Lifestyle

Sunday 21 September 2014

Raging belle

Pól ó Conghaile meets a young woman on the brink of realising her destiny -- Katie Taylor is poised and ready should female boxing become an Olympic sport

Welcome to the world of Katie Taylor -- pound for pound, the best female fighter on Planet Earth. She doesn't drink. She doesn't smoke. She hasn't got time for a boyfriend. On the rare occasions when friends coax her out to a nightclub, she slips away after an hour or two. She thinks about boxing almost 24/7 and, before she competes, recites Psalm 18 like a mantra.

Taylor, 22, is hard to pin down, but I finally arrange to meet her at the boxing club run by her father, Pete Taylor, in Bray. Pete is there early, first poring over a diary, then lugging open the club's steel doors.

Inside, punchbags dangle, inspirational quotes adorn the walls, and a sparring ring stands empty of action. The world champion's is a broody, hopeful den.

Soon enough, the champ herself shows up in a tiny Toyota Yaris. She's been fending off a bug the past few days, but when she steps into the club, she owns the place. Later, I ask why she loves boxing.

"I suppose it's in your control whether you're going to win or not," she replies. "In soccer, you're depending on so many different people to play well. In boxing you're only accountable for yourself."

Taylor is demure. Stick thin, but with noticeably broad shoulders, she doesn't make much of her good looks. She has beautiful skin, but there isn't a jot of make-up. After Pete sorts out the drinks at a local hotel (coffees for the boys, a pint of blackcurrant for his daughter), he slumps beside us. It's clear from early on that they come as a team. Pete has trained her for a decade, and whenever Katie's stuck for words, she nods in his direction.

Chilling out

The Taylors trained twice a day in preparation for an amateur competition in Turkey, where Katie won gold last month. I wonder how life differs when she's not in preparation mode. "I just eat loads!" she laughs.

"I don't have to make my weight so I eat as much as I can, go to the cinema, just chill out in the evenings." When it comes to partying, she says, friends accept her choices. "I kind of come home early... It's okay for an hour or so when you do go out, then everyone around you starts getting drunk."

Does she spends time online -- on Bebo, for instance? "Not any more. I was on it for a while, but I was getting stalked," she says, shaking her head. "I should have put it on private, to be honest, but I was glad to get off. I was getting sick of it. I didn't report it, I just cancelled the page. It was a few lads and a few girls."

Surprised at how easily she bats this off, I mention an interview I recently did with Anne Nolan, ex of the Nolan Sisters, about a biography in which she reveals that she had a stalker who appeared outside her house. "Oh my word!" Taylor exclaims. "Mine wasn't that bad."

Pete laughs: "Ours would be the wrong house to appear outside, anyway."

He has a point. Pete is a former Irish boxing champion. Katie's brothers -- Lee, 28, and Peter, 23 -- both boxed to a serious level (her sister, Sarah, 24, she has described as "a real girly girl"). Her mother, Bridget, was the first female referee and judge in the country, and remains a loud ringside voice.

Katie's first visit to the gym was a happy accident -- one night when her father couldn't find a babysitter, he simply took her along. She was 10. The rest is history.

"It was funny when she first came up to the boxing club," Pete recalls. "Peter wasn't interested at all, was he Katie? It took him a few visits before he got into the ring, and then he was grand. But Katie got in the first day."

"I always knew how to throw a punch from watching my dad training," Taylor picks up. Sparring with boys gave her an advantage, she says, that sticks with her to this day.

"When I got into the ring I loved sparring and training. I loved the competitive aspect of it. I was always competitive. Every sport I was involved in, I always wanted to win."

Her family remains hugely supportive of her -- an essential thing, given the financial sacrifices made to reach the top level of amateur sport. Katie gets grant aid from the Irish Sports Council.

Pete, however -- who in the past has trained his daughter in the kitchen and garden shed -- works as an electrician by day, and pays his own way. "I go away by choice," he says. "I wouldn't want anyone else to go away with Katie. If you gave me €1m and said 'don't go with Katie for the World Championships', I wouldn't take it. I want to see Katie on the podium."

The support has been repaid tenfold. Taylor won the 60kg gold at the 2005 European Amateur Championships, repeating the feat in 2006 and 2007.

At 20, she became World Champion in India, despite fighting with a nose fractured in two places. She retained the title in 2007. Last year, she won Irish Sportswoman of the Year. To many, she's simply the best amateur female boxer alive.

"She's top class," says Dominic O'Rourke, President of the Irish Amateur Boxing Federation. "She looks nimble enough, but in the ring she's a different kettle of fish... her speed work, her ability to land punches and not get hit, her flexibility... she has everything." In Winning Women, a Setanta documentary aired in May, Olympic gold medal-winner Michael Carruth offers a very simple assessment. "She's a class act".

"To succeed at the top level you need natural athletic ability, a commitment to training and physical preparation, a great attitude and passion for the chosen sport, technical ability and a strong mind to deliver under the pressure of elite competition," adds John Treacy, Chief Executive of the Irish Sports Council.

"Katie has all those qualities in abundance; she is a credit to Irish sport."

Taylor's goal is, naturally, an Olympic gold medal. Women's boxing is not yet an Olympic sport, however, and with hopes dashed for its inclusion in Beijing, her dreams are now pinned on London in 2012.

Its inclusion "is not official yet", she says, but the soundings are positive. By then, aged 26, Taylor should be hitting her peak as a boxer. The wait frustrates her, but she deals with it as all sportspeople do. "I think about things, one step at a time."

The slowness to sanction women's boxing as an Olympic sport also hints, of course, at a lingering concern for the welfare of women in the ring. Taylor makes light of her injuries -- so far, a broken nose and a couple of hand strains -- maintaining that she's far more likely to pick up a knock playing soccer (she has been capped at senior level for Ireland, and won multiple awards at under age level, including the Wicklow U13 Schoolboy Player of the Year -- despite being a girl).

Nevertheless, there's a telling moment in the Setanta documentary, when Pete describes the "nightmare" scenario of his daughter getting knocked out. It's the one thing that could prompt him to take her out of the ring, he reflects.

"I have other boxers in the club and I obviously get nervous when they're boxing," he says. "But it's different when your daughter or son is boxing. It's more so because of the stage she's boxing on at the moment. When Katie goes away everybody nearly expects her to achieve."

Not so long ago, father and daughter watched Million Dollar Baby, the Clint Eastwood movie in which a female boxer played by Hillary Swank dies after a mishap in the ring. "I think Raging Bull was probably the best boxing movie, but it was a bit interesting," Pete admits. "I didn't want to box after I saw it!" Katie laughs. "Usually these boxing films are really inspirational!"

Women's boxing is growing at an unprecedented rate in Ireland, but there are those for whom the thought remains abhorrent.

"I think women's boxing is an obscenity," broadcaster Tom McGurk said on RTE Radio One's Drivetime programme last year. "I think it's outrageous... I think the notion of women in the ring hitting each other is unacceptable."

Women in the ring

Taylor visibly bristles when I read the quote back to her. "I can't believe people are still saying things like that in this day and age.

"Amateur boxing is such a safe sport. We wear headgear, gum-shields, and women wear breast protection as well. If you're getting hurt, the referee will step in or the corner can throw the towel in." Amateurs train hard to avoid getting hurt, she emphasises (women also undergo a compulsory pregnancy test before competitions). "You don't see many knockouts in amateur boxing."

"[McGurk] probably never even wanted women to vote," Pete laughs. Both say most critics haven't even bothered to watch women box. "You box by choice," he concludes. "Ultimately," Katie says, "everyone involved in Irish boxing supports me. I'm no different to any of the lads boxing in the National Stadium or anywhere around the country."

Taylor sat her Leaving Certificate at St Killian's in Bray, and from there progressed to a Fitness and Leisure Management degree in UCD. She left after a year and a half, unable to divide her attentions between sport and study. "I'm not the sort of person that can bring a book away with me on competition," she explains. "I'm just completely focused."

I wonder, has she considered boxing professionally? Surely the sums earned by boxers like Laila Ali and Jackie Frazier-Lyde, daughters of the legendary heavyweights, are tempting?

"It's a completely different sport altogether," Taylor says, dismissing the prospect out of hand. "It's geared towards knockouts ... a lot of women turn professional without having any experience of amateur boxing. They just go straight for the money."

Pete describes it as "a circus... when Katie goes away and fights, everyone she meets is champion of their country ... in professional boxing you pick and choose your fights, whereas as an amateur you have no choice over who you fight."

Together, they paint a seductive picture of a pure sport. The amateur boxing ethos, with its focus on technical excellence rather than sensational knockouts or outrageous personalities, compares to GAA, and is one with which Taylor is clearly in love.

"The likes of Floyd Mayweather, he never won an Olympic gold medal or a World Championship gold medal," she enthuses.

"And he's the number one, pound for pound, in the world. That shows you how hard amateur boxing is."

Clearly, given her clean lifestyle, Taylor takes her position as a role model seriously. But this also stems from a committed Christian ethos.

She and her mother attend St Mark's Pentecostal Church on Pearse Street and, before fights, her routine involves listening to Christian rock on her iPod and reciting bible verses, such as Psalm 18's 'He teacheth my hands to war, so that a bow of steel is broken by mine arms'.

"I wouldn't have achieved any of these things without God in my life," she says frankly. "I've always believed that God has a plan for me and my life and that the Olympics might be my destiny."

I get the sense that Katie Taylor could have a destiny in other areas too. She hasn't got the time for commercial endorsements, she says, but it can't be long before big brands find a fit for this purist boxer with a beautiful face.

That kind of union could make both parties very wealthy indeed, and who knows, with God and Mammon on her side, Katie Taylor could prove unstoppable.

"Sometimes, I feel kind of invincible going into the ring," she says, dropping her soft-spoken monotone for a voice growing in confidence. "Because I know God is there by my side. When God's in my corner I believe that no one can beat me."

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