Tuesday 26 September 2017

Danger lurks on road to Olympic glory

It's a different game now, but Katie Taylor's chances could not be in safer hands, writes John O'Brien

FOR a couple of hours on Thursday morning, the southside of Dublin was a strange place to be. There was Roy Keane making his annual visit to Stillorgan to rake over old coals and offer a self-serving reprise of history he never seems to tire of. While Keane ranted, Leinster rugby players were fulfilling media duties across the road in Clonskeagh, valiantly trying to put a lid on the hype that will dangerously bubble over before the Heineken Cup final in two weeks' time.

At that moment, oblivious to all the churning testosterone, Katie Taylor was several thousand feet in the air, on her way to China for a date with destiny she has always dreamed about. No one marked her departure from the airport that morning and no fanfare heralded her arrival later than evening in the Chinese port city of Qinhuangdao where she will be seeking her fourth consecutive world title and a place at the inaugural Olympic women's boxing tournament.

The lack of attention bothers her, for sure, but not that much. In truth, it says more about us than her. Conduct a straw poll in any Irish town or city today and you'd wager heavily that an overwhelming majority would have no idea that the women's World Championships were beginning this Wednesday. Yet, press them further and no doubt they would cheerfully assert Taylor's chances of lifting gold in London this summer.

It is this casual ignorance that mostly discomfits her, the mindless assumption that she merely turns up and some foreign boxing dignitary wraps a gold medal around her neck. It is not that Taylor lacks belief -- unbeaten in her last 12 major championships, how could it be? -- but to portray it as routine business is to demean the magnitude of her achievement and underestimate how hard she has had to graft to remain a step ahead of the baying pack.

"Obviously there is pressure because everybody thinks she just has to turn up to win," says her cherished coach and father, Pete. "Which isn't the case. I think it's because most of her fights don't get shown on television. If people had seen her fights, they'd know how difficult each championship has been. There's been one or two close fights each time."

He thinks back to her second world crown in Barbados two years ago. The furious assault by the American Queen Underwood in the fourth round of their semi-final that pushed Katie closer to the brink of exhaustion than she'd ever been. Her survival instincts kicked in at that point and she clawed two vital late scores to pull through. Without that sheer, bloody-minded defiance, though, her supreme skills and ringcraft might not always be enough.

Pete thinks too of her second world title in Ningbo in 2008, how close she came to disaster in her second-round bout against Danusa Dilnofova of the Czech Republic, the winning point in a 4-3 victory only coming within 20 seconds of the final bell. "There's always some girl who will cause problems," Pete says. "It's never a shoo-in. Far from it. There's always some difficulty along the way."

Taylor's fight record is truly a thing of wonder. In 132 contests she has only tasted defeat on seven occasions, twice grievously to her old rival Gulsum Tatar in the latter's native Turkey and another in Bulgaria last year after which her Bulgarian opponent apologised. It's scarcely conceivable that Taylor, a crucial element in securing the Olympic berth, could be at risk of suspect judging in China but the prospect is there nonetheless, a niggling and brooding presence at the back of their minds.

"Katie's been three-times world champion at this weight," says Pete, "and I think she'll have a bit of respect from the judges. Then again maybe there's people that don't want her there as well. There'll be coaches who don't want her at the Olympic Games. It's a tough one to call. We're actually trying not to think about it. We can't control that. All we can control is Katie's performance. And training's been absolutely brilliant. She's ready to box."

It's hard to imagine Taylor facing a better prepared fighter over the next two weeks. She spent Wednesday sparring with Eric Donovan, a European lightweight bronze medallist in 2010, at the National Stadium. Last month she endured a brutal training camp in the Ukraine, sparring some of the world's best male lightweights. Tough, no-holds-barred sessions with the likes of Paddy Barnes and Tyrone McCullough have been a feature of her career. Nothing held back. Equality demanded and given in return.

In Pete's eyes, his daughter is in much better shape than when she won her last world title in Barbados and that is grim news for those hoping to wrest her crown from her. Still, there is always uncertainty, the unknowns lurking among the 77-strong entry list in Taylor's 60kg weight division. Six fights, probably to win gold, five to reach the final and ensure one of the three European qualifying sports for London. It is no easy ask.

It will help that in the revised world rankings issued on Thursday, Taylor sits in top spot and should be guaranteed top seeding before the draw is made in midweek. Her old rival, Cheng Dong, is No 3 but suffered defeat in her national championships recently, so there is no certainty she will even be selected. Although the strength of women's boxing remains in Europe, they see Argentinians and Brazilians climbing the rankings, unknown quantities that worry them as much as any of her old rivals.

They see the Korean Yu Ju Kin, the reigning 57kg champion, now likely to move up to 60kg in search of an Olympic place. They see the Russian, Sofya Ochigava, who inflicted Taylor's first defeat in three years in the Czech Republic last March. Their first memory of Ochigava was of a 51kg whippet and then, a couple of years ago, they saw her turn up to the Europeans at 60kg, laying claim to Taylor's dominion. "It was all muscle," says Pete. "She'd obviously trained hard to get up to the weight."

Others, like her old friend Tatar, will have worked just as hard to scale down. And that's the thing here. Taylor, so mentally secure, won't see an obvious reason to fear any fighter who crosses her path in China and the notion of going to London as anything less than world champion would be anathema to her, yet it goes without saying that the advent of the Olympics has changed the game significantly.

Boxers who wouldn't normally have entered Taylor's orbit now lurk menacingly down the field. In the Olympic test event last November, Natasha Jonas convincingly beat Queen Underwood and yet the Liverpool-born lightweight is as low as No 22 in the rankings. There are any number of such dangers, their eyes set firmly on nailing a place in London and, if at all possible, taking Taylor out along the way.

For sure, it is a lonely and vulnerable place to be. Yet you think of the long road she and Pete have travelled over the past 10 years, sustained by a shared and unshakeable Christian faith and bank of experience many boxers never earn in a lifetime, and you realise a single, sporting destiny could not be in safer hands. The nerves, if they exist at all, will probably be ours.

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