Saturday 21 September 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'Katie Taylor knows no other life and she is not looking for one either'

Katie Taylor. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Katie Taylor. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

After London 2012, the yellow brick road that lay ahead of Katie Taylor was supposed to be strewn with more gold and more glory.

Six years later, and against all expectation, it seems that the Olympic medal which crowned her journey back then will remain for all time the apex of her fabled career. It was inconceivable that at 26 her dominance and her willpower would not lead on to further great achievements.

Instead her story since then has tapered down into a sort of poignant anti-climax, beset by personal heartbreak, traumatic defeats and a twilight existence in the pound shop world of women's professional boxing.

A new documentary film, made with her co-operation and currently showing in cinemas nationwide, charts this afterlife; it makes for a saddening watch, despite her stoical efforts to put out the sunny side and keep on keeping on.

In the two years after London, and now a veritable national treasure, she continued to prosper, financially as well as competitively. In November 2014, she won her fifth consecutive World Championship title; her first had come in 2006; the obsessive devotion to her trade had survived intact the dangerous comforts that come with celebrity and success. The Olympic gold medal and all that flowed from it had not softened her ambition nor compromised her work ethic.

What sundered her career and ruptured her emotionally was the break-up of her parents' marriage. By the time she fetched up for the European leg of the Olympic qualifiers, in April 2016, Pete Taylor was no longer in her corner. Her father, mentor and lifelong coach had left the family home. He'd begun a new relationship; his daughter would not tolerate working with him anymore. Unbeaten in 62 consecutive fights spread out over the previous five years, she lost that qualifier in Turkey. Six weeks later, she duly qualified for Rio at the World Championships but was beaten again, in the semi-finals. And at the Rio games in August she was beaten in the quarter-final, her dream of a second Olympic gold medal terminated.

She could not speak in the minutes after that defeat; when RTé tried to interview her, she literally could not speak. Taylor was shocked into silence. It remains the most harrowing moment of her career.

There is a scene in the documentary where she is in her trophy room. It is a stunning sight; a museum would struggle to hold all the trophies that line the walls. She says she cannot even identify half of them. But she can vividly remember the one that isn't there. "The Rio gold. It's all I think about. It's eating away at me. I don't know how to get over it."

And it seems that nothing in her professional career will ever compensate for that loss. A few months later she turned pro and had her first paid fight in November 2016. No one with a firm grip of reality will judge anyone for seeking to secure their financial future. There is a long history, for example, of classical actors leaving an impecunious life in the theatre for the lure of Hollywood's dollars. The work might not be serious but the money is.

Taylor is an athlete of incorruptible integrity. Her work is her life; she wouldn't know how to take a short cut if she tried. But she now finds herself in a culture where few other peers share her monastic dedication. All the credibility in women's boxing is at the elite amateur end.

Taylor's professional opponents have been actual amateurs, part-timers with day jobs, hobbyists of the ring. It is the antithesis of everything she has stood for in terms of her standards. And it is a tragic irony that there isn't even the money to compensate. Women's pro boxing is still in such a feeble state that she is receiving buttons relative to her stature.

Having pioneered the growth of the amateur game almost on her own, she now finds herself having to do it all over again with the pro game. Others will reap the rewards, just as England's Nicola Adams and America's Claressa Shields followed their wins in London with gold in Rio too.

Taylor's trainer, the American Ross Enamait, is based in the town of Vernon, Connecticut. When she goes on camp there she stays in an apartment on her own. It seems like a lonely life. She goes to Church on Sundays. She doesn't have a partner; a few relationships came and went, she says. "I have to start making a few friends," she remarks in passing to the film crew as she watches a stir fry sizzle on the pan, not sure how to cook it because she never had time for cooking. She is filmed running on empty rural roads surrounded by fields of snow.

Twelve months ago, in just her seventh fight as a pro, she won the WBA lightweight title, against an Argentine opponent who failed to make the weight. There was no big homecoming in Bray for that one. She has defended her title four times since, to a collective shrug of the shoulders almost everywhere. It's not the Olympics and it never will be.

She struggles to subdue her distress when the time comes to discuss her father. She never saw the day coming when he wouldn't be in her corner. The first morning she drove to training without him, she had tears streaming down her face. "I never thought I'd have to do this without him." She knew it wouldn't be the same; every time she stepped in the ring afterwards it felt like "I was missing my right arm."

But she keeps on going, day after day, as she has done since childhood: the speed ball and the punch pads, the big tyre and the sledgehammer, the push-ups and the stomach crunches. Knowing no other life and not looking for another one either.

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