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'Sometimes I'd nearly bring myself to tears even thinking about it - that's how much it means to me'

Media coverage is the last thing on Katie Taylor’s mind ahead of what she says is ‘by far the biggest night’ of her career.

Katie Taylor fights for all the belts this Saturday night, and she has occasionally allowed herself to imagine what it would be like to create this piece of Irish boxing history.
Katie Taylor fights for all the belts this Saturday night, and she has occasionally allowed herself to imagine what it would be like to create this piece of Irish boxing history.
Image: Gary Carr/INPHO

Gavan Casey reports from New York

WE’RE STILL THREE nights shy of what Katie Taylor is describing as the biggest night of her boxing career, her 2012 Olympic gold included, and while the quarterly debate as to whether or not her epochal brilliance is sufficiently recognised by the Irish media rages online to the point of rabidness, her private quarters in some cranny at Madison Square Garden could scarcely be more reposeful.

The atmosphere in the room is not dissimilar to that of an Irish funeral home. Some people are standing, others are sitting; nobody really wants to be there but there are smiles and nods and handshakes galore.

It feels weird to be the person to breach the quiet.

Katie Taylor is allergic to doing interviews. She has deliberately waited until fight week — when they are a mandatory challenge as opposed to voluntary — to do any. She definitely doesn’t want to do this one, however short it may be, but true to form she does her best to hide that fact.

Initially, anyway.

“When it comes to this week, or any fight week, you just kind of go through the motions of every day,” she tells The42. “You have to do these sort of things [interviews] – it’s fine, by the way”, she interjects upon herself with a laugh, a gracious attempt to put this writer at ease – “but it’s pretty much the same every fight week, really.

“You’re still getting the sessions done, getting the last few pounds off, and that’s about it.”

Katie Taylor and Delfine Persoon Katie Taylor and Delfine Persoon square off for the first time at Wednesday's press conference. Source: Tom Hogan/INPHO

Taylor, sitting cross-legged on a sofa next to her trainer, Ross Enamait, goes through those motions: she’s as excited by this fight as any other fight; her preparation is the same for this fight as it is any other fight; it’s business as usual for her on Saturday night; she’s aware of the challenge in front of her; she’s well aware that it’s going to be a tough fight; it’s a challenge she feels she’s ready for.

The good news is we’ve reached Katie Taylor pre-fight bingo within minutes. The bad news is that in a few more minutes, she will leave to take to the stage in The Theater at Madison Square Garden to do the one part of her job that she hates more than speaking to a journalist, and speak to loads of them.

She laughs at the storm brewing on Twitter in her honour. “To be honest”, she says, “I have more important things to be worried about this week, so it’s not something that I’m concerned about — whether I get enough coverage or not!”

Taylor is concerned only by her ring legacy, not necessarily how far-reaching her achievements are outside of the boxing bubble she has occupied since childhood. Of course, she could seamlessly pull up a seat at Eamon Dunphy’s table of Irish sporting greats alongside your Henry Shefflins, your Brian O’Driscolls, your AP McCoys and your Ruby Walshes. Yet Taylor’s personal pantheon consists of your Kostya Tszyus, your Mike Tysons, your Marvin Haglers and your Sugar Ray Leonards — these are the sportspeople whose legacies she fights to emulate and surpass.

And she’s acutely aware, too, that within women’s boxing, she herself is the target in the minds of many.

One of them is a Belgian by the name of Delfine Persoon who aims to knock Taylor off her perch when they clash for the undisputed lightweight world championship at The Mecca of Boxing this Saturday night. The winner will be the first-ever undisputed world champion to hail from either of their native lands, and only the third-ever in the female ranks.

And so it is quite naturally Persoon who is the constant in Taylor’s mind, not the media nor those raging against it in her name.

“I think the fight’s always going to be there somewhere, no matter what you do this week,” she says pensively.

“We went for a nice walk along Central Park last night just to relax. I’d watch a bit of Netflix, as well, during the week – I do try to keep my mind off it as best I can.

“But the fight’s always there somewhere in your mind. You can’t really remove yourself from it fully.

“And that’s fine, to be honest. I’m used to the big occasion, I think; I’m used to these pressure fights.”

Katie Taylor Taylor laughs at Eddie Hearn's bemusement that she is yet to watch her own documentary. Source: Tom Hogan/INPHO

Her Netflix consumption is yet to stretch as far as her own documentary, however. Katie still hasn’t watched Katie, which was the top-ranked sports documentary on the Irish and UK version of the streaming platform over the last few weeks.

There is a memorable scene in Ross Whitaker’s 2018 film which shows Taylor and her mother Bridget deep in prayer before a fight, the former shedding tears as the latter recites a verse from the Bible. It puts the viewer through the ringer, and makes one wonder how Taylor could even be in the frame of mind to fight given what she appears to exert during the process.

It begs the question, too, as to how nervous she’ll be ahead of a career-biggest fight versus a career-best opponent.

“I don’t remember being particularly nervous before any fight, really,” Taylor laughs, conspicuously bemused. “I don’t know what that scene that was, or…

“I think it was probably the power of the prayer more so than being nervous about the actual opponent.

I mean, everyone gets nerves before fights but I wouldn’t be close to tears — I wouldn’t be that nervous! Somebody actually said the same thing to me a couple of days ago, that I was crying before one of my fights. And I was like…. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever cried before one of my fights!’

“So it must have just been the prayer, but obviously I haven’t seen it back.”

She has, however, perused a bit of Persoon on YouTube.

“I’d always kind of watch clips of my opponents, and this one is no different.

“I’ve seen a few clips of her and that’s all I need to see, really,” Taylor adds with a faintly detectable smile.

“I have a coach who looks at and studies my opponents, and I take instruction from him before every single fight. It won’t be any different with this one.”

Katie Taylor celebrates Taylor after her win over Rose Volante. Source: Tom Hogan/INPHO

Before being steered into Taylor’s pre-presser later, a chat with another fighter worthy of any Irish sporting and/or boxing pantheon, Carl Frampton, raised an interesting question: how could it be that Taylor never underestimates opponents when she has been the favourite to win every fight since she was 15-odd years of age?

As Frampton put it:

It’s happened to me a couple of times in my career: Alejandro Gonzales, in particular, I underestimated, and I ended up on my backside twice in the first round. But Katie has been in this position for her entire career, for the last 15 years or whatever, where she’s expected to beat her opponent.

Delfine Persoon has won 43 of her 44 professional fights and is unbeaten in nine years. She has reigned as WBC lightweight world champion since 2014 and in her most recent defence saw off a genuine world-level operator in Melissa St Vil, inflicting a first stoppage defeat upon her famously hardy opponent.

She’s still out at around 15/2 to halt Taylor’s march towards becoming the unequivocal ruler of their shared division.

“Every opponent, regardless of who they are — whether they’re poor or not — they have the ability to hurt you,” Taylor says after some contemplation. “You have to remember that. Anyone can cause you plenty of problems if you’re not sharp or focused.

“And that’s why every single training camp is the same for me. I put myself through the trenches every single day. And that’s why this fight isn’t any different to any other fight in my mind: because I’ve prepared for it the same way.”

The fight might not be different, but the potential spoils are. Taylor might be superhuman within the context of female boxing, but she remains human when she’s off the clock.

“From time to time”, she says, “I have honestly thought about what it would be like to hold all five belts and things like that. Sometimes I’d nearly bring myself to tears even thinking about it — that’s how much it means to me.

I try not to go there too much, because I have a fight to focus on. I have to put my mind fully on that for the time being. I can enjoy it, maybe, afterwards, like — hopefully. If everything goes well. Hopefully I can enjoy a victory afterwards, and then we can think about the next step.

Her next steps in a literal sense are out the door, through a maze of corridors and onto the main stage for the undercard press conference.

Anthony Joshua v Andy Ruiz Jr - Public Work Outs - Brookfield Place Delfine Persoon at a public workout earlier this year. Source: Nick Potts

Persoon, whose interview with The42 will be published on Thursday night, addresses the assembled media first.

“If I win the fight, I can be the first Belgian boxer to make history, to become undisputed champion, to take all the belts — the Ring Magazine belt. I want to do everything for it,” she says.

“We have already prepared for two months for this fight; my trainer has for two years looked for this fight. He thought we’d never get the chance.

“Now that I get the chance, we are ready. And yeah, we go for it.

“I expect, surely, a tough fight. She (Taylor) has a lot more amateur experience. I only had one year because in Belgium boxing was not very big — there was no national team. It was not possible for me to go to the World Championships or European Championships.

I didn’t get a chance to go to the Olympic Games, and Katie Taylor is an Olympic champion. 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.

“I want to do everything in my boxing career. And now I have a chance to do it,” she concludes.

After a lengthy introduction from Eddie Hearn, including a plug for her documentary, Taylor is in no form to beat around the bush.

“I’m ready to make history, I’m ready to perform on Saturday night,” she says. “This is what I’ve always wanted.

This is champion against champion. This is best versus the best. This is not just what women’s boxing needs, but what men’s boxing needs.

“We’re both here to make history for our nations, as well.

This is by far the biggest night of my career. This is the pinnacle of boxing. To have all the belts — the Ring Magazine belt as well — this is what every fighter dreams of, really. I understand the size of this fight, the magnitude of this event, but this is why I box.

“I’m ready to make history. The support I’ve gotten over the last few years has been incredible. They’re all behind me, they’re all cheering me on. I hope I make everyone proud at home.”

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