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Finding peace on the water, meeting Sly Stallone, and enjoying the pressure of being Katie Taylor

‘I mean, I think it’d be unusual for me if I wasn’t the favourite going into a fight at this stage,’ laughed Taylor ahead of her title defence next Saturday.

Katie Taylor and Sylvester Stallone sharing a laugh in October.
Katie Taylor and Sylvester Stallone sharing a laugh in October.

AFTER SHE DEFENDED her lightweight title for a fourth time with a shutout victory over Jennifer Han in Leeds, Katie Taylor returned home-home to Bray for only a few days before making tracks once more for her new home, Connecticut.

Taylor suspected she would have business to tend to before year’s end, and she began laying the groundwork in the gym for next Saturday night’s bout in Liverpool as soon as she touched back down on American soil.

For the most part, that’s the way Taylor likes it. It’s telling that she describes her male pound-for-pound-number-one equivalent, Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez of Mexico, as “the perfect boxer right now to actually study”. Undisputed super-middleweight champion Canelo these days tends to fight once or twice more per year than your typical elite boxer and Taylor’s bout with Kazakhstan’s Firuza Sharipova on Merseyside will be her fourth in just over a year. For comparison, Taylor’s fellow female undisputed champs, Jessica McCaskill and Claressa Shields, have each fought just once in the same period of time.

“I would hate nothing more than to be actually sitting around waiting for a fight,” Taylor says. “That would actually drive me mad, I think.

“You can do all the sparring in the world but nothing is ever the same as actually stepping into the ring and actually fighting. I think when you do stay busy like that… You will see the best of me in those situations. But obviously, the minuses are that you’re always in camp, you’re always training, you’re always putting your body under a lot of stress, I guess.”

katie-taylor-ahead-of-her-fight Source: Matchroom Boxing/Matthew Pover/INPHO

Even for somebody as singularly devoted to their profession as Taylor is, there has to be some room for decompression.

The 35-year-old has lived near her training base in the rural town of Vernon, about 90 miles south-west of Boston, for the guts of five years. She bought her first house there (furnished with its own boxing gym) about two years ago. She has ostensibly settled there — for the short to medium term at least — for she now has in Vernon virtually all she needs outside of the ring: a Pentecostal church, a group of friends and, crucially, peace.

Oh, and a speedboat.

“It’s along the Connecticut River,” Taylor says. “I have it docked around 30 minutes away from me.

“It was just pretty much… I was out kayaking one day and I saw a little speedboat going out on the lake. I just got a bit of an urge to test one out. It just looked like great fun. That’s pretty much how I got a passion for speedboats,” she smiles.

It was a bit of an impulse buy but it’s been just a great buzz. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time off, being on the water. There’s just something about the water… It’s so peaceful out there, I could spend all day on the water, really. Just by the sea, by the lake — I just love times like that.

Mind you, days on her boat aren’t yet a complete escape from the rest of the world.

“No, I usually go out with a few friends. I still can’t dock the boat yet, so…” Taylor laughs. “I need someone else there with me to actually dock it! I’m still learning that.

“So, I’ll usually go out with a couple of friends but it just a great time, to spend a few hours out on the water. It’s just fantastic.”

katie-taylor-prepares-backstage Source: Matchroom Boxing/Dave Thompson/INPHO

Back to the noise, and Saturday’s opponent Firuza Sharipova is bringing plenty of it with her from Kazakhstan.

Taylor laughs off the 27-year-old’s claims that she could knock out Taylor and Conor McGregor on the same night, insisting that she has been paying so little attention to her mandatory challenger, she didn’t even realise Sharipova had said as much.

The reality is that this is merely a fight for Taylor to get out of the way, chosen to satisfy one of the four sanctioning bodies whose belts compose her intangible undisputed title, and designed simply to keep her ticking over before a potentially career-defining fight versus Amanda Serrano at Madison Square Garden, New York, in the spring.

Sharipova boasts a decent record [14-1(8KOs)] on paper but only one name on her CV jumps off the page: that of Sofya Ochigava, whom Taylor beat by the skin of her teeth to win her Olympic gold medal in London nine years ago. Russian great Ochigava beat Sharipova on points on what was both of their professional debuts in 2016 and, intriguingly, she has been ‘instrumental’ to the Kazakh’s preparation for her shot at the bigtime next Saturday night.

But let’s get down to brass tacks: Taylor should beat Firuza Sharipova at M&S Bank Arena and she should do so convincingly. This fight should transpire to be merely a warm-up for Amanda Serrano, who will take one of her own a week later. These are realities that are neither lost on Taylor nor do they remotely bother her.

WhatsApp Image 2021-11-30 at 15.15.22 Firuza Sharipova (R) gloving up with Taylor's London 2012 final opponent, Sofya Ochigava.

“Yeah, I mean, I think it’d be unusual for me if I wasn’t the favourite going into a fight at this stage,” she laughs. “I’m definitely starting to enjoy the pressure: I love going into these fights as the favourite. Well, not that I even look at myself as that — I just go in and do my thing, perform to my absolute best.

“I’ve never, ever found it hard to actually get up and keep myself motivated for these mandatories. I do understand that these girls are coming for all my belts and we’re going to see the best of these opponents every time they step into the ring with me.

You see it all the time in boxing where fighters have a flat performance and they fail to hold onto their belts, so I can never, ever get complacent. I’m so aware of that. So, I never, ever find it tough to focus on these fights — even with so much noise around other fights.

While reiterating — as she always does — that she dare not overlook Sharipova, Taylor does convey a confidence that the white-whale bout with Serrano, which has been five years in the making (and was literally ‘made’ last spring only for Serrano to withdraw citing Covid restrictions), will finally take place early next year provided they both emerge unscathed in the coming weeks.

“Even the fact that she’s fighting one of my past opponents (Miriam Gutierrez) in her next fight: that’s the perfect build-up to our fight, so it is,” Taylor says. “It is looking very, very likely that that fight will happen next year, now.

“The fact that she’s teamed up with Jake Paul, as well… I think that gives even more incentive for her. So, definitely, right now, it’s looking very, very likely, but of course we both have to get past both of our opponents in the next few weeks. Once we do that, we can start speaking seriously about the next fight.

I think next year is the perfect time for it to happen. If it doesn’t happen next year, it would be so disappointing for the sport as a whole. I’d be very surprised if it didn’t happen next year with all of the talk that’s been done over these last few months. If it doesn’t happen next year, it won’t be my fault — I’d put it that way. We’re definitely ready and willing. We always have been.

ca-jake-paul-vs-tyron-woodley-los-angeles-press-conference Amanda Serrano. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

There is genuine mainstream interest in their prospective bout, which Taylor chucklingly claims that she hopes takes place only once — she wants to beat seven-weight world champion Serrano [41-1-1, 30KOs] in dominant fashion and she believes that’s “very, very possible”.

What’s certain is that the appetite for what would be the biggest and most lucrative women’s boxing match in history would not exist had Taylor not turned professional in 2016. On the business side of things, Taylor’s manager, Brian Peters and her promoter, Eddie Hearn, have collaborated to effectively start a new industry which is just about capable of sustaining its biggest star. From a sociological point of view, Taylor has done in the ring as a professional what she has been doing since she fought Alanna Nihell in the National Stadium 20 years ago: changing minds.

“We’re seeing fights that people are really interested in, the fanbase is growing, and there are so many female fighters out there now who are actual genuine household names,” she says. “I think that’s absolutely incredible. That, for me, has been the highlight I think.”

Yet, as we suspected then and as we know now, the butterfly which flapped its wings at the Rio Olympics five summers ago was poisoned: Taylor’s quarter-final exit at the stone fists of Finland’s Mira Potkonen was recently listed by the McLaren report — an independent investigation into irregularities at the Rio Games — as “suspicious”.

The damning report by Canadian Bill McLaren, a lawyer, found evidence of “corruption, bribery and the manipulation of sporting results” at the Games, where AIBA judges were revealed to have fixed the results of certain bouts through the use of, among other things, hand signals to each other.

Though Taylor doubtless underperformed versus the Finn, she ultimately fell foul of a quirk in the judging system at the time wherein only three of five judges’ scorecards would be used to determine the outcome of a fight, with the other two — chosen at random — discarded and never revealed.

katie-taylor-dejected-after-losing-her-fight Source: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Of the three scorecards used, Taylor was adjudged the victor by one judge, another saw the bout for Potkonen and a third judge scored the bout a draw — but leaned towards Potkonen when prompted to break the tie.

The McLaren report revealed that the two discarded scorecards each had Taylor winning. Therefore, the Bray woman had for all intents and purposes ‘won’ the bout on a 3-1-1 split decision — but instead of guaranteeing herself an Olympic bronze medal and advancing to the lightweight semi-finals, she officially lost 2-1 and exited the Games at the first hurdle. (However, it’s worth noting that McLaren found no evidence that the scoring system had been manipulated).

“I have seen the report” Taylor says, “and I guess everyone knew during those Olympic Games that there was a lot of cheating going on.

“I came out of the ring that day, I guess, feeling like I did do enough to win the fight — but it’s in the past now. It doesn’t matter what the McLaren Report says. It is what it is, I guess. I didn’t take too much notice of it, really.

“But it is definitely hard to look past the fact that three judges had me winning, one judge had her winning and one judge had it a draw, and yet she still got the decision.”

“I didn’t think too much about it, really, over these last few years.

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“I guess…” Taylor tuts, mulling things over. “It’s a small bit satisfying to know that I actually won that fight — but at the same time, I still came away heartbroken over a loss at the time.

But now, I’m in a great place and I obviously feel like I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today as a professional fighter if all had went well in Rio. There is a bit of a silver lining there.

Five and a half years on, Taylor is a two-weight professional world champion and one of the highest-earning female athletes on the planet. She notes that she “can’t say that there’s any one particular person that actually inspires me” and yet, these days, she is a hero to far more people than she was even during her amateur heyday.

That much is evident at fight-week events and fight nights in the UK or America where one could be mistaken for briefly believing they were in Ireland such is the clamour for selfies, signatures and general acknowledgement.

Recently, closer to home, 11-year-old Addison Whelan — the young girl who famously procured Cristiano Ronaldo’s jersey at Lansdowne Road, and who boxes out of the Corinthians club in which Kellie Harrington began her career — revealed to FM104 that she had been speaking to another of her heroes.

katie-taylor-with-miriam-gutierrez-after-the-bout Source: Matchroom Boxing/Mark Robinson/INPHO

Taylor explains that, “Actually, one of my friends rang me that night. She (Addison Whelan) is actually the cousin of that friend so she just got her on the phone to me, I was chatting to her for a few minutes.

My friend sent me a clip of her hitting the pads — and she’s obviously a huge boxing talent as well — so I just told her that I’d seen her hitting the pads, that she was so impressive, and I told her that I’d do a training session with her once I get back home after this fight.

“I’m looking forward to actually meeting her in the flesh and having that training session with her,” smiles Taylor.

She might not have too many heroes of her own but that’s not to say Taylor is incapable of being starstruck.

She recently met actor Sylvester Stallone at Arnold Schwarznnegger’s health and fitness festival in Birmingham, England, at which she was herself a guest speaker.

“He was an absolute gentleman, actually,” Taylor beams. “We were just kind of talking about the belts that I’ve won. He was talking to me about when my next fight was and his desire to actually get to one of my fights as well, which was really cool.

“It was an absolute pleasure to meet him, really. He was a complete gentleman.

“I would have been a huge fan of the Rocky movies. I think every boxer is, really. Even with the new boxing movies that have come out in these last few years, you just can’t beat a Rocky movie,” Taylor says.

“They’re still the best for me.”

BJ2I1018 Taylor by the 'Rocky' statue in Philadelphia before fighting Rose Volante in March 2019.

Even if they’re a little bit different from the real thing…

“We always laugh that we never actually see any of his preparation for fights. He’s never, ever had a sparring partner!” Taylor laughs.

“Hollywood, I guess…”

Stallone will surely have one eye on the streaming platform, DAZN, when Taylor aims to remind us all how winning is done next Saturday.

Then, maybe they can swap sides of the screen for a Rocky binge back in Bray over Christmas.

“I actually can’t wait just to get home and spend a bit of time with family,” Taylor says. “I’ve spent the whole year out here, really, preparing and training for these fights and it is going to be a perfect time just to relax and spend a bit of time with nieces and nephews — and get ready for the Christmas weeks.”

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