Wednesday 17 January 2018

Golden legacy on the ropes

John O'Brien

It is, perhaps, a tad cynical to wonder whether Transport, Tourism and Sport Minister Leo Varadkar's vigorous pushing of a putative Irish bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup is as much a pandering to the nouveau riche of his Dublin West constituency who might be impressed by such ambitious talk as an endorsement of the various benefits that might accrue. But that's politics for you. Our cynical antennae are forever on the alert.

There's nothing wrong with ambition, of course, and Varadkar did present several solid arguments in favour. The unifying power of rugby, a 32-county sport, was worth mentioning, but served a reminder too that the greatest unifying sport of them all – boxing – never gets the credit it deserves. If there is a better sporting story right now than Tiger Bay's Carl Frampton gunning for a world title managed by Barry McGuigan from Clones, then Steven Spielberg will be on it like a shot.

You don't suppose there are many votes in boxing. How encouraging it would be, though, to envisage a sports minister with the cojones to tackle the Irish Amateur Boxing Association for the slipshod manner in which it treats its athletes, or to chastise the national station for its shameful neglect of Olympic champion Katie Taylor. No doubt, a rugby World Cup on these shores is music to RTE executive ears, though. They'll lump the entire budget on that.

Needless to say, the Montrose cameras won't be there on Friday night when Taylor makes a belated return to the ring to face former marine and three-times US national champion, Melissa Parker, in the Round Room of the Mansion House and it would be good, at least, if Ticketmaster and almost every major news outlet stopped referring to her opponent as Parks. A minor blot, maybe, but so redolent of the casual and lazy manner in which we relate to Taylor's extraordinary achievements.

A day later, she takes on Mira Potkonen, the Finnish woman she beat in the semi-finals of the European Union Boxing Championships last July, a contest of less relevance because of the challenge it presents as the fact it takes place in her native Bray, in the Ballywaltrim Community Centre, the place it all started for her almost 20 years ago. It represents a chance to say thank you to those who have been there from the beginning and witnessed each arduous step along the way.

What she needs is stiff competition, though, and Parker at least offers a glimpse. The Brooklyn-born fighter was beaten by Queen Underwood in the US Championships earlier this year and, like Olympic finalist Sofya Ochigava, is a southpaw, which is another bonus. For Taylor, it is imperative to keep close tabs on America because there is a young boxer emerging by the name of Mikaela Mayer who, by all accounts, is set to eclipse Underwood as the lightweight No 1.

The Americans have what Taylor doesn't right now: regular competition. Think about it for a second. Outside of the EU Championships, Friday will be the third time Taylor steps into the ring since London. That's not counting the hastily arranged exhibition bout she fought during the National Championships in February, described by Pete Taylor as "a mess". The only time she fought under the banner of her own association on home turf was, in her father's words, "a mess."

The three bouts she had at the EU Championships in Hungary were little better. "Like fighting in a little tent in front of 100 people," Taylor reflected sadly a while back. Almost a year had passed since the euphoria of London then, since the possibilities for the expansion of women's boxing seemed endless and she felt forced to conclude that, for all the grand talk, the sport had, if anything, taken a step backward.

How sad it is now to see her having to work to maintain her profile, popping up in places you sense, deep down, she'd rather not be. Like cooking on a daytime magazine show with giggling presenters. Or engaging with another celebrity presenter in a gimmicky sparring session. Having made the leap and joined Twitter, she posted a complaint recently about a verdict given against a Bray clubmate, only to see the following day's headline: Katie Taylor Rants on Twitter. Welcome to the grim world of social media, Katie.

On so many levels her sport has failed her. If it wasn't enough for the IABA to resist building any sort of legacy from Taylor's Olympic triumph, it trumped it by not having the courtesy to inform her or her father that the European Championships, originally scheduled for Dublin this year, had, in fact, been postponed. They were visibly shocked and humiliated when a journalist informed them at a press conference for one of her upcoming fights.

The international association has failed her too. In the tough years before 2012, it was Taylor, almost singlehandedly, who got women's boxing onto the Olympic bill and Wu Ching-kuo, the AIBA president, was happy to surf on the wave of goodwill that accompanied it. And, then, how did Wu thank her for it? By not ensuring a place for women on the World Series of Boxing programme and giving them another outlet to box. By doing precisely nothing, just like the slackers on the South Circular Road.

There are those, of course, who won't feel much by way of sympathy. Those who still can't get their heads around the concept of women punching each other in the face. Others see the tasty grants she gets from the Sports Council and conclude she's doing alright and maybe it's too much anyway for what amounts to a few minutes in the ring each day. Such ignorance will never be entirely dissipated.

Here's the thing, though. In winning Olympic gold, Taylor left a huge legacy that deserves wider recognition. You only have to visit clubs in small towns all over Ireland, busy upgrading facilities to cope with the unprecedented influx of young girls eager to follow in her footsteps, many of them from disadvantaged backgrounds. This shouldn't need to be pointed out, but the savings in future bills, medical and otherwise, while unquantifiable, will be many multiples of whatever Taylor receives from this state.

That is why it is sad to see her cut such a visibly frustrated and, yes, angry figure. After London, when her future was a hot topic, there was a general consensus that there was nothing for Taylor in abandoning the amateur ranks, that she'd make little money and would attract few fights.

Yet here we are, 16 months on, and if a promoter had secured her any fewer contests, we'd be calling for them to be sacked.

Right now, next year's World Championships feel far away and each time you see her looking awkward on television, you can't help but hear the nagging voice in the back of your mind. Should have turned pro.

Sunday Independent

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