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'The one thing they never did was hit me... They knew I'd hit them back'

Katelynn Phelan, 19, took her inspiration not from Bray, but from Brooklyn, and wants to blaze a trail down a road less travelled.

Katelynn Phelan, 19-year-old professional boxer [3-0].
Katelynn Phelan, 19-year-old professional boxer [3-0].
Image: Sharon Flanagan Photography

WHILE MOST OF us took time off work over Christmas, Katelynn Phelan put hers in.

She trained through it all: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, the lot.

There were no festive parties, but equally no pity parties. Her job is a little bit different. The Kildare woman is a prizefighter — Ireland’s second-youngest, male or female, at just 19.

She loves her sport, but business is hardly booming. Phelan turned professional a year ago but until earlier this month had fought only twice, picking up eight rounds, two points wins and a couple of modest cheques in March and July of last year.

Sordid insurance prices have driven the game back north of the border: it would currently cost Phelan’s promoters, Boxing Ireland, 2,000% more to insure a fight card in Dundalk than it would 10 miles up the road in Newry.

There were five professional cards in Dublin in 2018. There was only one in 2019. And it’s a safe bet that there will be none in 2020.

And so, as soon as Phelan was informed a couple of months back of the prospect of a third professional fight up in Belfast on 1 February, she knew her Christmas binge would consist not of selection boxes, but of boxing.

“I actually got a full eight weeks’ training camp for the third fight,” she says of her latest outing, a four-round win on Eric Donovan’s undercard at the Devenish Complex last Saturday week. “We kind of had a bit of an incline that something would come up.

“Sure Christmas is just another day, like. I still got to spend it with my family and my training meant I got to enjoy my dinner more — like, I was hungry for dinner and I didn’t eat a load of shit like people normally do… Like I would normally do,” she laughs.

“I came into January two kilos lighter than I came into December, so that was the main thing!”

Phelan’s professional debut in March of last year was higher-profile than that of the majority of boxing prodigies.

She took the fight on only three weeks’ notice and, at a day’s notice, just hours removed from her weigh-in, she was informed that her inaugural bout versus Poland’s Monika Antonik would be televised as part of TG4′s live broadcast of the Clash of the Titans bill at Dublin’s National Stadium.

Quite the boon, although the welterweight prospect insists that “they could have told me the president was going to be ringside and I wouldn’t have cared”, stressing that she was predominantly excited to fight for the first time without the protective headgear which remains mandatory wear in the female amateur ranks.

Her second fight took place at Cork’s Neptune Stadium last July. It was Phelan’s first under the tutelage of her current trainer, Niall Barrett. They had an eight-week running start, each getting a feel for how the other operates in the gym.

That was no harm: Bulgaria’s Galina Gyumliyska stood opposite her on that occasion, a 45-year-old journeywoman whose 11-40-1 record betrayed her offerings as an early-career test. Gyumliyska has shared the ring with 15 world champions past, present and future, earning paydays against female boxing greats spanning two generations from British trailblazer Jane Couch to Belgian hell-raiser Delfine Persoon.

Only nine of her 40 defeats have been inflicted inside the distance. Gyumliyska wasn’t on Leeside to win, per se, but she hadn’t been flown over to make Phelan look good, either. The young Irishwoman did that on her own, stylishly adding another shut-out victory to her record.

phelan5 Phelan gears up for her professional debut.

“She was old enough to be my mother!” Phelan exclaims. “It actually was a great experience to get in with someone who had so much pedigree in the pro game — and she had an amateur background as well.

“But I tried not to think about that too much. It was good because it showed what level I’m actually at — like, in my second fight, I’m in with females with that kind of experience. So, it just goes to show that I’m actually already up there with them — throw any woman in there against me and I’ll just do what I can.

I was hurting her, too. I know I was because she said to me after the fight: ‘Wow! Very strong. Never been hit that hard.” And I guess that’s a good thing considering some of the women she has boxed.

Her most recent opponent, Borislava Goranova, was of a similar ink to the fellow Bulgarian foe who precedes her on Phelan’s CV: the 41-year-old has fought a litany of legends including current undisputed welterweight champion Cecilia Braekhus and British standout Savannah Marshall, the only woman ever to beat Claressa Shields — amateur or pro.

Remarkably, Goranova also faced Couch four times in her first nine pro fights between 2002 and 2004. The fact that there was never cause for even one rematch between them and yet Goranova landed three of them is a fossil record of a necessitous age for the female sport, one during which Couch won a landmark legal case against British boxing’s governing body which paved the way for women to be allowed to fight professionally in the UK.

Without that case 22 years ago, Phelan wouldn’t have been permitted to step through the ropes in Belfast two weeks ago. Because of it, the only common opponents she has with the pioneering Couch are the Bulgarians with whom they shared the ring two decades apart.

poshter A promo poster for Phelan's most recent fight.

Fighters like Gyumliyska and Goranova are relics of an era out of which women’s professional boxing is currently transitioning, stalwarts whose relevance in their 40s is not uncommon in the women’s code: remove Phelan from the equation and, of the six other officially active Irish female professional boxers, Katie Taylor is the baby of the bunch at 33.

Having turned pro at 18, Phelan is in every sense the epitome of a new age for women’s pro boxing. The foundations for the career path were laid by the sport’s old-school earth-workers — unsung heroes such as Couch, Holly Holm and Heather Hardy. The way forward is in the midst of being paved by the new-school influx of elite amateur stars, Taylor their trailblazer-in-chief.

pjimage - 2020-02-12T005255.679 British professional boxing great Jane Couch (left) and Katie Taylor (right). Source: PA Images/Inpho

Phelan, a World Youth and European Junior medallist, had long been earmarked as a future Irish Olympian, a potential successor to the national icon who — like Couch with pro boxing in the UK — blew the doors open for women’s amateur boxing on these shores.

But Phelan’s decision to turn professional at this early juncture is proof enough of her intention to go her own way. And it has ever been thus.

Once Katie Taylor came on the scene, like, I watched her when she was fighting in the Olympics and stuff, but I was never really like a big, massive fan of Katie Taylor,” she says. “Like, obviously, she’s a great person, and I look up to her and that now, yeah. But growing up, I kind of just wanted to do it for myself. I wanted to prove to the people who kept telling me, ‘You can’t do it,’ that I actually can.

“Like, when I first started boxing, it was because my two brothers and my dad boxed. My dad used to sneak away to go to boxing, and my mother would kind of keep me behind closed doors because I was like a little pitbull — I was rearing to go.

“So, I actually went over my dad’s head to the head coach who owned the gym at the time.”

Wait, what?

“Yeah. I was seven.

My dad had actually allowed me to go and watch the boys train. It was a mistake, he says! He was like, ‘You’re not training. You can come and look at your brothers, but you’re not doing it.’ So I went into the head coach, Tom McDermott, and said, ‘Tom, can I train?’ A small little pudgy six- or seven-year-old — you can’t say ‘no’ to them! I was cute and small so Tom was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, work away. Jump in there with the boys.’ And my brothers would have been 13, 14 at the time — this would have been an older group. I was just a small, tiny little thing running around with older lads. They didn’t know what to do. And I’d stick it to them, like. I’d try to spar them and everything. I had no fear.

“I’d first gone into the gym when I was five or six, but when I was seven, that’s when I started fully training. And then my dad was like, ‘Oooh, she’s actually better than the two boys put together!’” she laughs. “And we haven’t looked back since.”

pjimage - 2020-02-12T010533.285

“When I was younger”, Phelan continues, “everyone was saying to me, ‘Oh, yeah, stay amateur: you’re going to go to the Olympics.’ But then, as soon as I started to grow up and actually start thinking for myself, I just realised, ‘Naw, it’s not for me.’ I started to not enjoy the sport, and I just wasn’t enjoying being in the High Performance [Irish national team setup] as much as I thought I would.

“I just didn’t seem to fit in — I didn’t fit the style that the coaches wanted. I like to fight; I like being rough and just fighting. And they didn’t want that — they wanted the European style where you’re up high on your toes, throw three punches and move. And that’s it. Whereas that wasn’t me. And they tried to change me every single time I was there.

“I just thought professional boxing would be a better fit because then I could actually find the proper style to suit me, and work from there.

“So then, one day, I printed out the forms myself, filled them out, signed them, and sent them away without my parents knowing,” Phelan recalls with audible devilment, referring to her professional-boxing-licence application to the Boxing Union of Ireland (BUI).

“They came back saying I got accepted to be a professional boxer.

My mother actually found those forms. Well, like, I’d left them on the kitchen counter. And she was like, ‘Oh, what are these?’ And she went on a little bit of a mad one, like, ‘You’re not turning professional. No chance.’ And then in my last amateur fight I got a rotten decision, and we were kind of told before that fight that I wasn’t going to win it even if I knocked her out. So after that, my mother was more okay with it. But in any case, I was kind of thinking, ‘Tough shit — you’ve no choice, Mum!’

The joys of being 18, eh?

“Exactly! So, then, my father was like, ‘Okay, if you’re going to turn professional, I’ll be your coach as well.’ So my dad and my uncle actually filled out [BUI] coaches’ forms to be able to be in my corner for fights and stuff like that.

Ah, I’d be completely lost without my parents, to be honest. They drive me training every single day. And if I’m on a diet, watching my food, they’ll do it with me. Well, they tell me they do, but then they sneak the takeaways and chocolate in… They’re like, ‘Go on, Katelynn, go for a run, there. We’ll see ya in about two hours!’ It’s like… ‘All right, Mum, thanks.’

phelan4 Phelan signs with Boxing Ireland Promotions.

Of course, having a professional fighter for a child would rank among most parents’ worst nightmares, so spare a thought for Mr and Mrs Phelan: Katelynn’s brother Allan, nine years her senior, is also a pro fighter [10-3, 7KOs] who since suffering his only stoppage defeat on his debut in 2010 has forged a decent career, winning impressively on the same TG4-televised card that saw his younger sister take her first steps into the professional ring last year. Indeed, they are the only brother-and-sister double act ever to fight on the same pro bill in Ireland.

“With Allan, I know the bad side of it and I know the good side,” Phelan says.

“And to be completely honest…” There’s a brief pause. “I’m just going to prove that I can do way more than he can!

“He’d kill me if he heard me say that!” she laughs. “That little bit of family competition is always there…”

aiden-metcalfe-vs-allan-phelan Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

allan-phelan-celebrates-winning Allan Phelan celebrates stopping Aiden Metcalfe last March. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Allan will always be nearby to give his two cents but it was through her brother’s connections across the Atlantic that Katelynn got to know her true fighting hero, a famed female figure who hails not from Bray, but from Brooklyn.

The elder Phelan for years fought out of Gleason’s Gym in the same Big Apple borough, and it was within its storied halls that Katelynn met one of the few people who could provide her with an even more pertinent insight into the murky industry from which she intends to make a living; a woman whose story inspired her to make one of her own.

“Heather Hardy trains there and from day one, I was just like, ‘Wow. That is so cool: a female pro boxer.’ I knew then that I wanted to do it.

I text Heather when I was turning pro and she was so supportive. She text me back and gave me tips, telling me things to do. It was so nice. She’s a big name over in America — and even back here. And for her to be so nice and so supportive of me… Like, I did an interview with Irish-boxing.com and she shared that [on social media]. I was like a big fangirl — nearly crying!

“But she just explained to me that it will get really, really tough. She was telling me that in one of her fights, the doors were closed while she was fighting and her fans, who had bought tickets, couldn’t watch her fight. I couldn’t believe that — like, that’s a disgrace. But she told me that eventually, things will change; keep slaving away at it and if you keep knocking on doors, one will open.

She told me that some days you probably won’t even want to get out of bed and go training or anything like that. And that you have to ask yourself, ‘Why do you fight?’ She was explaining that no matter what, if you stick to it, it will get better.

boxing-2017-heather-hardy-defeats-edina-kiss-by-unanimous-decision Heather Hardy celebrating a victory in Brooklyn in 2017. Source: Joel Plummer

It will get harder from here, of course. But for now, Phelan describes her decision to turn pro as “literally the best thing I’ve ever done”. She adds: “I’ve never been as happy in my whole life.”

And with good reason: for a significant portion of her young life, she wasn’t especially happy at all.

“I was bullied in school for years,” she says. “It was a group of friends…

“As soon as we got into secondary school, I got into the Irish team and we started going away on trips. They were actually jealous of my boxing.

I’ve always been a bit different, and they were all into going out all the time, full faces of makeup. They all looked like fucking robots! They looked the same. And I wasn’t. I was always the different one. I was always better friends with the boys than I was with the girls because I just couldn’t deal with their bitchiness. And they didn’t like the fact that, through the boxing, I was friends with all the boys that they liked.

“Anything they could [think of], they’d make fun of me, pick on me…

“The one thing they never did was hit me… They knew I’d hit them back.

“But like, I never had the confidence when I was in school to actually stick up for myself. I do now.

“Turning pro showed me that, actually, I have a lot more confidence in me than I thought.

I’ll still see a few of them in the town and that. And literally, they’ll cross the road to avoid me. I saw two or three of them that are pregnant with kids already. I was like… ‘Fuck.’ Turning 19, 20 — that’s a big step. I can hardly take care of myself and my dog, never mind something else!

“And it’s the training — the training just gives you that confidence, I think. When you’re training and feeling healthy, you just get a different aura about you. You feel good. And turning pro, that was a major thing that made me feel good, made me feel happy. Once you’re happy, then you’re confident. Well, that’s what I find, anyways.”

phelan6 Phelan does her thing in the gym.

As for her friends now — well, it’s complicated: they’re not exactly boxing aficionados. ‘We don’t know what to do,’ they’ll say. ‘Do we come and watch your fight or do we just go out partying?’

Whereas, even if she wasn’t now a professional athlete, Phelan would by her nature prefer to spend her Saturday night reading a book or watching a movie on Netflix.

The joys of being 19.

“I have a small group that will come and support me and watch me fighting, and that feeling when you’re looking out of the ring and you see them sitting there, and your family and everyone supports you, is unreal,” she says. “You know that’s why you’re there to do it. Because you’ve got to show to them that…it’s worth it.”

It could be a while before Phelan fights again; that’s the reality of being a professional boxer in the Republic of Ireland and, as Hardy warned her, the reality of being a female professional boxer anywhere.

But it’s hardly the end of the world. She knew the story when she turned over, and she knows she has ample time on her side — a decade more than most, in fact.

She also knows that in the women’s code, where 40-something-year-old journeywomen are still, by necessity, in lukewarm demand, a breakthrough opportunity is never a million miles away for a fighter with a decent win column. The key is to be capable of seizing it when the time comes.

phelan7 Phelan is saluted by friends and family as she leaves the ring following her pro debut.

“The thing is, every day in the gym I’m learning something new… I learned how to do a tumble there a few weeks ago, so that’s a start!” she laughs. “I told my six-year-old niece and she was like, ‘Katelynn, that’s…not good. I can do them and I’m six.’

But I know damn well myself that I’ll be a world champion. If you give me three years, everyone will know my name. I’ll have the big, shiny belts that everyone is looking for. I can see it already. I just know that it’s going to happen.

“Things happen really, really quickly in the pro game. Like, you have Siobhán [O'Leary] after, what is it, four or five fights, fighting for a Celtic title. You have Terri Harper fighting for a world title after nine fights. It can happen very, very quickly. So I want to spend this year working on my record — get it up there — and hopefully have a Celtic title by the end of the year.

“And once you start getting into those belts, that’s when it all starts to happen. You get noticed by one person and it can blow up.”

pjimage - 2020-02-12T013208.712 Terri Harper celebrates her her world-title victory over Eva Wahlstrom (left); Siobhán O'Leary and Phelan pose after a training session (right). Source: PA Images (left)

Mind you, it is in living rooms where mainstream boxing stars are truly born.

“Come on, RTÉ — or TG4! Come at me!” Phelan laughs. “You can put that in there in the article and give them a bit of a shout-out! Tell them I’m here and I’m waiting for them.

But yeah, seriously, with any TV coverage, too, that’s when the sponsors come in because they’re thinking, ‘Oh, we’re getting televised.’ It’s so hard without sponsors, and it’s so hard to get sponsors without TV because they go, ‘What do I get for it?’ And you have to be like, ‘Well, you’ll get shout-outs in interviews and logos on shorts and things like that.’ But they’re like, ‘Aw, that’s not really that good because it’s not going to be live [on TV].’

“And if I go out looking for sponsors it can often be, ‘Oh, we’re not really interested in getting involved with female boxing, sorry.’”

Commercial break: businesses evidently not run by cavemen include Unit 3 Health and Fitness in Naas, Hairbelle salon in Kildare Town, Wilton Scrap Metal, online coaching service Strong Body Strong Mind, Nutriquick Meals, and protein-snack provider Biltong, all of whom contribute what they can to Phelan’s career.

And that’s what Phelan sees this as becoming: an actual sustainable career which one day bears financial fruit as well as fulfilment.

The reality is that such dreams do not come true for the vast majority of boxers. But in Phelan’s case, it scarcely seems unattainable.

Her underage amateur background is a major headstart. Her ability is indisputable. And, crucially, for the first time ever, more than a handful of female prizefighters are actually making a living out of the sport; Katie Taylor has inadvertently seen to that, her impact on the pro game rewarded handsomely by promoter Eddie Hearn who, surely to his chagrin, has managed to catalyse a sort of inflation in female fight purses across the board.

To quote a tweet sent on Tuesday by up-and-coming British star Terri Harper, 23, who won a world title on Hearn’s Matchroom card over the weekend: “A year ago I was picking up extra shifts in the chip shop, peeling potatoes at 6am to make a bit of extra cash. Now I’m sunning myself in Gran Canaria, took my mum, sisters and partner away. Never thought I’d be in this position.”

Grand for some.

But while a few grand would certainly be nice, for Phelan, the journey ahead is about more than money, too.

It’s about finding her way.

It’s about blazing a trail for other youngsters who may wish to one day take a shot at something despite being told that they can’t, or that they shouldn’t.

And it’s about sticking it to anyone who has ever told her the same.

phelan9 Phelan emerges for a ringwalk.

“Beyond becoming a world champion someday, I just want to come out first and foremost with a clean bill of health. Like, you see boxers leave the sport and they’re practically brain-dead — they can’t string a sentence together.

“I probably can’t do that myself as it is!” she laughs.

“I’d like to have a nice bit of money as well. I know that might sound like a stupid thing to say and I know how difficult that’s going to be, but you don’t want to be poor every day, either. I’d like to be able to help my parents out, and my coach and stuff.

“But the main thing is I really want to inspire other kids, especially girls, and show that no matter who you are or where you came from, or what people say to you, you can do anything you put your mind to.

And I just want to prove to those people that no matter what they said, it couldn’t keep me down. It didn’t stop me.

“…And that I’d knock them out now if I saw them!”

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