Monday 20 January 2020

Comment: Ireland still devoted to Katie Taylor but obsession is a distant affair

Katie Taylor during a public workout at Westfield Stratford last Wednesday Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Katie Taylor during a public workout at Westfield Stratford last Wednesday Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Six summers ago, Katie Taylor decided she wanted to take some time out from her irrepressible assault on Olympic glory and world domination.

So, less than an hour after defeating local London 2012 favourite Natasha Jonas to guarantee the Bray woman at least a bronze medal, she joined her family at the nearby Westfield Shopping Centre.

There were few other Irish voices amidst the sprawling commercial centre, through which most spectators would pass en route to the various Olympic venues; many were still singing their hearts out in acclamation of their heroine in the Excel Arena.

The semi-final bout against Mavzuna Chorieva could wait, for now. This was precious down-time.

"When I look back on the Olympics, those were some of the best moments for me," she would recall later.

Six years on, so much has changed for Katie Taylor but, as she returned to the very same sprawling suburban shopping complex, so much is unchanged, too.

On Wednesday, she stepped through the ropes of a contrived boxing ring amidst the eateries and department stores to undergo a publicised workout before a mix of startled shoppers and a smattering of feverish fight fans ahead of her 10th professional fight tonight.

YouTube

Except, aside from following the live stream on YouTube, few would have known about it. There has been precious little coverage this week of the bout in the Irish media, despite the fact that Taylor is putting two of her world belts on the line, in just her 10th pro fight, against Kimberley Connor.

Quite apart from the main field sports, the recent successes for Irish females at elite level - from rugby sevens to hockey and athletics - have really grabbed the public attention.

Despite being halfway towards her goal of unifying all world titles in her weight class, this latest step on that road for Taylor, in another country, behind a prohibitive paywall on an English subscription channel, might struggle to do something similar.

It will feel like merely the most fleeting reminder of a nation's enduring love affair with someone for whom the admiration appears more predicated upon what she has become, rather than what she has done to become it.

For she still transcends her sport in this country.

In 2017, consultancy firm Teneo ranked her as Ireland's most admired sportsperson even though her sport failed to rank amongst the top six sports favoured by fans, with tennis and swimming listed ahead of boxing.

As had been the case throughout a largely untelevised amateur career played out in dimly-hit halls in distant territories, there was far more appreciation for Taylor's excellence in her chosen discipline rather than the discipline itself.

Sponsors flocked to her for the same, primal reasons that the public did - a wholesome personality, a grim determination to battle the odds and a humble grace that was mercifully at odds with the often brutal nature of her sport.

Ireland celebrated her Olympian peak but, as they had done before then and would do again, remained largely indifferent until the narrative lurched into unforeseen despair at the 2016 Games.

As one chapter closed, though, Taylor calmly turned the page and began a professional career, albeit in a sport where it has proven difficult to establish credibility.

Taylor would have no such difficulty launching her career, however.

But the progression in her professional career has also, as we now know, been tainted by personal pain which has arguably heightened the sense of empathy many have towards her.

Many Irish people would have been unaware that the sporting split with her erstwhile coach, father Pete, had also been replicated domestically until the recent tragic shooting in his Bray boxing club prompted an unusually forthright response from someone who normally prefers to keep her counsel on such matters.

Issuing a statement condemning media coverage of the fatal shooting that claimed the life of Pete's friend Bobby Messett, in what Pete insisted was an unprovoked assault, Katie publicly confirmed for the first time her parents' separation.

In a new documentary, she reveals little more, only the tears that more than eloquently explain the deep anguish that she must have felt. She seems to be utterly alone.

All the while, she has remained devoted with characteristically religious zeal, ensconced in the Connecticut she likes to call the "wilderness" where she can pursue her life's ambition untouched by the outside.

"It's just what I need," she said this week and it is understandable. And so, for as little time as possible, she will step outside of that world and through the ropes in London, briefly detained by a 38-year-old opponent, in another stepping stone towards the total domination that will complete her.

Memories

"I've great memories of this part of London," she said in the Westfield shopping centre, six years after that family meal when everything in her world seemed blissful and free and where again now, perhaps, her road to redemption will gather pace once more.

It does not appear to be one paved with vast riches; a sport fielding few genuine talents is just incapable of engineering any sense of largesse.

Yet how dearly she would like that final consummation to occur in her home town. For a myriad reasons, not all of them sporting or financial, that remains a long shot.

The words from Muhammad Ali, posted on a social media video detailing her final preparations, seem apt.

"The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights."

Her devotion remains absolute, as does Ireland's towards her, even it remains a curiously distant obsession.

Irish Independent

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