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Boxing: London calling Taylor towards crowning glory

The Bulgarian keeps her guard up, her elbows tucked in near her abdomen, her gloves resting on her face guard. She ducks once, twice, and absorbs a left jab, then a right hook, then a flurry of punches.

Thirty seconds into the semi-finals of the European Amateur Women's Boxing Championships and Katie Taylor is already 2-0 up.

The film footage reviewed by Katie's camp shows that Denica Eliseeva prefers to work from the defensive, countering when the opportunity arises. Of course, that's what the footage of most of Katie's opponents shows.

Punches of the speed and punishment level dealt out by the 23-year-old Bray lightweight are atypical in women's boxing. As is Katie's reaction time, her repertoire of combinations and her virtuosity in changing the game plan of a round as she's boxing it.

Katie moves backwards, lightly, around the ring, inviting Eliseeva to make a move. The Bulgarian is slow and wary. She doesn't take the bait. Her opponent's record might offer a reason why. Going into this bout, Katie has won 61 of her last 62 fights, the most recent coming just a day before, when the referee stopped Katie's quarter-final after she broke her opponent's nose.

"Feint your way in, Katie!" yells an Irish voice from beyond the barriers set up around the judge's table.

That voice belongs to Pete Taylor, her brother, a former boxer himself.

In the stands in this basketball arena in the former shipbuilding capital of Nikolaev, Ukraine, are Katie's mother, her sister and Pete's girlfriend -- their eyes nervously watching the ring. Her cornerman is her father, a former Irish boxing champion and his daughter's tireless, if sometimes reluctant, trainer.

"Angles! Angles!" Pete yells. There doesn't seem to be much cause for concern. Katie puts on a clinical display, notching points in each of the rounds. By the time the bell rings, Katie is through to the final after winning 8-0.

Pearls of sweat dot her forehead and nose and the mask of concentration she's worn since entering the arena eases only slightly. She doesn't smile. This isn't the gold, after all.

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By the time London opens the Olympic Games in 2012, there will be few who will have not heard of the Irish right-hander from Bray, Co Wicklow.

In late August, women's boxing overcame the wary machismo and thinly veiled sexism that had waylaid it for most of the past decade, to officially become an Olympic sport.

Within a few hours, Katie Taylor not only became one of the new Olympic discipline's poster children, she also became Ireland's best gold-medal hope.

There have been few boxers as dominant in the young discipline as the soft-spoken, hard-hitting dual sports star.

An accomplished midfielder who has earned more than 50 caps as a member of the Irish women's soccer team, Katie's growing fame is, nonetheless, tied to her formidable record in the ring.

She has won the European Championships in the lightweight category for the last three years, is two-time world champion, and, last year, was voted the world's best amateur female boxer by the sport's governing body, the AIBA (International Boxing Association).

Top boxing minds in Ireland rate her the most technically brilliant of the country's impressive boxing talent -- male or female.

"There's nobody more courageous than Katie," says Patrick Ryan, the ruddy-faced veteran trainer of dozens of Irish national champions, who three years ago began working Katie's corner together with her father.

"That's something you can't teach them. It's the risks you take. The more calculated risks you take, the better your chances of winning."

Such calculation is borne of experience, something Katie -- despite her youth -- has more of than perhaps any other female boxer.

Youngest

Peter Taylor spent his youth in Bray training to become a champion, which he eventually was -- winning the all-Ireland in 1986.

Then life intervened as he began to raise a family. But he continued to train. And when a babysitter couldn't be found he took his youngest daughter, then just five or six, with him to the gym. Katie took to boxing immediately.

"I always knew how to throw a punch," says Katie. "I know girls aren't supposed to know that."

Boxing was in the Taylor genes. Peter's two older sons would go on to box competitively. His wife, Bridget, later became Ireland's first female boxing judge. And although he had his reservations when it came to his daughter stepping into a ring, Katie was relentless in her desire to train.

"It's individual," says Peter. "If your daughter wants to box, do you stop her?" So, he began calling up other clubs, looking for sparring partners and competitions.

He'd enter her under 'K Taylor' and it was only after the bouts, when she took off her helmet, that the boys realised they had been beaten by a girl.

"It was awkward for the lads as well," says Katie.

When Peter appealed to the Irish Amateur Boxing Association to set up fights for his daughter with other girls, he was met with stony silence. It was only in 2000 that the IABA sanctioned women's boxing, seven years after the AIBA put on the first women's bout.

"You could write 10 pages about what I had to do to get into the IABA," says Peter. "There was no interest."

In October 2001, the amateur association put on the first bout involving women at the National Stadium in Dublin. katie, then just 15, beat a 16-year-old girl by a score of 23-12 with technique that belied her age and gender. The Irish boxing community was impressed. At the end of the evening, which also featured eventual European bronze medalist Andy Lee, Katie was named the best boxer of the night.

But the novelty soon wore off and people began to forget about Bray's rising star. The town's community centre was only open to Katie for four hours each week to train. So, Peter trained her in the family's kitchen, teaching his two sons, Lee and Peter Jnr, and Katie combinations, and letting the siblings spar against one another.

The family patriarch, Peter, a self-employed electrician, took it upon himself to fund his children's ambitions. He paid the expenses for the first few tournaments Katie entered abroad. He'd find boys for her to spar against. Their punches were harder and faster, forcing his daughter to react quicker, and to endure more.

In 2003, she was brought into the IABA's high-performance unit, the first, and to this day only, woman given that privilege.

"Because women's boxing wasn't in the Olympics, it was very difficult to make a case for her to get funding," said Billy Walsh, the programme's director.

Peter, meanwhile, had to give up his electrician's business as training and tournaments made it impossible for him to fulfil contracts. The money dwindled and the family pulled together before the Irish Sports Council awarded Katie a developmental grant in 2005. Two years later, they bumped her up to their highest category, €40,000 a year.

Her first European Championship came in 2005, when she was just 18, beating Gülsüm Tatar, a Turk who had dealt her two defeats in previous years. Tatar would beat her twice more in the next two years, before Katie hit her stride and began to dominate her rival.

Katie won the championships again in 2006, her large victory margins over one-time champions signalling a new star on the women's boxing circuit. That November, she overcame a broken nose, suffered in sparring, to win Ireland its first-ever world championship in women's boxing. Two more European titles followed, as did another world championship.

Not that anyone back home was paying much attention. "The recognition is the hardest part," says Katie. "I won three European titles before I finally started getting my face in the papers."

Katie can't walk down the street in her hometown without being stopped for autographs. On nights out, she gets asked a lot of questions and the occasional stupid request to throw a punch, which she laughs off, sipping her blackcurrant juice while her friends drink cocktails. The fact is, she doesn't go out much, anyway.

Six days a week, you can find her in a converted boathouse yards away from the boats and lapping waves of Bray harbour. Two years ago, after years of battling, the town gave the building to Peter Taylor, who converted it into the Bray Boxing Club with the help of local sponsors. The rattling trains of the DART are audible through the corrugated metal roof of the one-room building, as are the scrape and scratch of the pigeons landing on the top.

A boxing ring is pushed up against the wall, boxes of gear line the walls next to punching bags. She has no shortage of sparring partners. When Taylor calls up other boxing clubs looking for talented young men to spar with his daughter, they ask what time they should come over.

"The boys are learning from Katie because Katie is very quick, very fast," says Ryan.

Most of her female colleagues politely decline invitations to spar with her. Others demand that Peter ask Katie to go easy on them before accepting.

"She's pound-for-pound the best boxer," says Lucy O'Connor, the captain of the British women's boxing team. "Her hand speed is, well as you can see, unmatched at the moment. She's my boxing idol."

Saturday in Nikolaev: the day before Katie's final bout.

She's chosen to train away from the other boxers, at a run-down sports facility on the banks of the Southern Bug river that flows into the Black Sea, 65km away.

Suspicious-looking men in tracksuit bottoms, their pot bellies giving new shape to polyester shirts printed with loud, colourful patterns, loiter outside what looks like the entrance to a modest two-storey house.

But a narrow hallway opens into a large gym of chipped paint and scuffed floorboards. On a raised boxing ring in the back, a pale figure feints and punches, exhaling barely audible whistles tinged with the sound of exertion.

A couple of young boxers sit languidly at the edge of the ring. Katie stalks Peter around the ring, whipping out jabs and hooks at the hulking figure of her father. One of the young boxers films Katie on his mobile phone, pausing every once in a while to look over at his mates. They shake their heads and smile.

After Katie's bout on Friday, Peter hung around to watch Turkish lightweight Meryem Zeybek Aslan come back from 3-2 down to win her place in the final with some hard-punching and a 6-4 score.

Later that night, while Katie slept, Ryan and Peter stayed up into the early hours, watching Aslan's footage, and noticed she left an opening for Katie's devastating left hook.

In the training session the following day, father and daughter practised a counter-punch, Peter moving in close while Katie sidestepped and swung a vicious hook. Step, pop. Step, pop. Over and over again.

"It's up to her when she's in the ring," says Peter. "We can prepare her and give her tips, but she'll feel her way in the ring."

At the end of the 20-minute session, Katie is off again, head down, quiet, already thinking about the next day's final.

The pressure on her shoulders has mounted considerably in the last two years as the AIBA lobbied the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

In 2007, Katie took part in a bout in Chicago, held in large part to win over the final sceptics within the IOC.

"A fight's a fight really, but I did feel loads of pressure," she recalls, "because of who was there watching it and what it meant for women's boxing."

Katie put on a powerful display, stopping her opponent in the first round on the 15-point rule as IOC President Jacques Rogge looked on. Two years later, the IOC voted for inclusion.

One wonders if Katie is able to handle the circus that will engulf her life in the coming years.

She's averse to interviews, turning down 'The Late Late Show' several times before Peter managed to convince her -- and then only after he promised to go on the programme with her. A young life consumed with training has made her shy and reticent. Peter likes to joke that his daughter is "23 going on 15".

Morning breaks in Nikolaev and Katie wakes after a fitful night in a hotel housed in one of those jutting, poured concrete monstrosities Soviet developers seemed to specialise in.

After the early morning weigh-in confirms her at a trim 60kg, she takes a walk with her father.

The 3,500-seat arena is more than three-quarters full by the time the bell for the first bout rings at noon on Sunday. The national squads sit in clusters, recognisable by the colour of their tracksuits. Some of the boxers sport bruises from the preceding days..

Katie has disappeared into the dressing-rooms, where she embarks on a set preparation routine.

As before all fights, she opens a Bible, stopping at Psalm 18.

"It is God that girdeth me with strength, and maketh my way perfect.

He maketh my feet like hinds' feet, and setteth me upon my high places.

He teacheth my hands to war, so that a bow of steel is broken by mine arms.

Thou hast also given me the shield of thy salvation: and thy right hand hath holden me up, and thy gentleness hath made me great ... "

As she prays, the bell signalling the rounds progressing outside is muffled. The shouts and applause of the crowd barely reach her. Katie's family is in the stands, looking on nervously as Katie's fight approaches, the sixth of the day. A medal ceremony wraps up and Katie suddenly strides out, wearing red, looking straight ahead as she mounts the steps and climbs into the ring.

People move from the lobby to crowd the two hallways that enter the arena. Peter leans in from the corner post. "Just go out there and have fun," he says.

Katie comes out aggressive, putting Aslan on the ropes as she works her body. Her first point comes from a flurry of punches to the face. The second is from a probing left jab. On the third point, Katie employs the move practised the evening before, sidestepping the first aggressive advance from Aslan and smashing a left-hook in.

Unlike a men's bout, where testosterone often overwhelms technique, the careful strategy and technical skill of good boxers is quite obvious in women's fights. Watching the final makes another thing clear: while her opponents are good and getting better, Katie is quite visibly in another league.

Round one comes to a close. Aslan takes a seat on a plastic stool in her corner. Katie stands in hers and stares into the ring. Peter leans in close to Katie: "She's going to come out aggressive."

Aslan does and Katie counters immediately, landing her fourth point. The points tally up to seven as the second round ticks down. By the third, it's no longer a question of if, but by how much Katie will win.

In the fourth round, Katie absorbs a few blows before countering with a flurry of shots, bullying Aslan into the corner of the ring as the crowd claps appreciatively. The bell rings. The computer screens read 11-0 for Katie and she allows herself a smile, bearing a mouthpiece painted in the Irish tricolour.

Peter gives her a kiss and Ryan a hug. It's her fourth European Championship in a row -- and she did it without losing a point.

There's a flurry around her as she tries to make her way to the dressing-room.

Everyone wants a photo with Katie, everyone an interview. "Four in a row," says Peter as Katie pulls off the tape wrapped around her hands in the dressing-room. "Enjoy it."

Katie moves out into the narrow hallway, where yellow-shirted volunteers want photographs. The majority of the Ukrainian women's boxing team is next.

Ten minutes on, she's walking out again and up to the podium.

She smiles as the Irish national anthem is played. But inside she knows she would give back this medal, give back all of her medals, for an Olympic gold in three years' time.

And it's not difficult to imagine: the flag ascending in the boxing arena in London; Katie smiling in the Irish team jacket -- the best thing that's happened to Bray, and quite possibly the young sport of women's boxing.


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