What Katie Taylor has achieved year on year has been remarkable but her overall place in Irish sports history will be hampered by her nascent sport, despite what many force on us, writes Ewan MacKenna
The setting for the scene is the new bar at the back of the old boxing stadium. It’s early last year, the nationals have just punched themselves out but there’s still plenty to see here aside from the fresh décor. Most look on at the entourage of Joe Ward with one struggling member wearing his friend’s light-heavyweight belt with more success than his own attire. He shuffles from foot to foot like a vagrant dancing for coins, causing his tracksuit bottoms to slide to the point of no return. There’s a crowd around a relieved Kenneth Egan, too, who earlier retired after the sort of beating that warns even the most stubborn champion they’ve enough memories made.
Yet across the room someone else catches your eye. Karolina Graczyk is young and pretty and her slender, tracksuited frame is being ignored. So you make your move but as you draw closer you realise her sharp Polish features have been beaten blunt. Her eye socket is turning purple, her cheek is raw, her lip is busted and while you feel pity, you really need to ask so you blurt it right out.
“What’s it like to box Katie Taylor?”
Her reply surprises you as it turns out Graczyk has been in training for seven days across the previous seven months because of college. Her words sow a seed that grows soon after as Taylor continues her Olympic homecoming tour. On the next occasion, in the Grand Canal Theatre, her opponent Maike Klüners sat on stage an hour before the bell watching our gold medallist pummelling novices on the big screens. The German clearly had poor preparation too, entered the ring with ‘What is she good for, absolutely nothing’ blaring, and played the willing part of the punch bag.
All of this is the problem with our view of Katie Taylor. We don’t want to know the reality but we still launch her onto a pedestal with Giles and Ring, with O’Sullivan and O’Callaghan, with O’Driscoll and McCoy, with Harrington and Higgins. Late last month following another fantastic world title, a poll in the Independent asked if she’s our greatest ever sportsperson and while pure populism, the fact most said yes was representative of a general feeling and shows how ill-informed we allow ourselves to be. There’s no shame in it, but the truth is Taylor is nowhere near such a status and never will be.
Some of that is a nation losing itself in hype as we always clamber for another Italia ’90 even though it can never be replicated. More is ignorance, including from many media, who delve now and again into a sport they know nothing about, desperate to be a part of something far greater than it actually is. We bet they couldn’t name another female boxer but their verdict suits the false, bloated narrative.
Of course none of this is Taylor’s fault. She’s not to blame for the exaggerations; in fact her demeanour promotes the opposite. Having sat down together on numerous occasions, she’s actually a journalist’s nightmare because she’s so humble. She’s not to blame for the timing of her titles either but this is key when evaluating her place in the pantheon. Women’s amateur boxing is so new as to be little more than an experimental sport with a handful of capable competitors. Yes, you can only beat what’s thrown in front of you, but the overall class of opponents determines the standard of a sport and right now, it’s very limited. That’s why Taylor cannot match those who’ve competed with and succeeded against the best in the toughest arenas.
Those in the know are afraid to say as much as sexism plays a role (many of our recent and current crop of male boxers achieved harder wins) while those out of the know have Michelle Smith syndrome (she’s our girl and you’re either with us in blind patriotism or off with your head). No one’s denying Taylor’s achievements – six Europeans, five worlds, and an Olympic title don’t need hyperbole – but other numbers need to enter the equation. To date, there’ve been just eight women’s world championships across only 14 years. Those pushing the sport show the increase in numbers from 124 competitors at the start to 280 just weeks back but quality can’t keep pace with quantity at a nascent stage and women’s boxing is still like high-jumping before the Fosbury flop.
That’s why Taylor had to win a single fight to win an Olympic medal and win just two fights last month to reach a world final, the opener against an opponent who first entered a gym at 30 and was only allowed compete when the age-limit was raised above 34. Indeed those most recent championships were moved from Edmonton, five-and-a-half-thousand miles away to Korea, because Boxing Canada couldn’t bother to find a venue despite having 18 months’ notice. So while Taylor may be the representation of elite in her sport, none of the above represents an elite sport.
This isn’t to belittle Taylor whose consistency is as remarkable as her own standard and when the sport does grow and becomes more competitive, those who win tough bout after tough bout will cite her as trailblazer and inspiration. It’s just that there’s no need to lie to make an already great story seem more staggering. After all, this is a woman that had to train in her kitchen because there was no funding for women’s showers in her gym yet still conquered her world. That’s enough of a tale without ignoring perspective and without pretending Taylor is the best we’ve ever had.
We do this too often as a sporting nation but it’s time two long-lost sisters were reunited. Context, meet Katie Taylor.
Sunday Business Post
7 December, 2014