Friday 24 January 2020

Tommy Conlon: 'The day Katie Taylor turned a child's dream into boxing reality'

#MomentsThatMadeADecade

Katie Taylor takes her place on the podium at the ExCel Arena in London after claiming the Olympic gold medal in 2012. Photo: Sportsfile
Katie Taylor takes her place on the podium at the ExCel Arena in London after claiming the Olympic gold medal in 2012. Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

Watching back the fight more than seven years later, there are some moments we'd forgotten, and others that we hadn't even registered in the first place.

According to RTÉ at the time, more than one million people tuned in on Thursday, August 9, 2012 to watch Katie Taylor fight Sofya Ochigava in the Olympic women's lightweight final. How many people registered then, or remember now, that Ochigava did the Ali Shuffle a minute into the second round?

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Well she did. The Russian had the temerity to do a bit of showboating while the ExCel Arena in London was pulsating with noise for her opponent. Ochigava was as cold as the Russian winter that afternoon. She was utterly unmoved by the thunderous yearning of the thousands of Irish people who had packed the venue. She came not to fight but to edge it on points. Taylor knew the deal. If it was going to be a battle, it would be a battle of wits only. This would not under any circumstances become a tear-up.

The fight would consist of four two-minute rounds. Taylor was in red, Ochigava in blue. At the end of round one the judges' scores appeared on screen: two points each. Early in the second, Ochigava caught her with an overhand right that made Taylor swing and miss and momentarily lose her balance. A few seconds later, Ochigava beat her to the punch again, the southpaw landing a right plumb on the favourite's face. They both retreated and as they did, Ochigava danced the famous shuffle. It was only for an instant but if it passed most of us by at the time, it was because we had eyes only for the national heroine who was supposed to be fulfilling her manifest destiny.

This was supposed to be a coronation and now that it wasn't, the reality was swamped by a form of collective denial. This couldn't be happening, could it? It was dawning slowly on us that Taylor had a serious opponent in front of her with a clear strategy and an arrogant nerve.

At the end of round two, Ochigava led by four points to three. Truly, a nation was holding its breath. Taylor turned it round in the third. She had to land some scoring shots and take the risk of being caught coming in or leaving herself exposed as she let fly. A couple of flurries early in the round yielded a few vital connections and with Ochigava continuing to play cagey, Taylor picked up four points to her opponent's one: 7-5 to the Bray woman at the end of the third.

"Don't give away stupid points," warned her dad Pete as she sat on her stool. But now it was the Russian's turn to come out looking to land a few shots. She might regret forever that she hadn't been more pro-active in the third, given that she was able to pierce the Taylor guard when she needed to in the fourth. With 30 seconds left she had her opponent on the floor with a lightning-quick right hand, albeit that Taylor was back on her feet almost in the same moment.

But the Russian had clearly and visibly won the final round. There was an agony of dread between the final bell and the official announcement. "Ladies and gentlemen," came the verdict over the public address system as the referee held each fighter by the wrist, Taylor to her left, Ochigava to her right. "The winner by a score of ten points to eight and the Olympic champion - in the red corner, representing Ireland, Katie Taylor!"

It had been the proverbial damn close-run thing. The nation could release its breath now, the better to go berserk. Such was the national outpouring that in a way it seemed as if Taylor wasn't just fulfilling her own manifest destiny, but ours too. We took ownership of that Olympic achievement with an enthusiasm that was mirrored only by our obliviousness to her previous circumstances.

A brilliant footballer too, she had found her ultimate form of expression in boxing, the historic sport of the underclass. So without complaining she trained for years in a gym that had no toilet or shower. It was there that a child's dream was willed into action and finally into reality at the age of 26. All those years she had fought for a dream, to paraphrase Tom Kettle, "Born in a boxing shed, and for the secret scripture of the poor."

And she had fought for it in more ways than one, becoming a world pioneer for women's boxing in particular and women's sport in general. In so doing she articulated the secret scripture of young girls also, who maybe saw in her not just a recognisable shyness but an unmistakable core of steel too. You could be winningly humble but winningly ambitious; you could be gentle and kind - and take someone's head off as well, if you needed to. You could build yourself into uniqueness, you could build yourself into greatness.

Katie Taylor is the seminal Irish athlete of her generation, male or female, and maybe the most important ever to emerge from this country.

When the verdict was announced amid those delirious scenes in London, Taylor swept back into the arms of her dad and his fellow coach, Zaur Antia. To cap it all, the great chronicler of half a century of Irish sport, the one-man Greek chorus that was Jimmy Magee, was there at ringside in the autumn of his years to usher the moment into the eternal archive.

"Gold is precious," declared Jimmy as the medal was draped around her neck, "and so is its current wearer. And I'll bet there's a tear in your eye wherever you're watching this."

With the tricolour round her shoulders she took off on a few laps of the ring before ducking back out between the ropes, down the steps and into the first day of the rest of her life.

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