The best is yet to come, warns Katie Taylor
SOME years ago in Limerick, Katie Taylor sparred a Cuban boxer described by renowned trainer Freddie Roach as "probably the greatest talent I've ever seen."
She struggled to lay a glove on Guillermo Rigondeaux, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and the currently undefeated super-bantamweight champion of the world. When Billy Walsh asked Pete Taylor afterwards how his daughter had fared, the response was brutally succinct.
"She wouldn't have hit him with a handful of rice!" said Pete.
But that spar with the famously elusive Cuban was stored away by the Taylors as a profoundly educational experience. They were both fascinated by the science of evasion and, specifically, Rigondeaux's mastery of it.
As Katie touched down in Dublin yesterday with a sixth European gold medal around her neck, it might have been tempting to see something strictly routine, humdrum almost, in the capture of her 16th major international crown.
Taylor, after all, has now won an Olympic, four World, six European and five European Union titles in a row. She has been victorious in 147 of her 154 contests. The maths imply an easy authority to the story of the remarkable young woman from Bray.
Yet, the experience in Bucharest last week of her great rival – Sofya Ochigava – offered tacit proof that to stand still at this level of competition is, essentially, to lose your way. The broad assumption was that Saturday's final would be a repeat of the Taylor-Ochigava Olympic final that so convulsed the east end of London two years ago.
But the Russian southpaw struggled badly to read the clever counter-punching of France's Estelle Mossley and was twice warned for holding en route to her surprise semi-final defeat on Friday. Taylor, meanwhile, looked to be moving to another level.
The removal of computer scoring has, palpably, altered Katie's competitive mindset now and emboldened the tactical approach of Pete and fellow coach, Zaur Antia. All through last week's competition, but particularly in the semi-final against Denitsa Eliseeva and Saturday's gold medal decider against Mossley, Katie boxed with a fluidity and freedom that suggested Pete's prophesy of further imminent improvement is likely to come to pass.
But particularly noticeable in Taylor was the slickness of her defence, the ease with which she kept changing angles of attack before dancing back from danger with almost musical footwork. The kind of footwork upon which Rigondeaux has built his legend.
Katie's regime of sparring largely with male boxers has armed her with inordinate durability and strength, qualities that have always served her well against more explosive if less technical opponents like America's Queen Underwood.
But Pete alluded on Saturday to the fact that, at 28, the fewer ring wars his daughter fights now the better.
"At this point, she's a bit like Brian O'Driscoll" he reflected. "She has to look after her body a little more carefully. But she doesn't drink and doesn't smoke and she lives a clean life, so I expect her to improve over the next few months."
Taylor's physical conditioning has always been sustained by a combination of that lifestyle and a work ethic that, for all the accumulation of silverware, is never allowed taper. Saturday's was her 23rd straight win in Europe, installing her as clear favourite for November's world championships in Korea at which she will be bidding for a fifth consecutive crown. The clear hope is that she can go to the Rio Olympics in 2016, ranked world No 1 for a 10th successive year.
On Saturday, an unusually emotional Katie reflected "The best thing about this is I believe my best is yet to come!"
That will be a jolting thought for the rest of the lightweight division who watch Taylor continue to develop and improve at a time when others, Ochigava among them, appear to be struggling with the demands required to sustain an elite level of performance.
Walsh, head coach of boxing's High Performance programme, believes that Taylor's determination to improve further is the key to what makes her special.
After returning from Romania, Billy reflected: "A desire to improve is what drives Katie every day. Despite her unbelievable record, her work ethic never wavers. She just doesn't rest on her laurels because she is determined to keep ahead of the chasing pack. And it's because of the incredible work she keeps putting in, I think this title nearly meant more to her than the others."
It was a glorious week all-round for Irish boxers with 20-year-old Kilkenny southpaw Clare Grace securing a 69kg bronze on her first venture into European competition and all five Irish male contestants medaling at the Usti Nad Labem Grand Prix in the Czech Republic, George Bates and Michael Nevin bringing home gold.
Given the High Performance programme recently lost such headline acts as Jason Quigley, John Joe Nevin and Tommy McCarthy to the professional ranks, the week's achievements seem all the more remarkable.