Saturday 26 May 2018

Maybe time has caught up with Katie, but one man could help her recover

Ireland's Katie Taylor
Ireland's Katie Taylor

Tommy Conlon

Katie Taylor was the very picture of dignified disappointment as she stood on the podium and received the presentation party. She bowed her head as the medal was draped around her neck, then accepted a bouquet of flowers and shared a polite word with the gentleman who handed them to her.

A World Championship bronze medal is, by any standards, a major honour. But when you have five World Championship gold medals already, bronze has a tarnished lustre.

Taylor had come to Kazakhstan seeking the sixth gold that would have stood alone in the record books as an unprecedented achievement.

She had also come to qualify for the Olympic Games, and duly did so. But she will go to Rio in August a vulnerable Olympic champion. The aura that once surrounded her like a force field has evaporated. The young woman who did more than anyone to pioneer female boxing will turn 30 on July 2. For many of those years, she was in a league of her own - but the best of her global peers have been chasing her down and closing the gap.

A few of them have caught up, and possibly even overtaken her. And a lot of them fancy having a go now, where previously they approached her with caution.

Last summer, the Azerbaijan fighter Yana Alekseevna came perilously close to beating her in the European semi-finals. Six weeks ago in Turkey, Alekseevna beat her. Last Saturday, she was roughed up by a Swedish opponent and, on Tuesday, Victoria Torres of Mexico palpably hurt Taylor with some severe body shots in particular.

On Thursday, the French fighter Estelle Mossely beat her by the narrowest of margins in the semi-final. The verdict was debatable, but Mossely had more or less matched her blow for blow.

But it was the confident attitude Taylor's opponents took into the ring that was telling: the fear was gone. They were bold and aggressive, they clearly fancied their chances - they weren't fighting a legend any longer, but a newly-fallible veteran.

Close followers of the game had been detecting signs of deterioration in Taylor's physical prowess for over a year - just the slightest slowing in her reflexes and foot movement. In the ring, it means getting hit more. It might only be a fractional diminution but it compromises the art of escape just enough to get clipped and tagged a little more often.

Taylor has not been easy on herself - she has never taken a shortcut in her life. Hers is not a lightly-trained 29-year-old physique. She famously built that formidable fighting machine on a vast amount of punishing work in the gym. She has accumulated 15 years of hard labour on all the working parts. She competed in her first senior international tournament in 2004.

It is conceivable, therefore, that as a physical specimen she has simply plateaued. It is conceivable that corrosive wear and tear has irreparably entered her bones. Mossely, by contrast, is 23. She fought Taylor with a young athlete's hunger, sharpness and resilience. It was a discernible difference between the pair. If the ravages of time are a major factor, then perhaps it matters not a great deal which coach she is working with these days.

However, it's impossible to ignore that her father is no longer in charge of her career. She won 18 major titles over 10 years with Peter Taylor in her corner, including the Olympic gold in London and those five World Championships. Last November, they both announced that he would be taking "a break" from the daily grind.

Asked by this newspaper last February whose decision it was to go their separate ways, Katie replied: "I think you will have to speak to him about that. I'm not going to answer any questions."

Boxing at the Rio Games begins in 10 weeks. Winning Olympic gold was a childhood fantasy for Taylor that became real by the sheer force of her enormous will.

Women boxers were not allowed even compete at Olympiads when she started out on the road. Her pure talent and desire helped to break down that barrier more than any other female fighter. She still wants that second Olympic gold with all her heart and soul.

It is therefore a poignant and complicated reality that she may not be able to do it now without the architect who presided over her magnificent journey. One can only imagine the psychological boost it would give her to have that familiar voice back in her corner - the surge in confidence, the jolt in energy.

But Peter Taylor is on the outside looking in now. He was presumably following the tournament in Astana last week on television. He can only have watched with all sorts of ruptured emotions as she struggled.

His daughter is in a race against time now, hoping to stave off her pursuing rivals long enough to snatch gold in Rio. She has a champion's heart; athletes of her stature can often defy the march of time when it matters most.

But, whether it's impossible now or not, one cannot but feel that her father might restore the edge that makes all the difference.

Sunday Indo Sport

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