor stepping in with Korean men.
“Yeah, we’ve had great preparation and there’s great unity in the team,” she says. “I think it’s the first time where I’ve been part of an Irish team where we are all expected to do well. There is great harmony amongst us all.
“We’re not normally as long here before a competition. We don’t always do a training camp in country beforehand but we do always arrive early. I think we are always the first. We’re well prepared that way. I prefer it to be that way.
She doesn’t know if the Russian Olympic finalist Sofya Ochigava will be here but expects that she will. She shrugs. It doesn’t matter. She’s not bothered to find out and can wait until the draw is finalised tomorrow.
She believes she is stronger. She believes she is a better fighter than she was at this year’s European Championships, where she beat Estelle Mossely in the final. She feels she is stronger than when she fought in the Olympic final. In her head, she always has the gold medal but sitting beside that image are the things she needs to improve, adjustments to make. A never-ending to-do list.
She is the face everyone wants to take down and knows it. She has felt it in their punches. The name Katie Taylor adds 20 per cent more effort to her opponent’s performances – for some in what so far has been a vain effort to beat her and, for others, to avoid potential humiliation.
It has been nine years now since she last lost a fight at a major international tournament. A lifetime away. In Russia for the first time. Callow, ambitious and talented.
Katie now accepts, reluctantly, that as a teenager she couldn’t have expected much better.
“At my first World Championships in Russia, I got beaten. Thanks for reminding me,” she says. “I was 18 and lost in the quarter-finals. Yeah, that’s the last time I lost in the World Championships. I think people only see the good parts.
The win over Ogg came when she was still playing international football. When they returned to Italy for the European Championships, she’d just come back from the European football championships and had a week’s training in the ring. She lost out to reigning world champion Yuliya Nemtsova of Russia.
“Then we thought just step in the ring, bang away and we’ll come back European champion,” says her father Pete.
“When we went to Russia , we didn’t take any food and we didn’t know how to prepare. It was a huge learning curve. But it was a good thing in the end. If we’d gone and won in Italy and won in Russia, she wouldn’t be four times world champion now.”
Not that so much success makes it easier. “I do realise that if they beat me, it is a great scalp for them. Every time you go in against girls at this level they will fight even harder against you,” she says.
“That’s why it’s so difficult to defend a title. You are the one to beat. Everyone raises their game. You can’t be complacent. When they catch you with a shot the whole crowd . . . you know it’s an achievement.
“I know they will have to produce a special performance to beat me. They are going to raise their game and I raise mine. That’s why it’s so important to continue improving. I’m very confident.”
Her own team-mates speak of her with a mix of genuine fondness and fathomless respect. Her gloves are both hallowed and terrifying, her image outside the ring sweet natured and approachable.
But just three days out she stands impassive and rested, pulls the beanie down over her hair and faces into the famous Jeju island wind, heading past the imposing Grand Hotel towards the modest Irish digs. A fifth title would pull her level with Mary Kom’s record.
“We go to every competition a better and improved fighter,” she says quietly. “We go to every competition with something different and something new.”