Sunday 26 January 2020

Vincent Hogan: Katie still renouncing the comforts of an easy life to go for gold in less familiar surrounds

Katie Taylor is in action today
Katie Taylor is in action today
Katie Taylor’s dominance of her sport means the sacrifices she continually makes are often overlooked. Photo: Damien Eagers
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Just a two-lane road separates Riocentro Pavilion Six from the athletes' village but it is, by some octaves, the ugliest Olympic venue in Rio.

Elegant as a storage heater, it will never be a place for coach parties to stop and snatch Kodak moments once the Games return this teeming city to its own complex company. Nobody poses for selfies by a warehouse, not even one cradling history.

But it is out of that flat-pack monstrosity that Katie Taylor now seeks to prise a gorgeous parable.

Today she boxes a Finnish mother-of-two in the Riocentro for a minimum prize of bronze. Naturally, the assumption is that Katie will win. Mira Potkonen is a hard-nosed 35-year-old who - like the Bray girl - won bronze at this year's World Championships in Astana. But that connection is illusory.

Katie Taylor, Ireland, left, exchanges punches with Mira Potkonen, Finland, during their Women's Light 60kg last 16 bout. 2014 AIBA Elite Women's World Boxing Championships, Jeju, Korea. Picture credit: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
Katie Taylor in action against Potkonen

Bronze represented a lifetime's achievement for Potkonen, her first-ever Championship medal. For Taylor, it stung like failure.

When you've won 18 consecutive golds across an eleven-year stretch, it's no more than human to expect things of yourself that aren't rational by others' standards. Taylor has lived most of her adult life stockpiling gold in distant, obscure places, then returning to polite commotion in airport arrivals' halls and the empty obsequities from those of us covering her story as a perpetual homecoming.

In Katie's career, she has suffered nine losses in 177 contests, most of those losses popularly attributed to dubious officiating. And that's the eternal quibble with committing yourself to a sport in which the consensus of blazered officials carries such unchallengeble traction.

Sometimes you end up sensing a stranger's hand has been in your pocket.

Until her loss to Azerbaijan's Yana Alekseevna in April, Katie had won 63 fights in succession and 125 of her previous 127, the two defeats deemed highly questionable.

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Katie Taylor reacts as the referee raises the hand of her opponent Estelle Mossely in Astana yesterday. Photo: AIBA via Sportsfile
Katie was beaten by Estelle Mossely

But the setbacks to Alekseevna and, in May, France's Estelle Mossely did not belong in that kind of file. True, they weren't entirely obvious or conclusive, but neither did they feel especially larcenous. Increasingly, Katie has looked a tad conservative against quarrelsome opponents and, in both of these instances, the expert verdict seemed to be that - perhaps - she did not throw enough leather.

Some believe that London should have been the apex of Katie Taylor's boxing life, that winning Olympic gold under the press of absurd national presumption ought to have sated her conclusively.

But four years on here she is, still renouncing the comforts of a desultory life to go after another.

Last Tuesday was the anniversary of her victory over Sofya Ochigava in the Excel Arena, a moment that so utterly convulsed the nation. Yet the few congratulatory texts that fell her way in the Olympic village will have been inclined to tip-toe around Katie's new reality. Because the absence of Pete - her father, coach and mentor - from Taylor's corner punctuates every conversation about her chances of a successful title defence here, every conversation that is except those with the champion herself.

And that, to be fair, is the least of Katie's entitlements.

Pete Taylor and his daughter Katie
Pete is no longer in Katie's corner

Yet it's hard to deny that she has looked a diminished boxer this past year amid rumours of frustration with the standard of preparation available to her in Pete's absence. The word in Rio yesterday was that Katie had, largely, taken control of that preparation herself with the fight against Potkonen looming.

So many comforting certainties of life in the High Performance bubble have seeped away of late, depositing a leadership vacuum that will have to be addressed with some urgency once these Games are over.

We have, perhaps, always imagined such issues to be largely insignificant in Katie Taylor's world. When somebody dominates their sport as she has done, the first thing to be blindly ignored is the routine of sacrifice that has empowered them. To achieve what she has done, Taylor has had to sublimate so many natural instincts in service to the pursuit of being the best female boxer in the world.

Claiming Olympic gold at the age of 26, thus, brought her to a natural junction. Had she opted to turn professional then, Katie might have been a good bet to be a world champion within the calendar year. But that path would have taken her out of a system that had come to fit her like a comfortable pair of shoes and separation from so many familiar faces would have been a serious challenge.

It suited everybody that Katie stayed within High Performance given her natural magnetism and the example that she so relentlessly sets.

Team Ireland coach Zaur Antia is wanted by Canada
Zaur Antia has been working closely with Katie

But in the absences of her father and Billy Walsh, the heavy load falling upon Zaur Antia this year has limited what work the Georgian has been able to do specifically with Taylor. I understand that Eddie Bolger has become more actively involved in her preparation of late, but the environment around Katie today is not one she'd ever have envisaged four years ago in London.

Taylor herself has spoken confidently about defending the Olympic title, suggesting that those defeats to Alekseevna and Mosseley have, if anything, lightened the load on her shoulders. "I feel less pressure now" she said before departing for Rio. "People aren't expecting me to walk through the competition. Those losses haven't changed my mindset."

Barring upsets, she will have to overcome both the Azerbaijan and French girls to win gold here. Should she do that, it will - quite frankly - represent her greatest achievement. Because Katie no longer radiates an aura to intimidate girls like Alekseevna or Mosseley. In fact, now that they have beaten her, they approach a fight with the champion emboldened. This is in contrast to how the rest of the division viewed Katie in the late noughties when her Championship statistics tended to carry a high proportion of stoppages. Like three in five fights at the '06 World Championships or three in four at the '07 Europeans. Back then, Taylor would sweep through the opposition like a wrecking ball.

Now she is more circumspect, prioritising defence against the more dangerous hitters, working the angles rather than dictating them. She remains one of the most poised and gracious athletes this country has produced and, if you care about those qualities, watching her take a punch can make your heart miss a beat.

But the view is that Katie will have to be more aggressive in this tournament to win gold, that she will have to rediscover that instinct to go after her opponents relentlessly as a jungle angle pursuing dinner.

Bolger sounded confident yesterday that she might do that.

The recent defeats, he said, had not left her with any unhelpful baggage. "No because the performances were good, the decsions were bad" he argued a little unconvincingly. "She's absolutely not carrying anything from those defeats.

"They say class is permanent, don't they? She's not any less of a fighter for those decisions."

That much may be true, but are Alekseevna and Mosseley a little more? That question won't be answered today when Taylor begins her Olympic quest against an opponent who will bring no secrets to the ring. She has beaten Potkonen before, most notably in the last sixteen of the 2014 World Championships.

But, for years, we were guilty of imagining that Katie Taylor's dominance was such that she could win these fights in boiler suit and clogs. The Ochigava Olympic final surely disabused us of such ignorance and the four years since have italicised the burgeoning strength of womens' boxing.

Taylor has been sparring with the awkward Russian and is expected to have another Olympic medal secured soon after three this evening.

But bronze has never been a colour to her liking.

Irish Independent

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