May 11, 2021

Katie Taylor – A real champion

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Thomas Hauser wanted an inside look at Katie Taylor to learn what kind of fighter she really is. At a title unification bout at Barclays Center, he found out

JIMMY WILDE reigned as the world’s first flyweight champion and is regarded by some as the greatest British fighter of all time. Wilde once declared, “The idea of women in the boxing ring is repulsive and will receive no support from real lovers of the art. Girl boxers will ruin their matrimonial chances. No man could fancy a professional bruiser for a bride.” That was long ago. In recent years, women’s boxing has begun the march toward acceptance by mainstream sports fans. But the talent pool is thin and many women boxers have limited skills. Katie Taylor, who has fashioned a 17-0 (6) record en route to winning the WBC, WBA, IBF, and WBO 135-pound titles, is changing the perception of women’s boxing. Christy Martin was a blip on the radar screen by virtue of her appearance on Mike Tyson undercards. Laila Ali garnered attention because she was Muhammad Ali’s daughter. Lucia Rijker, the best female boxer of her era, was largely unknown. Taylor can fight and she’s earning recognition for it.

“When people watch me box,” Katie says, “I hope they see a boxer, not a female boxer. I would love to bring the sport to another level and take women’s boxing to a place where people really respect it.”

Both of Taylor’s parents were involved with boxing. Her father married an Irish woman and moved to Bray, where Katie was born on July 2, 1986. He boxed as an amateur and was Katie’s first coach when she took up the sport at age ten. Her mother was one of Ireland’s first female boxing judges. Katie has three older siblings, one of whom is a professor of mathematics at Trinity College.

Taylor grew up physically gifted, competitive, and loving sports. She was an elite athlete at a young age in both boxing and football. The downside to being a fighter is that fighters get hit. But in the end, she gravitated to boxing.

Later, she would explain, “There comes a point in the life of all junior boxers, when you hit fourteen or fifteen years old, when the punches start to hurt and you have to decide whether you’re going to take it seriously or not at all. There’s no middle ground.”

At age 15, boxing as an amateur, Taylor participated in the first officially sanctioned woman’s match in the history of Ireland. Therafter, she won six gold medals at the European championships and five at the Women’s World championships. She was the flag bearer for Ireland at the 2012 London Olympics and became a national hero after winning a gold medal at the 2012 Olympic Games.

“Listening to the anthem [at the awards ceremony],” Katie later reminisced, “was the proudest moment of my life.”

Then came what Taylor calls “the lowest moment of my career.” At the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, she lost in the first round to Mira Potkonen of Finland.

“I just didn’t perform well,” Katie says of that outing. “It’s a simple as that.”

Taylor turned pro in late 2016 and won the World Boxing Association title by decision over Anahi Ester Sanchez one year later. After successfully defending her crown against Jessica McCaskill, she journeyed to America for a title unification bout against IBF beltholder Victoria Noelia Bustos at Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn.

Taylor vs. Bustos was on the undercard of an April 28, 2018, doubleheader on HBO featuring Danny Jacobs vs. Maciej Sulecki and Jarrell Miller vs. Johann Duhaupas. Bustos had 18 victories and 4 losses on her ring ledger but had never fought outside of Argentina. More significantly, in 22 professional fights, she had never scored a knockout. The odds favoring Taylor ran as high as 20-to-1 despite the fact that Bustos had been the IBF lightweight champion for over a year.

There was a problem during the medical examinations one day before the fight when a New York State Athletic Commission doctor noticed a cold sore on Bustos’s lip. One doesn’t normally think of a cold sore as preventing a fight. But Victoria was told that she needed a clearance letter from a dermatologist. The dermatologist then sent a letter to the commission saying that the sore was “likely” to be contained. That wasn’t good enough for the NYSAC, which consulted next with an infectious disease specialist. It wasn’t until 1:15 PM on fight day that Team Taylor was advised the fight was on.

Taylor’s status as a star and also her gender dictated that she not share a dressing room with other fighters on fight night. Carrying her own gym bag, she arrived at room 1B11.09 in Barclays Center at 6:45 PM. She was wearing black trousers, a black T-shirt, gray sneakers, and a black jacket with “Katie Taylor” emblazoned in gold on the back. Her long dark hair was pulled back in a single braid. Trainer Ross Enamait and manager Brian Peters were with her.

The dressing room was fifteen feet long and ten feet wide with black industrial carpet, pale yellow walls, and recessed lighting above. A gray table built into one of the walls ran the length of the room with a wall-to-wall mirror above it. Seven black cushioned folding metal chairs were set against the table. A black leather sofa stood against the opposite wall.

Tomas Rohan (who works with Peters) and filmmaker Ross Whitaker joined the trio. It was a small group. No expanding circle of family, friends, and hangers-on.

Enamait unpacked his gym bag and put the tools of his trade on the table. Veteran cutman Danny Milano (who would be working Katie’s corner for the first time) brought in a half-dozen white terrycloth towels. “I’ve been following the women for a while now,” Milano had said earlier in the day. “They tend to lose their composure more quickly than the men when things aren’t going their way. But not this one.”

Katie sat on the sofa, propped her feet up on a chair, and sipped from a bottle of water. At 7:10, Enamait asked a New York State Athletic Commission deputy commissioner if Bustos had arrived at the arena. She hadn’t.

“I’ll feel better when I know she’s here,” the trainer said.

At 7:20, Brian Peters left the room to see if Bustos was on site yet. Five minutes later, he returned. “She’s here.”

Mark Robinson/Matchroom

It was a quiet dressing room. For much of the time that Katie was there, she sat alone on the sofa, watching undercard fights on a TV monitor. Other times, Enamait or Peters sat beside her, engaging in quiet conversation. Male or female, the rituals for battle are the same. A pre-fight physical examination and the taking of a urine sample were followed by the referee’s dressing room instructions.

Occasionally, Katie stood and stretched. She has a well-muscled frame with shoulders that are broader and thighs that are more powerful than might appear at first glance.

At 7:40, Taylor put on a pair of black-and-gold boxing trunks, a matching top, and a fuchsia T-shirt with words from Psalm 18 in white letters on the front (“It is God who arms me with strength”) and back (“He trains my hands for battle”).

Enamait began taping Katie’s hands, right hand first. At 8:15, the job was done. Katie stretched on her own and shadow-boxed briefly. Enamait greased her hair with petroleum jelly to hold it in place.

The assumption was that Katie would win. But boxing is boxing. She was about to venture into the unknown. In less than an hour, a woman trained in the art of hurting would try to hurt her.

“I get nervous before every fight,” Taylor has said. “I’d be worried if I wasn’t nervous. But I feel like I’m most alive when I’m in the ring. You don’t know what will happen. That’s what makes it so exciting.”

There was more shadow-boxing. Katie’s face looked harder now. She was transforming into a warrior. Enamait gloved her up. Trainer and fighter worked the pads together. “Don’t give her any free shots,” Enamait cautioned. Brian Peters helped Katie into a black robe with gold trim.
At nine o’clock, a voice instructed, “It’s time to walk.”

The fight went largely as expected. Taylor has good footwork and good hand-speed coupled with a nasty jab, a sharp straight right, an effective left hook, and a serviceable uppercut. She’s not a big puncher but she mixes her punches well.

Fighting at a distance in the first half of the bout, Katie was in total control. In rounds eight and 10, she chose to trade on the inside (which was the only place Bustos could reach her), stayed in the pocket too long, and took some unnecessary punches. The judges were on the mark with their 99-91, 99-91, 98-92 verdict.

After the fight, Katie returned to her dressing room and sat on the sofa. There were ugly welts on her back and shoulders, a bruise on the left side of her forehead, and a smaller bruise beneath her right eye.

“I’m tired,” she said.

Katie Taylor women's boxing

Pressed for more, she elaborated on her performance. “I can always do better, but I did okay tonight. She [Bustos] was durable, and it was a different style from what I’m used to fighting. I’m still learning my trade. There’s a big difference between the amateurs and the pros. The pros are more physical. But I’m happy with the win, and I’m happy to be a unified champion.”

Since then, Taylor has had eight fights, beating Kimberly Connor, Cindy Serrano, Eva Wahlstrom, Rose Volante, Christina Linardatou, Miriam Gutierrez, and Delfine Persoon (twice). In the process, she has consolidated the four major sanctioning body 135-pound belts.

Her two fights against Persoon were the most telling. The first was contested at Madison Square Garden on June 1, 2019, on the undercard of the initial bout between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz. Persoon brought the WBC strap to the table. Taylor was defending her WBA, WBO, and IBF titles.

It was a good fight. Taylor was the better boxer and landed the sharper cleaner punches. Persoon was stronger and kept forcing the action. As the rounds passed, Persoon kept fighting, and Taylor kept boxing. What was clear, though, was that Katie was tiring and not hitting hard enough to keep Delfine off.

The fight devolved into a bloody slugfest. Each fighter’s face became more bruised and swollen. Persoon kept moving inexorably forward, throwing inartful clubbing right hands. An exhausted Taylor kept fring back. Katie’s power was gone. Her strength was gone. All she had left were the remnants of her conditioning and her will to survive.

The consensus at ringside was that Persoon had forced the action effectively enough to deserve the nod. But the decision went to Taylor by a 96-94,96-94, 95-95 margin. Afterward, Carl Frampton told BBC Radio 5, “The judges have got it wrong, and it is heartbreaking to see Delfine Persoon in tears. I thought she won that fight by miles. That was a disgraceful decision.”

Eddie Hearn (Taylor’s promoter) said that he’d scored the fight a draw and conceded, “Quite a few people had Persoon winning.” He also quoted Katie as saying, “We’ve got to fight her again, straight away.”

Unlike many fighters who duck tough opponents after a narrow escape on the judges’ scorecards, Taylor was true to her word. On August 25, 2020, the two women met in the ring again. As in their first encounter, Persoon was the physically stronger fighter. She moved forward for the entire ten rounds, mauling and brawling as best she could. This time though, Katie boxed more and stood her ground less, rendering Delfine’s pressure tactics less effective.

Taylor tired a bit as the fight wore on. Her punches lost some of their sting and she got hit with some good shots. She was never able to discourage Persoon but she did outbox her. There was no controversy as to the winner. Katie emerged with 96-94, 96-94, 98-93 triumph. “She deserves this time to win,” Persoon acknowledged.

In recent years, championships have been sadly devalued in boxing. And that’s particularly true on the women’s side of the ledger where “championships” are dispensed like trinkets from a gumball machine.

The world sanctioning bodies, motivated by an insatiable lust for sanctioning fees, have created 110 different women’s titles. This means that, assuming each title is available in 17 weight divisions, the sanctioning bodies have belts for 1,870 women’s champions. Meanwhile, according to John Sheppard of BoxRec.com, there are 1,493 active women boxers (women who have fought within the past eighteen months). Do the math. This means there are 1.25 titles available for each woman boxer.

In this nonsensical world, Taylor stands out as a “real” champion. No one should be fooled by her gentle outside-the-ring demeanor. She’s a tough, skilled professional fighter.

Katie is confident but not arrogant with regard to her ring skills. She’s poised, gracious, articulate, laughs easily, and is unfailingly polite. She likes attention but is wary of it. In recent years, she has spent most of her time in Connecticut, an ocean away from many of her loved ones.

“I love the fact that I’m anonymous in America,” Katie has said. “I can go for walks and be left alone when I want to be alone. I can just be myself over here.”

There’s a private, somewhat shy, person behind the public facade.

At age 34, Taylor’s years in the sweet science are numbered. But as women’s boxing advances to the point where there’s a serious pound-for-pound conversation, many knowledgeable observers believe that Katie belongs in the #1 slot on today’s list. Men’s boxing has a storied tradition. Today’s male fighters can look back in time and say, “I would have loved to have fought Sugar Ray Robinson. Or Muhmmad Ali. Or Joe Louis.”

Maybe someday, young women fighters will look back on this era and say, “I would have loved to have fought Katie Taylor.”

Thomas Hauser’s most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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