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Dublin: 8 °C Friday 22 November, 2019
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Katie Taylor is becoming their champion as well as our own

Manchester felt like a seminal moment in Taylor’s ascent to stardom outside of Ireland.

An emotional Katie Taylor reacts to the wall of noise from the Manchester crowd which greets her during her post-fight interview on Sky Sports.
An emotional Katie Taylor reacts to the wall of noise from the Manchester crowd which greets her during her post-fight interview on Sky Sports.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

A WOMAN WITH a teardrop tattoo beneath her left eye comes bounding down the central staircase in Manchester’s Edwardian Hotel on Wednesday evening, hand on her heart.

“I just can’t believe I got a photo with Katie Taylor — I’m shaking!”, she announces as she reaches the ground floor. Her accent is local, but she’s otherwise in orbit.

It’s not an atypical scene on the face of it, but this particular woman is Tracey Webber, aka ‘No. 20′ from the fourth season of Channel 4′s SAS: Who Dares Wins — one of the first female participants of the quasi-military training show following the British defence ministry’s announcement last October that all army positions would henceforth be open to women. Who would have thought a quick selfie with a quiet woman from Bray could be more daunting than having the living piss screamed out of you by some sort of cross between G.I. Joe and Gordon Ramsay?

Webber, a year Taylor’s senior at 34, is in the primitive stages of her own professional boxing career. Six hours after meeting the Irish icon at a public workout in the Edwardian, she would tweet with a laughing emoji: “I’m so excited to go trainin in the mornin”.

katie-taylor Taylor shares a joke with trainer Ross Enamait during her public workout. Source: Matchroom Boxing/Mark Robinson/INPHO

Yorkshire woman Terri Harper is a little bit further down the road on her own journey through boxing’s punch-for-pay ranks. Indeed, following her impressive victory over Viviane Obenauf which plays out to quite the atmosphere in Manchester Arena three days later, it is announced by promoter Eddie Hearn that the 9-0(5KOs) puncher will challenge a familiar face in Eva Wahlstrom for the WBC World super-featherweight title in the spring.

Quite the birthday present for Harper, who turns 23 on the day of her fight. But a place on Taylor’s undercard had been reward enough. When the Matchroom bill was announced a couple of months prior, Harper had inquired about tickets to watch her hero before being informed by her promoter that she’d be busy on the night of 2 November.

“It’s a bit surreal for me,” Harper tells me before taking centre-stage for her own workout. “If somebody told me a couple of years ago I’d be boxing on a Katie Taylor bill, I’d never have believed them.

“Katie is my idol. To get to box on the same night as her, on the night she’s headlining a show like this, is a dream come true, really. I just need to not let all of that get on top of me. I might let it sink in after fight night.”

An hour later, when an event security guard for the public workout informs the undisputed lightweight champion that Harper is “too shy” to come over and ask for a photo of her own, Taylor finishes a video interview and makes a beeline for the back corner of the conference hall where the Denarby native all but disintegrates upon her arrival. The charm of the moment is accentuated by the lingering likelihood that the next time they meet will be at a press conference to announce a fight between them.

download Terri Harper (centre) watches Taylor complete her workout.

Taylor, still sweat-soaked, wades into another video interview and I turn to her trainer, Ross Enamait. On a scale of one to 10, how allergic are you to all of this, I ask him. He mulls it over for a few seconds, shaking his head from side to side. “11,” he replies, adding a laugh I think only out of courtesy, because he knows I’m next up.

That interview takes place in the relative privacy of a dark corridor just outside the throng and choonage of the function room, and most of it apart from Taylor’s thoughts on boxing’s doping problem never sees the light of day.

It’s three days before her headlining light-welterweight world-title clash with Christina Linardatou, and while she’s all smiles and laughs before and after the recorded portion of the chat, my questions find nothing but glove as she keeps her guard up while the phone is out. It’s as expected as it is understandable. She’s locked in, and probably more allergic than her coach even if she does her best to hide it.

“We’ll see you again during the week,” she says with a boxer’s knuckle-bump as she heads off, and it suddenly dawns that Wednesday’s event wasn’t even the press conference in which the majority of media ‘duties’ are boxed off — that’s tomorrow. And she has to make weight on Friday, albeit the cut on this occasion is less severe due to her moving five pounds north to 140, a point she had stressed when she strolled nonchalantly into the hotel kitchen beside us and suggested we do the interview there.

She’s swarmed again as soon as she gets to the end of that dark corridor and to the top of the steps down which Tracey Webber had skipped. Young fans making the most of the English half-term break rather than journalists, at least. She has her automated replies turned on for all of their requests too: “Of course.”

The vibe among the Mancunian fight fans with whom I small-talked throughout the week wasn’t exactly one of feverish anticipation. The city’s former world-champion darling Anthony Crolla was to have his last dance, sure, but the rest of the card didn’t seem to inspire anything especially guttural in them.

‘I mean, don’t get me wrong, Katie Taylor is great…,’ they would each tell me in some shape or form. The way I saw it, some of them were doubtless being genuine, a few probably felt obliged to acquiesce due to my accent, and others perhaps felt obliged to say it because, in this day and age, it seems like the right thing to say.

But it was striking that almost all of them were disappointed that Taylor wasn’t fighting Delfine Persoon in a rematch of June’s undisputed lightweight world-title classic at Madison Square Garden.

Whatever happens during the remainder of her professional career, that will prevail as one of Taylor’s greatest triumphs. Not her razor-thin victory over Persoon, which she will attempt to better sans-controversy in an inevitable rematch, but the fact that she got so many casual boxing fans, the majority of whom are male, invested in her career to the point that they actually care who she fights or who she doesn’t. They might not all be fans, but they’re all customers.

ksi-v-logan-paul-2-press-conference-troxy Hearn speaking at a press conference (file pic). Source: PA Wire/PA Images

And it’s no coincidence that this was a week in which Eddie Hearn began to make references to Taylor’s commercial value, discussing her from his perspective as a businessman and not just a cheerleader. He unabashedly explained that he isn’t interested in promoting Taylor, or any female fighter, for the sake of sociological advancement. Boxing is his business, he stressed, and Katie Taylor makes business sense.

I asked him on Thursday if she was on course to earn the first-ever million-dollar purse in women’s boxing history over the next 12 months, and he said that she was. I asked him if the aforementioned Persoon rematch could wind up headlining a Sky Sports Box Office pay-per-view card, another first for the female game, and he admitted that he and the powers that be at Sky are leaning in that direction. Unprompted, he added:

What I keep doing with Katie is I keep signing a new contract with her and one fight later, the contract looks shit. So we have to do another one, because I feel bad. When we sign the contract, we think, ‘This is mega-money’, and then she goes to Philadelphia or Boston, DAZN (US broadcaster) love her, and you start to realise…

Three years after Taylor and manager Brian Peters met with a reticent Hearn in his office to state their case for his signing the all-time great amateur to a professional deal, she has become one of Matchroom’s prized assets, and her stock continues to rise on both sides of the Atlantic.

All of this boxing-business talk might make the Taylor super-fan feel queasy, for she is more to them than some sort of commercial entity; she is a national institution, a sporting deity, and as every second person in the comments section of a Taylor-related article on this website will tell you, a far better role model than ‘That Other Fella’.

All of which is true, as is the fact that every fighter — and indeed every sportsperson — has a value. But the fact that Taylor’s is beginning to soar is symptomatic of something more pure.

Still priceless, of course, is Taylor’s set of personal values, which have never threatened to waver even as she perpetually becomes a major player in the mankiest of games.

Hearn took off the business hat to wax lyrical about a “perfect” human being who he respects and half-fears, and whose guard he too struggles to breach on occasion, but to whom he introduced his children and was left blown away by Taylor’s interaction with them.

The Taylor two whom he alluded is the sportsperson toward whom we as Irish people have gravitated for the bones of two decades, the woman whose qualities on either side of the ropes have seen her inspire, captivate, sometimes perplex and, three years ago when things went south at the hands of Mira Potkonen at her second Olympics, break hearts.

But with those same qualities she is cultivating a new audience both east and west of this island. They may never know the unrefined joy of London 2012 or the pit-in-stomach pain of Rio 2016, but she is fast becoming a champion for them as well as one for her people back home.

This has become increasingly apparent while attending Taylor fights in America.

At the beginning of her pro career, one wondered if Taylor would ever truly ‘take’ with the fight-going masses across the Atlantic who didn’t quite know what we knew. She would always garner the support of the Irish diaspora, granted, but she was at the distinct disadvantage of being a quiet woman in a sport where the majority of heed and money tends to be paid to male eejits.

katie-taylor-celebrates-her-victory Taylor salutes her fans following her victory over Cindy Serrano in Boston last year. Source: Emily Harney/INPHO

Fast forward to Madison Square Garden, then, in June, when Taylor fought third-last on an Anthony Joshua bill at the 20,000-capacity arena but her humdinger against Persoon played out to a crowd of easily two thirds that — far more bums in seats than you might have expected at such a relatively early juncture in the evening.

Were they all there to watch Taylor? Of course not. But thousands — a fair portion of them English — had foregone the option of staying in the bars of Pennsylvania Plaza for an extra few sips, opting instead to join the healthy sprinkling of Irish and New York-Irish for what they perceived to be a fight worthy of their presence (and if you find yourself thinking, ‘Well, duh?’, you haven’t met too many boxing fans).

Taylor and Persoon waged war and tore a few shards from what remains of women’s boxing’s glass ceiling. And the customers helped the fans to raise the roof.

EIVTSj7W4AAFmv4 Taylor celebrates her undisputed lightweight title win at Madison Square Garden, New York. Source: Declan Taylor, boxing journalist (@DeclanTaylor87)

And even though the fight card and, subsequently, the overall crowd was smaller, Manchester on Saturday night felt like a natural progression in this cultural shift, a seminal moment in Taylor’s professional jaunt. It definitely sounded like one. Eventually, anyway.

There was again a decent Irish contingent among the 9,000 in attendance but Manchester Arena felt like Manchester Arena, and not the 3Arena, for the majority of it. To most ticketholders, this was understandably perceived to be an Anthony Crolla fight card even if it had been marketed as otherwise; Crolla was going to be fighting last, and the outgoing former champion has given Mancunians moments that they will forever cherish as deeply as Irish fans might cherish Taylor’s Olympic gold or her undisputed title victory in June.

But this was essentially a testimonial against an unheralded opponent, and you feared the atmosphere for Taylor’s fight would be diluted by the general malaise of the impending farewell; that the locals might feel they owed their attendance to Crolla, but not to her.

At around 10-past-nine, footage of Taylor speaking at Thursday’s press conference was beamed around the building from the four screens overhanging the vacant ring. It was met with a noise from all corners which lifted heads from phones, but to a backdrop of musical chairs as people made good use of a brief break in the action.

The musical chairs had all but stopped by the time the challenger’s entrance music began. Wonderwall. On the nose, sure, but worth it for the acappella chorus which broke out as Taylor strode the ring, loosening her muscles.

But it was only when Hall of Fame boxing MC Michael Buffer couldn’t get an introductory word in arseways after ‘Bray, Wicklow, Ireland’ that you began to realise this was to be another yardstick night in her ascent to a new kind of stardom.

After 10 dogged, often tactical rounds, Taylor was crowned a two-weight world champion on a close-ish but fair unanimous decision, the third-ever to hail from the island of Ireland after Steve Collins and Carl Frampton. And then came the crowning moment.

Following a few minutes of celebrations, fist bumps and back slaps in the ring, the Irish icon was pulled aside for her post-fight interview with Sky Sports.

The prolonged burst of sound which greeted the sight of her bruised, beaming face on the big screens must have tested the structural soundness of the old arena. It was awesome, uncomfortable, inescapable.

It did what Christina Linardatou couldn’t: it levelled her. And the detectable lump in her throat only made it louder.

Most of those serenading Taylor wouldn’t have been aware that the last time we saw her reduced to tears and rendered speechless was moments after her career lowlight, in a post-Rio 2016-elimination interview with RTÉ. But they had contributed to one of the true highlights.

Such moments tend to turn customers into fans, but in Manchester, it was difficult not to get the impression that you were sat among the already-converted.

Eddie Hearn quipped in the ring afterwards: “Everyone should be so proud of her. Ireland should be so proud of her, but we’ll claim her too!”

He got caught up in the moment, but you knew what he was getting at.

Renowned boxing cutman Ian ‘Jumbo’ Johnson, gym manager of Like2Box in Surrey, brought 43 young female fighters, as well as 24 parents, up from the south of England to watch Taylor in the flesh.

As I mosey towards the post-fight press conference in the bowels of the arena, I get a few picture messages from a friend, Claire Foley, who helped to put the trip together. In one of them, ‘Lethal’ Lilly May, ‘Lethal’ Larney and Yasmine ‘The Tank’ are posing with a victorious Taylor just outside the Manchester Arena ring.

Lilly May is in the English squad for her age group, I’m told. After also meeting Eddie Hearn, who told her he’ll sign her when she’s 18, she’s already counting down the years and months.

All three girls have their own stories as to why they are fans of Taylor’s — stories we’ll surely hear told at a public workout or press conference a little bit further down the line.

But the long and short of it, for now, is that she is their champion.

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