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Dublin: 8°C Wednesday 24 February 2021

'Everybody thought: 'She's a legend, nobody can beat her.' Now, we know it's possible'

Delfine Persoon sets out to break Irish hearts and become arguably the greatest ever female professional boxer tonight.

Delfine Persoon lands a right hand on Katie Taylor during their original contest last June.
Delfine Persoon lands a right hand on Katie Taylor during their original contest last June.
Image: Tom Hogan/INPHO

FOR DELFINE PERSOON, not a great deal has changed in 14 months.

She’s still a police officer, still working the early-morning beat back in West Flanders, Belgium. She still beckons a translator to her side for interviews even though she speaks very good English, albeit decorated by a couple of turns of phrase which still don’t quite make the jump across from Dutch. And as far as she, her team, the Belgian public and swathes of boxing fans the world over are concerned, she is still the champion in all but physical evidence.

Earlier this week, Katie Taylor, who following her contentious victory over Persoon at Madison Square Garden, New York last June donned boxing’s most disputed undisputed crown, said of her own anointment: “It’s been hanging over my head over the last year, so I was delighted when the rematch was nailed down. I’m looking forward to putting on a more dominant performance and shutting up everyone that has criticised me over the last year.”

Firstly, when asked about Taylor’s plans for domination, Persoon beams: “We’re going to see Saturday, eh? If she says she’s going to dominate… Ha! I expect another fight from her. We’re two fighters but only one of us can win. She has her style of boxing and I have my style, and now it’s on us to prove who is the best female boxer. I hope the best fighter wins.

If it is a war, it’s good for me! If it’s a war, I like it. She may give me a war. No problem for me. I like wars.

Secondly, when asked about Taylor’s admission that the fight and the backlash which accompanied her controversial majority-decision win have followed her around like a raincloud, the 35-year-old’s smile dissipates but an old theme reemerges: Taylor, whose sole profession is boxing, can afford to mull over such matters in excruciating detail; Persoon can’t.

“In the beginning, [there was] a little bit of disappointment that, for us, we don’t find the judging correct. But life goes forward, eh? I got no time for a lot of thinking. A week after the fight, I go back to my work and life goes on. I’ve got no time to sit at home and think, ‘We won the fight, we didn’t win the fight.’ I’ve got another life also; I’ve got my own gym with my trainer [and partner, Filiep Tampere], we’ve got other fighters also that we train. But if the chance [for a rematch] wasn’t going to happen, for me, it would have been very disappointing.

“We thought there would be no rematch and it was already out of my head.”

Alas, just over two months ago, Amanda Serrano did what Amanda Serrano does and pulled out of a long-awaited and already twice-rescheduled fight with Taylor which promoter Eddie Hearn had hoped to stage in the backyard of his Matchroom HQ mansion in Brentwood, Essex, tonight.

With Taylor [15-0, 6KOs] locked in for a chief support slot beneath heavyweight headliners Dillian Whyte and Alexander Povetkin but lacking a face opposite hers on the poster, Hearn made a couple of calls — to Taylor herself, who jumped at his contingency proposal, and to her manager Brian Peters who was gently hauled on board.

All that was left to do was to convince the Belgians at relatively short notice.

“Six (seven) weeks ago, they contacted us and then we say, ‘Yeah, we take this chance, eh?’” Persoon [44-2, 18KOs] recalls, before expressing her surprise that she had been cast in this bolt-from-the-blue sequel.

delfine-persoon-reacts-as-katie-taylor-is-declared-the-winner Persoon protests the judges' verdict at MSG. Source: Matchroom Boxing/Ed Mulholland/INPHO

I didn’t think she (Taylor) was going to take, a second time, the risk to fight against me. She knows it’s a dangerous fight and we thought she was never going to take the risk to do this again; we thought she was going to take other opponents where she would be sure that she would beat them more easily — better boxers for her style of boxing.

“I think the corona has been lucky for me,” she adds. “The Covid gave me this chance!”

In more ways than one, actually: Persoon had reverted to amateur status in early spring to enter qualifiers for Tokyo 2020 and pursue the Olympic dream to which she had alluded before her original showdown with Taylor last summer; it had always stuck in her craw that owing to a combination of work commitments and Belgium lacking a women’s boxing team, not to mention funding, she had never been granted the same opportunity as Taylor to even fully form an Olympic dream.

She fought half-crocked in the European qualification leg in London in March, bowing out at the first hurdle in a close-fought bout in which she conspicuously suffered for having during her preparation endured a neck hernia and, later, pneumonia while in hospital.

Elimination in London meant Persoon would have tried again at the ‘World’ qualification leg in Paris in May. If she had qualified from that, she naturally would have been unavailable for tonight’s second shot at Taylor.

Another Covid card dealt in her favour was that Hearn began to stage his Matchroom shows literally outside of his office, which was a step too far for the aforementioned Serrano, who also cited her unease at the idea of being forced to isolate in England during fight week as one of umpteen causes for her withdrawal.

And then there was the day job, wherein Persoon was conveniently eligible for a six-week period of leave while police duties quietened amid government restrictions in her homeland.

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“When the first email comes, we (she and Tampere) are both at our jobs,” she says. I was at work and I showed it to my colleagues and they say, ‘Argh, not good for us because we’ll lose you for a vacation; you’ll stay at home for training!’ Because everybody wanted to be at home on vacation [for six weeks].

But they accepted it and said, ‘No problem. For this chance — it’s only six weeks’ preparation, you have to go for it. You have to do everything for this chance so you are 100% ready for this fight.’ They just say to me, ‘Make us proud! Make the police proud, make your colleagues proud; we’ll give you the time — just make us proud!’

“And the next day, we went directly into training,” Persoon adds.

“But I always train, I always have a basic condition; I sometimes go with my bicycle to my job, I run at home, I like other sports — not only boxing. And my basic is always good. So, with six weeks’ preparation, it’s possible. But if you’re basic is not good, that’s not possible.”

katie-taylor-and-delfine-persoon Taylor weighed in at 134.2lbs, Persoon 132.4 (limit: 135lbs). Source: Matchroom Boxing/Mark Robinson/INPHO

Her confidence, of course, stems from more than mere chance: her conditioning alone for their original fight seemed frankly better than Taylor’s, and by the end of the 10th and final round (which was in fact shortened by 10 seconds due to a timekeeping error at the beginning of it), she had taken the undefeated WBA, IBF and WBO champion to the brink. Ten seconds might not have been enough but another 30, and there may have been no need for the judges’ verdict (96-94 x2, 95-95) which saw Taylor complete her set with Persoon’s WBC title and the Ring Magazine belt while the Belgian exited stage left, her empty hands swotting away floods of tears.

Incidentally, Persoon has rewatched the first fight on several occasions — both with Tampere and with her inner circle — and believes she won by only one round (96-94), while also acknowledging that a draw would have been acceptable.

She still feels robbed, but she maintains that she managed to take something from Taylor, too: the Irishwoman’s aura of invincibility in the punch-for-pay ranks.

Before, I think everybody thought that it was not possible to beat Katie Taylor. Everybody thought: ‘She’s a legend, nobody can get to this level and beat her.’ Now, we know it’s possible — it’s possible to defeat her.

“The first one was, for us, a win for us, but we don’t get the judges[' decision]. But it’s possible and this gives me confidence, and I think it gives the other boxers that fight against Katie Taylor, also, a lot of confidence.

We know we can beat her and I think other fighters like Amanda Serrano and other girls know this also; that she also has weaknesses and points where you can beat her.

“I’m not saying we’re going to beat her”, Persoon expands, “but you’ve got a chance! And if everything is perfect in the fight, on the night, it is possible to beat her, eh?

“Katie is, I think, more technical and tactically, she’s very good, but I’ve also fought other fighters who punch harder, like Maiva Hamadouche. If Katie fights against Maiva Hamadouche, I think it would be a very nice fight also! She’s a very, very strong woman. Also, Fatuma Zarika. There have been very hard fighters that I’ve had before me in the ring.

Katie is a very good one but before her I think I had fighters before that are ‘harder’ than her. She is more technical and tactical which will make it difficult for me.

“There are a lot of female fighters that are also very good and the world, for the moment, doesn’t know. Not every good female fighter gets her chance like that. I now have my chance.”

katie-taylor-is-declared-the-winner Persoon looks on aghast after the decision in New York last June. Source: Matchroom Boxing/Melina Pizano/INPHO

Intriguingly, she reveals that if she rights the perceived wrongs of last June tonight, she will likely abandon her Olympic dream, content in the belief that she will, in her own way, have already achieved it: “If you beat an Olympic champion it’s something in your heart where you can say, ‘Ah, I don’t get an Olympic medal, but this gives me a nice feeling,’” she smiles.

But that will be about the only change in plans for Persoon no matter what happens tonight, as she bids to break Irish hearts and become arguably the greatest ever female professional boxer.

“This opportunity is good for your boxing career, the chance to prove that you are at a high level. But change me? No. I am Delfine Persoon and I stay Delfine Persoon, a normal person like another person. With friends and colleagues, if you are a champion or you are not a champion, you are a normal person.

After this fight, if I win, if I lose, I go back to my job after three days; I go back to the gym also and have boxing classes with the children and the other guys. It’s not going to change me. You are like you are, champion or not a champion.

“But it is nice for my career and, for me, it’s going to be…” She turns and consults with her translator.

“The cherry on the cake!”

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