Monday 21 October 2019

Sinéad Kissane: 'Katie Taylor packs a punch broader than boxing'

The reach of undisputed world champion extends beyond the ring as she proves antidote to social media's heightened focus on image for girls

Katie Taylor pictured with her five belts. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Katie Taylor pictured with her five belts. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Sinéad Kissane

One of the tunes on the playlist in Katie Taylor's dressing-room before she walked out for her fight with Delfine Persoon in New York's Madison Square Garden last Saturday night was a 1980s power ballad.

As Taylor walked up and down in her dressing-room, under her hooded robe, waiting to be called out for the biggest night of her pro career, Whitesnake's 'Here I Go Again' filled the dead air.

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And here I go again on my own

Goin' down the only road I've ever known

Like a drifter, I was born to walk alone

And I've made up my mind

I ain't wasting no more time…

Time seemed to operate on a go-slow in the final round of Taylor's fight with Persoon when it looked like Taylor was beyond the holding-on-by-the-fingernails-stage.

When the judges' cards read 95-95, 96-94, 96-94, earning Taylor a majority points win, there was an immediate dispute to the undisputed.

Carl Frampton called the decision "disgraceful". Taylor stood in the ring and had Persoon's WBC belt hung onto her as well as her own WBA, WBO and IBF belts and Ring Magazine's commemorative 'ring belt'.

There stood Ireland's first unified world champion in the modern era. And the eighth boxer, male or female, to become undisputed world champion.

Katie Taylor (32) has been riding sidecar to our sporting lives for what feels like forever.

She was 15 years old when she beat Belfast's Alanna Audley-Murphy in the first sanctioned female boxing match at the National Stadium in Dublin in October 2001.

She won her first European Championship lightweight gold medal (first of six) in 2005 and her first World Championship lightweight gold medal (first of five) a year later in New Delhi.

After the International Olympic Committee ruled out women's boxing for Beijing 2008, it got the go-ahead for London 2012 and how Taylor handled the hype that she would win nothing less than gold at those Olympics remains one of the greatest achievements in Irish sport.

Four years later there was the heartbreak in Rio followed by the move to pro boxing.

Because Taylor has been an original shaper of modern women's boxing, her success has come with various riders that it has neither the comparative popularity nor level of competition that other sports have.

For example, how should her success compare with Sonia O'Sullivan's European and World gold medals or her Olympic silver in athletics? Or Pádraig Harrington's golf Majors? Or Roy Keane's achievements in a team sport?

The answer is it's a folly to try and compare. But probably more than any other Irish sports star, Taylor's punch has been broader than just inside her sport.

When I was a kid watching O'Sullivan compete, for example, I only focused on her athletic talent. I didn't view her as a role model because I didn't consciously know what a role model was back then.

It was only when I looked back that I could put the label of 'role model' on how I thought of her.

All I was interested in at the time was how O'Sullivan ran, how she covered breakaways during a race, if she kicked too early or if she left her chase too late. I don't remember any social messaging around her. I just wanted to run like her.

Because of the era she's come to prominence in, Taylor has had a more multi-layered effect.

Her rise in boxing crossed into a period when the national and social consciousness around getting more girls into sport began to grow.

Taylor challenged our traditional view of an Irish female sportsperson. She still does for many people, with her physicality, her force and her speed.

Her success happened during the explosion of social media popularity which also came with growing pressures and anxieties for girls to be Insta-ready, with a heightened emphasis on image and looks.

Keane's 'fail to prepare, prepare to fail' line might have been a catchy number for some to live by outside of sport but Taylor offered the kind of advice that young girls may not have been getting elsewhere from public figures.

"There are not a lot of positive role models of women in newspapers and magazines. I think it puts pressure on girls," Taylor said in 2015.

"They think that the image put out, it's the way you have to look. I want to tell girls, it's not about make-up and how you look that's important; you are so much more than how you look."

Taylor has a reach beyond her own sport but talking about her outside the perimeters of her being a boxer can sometimes get lost in a largesse of hot air.

So, what about the small stories like the two teenage girls who got the bus from Abbeyfeale, Co Limerick at 1.30am last Tuesday morning and arrived at Dublin airport for 5.30am just to welcome home and meet with Taylor later that day.

"If you're passionate about something just go for it with all your heart," Taylor said when asked what advice she would give to girls.

"Don't let anyone tell you that you can't be something or you can't do something, just go for it. Anything is possible when you're willing to work hard."

Taylor isn't just an undisputed world champion, she's an antidote to misplaced beliefs that success comes at an easy price, or that image is the only currency that matters for girls, or that success should alter who you are or what you believe in.

When Taylor met former United States First Lady Michelle Obama, during the US Presidential trip to Ireland in 2011, she said to her: "If more women boxed in this world, we would have a lot less problems!"

But it's a tweet from Mrs Obama that could just as easily be applied to Taylor as a world and Olympic champion: "Being president doesn't change who you are - it reveals who you are."

Being undisputed world champion has revealed that Taylor wants even more.

"This is the absolute pinnacle of the sport, to be undisputed champion," Taylor said this week on her return home.

"I'm so happy now that the London Olympics isn't my greatest achievement anymore. The best thing about it is the best is yet to come".

We should have known she'd have something else to aim for.

And here she goes again on her own. Going down the only road she's ever known…

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