Friday 23 February 2018

Comment - Our admiration and respect for Katie Taylor isn't measured in social media followers

WBA World Lightweight Champion Katie Taylor at a press conference in the IFC.
Photo: Tony Gavin 31/10/2017
WBA World Lightweight Champion Katie Taylor at a press conference in the IFC. Photo: Tony Gavin 31/10/2017

Jack O'Toole

"Tell Catherine to get the push ready, get ready to send the push on Katie.”

The push notification; modern journalism’s air raid siren for matters of national importance.

Hurricanes, gang shootings, Katie Taylor boxing victories, these are the stories that are deemed worthy of a ‘push’ in Ireland.

“Do you have a headline ready Jack?” Catherine asked as she waited attentively for the missile codes.

“Yeah give me a second. Try ‘Katie Taylor wins her first world title with unanimous decision victory’. The referee is going to lift her arm shortly, when he does, send it.”

In Cardiff, Steve Gray raises Katie Taylor’s left arm and in that moment she is crowned as the new WBA female lightweight champion of the world. In Dublin, the push notification of how she achieved her victory is sent out to the Irish public, or at least those with the Independent smartphone app, and a few seconds later and my eyes were once again allowed to return the screen in front of me.

From there I looked on as Taylor smiled, and before she even had a chance to exhale, Bridget Taylor came racing towards her with an expression of unbridled joy.

The moment is brilliantly photographed by Stephen McCarthy and it makes for one of the all-time great sports photographs.

Bridget Taylor rushing towards her daughter with her arms outstretched and her eyes gazing towards the roof of the Principality Stadium reminds me of the only sports photograph I have in my house, the one picture that hangs beside my bed that reads ‘First Minute. First Round.’

Every single morning I see this picture when I rise out of bed, but not because I have some sort of strange obsession with Muhammad Ali, I literally sleep on the right side of my bed and to exit the bedroom I invariably have to cross Muhammad in what is an unavoidable part of my morning.

Naturally, I’ve had a lot of time to look at this photo and like everyone the first thing you see when you look at it is Ali and the menacing look on his face. The exertion he shows, the dominance he displays during that moment.

Then you look at Sonny Liston. The dethroned champion, the man who famously once pulled a gun on Ali, lying there helplessly with his hands over his head. Completely powerless.

But the more you look at the photo, the more you see one character emerge from the background.

The photograph will be remembered forever as the moment a 23-year-old Cassius Clay shook up the world, but there’s a face in the bottom right corner of the picture that may summarise the moment best .

I do not know the man’s name in question, nor his story, but his expression during that moment has always resonated with me.

Ali has just stunned the world, mass pandemonium is about to hit the Civic Center, in Lewiston, Maine, like a tidal wave, and here is this photographer, in what should be the biggest moment of his career, watching what has just happened before him. Taken in by the moment.

It’s hard to imagine what that sort of energy must feel like when you’re sitting in a near empty office space in Talbot Street, but nevertheless, I was still in awe of Taylor during her fight, just like that man in Lewiston was in awe of what Ali had done at the Civic Center that night.

Taylor dominated Sanchez in the fight, completely picked her apart with ferocious handspeed, accuracy and this unrelenting desire to meet her head on.

When Taylor dropped the Argentine with a vicious shot to the body in the second round, she looked at Sanchez like a lion that was eyeing off an injured antelope.

She remained incredibly calm and kept her composure throughout the rest of the fight.

“Usually when I watch women's boxing I think 'yeah it's not bad', but this is quality,” said former cruiserweight world champion Johnny Nelson directly after the fight.

“She has raised the bar for women's boxing. Class! Even when she got the knockdown, you look at her face.

“Remember, it's her seventh professional fight, she's on the verge of winning a world title, the opponent goes down and you'd think she'd have some joy in her face but there was a glint in her eye like a shark as if to say 'come on, I want to carry on fighting'.

"I loved her attitude. This girl can fight for fun and she is not complacent, she is not happy, she is not comfortable with just having one world title. I can see her comfortably, still staying hungry, trying to go after all the world titles and trying to unify the division."

This for me represents why Taylor is popular. The drive, the glint in her eye during competition, the utter dominance she can show in the ring.

But Nelson doesn’t even begin to touch on her personality outside of the ropes; humble, kind, warm, down to earth.

I mean she told Colin Farrell to go sit with his girlfriend and enjoy his night when he suggested that he should walk her to the ring. After that engagement, winning a world title was always going to be the second, if not the third, greatest accomplishment of her career.

But the ‘how’ Taylor is so popular still intrigues me. The why I understand, and I appreciate, but the how I am still trying to figure out.

Last week, a study conducted by sponsorship advisers Onside revealed that Taylor is now Ireland's most admired sports personality, coming in just ahead of UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor.

How?

How is Taylor more admired than McGregor?

McGregor has 7,582,814 likes on Facebook. Taylor has 143,512 likes.

McGregor has 6.58 million followers on Twitter. Taylor has 119,000 followers.

McGregor fought undefeated boxer and ‘pound-for-pound’ king Floyd Mayweather Jr. for the ‘money’ belt in Las Vegas. Taylor just fought Sanchez on an undercard in Cardiff.

Taylor said her opponent was ‘very experienced and very rough and rugged’. McGregor said his opponent was….. Well….. Take your pick at this stage.

McGregor is undoubtedly the more popular fighter across the globe, but in his own backyard, Taylor is more admired.

What does that say about Ireland as a country? What does that say about Taylor? And what does that say about McGregor?

In a world where social media is a currency, a gauge of popularity, and more worryingly, a measure of self-worth, the understated Taylor is more admired than the bombastic McGregor.

How?

Are popularity and admiration the same thing? Popularity is defined as the state or condition of being liked, admired, or supported by many people, yet you can admire a person even if they're not popular, and you can be popular without being widely admired. A charity worker v. The Taoiseach.

In Taylor’s sport of boxing, Muhammad Ali was ultimately both admired and popular, but he once brought a bus to Sonny Liston’s house and berated him through the middle of the night with a bullhorn.

Mike Tyson once tried to remove Evander Holyfield’s ear from the side of his head.

Floyd Mayweather Jr. beat the mother of his children, served time in prison for it and famously said from his own strip club “I know that breasts, vagina, music and alcohol will never go out of style.”

The trio are without doubt the sport’s three biggest draws of the last 60 years.

McGregor’s rap sheet is long enough without needing to recite it in great detail but what has Taylor done?

Repeatedly punched a tennis ball that hangs from the front of her cap? Called out a bunch of golfers for pulling out of the Olympics? Told Colin Farrell to sit down and enjoy his evening?

How?

How is she an admired figure in combat sport where some of the most popular athletes have been in many respects the exact opposite of who she is.

Even the most popular women’s fighter ever, Ronda Rousey, once said that she could beat then UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez in a fight and that Kim Kardashian ‘should be selling lube instead of shoes’.

On the same night Taylor defeated Sanchez, UFC welterweight Colby Covington defeated Brazilian contender Demian Maia in São Paulo before telling the home crowd that Brazil was a dump and that its people were “a filthy pack of animals”. He also wore sunglasses in his post-fight interview, which was conducted indoors and at night I might add.

He wasn't wearing sunglasses to block out the sun, he was wearing them to try and fly closer to it.

Taylor seems like an alien in this world, a figure whose popularity will only ever reach a certain height due to her personality, but in Ireland, she’s the most admired athlete in the country, male or female.

Actor Elijah Wood once said that being different, going against the grain of society is the greatest thing in the world. In Taylor’s world, he's probably right.

In our world, in Ireland, she’s rarely wrong.

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