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Dublin: 8°C Wednesday 21 April 2021

'This time she will meet an opponent who isn't scared to punch back'

Delfine Persoon’s day job used to see her deal with incidents of suicide on Belgian railroads. Understandably, she feels she’s ‘harder’ than Katie Taylor.

Delfine Persoon at Monday's open workout in New York.
Delfine Persoon at Monday's open workout in New York.
Image: Nick Potts

Gavan Casey reports from New York

“I DIDN’T GET a chance to go to the Olympic Games, and Katie Taylor is an Olympic champion,” said a conspicuously excited Delfine Persoon on the Madison Square Garden main stage at Wednesday’s press conference.

“So I didn’t get a chance to go to the Olympics, but now I can compete with an Olympic champion and hopefully defeat the Olympic champion. Everyone knows being a world champion is great, but everyone knows being an Olympic champion is also great. Now I can compete with an Olympic champion — for me, that’s very important.”

One couldn’t help but feel there was some bitterness, or at least a barb, hidden somewhere within a sentiment cloaked in humility.

Persoon didn’t get a chance to flesh it out in front of the world’s boxing media, or perhaps she thought better of it. She and Taylor firmly shook hands after a fairly tame face-off, the Belgian gratuitously bowing towards the woman whose dream she intends to crush in order to fulfill her own. It was almost annoyingly respectful, and there’ll doubtless be a bit more eye-jousting when they give each other the once-over for the penultimate time after Friday’s weigh-in.

The parallels in Persoon and Taylor’s paths to this point are fairly obvious: both are role models for all ages, genders and creeds; both are stand-up citizens who aim to bestow first-ever undisputed world-champion honours (in the four-belt era), male or female, upon their native lands when Ireland meets Belgium in the New York ring this Saturday night.

But the contrasts are as jarring as the similarities are glaring. Persoon, with 44 professional fights to her name, 43 of them victories, 18 of those victories quick, has two jobs: she’s a policewoman by day, and a boxer also by day. There is no ‘by night’ when you’re working the early-morning beat in West Flanders.

Anthony Joshua v Andy Ruiz Jr - Undercard Press Conference - Madison Square Garden Katie Taylor and Delfine Persoon square off in New York. Source: Nick Potts

The 34-year-old hails from a country with no discernible boxing heritage, fighting just 12 times as an amateur before forfeiting any dream she harboured of competing internationally in Belgian colours. While Taylor traversed the globe as part of Ireland’s High Performance team, Persoon was confronted by the reality that if she ever wished to fight in a European or World Championships, she would have to pay for it herself.

And she has seen things. Good God, has she seen things. Until quite recently Persoon worked in the Belgian police’s railway division. Among her primary duties in the role was to oversee the clean-up of local tracks after suicides.

It’s perhaps understandable that she feels her life experience will stand to her when she trades leather with Katie Taylor, whose toils as a female boxing pioneer — which include pretending to be a boy in order to fight competitively during childhood — can scarcely be scoffed at, but are nonetheless a more distant memory.

Persoon has taken the bumpier road, and she feels that could make all the difference when after two years of waiting, she finally gets her chance to rough up her Irish adversary on Pennsylvania Plaza.

Anthony Joshua v Andy Ruiz Jr - Public Work Outs - Brookfield Place Delfine Persoon at Monday's public workout. Source: Nick Potts

“She has boxed, now, for two and a half years as a pro fighter but before she had a lot of amateur fights,” Persoon says of rival Taylor. “Based on experience I think we are pretty much the same, but in our own way.

The difference with me is maybe the way I’ve made it here to the highest level. I’ve had a long, harder way to do this compared to her. I think I am a little bit harder and I think I punch a little bit harder than she does. I think she has her strengths, she’s faster than me and technically, tactically I think she is also a little bit better than me. But I think I’m the hardest fighter and the most physical fighter between us.

“If it’s going to be a 10-round fight which is physical, that’s not bad for me,” adds the smiley Belgian, who oozes confidence even through English.

“This is professional boxing — it’s not three rounds like the amateurs. Over three rounds I know that it would be very difficult to win against her. But it’s 10 rounds. That means I’ve got the time to make this a hard fight. I think I already faced some hard opponents but she hasn’t yet had an opponent who is very, very hard.

When she punches her opponents, they didn’t want to punch back. But this time she will meet an opponent who is not scared to punch back.

“Rose Volante put up a good fight”, says the WBC champion of Taylor’s previous opponent, “but in the end I think she gave Taylor too much respect in the ring. You have to go for it. She is an Olympic champion so you have to give everything and go for it.

She has also prepared for this fight but normally she fights in eight-ounce [gloves] and I wear 10-ounce. But this fight, we are both in eight ounces which is also a big difference for me. OK, she’s got stoppages but it’s always with eight-ounce. But in Belgium, I wear 10-ounce so it’s also a big difference.

Katie Taylor in action against Rose Volante Persoon believes Volante gave Taylor too much respect in March. Source: Tom Hogan/INPHO

Persoon is expressive by nature. She gesticulates a lot and often needlessly prefaces a perfectly pronounced English word with four more: ‘How do you sayyy…’

Where Volante seemed somewhat sheepish during the build-up in Philadelphia, her Flemish counterpart is by comparison a wolf of Wall Street, basking in the New York spotlight and chatting away to beat the band, whatever the required language.

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Persoon is conspicuously in her element, and why wouldn’t she be? On Saturday night, she will she partake in a historically significant dream fight in front of thousands at the Mecca of Boxing, her first-ever trip outside Belgium in her 45th pro fight.

But what puts her journey and her embracing of this week into further context is the fact that she’s had to take annual leave just to be here.

“I had to take my holiday for this fight,” says the policewoman. “I always do. I never take vacations for vacations. Every day of vacation is for training — that’s just the way I live. We are in Belgium where there are no facilities for pro boxing so if you want to train you have to take your vacation time.

I normally get 32 days per year but this time I got 55 days and my boss also gave me some extra days. Because it’s such a big fight and also he came to my last fight and he said, ‘You’ve got one chance at this.’ It’s also good for the police and for Belgium also. I got some extra days so for this fight I prepared like a pro fighter, I didn’t have to work.

“That’s what has made me so hard: every day I have to work, after work I go straight to training. I run and then go to the gym then when you get back you have your food and live your normal life — [do] the washing, pay the bills. You have to do everything yourself. A lot of fighters go home and they have nothing to do. That’s not me.

“In Belgium we organise my fights ourselves. We have a little team. We have to find the sponsorship, we have to find a venue, look for opponents, book the hotel. We do everything ourselves and that makes you hard. You have to do it all yourself, so I know what it means to be here and to get this chance. It was not an easy way to get here. I think it
makes me hard and that’s not bad.

She [Taylor] says, ‘Amateurs wasn’t that easy, I only got paid €40,000 per year.’ I say, ‘I work every day and I don’t get paid that much by the end of the
year.’ So she got more money just to do her passion than I do from working every day of the year. You have to work for it and you still got less than she did. That’s the big difference between her and I.

“The shift – it’s not always the normal days. Before, I was in at six o’clock in the morning; 4:30 you have to get up; you come home at two, at three you go running, then you have food, then you go to the gym – at our own club, because there is no [other] facility. You’re at home: ‘Oh, we have to look for a fight, we have to look for a sponsor, we have to answer emails.’ At 11 you have to go to bed, and at 4:30 you go back to work. It makes you hard, eh? If you are not hard, it’s not possible to get this [opportunity] or to do it all the time. I think that’s the thing that made me hard.

“For me, it’s something I really want and it’s my passion, otherwise I would have stopped a long time ago. Because you can’t see your friends or your family, because in the hours when you’re at home you have to train.

My parents always say, ‘We never see you…’ If there is a bank holiday you always go to work because then you get an extra day off to train. I hope everybody in Belgium knows the different way I have to do this. And I hope there are a lot of people who say, ‘It’s right that you get this chance because you have done so much to achieve this.’

Katie Taylor and Delfine Persoon Katie Taylor and Delfine Persoon pose for the media at Wednesday's press conference. Source: Jeff Fusco/INPHO

Persoon, two years Taylor’s senior at 34, admits that by 30 her body was “up”, as in finished, with her manic work schedule. “It was not possible anymore,” she says.

Thankfully, her job situation has since improved on either side of the ropes.

“Before, I was nine years with the federal police – the railway police. There, you’ve got a lot of suicides under the train.

“But now I have changed, and I’m with the public order [police] – if there is football or big festivals. I’m now more on the desk, on the blue, on the normal hours, and I’m a little bit responsible for the training of the police. I give lessons in self-defence to the police.

“It’s also very exciting because the thing of boxing, I use in my job. Sometimes I give boxing lessons to the other police officers or policemen.”

Giving back to her community is of paramount importance to the long-reigning WBC lightweight world champion. So much so, that Persoon intends to put her six-figure, career-highest purse from fighting Taylor towards building the facilities that she has always sorely lacked back home.

She views this, and not merely her significant achievements inside the squared circle, as a means of boxing off her legacy:

We will use all of the money to build a new gym in Belgium. Where we train, it’s very small. I am with my trainer at his old club, with 100 people who come for training. We’ve got eight pro fighters, and we have 20 amateur fighters. And the club is growing and growing. And for us, to give training, is not much of a pleasure anymore because we are in a small place. We want to build a better place so we can train – not just for me anymore, but for the people after me also.

“We are looking to buy the ground ourselves, and then we have whole plans to build the new gym,” Persoon adds.

“I made a subsidy dossier; 40 pages, ‘You have to do this, this, this’. It’s a lot of time I’ve already spent on it.

“You know why you want to do it. It’s our passion that we want to spend time on this. It’s not possible in Belgium to live off boxing. You have to ask too many people for money. That, we don’t want. We just want to do it for the passion.

In Belgium, boxing is not for the people with the highest [most] money. In Belgium, boxing is for the people who don’t have it so easy. I like it, also, because I’m also a sport teacher, and you can help people who are not always on the correct path – you can help them with boxing.

“You can help them find the right way and tell them, ‘Don’t drink’”, she adds, making a drinking gesture, “and ‘Don’t smoke’”, she says, puffing an imaginary cigarette. “And this is what I want to do after my career also.

“I will always stay as police, but I will train people to go the right way. Boxing is good because it can show that you can fight not only in the street, but fight in the ring. I want to show this to other people, also.”

Taylor’s team deny accusations they had Persoon removed from New York hotel

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