Friday 20 September 2019

Comment - Unrivalled greatness drives Katie Taylor and Aidan O'Brien toward more glory

Talking Point

Referee Steve Gray raises Katie Taylor’s hand in victory as she celebrates winning the WBA World Lightweight Title with mother Bridget Taylor. Photo: Sportsfile
Referee Steve Gray raises Katie Taylor’s hand in victory as she celebrates winning the WBA World Lightweight Title with mother Bridget Taylor. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Can you be too good for your own good?

Can you be too good for your own good?

Inset: Aidan O’Brien celebrates a record-breaking 26th Group One win with wife Anne-Marie. Photo: Getty Images
Inset: Aidan O’Brien celebrates a record-breaking 26th Group One win with wife Anne-Marie. Photo: Getty Images

Look at Katie Taylor and Aidan O'Brien, the two great high achievers of Irish sport. She with her Olympic gold medal, her five world and six European titles. He with his 29 English and 39 Irish classic wins, his Prix de l'Arc and Breeders Cup triumphs. They're perhaps the only Irish sportspeople who are without question the best in the world at what they do.

Other stars; rugby players, footballers, rowers, male boxers, come and go but Katie and Aidan seem eternal. She has been on top of the world for over a decade, he for almost two. This very combination of longevity and excellence can make us take them for granted. We look at Katie Taylor and Aidan O'Brien winning and think, 'Well, that's what they do, isn't it?' They've almost given us victory fatigue.

Yet no matter how good someone is, there are always new peaks to conquer. On Saturday, within the space of five hours at venues just a couple of hundred miles apart, these two most special Irish sporting figures provided fresh and timely reminders of their greatness.

When Anahi Sanchez missed the weight for her WBA lightweight title clash against Taylor in Cardiff it seemed like some of the gloss might go off the occasion. Had the Argentinian stayed down when floored by a Taylor body shot in the second round the worth of the Irish woman's first professional world title might have been questioned.

Instead, Sanchez got up and proceeded to administer a searching examination of Taylor's bona fides as a pro. In doing so she showed that the professional Katie Taylor isn't quite the same fighter as the former queen of the amateur game. The skill, the speed and the intelligence remain the same but they are being deployed in a different kind of contest.

Significant as they were as great national sporting occasions, some of Taylor's amateur triumphs could seem slightly bloodless technical exercises, her absolute superiority obvious from the get-go. Not so Saturday night's bout. This was a stirring scrap, an indication of just what is possible in women's boxing, featuring a new model Katie Taylor.

Not just one who can go ten rounds rather than three but one who hits a lot harder. And who gets hit a bit more often. Sanchez may lack the technical acumen of some of Taylor's old Olympic rivals but as an experienced pro she can both take and dish out a level of punishment alien to the amateur arena. This was new territory for Taylor but she traversed it with familiar relentlessness, outclassing and outgunning the former champ. Katie belongs in this new world.

It's impossible to discuss Katie Taylor without the question of affection coming up. That's because there's been no other Irish sports star who's had a grip on not just the national imagination but on our collective heart strings. People really love Katie Taylor, which is why they found the last anti-climactic year of her amateur career hard to take. Previously impregnable, she suddenly seemed confused, unhappy, out of sorts. The burden of collective expectation she'd once shouldered so easily seemed to press down upon her.

So it was great to see the old relish for the task at hand and emotional imperturbability return on Saturday night. It's as though, fighting for herself rather than in the name of the nation, the Bray boxer has found a new freedom.

However, one thing hasn't changed. It's pretty obvious that Katie Taylor will soon be the biggest name in women's professional boxing, as she was in its amateur counterpart. She can yet again become so much bigger than her sport that it will be judged by how it rises to her challenge rather than vice versa. Hence the talk about a crossover bout with MMA queen Holly Holm. Not bad going for a woman from Wicklow.

Aidan O'Brien already dominates his sport to the extent that every flat racing season is basically a contest between him and everyone else put together. Yet the 26 Group One victories which have seen him surpass the achievement of the American trainer Bobby Frankel are exceptional even by O'Brien's standards. His previous best total in a season was 23, achieved in both 2001 and 2008, something which should scotch the idea that this year's record was some kind of historical inevitability.

Even the victory which secured the record, in Saturday's Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster, showed how fine margins can be in O'Brien's world. When John Gosden's Roaring Lion thundered past O'Brien's Saxon Warrior in the final furlong it looked as though the Irish trainer's most nagging contemporary nemesis had struck again. Instead Ryan Moore rallied Saxon Warrior who got home by a neck in a thrilling finish.

Moore's perfectly judged ride showed O'Brien's constant insistence that his success is a team triumph isn't mock modesty. Most importantly, the trainer's partnership with the Coolmore Stud may constitute the finest double act in sport. Coolmore's achievement is also something we tend to take for granted. Yet how remarkable it is that the bloodstock industry, requiring an enormously difficult combination of high finance, precise science and old fashioned intuition, has reached a kind of apogee in a rural corner of this small island.

Aidan O'Brien and Katie Taylor have a lot in common. They're modest, religious and entirely lacking the somewhat tiresome flamboyance we like to present as a face to the outside world. The rigour, seriousness and single-mindedness behind their work is unrivalled in Irish sport. As she walked back to her dressing room and he left the winners enclosure on this memorable Saturday, you can be sure both were looking not on past glories but on future destinations.

The woman from Wicklow and the man from Wexford know you can never be too good. That's what makes them the greatest.

Irish Independent

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