Vincent Hogan: Kellie Harrington closes in on gold as Katie Taylor's invincible aura slips
Katie Taylor fell the wrong side of scratch-card justice in Astana yesterday, thus ending her bid for an unprecedented sixth World Championship title.
If you saw her fight against France's Estelle Mossely, you're unlikely to have been left with any clear opinion on whether or not the verdict was fair.
Judgement is arbitrary in this business and, on yesterday's evidence, routinely impossible to reconcile with anything discernible to an untrained eye.
Mossely may have lost their three previous contests, but she's been getting closer to Katie every time and this semi-final was, undeniably, a battle of two boxers now separated by inches.
So on a day that brought a stunning exhibition from Dublin light-welter Kellie Harrington to reach her first World final, the official verdict in the Taylor fight was a split 2-1 decision against the Olympic champion.
The judges from Argentina and Kazakhstan both read the contest as a 38-38 draw before giving it to Mossely while, perversely, the third judge from Vietnam, scored all four rounds to Taylor.
How verdicts could be so hopelessly polarised from people with the same vantage point is, sadly, a debate as old as amateur boxing itself. Still, bearing in mind that bouts are scored by five judges, only three of whose verdicts are used, the discrepancy did seem startling.
The worry for Katie now is that defeat represents yet another dent in her aura as the best female lightweight on the planet.
It was her second setback in less than six weeks after a previous unbeaten run stretching all the way back to 2011.
And a suspicion that opponents are catching up on the remarkable Bray girl now carries pretty compelling weight.
Her loss to Yana Alekseevna at last month's Olympic qualifying tournament in Turkey didn't exactly register as an earthquake, given the official verdict for their clash at last year's European Games was a split decision in Taylor's favour (all three officials having scored it 38-38).
Both Alekseevna and Mossely are younger than Taylor and, having dominated the sport with just about every ounce of obsession in her for more than a decade now, Katie has begun to look vulnerable against palpably emboldened opponents.
Her loss in Turkey ended a run of 63 consecutive victories and yesterday's defeat brought the curtain down on an unbeaten record at the World Championships, stretching back to 2005.
It also ruined Katie's hopes of that sixth title which would have elevated her record above that of fellow five-time world champion, Mary Kom.
She does have the consolation of Olympic qualification (which eluded the veteran Indian in Astana), but Taylor has not looked the same boxer this year since father and coach, Pete, took the decision to take time out from her corner.
She will now go to Rio, almost uniquely for Katie, without the burden of an overwhelming favourite's tag, albeit whether the release of that burden will be sufficient to spark some kind of redemptive fire is open to question.
Her best rounds yesterday looked to be the second and fourth, both given to Mossely by the judges. It should be said that the officiating did not come across as crooked in any way. Incompetent? Absolutely.
In the third, Mossely caught Taylor early with a straight right that snapped the Bray's girl's head backwards and, thereafter, seemed to dominate the round against a flat-footed opponent.
Katie looked devoid of energy, the faintest sense of resignation communicating itself subliminally into her work.
Yet all three judges gave the round to Taylor. So whatever tree-houses they were watching from clearly offered a profoundly different perspective of the fight to anything we could see.
At the final bell, Zaur Antia and Eddie Bolger looked happy in Taylor's corner, clearly believing that she'd done enough to win.
Bolger admitted as much afterwards, reflecting: "I thought we nicked it. No, I thought we won it."
But then the official verdict fell and Katie's crown was gone.
She'd gone into the final round three points ahead on one judge's card and one point ahead on the other two. Just 120 seconds away from another final then, so long as she stayed out of trouble.
That she seemed to do too only for the two judges who'd given Mossely the second round to repeat that verdict on the fourth.
Taylor herself was typically dignified in response to only the ninth defeat of a 177-bout career, observing :"I thought every round was very close. I suppose it is a positive to take that I qualified for Rio, but that was only the job half done. I wanted to come home with a gold medal.
"I thought everything was going to plan, but I don't know, I'm not sure. It's very hard to comment when you're just out of the ring. I'm not sure how the fight went."
Former Ireland head coach Billy Walsh was last night quick to counsel against anybody writing off Taylor's chances of a successful Olympic title defence.
Now in charge of the US programme, Walsh stressed "The one to win is Rio. And remember form is temporary, class is permanent."
There was glorious Irish compensation in the victory of 26-year-old Harrington over six-time Canadian champion, Sara Kali.
A virtually anonymous club fighter a year ago, the Dubliner will fight Chinese third seed, Yang Wenlu, today for the right to be called world champion.
It is a fairytale story for a girl who has only been training with the High Performance programme in recent months whilst also working with her coach of the last decade in Glasnevin, Jimmy Halpin.
She is the fifth Irish boxer to reach a world final after Taylor (five times), Jason Quigley (2013), Michael Conlan and Joe Ward (both 2015) and puts the achievement down to an upsurge in self-belief.
That belief was certainly evident yesterday as she completely out-classed Kali, effortlessly switching over and back from orthodox to southpaw. Harrington won all four rounds on all of the judges' cards, her performance gathering impetus by the second.
Frustratingly, she is not boxing in an Olympic weight division (there are only three for women) and so will not be accompanying Taylor to Rio in August. But a rule change could well bring Tokyo 2020 into the Dubliner's focus now.
"Hopefully," she smiled. "I knew coming here that my weight wasn't an Olympic weight. I'm thrilled with the win, thrilled to turn my bronze medal into a silver. But I came out here for the gold medal. It's a dream come true to reach the final after ten years' boxing.
"The coaches have been pumping it into me time and time again about how good I am and how much I have to believe in myself. And it's in me, I know it, one more big fight.
"The aim is to get the gold, to get the job done."