Sporting Upsets: When Katie Taylor was stunned in Astana

Queen of the amateur ranks suffered a shock defeat to America’s Estelle Mossley in 2016

Estelle Mossely gets the verdict against Katie Taylor in 2016. Photograph: Inpho

A peculiar place Astana. A bling city in the strangest of places. Its eccentric buildings are splashed around like Christmas decorations, gussied up and eye-catching. One of the newest in 2016 was the Norman Foster-designed Khan Shatyr, a futuristic, transparent tent, a spire 150 metres high and an artificial beach with sand imported from the Maldives.

The city sits there oddly still, without real vibrancy but chintzy and garish demanding attention, rising up from nothing but steppe wilderness and floating on a vast, flat expanse of grassland, a former Soviet place of choice for gulags but now oil rich and a serial host for sports events.

In Europe the city's profile has been elevated in recent years by the Tour de France, the Astana Pro Team sponsored by the Samruk-Kazyna, a coalition of state-owned Kazakhstan companies and named after the capital. That name was whimsically changed from Astana to 'Nur-Sultan', the same name as the country's full blown, old school, soviet styled autocrat Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Since independence from the USSR in 1991 his benign dictatorship was adored so much that in the last election he contested in 2015 Nazarbayev drew almost 98 per cent of the vote. He retired as they always do, still pulling the levers of power.

A view of Astana, the Kazakh capital. Photograph: Stanislav Filippov/Getty/AFP

When Katie Taylor travelled to Kazakhstan with the Irish boxing team in the spring of 2016, Nazarbayev was still the president and the city was still called Astana. When she left she was no longer the powerbroker she once was.

Taylor arrived decorated with as much gold as they had painted on the vast city domes and the twin towers that housed Kazakhstan's sovereign wealth fund. Her reputation in world boxing had been carved out over the previous decade stretching back to 2006 to when she won her first world championship gold in New Delhi, India.

Since 2006, a run of a few months short of an unbroken 10-year stretch, nobody had beaten her at European or World Championship level.

Of the nine world tournaments for women's boxing since the first one staged in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 2001, Taylor came to Astana having won the gold medal in five. Of the nine European tournaments staged for women since the first in Saint-Amand-les-Eaux, France in 2001, Taylor had won the gold medal in six.

She came to the Barys Arena, the city's ice hockey stadium, as a world champion five consecutive times and European Champion six consecutive times. Unbowed, unbroken, and unbeaten, just as Nazarbayev strictly governed his country unopposed, so too was Taylor's authoritarian rule the dominant force in the sport.

There was, however, one caveat. In April of that year Taylor had been beaten by Azerbaijan's Yana Alekseevna in a Rio Olympics qualifying event in Turkey.

A win in the Turkey semi-final would have assured her of her rightful place at the Rio Olympics. But she was left playing catch-up after all three judges awarded the opening round to Alekseevna with Taylor finally losing the bout by unanimous decision.

The defeat left Astana’s World Championships as Taylor’s final option for Rio qualification and chance to defend the lightweight gold medal she had won in the Excel Arena in London’s docklands four years before.

It was strange territory for Irish boxing, not least of all for Taylor herself, who had changed her corner and coaching team shortly after the 2012 Olympic Games. Gone was her father Pete, who had mentored her from childhood and been in her corner from long before the beginning of her amateur career.

Katie Taylor during her 2016 World Championships defeat to Estelle Mossely. Photograph: Inpho

Still, the defeat by Alekseevna was broadly seen as an aberration with Astana the perfect world platform for Taylor to again fix a tyrannical hold on the lightweight division and add another gold medal to the previous five.

She was strong favourite for the title, although, there were the usual fighters to try and avoid until the medal stages. In that she was helped by her ranking and, as was often the case in major tournaments, she was not drawn to compete in the preliminary bouts.

Straight into the round of 32, Taylor faced Finland's relatively unknown Agnes Alexiusson and schooled her before advancing, the judges scoring it 3-0 for Ireland. Gone was Taylor's regular Russian adversary and the boxer she defeated in the Olympic final, Sofya Ochigava. She had disappeared from the amateur map and has still not surfaced.

In the second fight of the week Taylor was in against Argentinean Dayana Sanchez and again there was no division among the officials who again handed Taylor a 3-0 win and a seamless move into the quarter-finals, where she faced Victoria Torres from Mexico.

Again Taylor’s power and speed were enough for a straight 3-0 win. That ensured a semi-final and with it an Olympic qualification place secured. Known for her blinkered focus and an isolationist mentality when she goes into the bunker of a major championship, Taylor did not realise she had Rio bagged.

“Are you sure?” she asked in the mixed zone afterwards. “We have to wait for other results? . . . Because there are so many European boxers through . . . Are you sure? . . . Are you all sure? . . . Now don’t get my hopes up . . .”

In the semi-final Taylor would face Estelle Mossely from France, who had just earned a 3-0 win over Alekseevna, the Azeri boxer who had beaten Taylor in Turkey the previous month in the Rio qualifying tournament. It was also a rematch of the final from the previous year's inaugural European Games and the previous European Championship final both of which Taylor bossed Mossely and won.

The French fighter was not a significant threat. But there were questions over Taylor’s absolute authority. Still, the Irish champion continued from where she had left off in the previous wins and was judged the unanimous winner in a tight first round against Mossely.

The second was more action-filled and early on Taylor unloaded a few combinations, with Mossely responding. Tight again but two of the three the judges called it for Mossely. Taylor again went to work in the third. While her range was a little off she was the more industrious of the two and that’s how the judges saw it, all three of them handing her the round 10-9.

Katie Taylor after her shock defeat in Astana. Photograph: Inpho

Fights are often won and lost in final rounds as boxers raise the tempo to leave lasting impressions on judges, or, if they feel they are trailing give a last desperate burst of aggression to turn a result.

While it looked like Taylor may have edged it with her better speed and her volume of shots, Mossely stayed aggressive. She was not overwhelmed. Margins were narrow. Enough that the judges gave the French fighter the fourth and final round and the outcome would be decided on a split decision.

In amateur tournament boxing they don’t have draws and a fallback position is adopted. Ireland’s reigning Olympic champion was ruled a clear 40-36 winner by one of the three judges, meaning that judge had scored Taylor a 10-9 winner in each of the four rounds.

But the other two judges scored the fight a 38-38 draw. Under the rules if two or more judges score the fight as a draw, the judges in question then have to choose a winner. They both sided with Mossely. Stunning the auditorium, Taylor had lost for the first time in 10 years.

While it didn’t seem as calamitous at the time as Rio was ahead of her, Taylor’s dynasty in amateur boxing was over. She wouldn’t make another amateur final and she wouldn’t win another amateur medal.

Afterwards her eyes looking as vast and vacant as the steppes that stretched to a thin, far horizon from directly behind the stadium, she took home bronze as Mossely won gold, then gold again in Rio.

Over a short three-month period Taylor’s career would sharply pivot from amateur queen to professional sovereign. But for eight days Astana, a chrome and mirror ball capital of kitsch, was the city where she could never quite feel at home.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times