Saturday 16 December 2017

Vincent Hogan: Taylor's dignity upheld as Rio journey runs into stormy seas

After a decade as the world's best female lightweight, Katie's defence of her Olympic crown is now hanging in the balance

Katie Taylor (r) exchanges punches with Yana Alekseevna of Azerbaijan at the European Olympic qualification event in Samun, Turkey yesterday Photo: Sportsfile
Katie Taylor (r) exchanges punches with Yana Alekseevna of Azerbaijan at the European Olympic qualification event in Samun, Turkey yesterday Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It may take quite a leap of the optimists' faith to suggest that defeat in Samsun yesterday might, ultimately, liberate Katie Taylor.

But now, at least, the wild presumption that has stalked her life in the ring will surely recede a little. It is a measure of her career that a defeat for Katie tends to register as something seismic, victories as mere smallprint. Yesterday's loss to Azerbaijan's Yana Alekseevna was, after all, just her eighth loss in over 160 contests.

And most of those defeats have been asterisked by murmurings of dubious officiating.

A case in point? Before yesterday, Katie's most recent setback was against Denitsa Eliseeva in a February 2011 multi-nations tournament. That fight took place in Eliseeva's home country of Bulgaria, the respected boxing trade paper - 'Boxing News' - describing Taylor's 1-5 defeat as one of the worst decisions ever seen.

So that has been the general tenor of Katie's life in the ring up to now.

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'Taylor’s first Championship defeat since 2006 means that she has, as yet, no guarantee of getting to Rio.' Photo: Paul Mohan / Sportsfile
'Taylor’s first Championship defeat since 2006 means that she has, as yet, no guarantee of getting to Rio.' Photo: Paul Mohan / Sportsfile

Ten years the world's best female lightweight, ten years unbeaten in Championship competition, ten years endlessly showing up in obscure cities as the girl with a target tattooed to her forehead. Ten years, in other words, of being her sport's most coveted prey. Yesterday, that changed.

For a start the story of Alekseevna's victory, registering as 39-37 on all three judges' cards, wasn't salted with any sense of a larcenous undercurrent. The fight, for sure, was close, but Katie struggled with her opponent's height and venomous counter-punching.

Had she been given the verdict, it would certainly not have constituted a scandal, but neither could her loss trigger any serious talk of injustice.

Inevitably, the absence of her mentor and father, Pete, from Katie's corner drew comment, given the last time he missed a Championship fight, she lost that too, a European Union quarter-final against Turkey's Gulsum Tatar in June of '06.


The reasons behind his decision to "take a break" remain private and there is, as yet, no indication of when or if he might return to his daughter's corner.

So there's a lot different in competition for Katie these days and, most likely, a dramatically altered emotional dynamic to her preparation for big fights.

In February, she spoke in glowing terms of Zaur Antia, the wily Georgian now effectively running boxing's High Performance Unit after the loss of Billy Walsh to America. Antia was always alongside Pete Taylor in Katie's corner and is one of the most technically gifted coaches in amateur boxing.

"He knows everything that I'm about," Katie said two months ago. "He knows me inside out. You wouldn't want to be making too big a change in such a big year."

But ritual has always been such a huge part of Taylor's preparation - from the quiet morning walks with her father to the reading of psalms, to the gentle safeguarding of family privacy - that there cannot but be some sense of flux in her world without Pete's presence. Katie's brothers, Lee and Peter, manned her corner for two pre-tournament bouts in Mallow and Tralee, but this is a first Championship in ten years without family.

In normal circumstances, the challenge now confronting Taylor in her bid to qualify for Rio would not seem especially daunting.

Win a box-off tomorrow against Bulgaria's Svetlana Staneva and the right sequence of events at next month's World Championships in Astana could still be enough to secure her a place at the Games. But depending on others has never been her style.

She will go to those Championships seeking a record sixth world title, but with her focus surely narrower than she would have liked. "I'm hoping I don't need to qualify during the World Championships," she said in February. The Alekseevna defeat killed that hope.

It also re-ignited a sense that, after a decade as the poster girl for her sport, Taylor's legacy has been a new generation of boxers, both inspired and empowered by the remarkable Bray girl.

True, Alekseevna is just a year younger than Katie but Irma Testa, the Italian who shocked France's Estelle Moseley in Samsun yesterday, is just 18. She represents a new generation of boxers coming through, most of whom had probably never even laced up gloves when, in '09, the International Olympic Committee approved the inclusion of womens' boxing on the schedule for London's Games.


Equally, Taylor's brilliance across the years tended to obscure the extraordinary work ethic required to keep her at the top of her sport. Walsh once remarked that it was her spartan lifestyle that set her apart, observing "If I could get the lads to adopt even a quarter of her lifestyle, we would have won a lot of gold medals over the years."

She has, then, long been considered a role model in the High Performance gym, sparring against the likes of Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan without ever seeking concession.

But she will be 30 when the Rio Games come around and wouldn't be human if, with almost 20 major titles already to her name, this relentless pursuit of glory had not begun to lose some lustre.

There was, mind, no evidence of that yesterday.

"Thank God I have another chance to go and qualify and I'm going to do everything I can do to book my place in Rio," she said after the defeat whilst, typically, lavishing praise on the "fantastic boxer" who beat her.

It was a bad day all round for the Irish with defeats too for Brendan Irvine and David Oliver Joyce, both of whom - like Taylor - now get box-off opportunities.

If neither succeeds, the Samsun qualifying event will be deemed a monumental failure for the High Performance Unit given that, not since before Athens in '04, have we failed to secure an Olympic place from these tournaments.

Inevitably, out of such a narrative, the needless loss of Walsh will be debated again, re-igniting focus on how the IABA conducts its business.

But, to Taylor, none of that can matter now.

For a woman so ill-accustomed to this set of circumstances, her innate dignity did not fail her last night. "It wasn't my day today," she tweeted, "I'll come again."

Katie's eight defeats

2004 European Championships, Riccione, Italy: lost 27-12 to Yuliya Nemtsova (Russia)
2005 Ahmet Comert Tournament, Istanbul, Turkey: lost 27-21 to Gulsum Tatar (Turkey)
2005 World Championships, Podolsk, Russia: lost 28-13 to Kang Kum-hui (North Korea)
2006 European Union Championships, Sardinia: lost 24-13 to Gulsum Tatar (Turkey)
2007 Ahmet Comert Tournament, Istanbul: lost 16-13 to Gulsum Tatar (Turkey)
2010 Grand Prix, Usti, Czech Republic: lost 8-1 to Sofya Ochigava (Czech Republic)
2011 Strandja Cup, Pazardjik, Bulgaria: lost 5-1 to Denitsa Eliseeva (Bulgaria)
2016 Olympic Qualification tournament, Samsun, Turkey: lost 3-0 to Yana Alekseevna (Azerbaijan)* (Scoring system changed)

Irish Independent

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