Wednesday 28 September 2016

Nation is rooting for Katie, but is she still a knock-out?

We desperately want her to take that top step on the podium in Rio, but a lot has happened to the boxer in past four years. John Meagher profiles our golden girl

Published 07/08/2016 | 02:30

Pride: Katie Taylor celebrates her Olympic gold in 2012
Pride: Katie Taylor celebrates her Olympic gold in 2012

On November 27 last year, Katie Taylor won the Irish National Championships for the fifth occasion. But, this time, there were two key differences: first, she won the title following an actual fight - the previous four had been 'walkovers' as nobody could be found who was willing to step into the ring with her; and, second, she competed without having her father and coach, Pete, in her corner.

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Just days before the bout, it was announced that Pete would be stepping down as her coach. It was a decision that sent shockwaves through Irish sport as the former amateur boxer had been seen as a fundamental part in the Katie Taylor success story. The Taylor camp volunteered the information that Pete wanted to take time out from the stresses of competition, while Katie herself made no comment on the situation.

That night, in Dublin's National Stadium, Katie's corner was occupied by Irish boxing head coach Zaur Antia and her brother, Lee. After the fight, Katie and Pete embraced in the auditorium before becoming engulfed by fans.

Fast forward to February of this year, and Taylor's training regime to secure qualification to the Olympics was in full swing. When taking part in a media event organised by Sky ­Academy, a mentoring initiative run by the UK broadcaster, she found ­herself being asked if her father's ­decision to step down was hers or his.

"I think you will have to speak to him about that," she said. "I'm not going to answer any questions. All I can say is my preparation is going fantastic. And I absolutely love my family and I wouldn't [be anywhere] without them."

But those preparations took a blow in April when Taylor lost her first fight in more than five years, beaten in the semi-finals of the European Olympic qualifiers in Turkey. Once more, Pete Taylor's absence from her corner was noted and, yet again, this most private of sports stars refused to say why.

"He was looking at the fight and supporting me as well," she said afterwards. "I was on the phone to him after the fight and and I'm on the phone to him in general anyway. Just because he isn't in my corner doesn't mean he isn't there to support me."

With the Olympics kicking off today, and Taylor's first fight scheduled for Friday, there will be much speculation as to what role her father will play behind the scenes.

Taylor is part of a 77-member Team Ireland squad at Rio and, Pádraig Harrington excluded, the only household name to be taking part. She is Ireland's only entrant who has a gold medal going into the games and she will be hoping to be standing on top of the podium once more in what will surely be her last Olympics.

Taylor turned 30 last month and has been in the public eye for more than 10 years. Brand expert Tony Frawley of 20/20 BMV argues that "from a branding point of view, she is the greatest Irish sports star ever", having not just dominated her sport for years, but essentially put women's boxing on the map.

"She was one of the main reasons why women's boxing was part of the London Olympics," he says. "She has had a global influence and irrespective of what happens in Rio, her achievements have left a lasting legacy."

Her gold medal in London helped define that Olympics for many Irish says RTÉ's head of sport Ryle Nugent: "Her story captured the imagination of the public," he says, "and more than one million people watched that final. She will be a huge draw for the public in Rio."

RTÉ is promising its most comprehensive coverage of any Olympics and Nugent believes that its biggest audiences are likely to be on those occasions when Taylor steps into the ring. "She transcends her sport," he says, "in a way that few have managed to do."

Kieran McSweeney of PSG Sponsorship concurs. "There are very few who are not familiar with her or her story," he says. "She is hugely popular, and appreciated by both sports lovers and those who have little interest in sport."

Each year, PSG conducts a 'sport sentiment index' in which 1,000 adults are asked to name their most popular Irish sports figure. In 2012, 2013 and 2014 Taylor came first, beating the likes of Rory McIlroy and Brian O'Driscoll. In 2015, she was second to Paul O'Connell. Last year, McSweeney says 28pc of females and 14pc males named Taylor as their favourite. It's a remarkable mark of popularity when one considers that most Irish people are unlikely to have seen her in action since those London games four years ago.

Taylor herself has complained in the past about RTÉ not covering her post-London fights and many boxing observers believe her talents have not been harnessed enough.

But while her commonly watched performances in the ring may now be limited to viral campaigns for the likes of Samsung - who recently filmed her and English comedian Jack Whitehall 'sparring' - she remains enormously popular among brands and enjoys long-term deals with Adidas, Toyota and Bank of Ireland among others.

Last year, she fronted an ­advertising campaign for the online car insurance brand, Its4Women.ie, and MD Gary McClarty says she was the perfect fit. "She's a winner and she's ambitious, but she's also homely and down to earth," he says. "All those values correspond to what we're about."

He found her to be highly professional, and was assured from the first moment he met her that she was the sort of 'ambassador' who would not cause his firm embarrassment. "But," he notes, "it was important to us that Katie Taylor wasn't bigger than the brand."

Tony Frawley believes that Brand Taylor can continue to be nurtured long after she retires, should she so wish. And that day is arguably coming sooner rather than later. "She'll want to go out on a high," he says. "I'd be surprised if she fights after the Olympics."

It's unlikely she will be hightailing it to TV punditry land, though. According to a sports reporter who has dealt with Taylor on numerous occasions, the limelight is a place Taylor doesn't enjoy. "She's not into fame at all," she says. "She's very grounded and her humility is real. She has a strong religious conviction and she knows what she's about. It's remarkable that we know so little about her, but she's proof that if you're in the public eye and you want to guard your privacy, it is possible."

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