Wednesday 21 August 2019

Ewan MacKenna: 'Forget the medals and the titles - Katie Taylor's greatest achievement came outside the ring'

Katie Taylor poses with her IBF, WBO and WBA belts at yesterday’s press conference in New York. Photo: Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Couldridge
Katie Taylor poses with her IBF, WBO and WBA belts at yesterday’s press conference in New York. Photo: Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Couldridge
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

Back in 2009, when RTÉ ran their greatest ever sportsperson poll, there was always going to be a recency bias.

It's partly why Pádraig Harrington and Brian O'Driscoll, rather than Keane or Giles, Brady or Best, topped their list. And while such debates, when comparing what isn't comparable, are designed for attention seeking and barstool chatter, they do serve an important purpose.

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They continue to remind us of the lack of understanding of different sports.

As an example, an agent last year, who usually works with soccer deals, got involved in a major rugby transfer and when the paperwork was all filed away, he warned never again. He added that a soccer player moving to a League Two club would earn him more. In essence, capitalism had put a clear value on how much harder it is to make it in some arenas.

Yet if RTÉ ran the same poll next week, after Katie Taylor likely wins a fourth belt and completes that rare feat of unifying an entire division, she'd probably be placed on top. Recency bias, yes; but again a lack of comprehension of her and her realm.

How often have we scraped the surface here?

For example, ask yourself, name who it is that she's fighting on Saturday night?

Ask yourself, have you seen her in a pro bout?

Go all in and ask have you seen any pro women's fight?

The chances are that most of those glorifying her and her achievements won't like their own answers.

The truth is women's boxing has a narrow base to the top of the pyramid meaning a lesser climb to the summit. In Taylor's division, there are 108 active fighters; in the men's equivalent, there are 1,740. It's not just quantity either, but quality as when a sport struggles along with so little investment, or proper interest that allows it to generate some good revenue, standards will inevitably be lower.

The reigning female boxer of the year is Amanda Serrano, who has been champion in seven different weight classes yet before one recent bout, taking a sabbatical from the day job to prepare, she said her fights cost her money with the purses at only four figures.

Back in Taylor's amateur days it was similar. In 2013, with no one to box in the nationals, a Polish fighter called Karolina Graczyk was thrown up on the butcher's block. She took a beating in the stadium and afterwards was sitting at the bar out back. I asked her what it was like to fight Taylor and she said she'd have liked more preparation. A lot more because, as a late call up, she'd gotten in seven days training across the previous seven months due to college. It's not Taylor's fault, but that doesn't make all this untrue either.

This isn't about holding Katie in a low or a high regard, it's about holding her in the right regard. She deserves that, as we ought to respect her actual triumphs and feats. Besides, context isn't the same as criticism.

There's more than enough to admire about her without faking it.

* * *

Such was the value of her name at that time, on the eve of the last Olympics, a call came through from a PR company. They'd an offer. A sit down with Katie Taylor after she'd won another gold medal, in return for some mention of whatever they were selling.

Sadly, more and more that's what makes this sphere spin, thus it wasn't the issue. The problem instead was they were suggesting a 10-minute chat before moving on to the next journalist. In other words, a waste of time, regardless of how little there was to be had.

There are those who chalk Taylor down as dull, and that's because many ask the wrong questions, leaving viewers subjected to a Late Late-esque spewing of vacuous pap. Only to delve into the soul of one of our most-mentioned but least-known names would take days. Back then in 2016, the script around the defence of her Olympic crown was the single most compelling in the entire Irish team. Soon it would expand and dwarf all others that were on offer, even when considering Michael Conlan's anger and the O'Donovans providing a famous Irish sporting moment. But how often did you see it brought up?

With Taylor, it was brutal but so real, and it should have been all about the girl and her father and their lives drifting apart, when for so long that had seemed as impossible as her not winning. Where once he had to give into her curiosity about his sport and let her play, where once he had to pull the kitchen table to the side so he could train her there as a kid, where once they shared joyful tears due to her 2012 victory in London, suddenly she shed new and different tears alone.

In Ireland's history across the Games, that moment will long resonate like few others.

Losing that first bout in Rio, the PR agency called back and pulled the plug on that 10 minutes. Taylor had enough of the whole lot and who could have blamed her? The feeling at that time was that the best of sport was behind her, and life's tests were to come. The greatest stories tend not to have happy endings and it seemed to be the case again. Yet Taylor's never really done what was expected of her and this was one more example.

In fact, it was far from the end of her story.

* * *

In 2011, Katie Taylor talked about how she wasn't into sports psychology. Instead, God was her psychologist, and the bible her psychology manual. Within sport, there's always been what can seem a painful and pointless link to religion, from Ali and Allah in the 1970s to Michael Chang and Jesus being booed in the 1980s to the explosion thereafter. Except, it does serve a purpose.

For cynics, at the very least, it's about the power of placebo. Taylor's faith, no matter how you feel about religion, was surely stretched but think about her life in recent years, and where she'd have been without that one and only rock.

The family shattered before what seemed to be her destiny of another gold medal.

That defeat in Brazil, where she looked around and was suddenly not just beaten but alone.

The end of the many amateur days that had come to define her.

The uncertainly of any days thereafter.

The move to America without the soothing words and support structure she was used to.

It went on. Before, when access was granted, her father was quite literally always sat by her shoulder, staring down any questions he didn't like, basically protecting her. Imagine what it was like when hearing the news that he'd been shot in the club they made famous together. Imagine what it was like, just a week before she defended the two belts she then held against Kimberly Connor, when she saw the headline that read: "'I am jobless and homeless' - Pete Taylor opens up on tragic shooting..."

James Douglas has spoken about how the death of his mother, before the greatest upset the sport has known, inspired him to make her proud. This was different though, to the point that it's basically incomprehensible and still, with every reason to quit and take the winding road, she kept going.

As with so much around Taylor, and through no fault of her own, it wasn't about the standard of her opponent or the fact her gender puts a cap on her sporting legacy. Instead, it was about what sets her apart, which is always in her corner rather than facing her.

She'd likely chalk it down to faith, but that would do her a massive disservice.

For getting back off life's canvas was all about her, and was far greater than anything she can ever do in a ring.

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