Tuesday 7 February 2023 Dublin: 7°C
Matchroom Boxing/Mark Robinson/INPHO Katie Taylor with the belts that make up her undisputed crown.
# taylor v sharipova
Taylor must send not-so-gentle reminder of why she's boss
The Irish icon can send a message to the boxing world that the rumours of her decline are premature with an impressive victory tonight.

A COUPLE OF hours after Katie Taylor weighed in for her fight with Jennifer Han in Leeds back in September, Eddie Hearn and Matchroom held a ‘secret’ press conference back at the fighters’ hotel.

Walking into the conference hall, one was firstly struck by the four belts perched at the edge of the stage, and secondly by the backdrop which all but announced Hearn’s ‘Road to Undisputed’ women’s tournament featuring Chantelle Cameron, Mary McGee, Kali Reis and Jessica Camara: the winner of a mini bracket between them would become the unequivocal ruler of the 140-pound division, just as Taylor is 135.

Speaking to Hearn after he had completed his video announcement and an interview with Cameron, I mentioned that it might be disrespectful to the four fighters involved to suggest that this tournament was all about creating another potential superfight for Taylor, but that such an outcome would at least be very convenient for all involved.

“Well, a lot of it is actually about Katie,” he replied. “I just had a meeting with Rick Ramos and Jessica McCaskill and they want to fight her. You have to plan out the future. You can’t just say, ‘Okay, we’re fighting in Leeds and then, after that, we’ll do another one’ — we have a clear idea of what we need to do.

“I feel like Chantelle Cameron against Katie Taylor is a really big fight. And sometimes, Chantelle is like, ‘Does she really want to fight me?’ But I’ve always said to Chantelle, ‘Katie will fight absolutely anyone. Trust me, she will fight you.’ But if we can get to a point where it’s undisputed champion against undisputed champion, 135 against 140, that all of a sudden becomes a massive fight. And that’s where I want to get to.

“But without meaning to sound cheesy, Katie is almost like family to me. I’m always looking out for her. And I want her to get everything out of the sport that she deserves.”

Somebody else later told me that the belts on display at the presser for the 140-pound tourney actually belonged to Taylor.

It felt like a metaphor — but whether that was a metaphor for a reality in which the 140-pound belts would also soon belong to Taylor or whether her belts would soon belong to a younger champion like Chantelle Cameron was unclear.

Before either of those futures can even exist, Taylor must firstly hold off the challenge of Firuza Sharipova in Liverpool tonight. Provided that she does, she will have a career-defining, legacy fight with seven-weight world champion Amanda Serrano at Madison Square Garden, New York, probably either on 23 or 30 April next year.

And if that Serrano superfight — which would be the biggest and most lucrative bout in women’s pro boxing history — is to materialise, it feels important for Taylor to not only win tonight but to produce a ferocious performance.

The harsh reality of being a 35-year-old boxer with well over 200 total bout on her CV is that Taylor’s last two outings, a war with Natasha Jonas and a relatively insipid 10-round win over Jennifer Han in Leeds, have created the perception that she has regressed.

And the harsh reality is that unless she can prove otherwise against a sturdy but limited mandatory challenger in the Kazakh Sharipova tonight, she probably has.

Taylor would have boxed the brakes off Serrano two years ago but it now appears for all intents and purposes a 50-50 fight. And it’s not like Serrano has improved drastically since. That tells its own story.

Taylor visibly recoils at questions about her eventual retirement which are put to her more and more these days — although she mentioned to me during the week that she understands why a 35-year-old fighter would be asked about their future.

Those questions will be cranked up a notch if she underwhelms tonight and the narrative leading into the prospective Serrano fight will shift entirely from what it was even when they were first scheduled to meet in the spring of 2020.

We could even see Taylor entering a fight as an underdog which would be inconceivable — but admittedly very interesting.

Alternatively, though, Taylor can tonight send a message to the boxing world that rumours of her decline are premature, a not-so-gentle reminder of why she has been the favourite every time she has laced up the gloves since she was 15.

Serrano will get her own chance to make a statement against Taylor’s former opponent, Miriam Gutierrez, this day next week and one would imagine she’ll seize it.

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Sharipova, meanwhile, shouldn’t be written off as some sort of novice the way Gutierrez (unjustifiably) was if Taylor does beat her from pillar to post. Not unlike Gutierrez — against whom it’s worth bearing in mind that Taylor produced one of the finest performances over her career only just over a year ago — Sharipova has been boxing since childhood, won a couple of Kazakh national titles and represented her country at the 2012 World Championships.

Conversely to the videos of her chopping down trees and pulling her manager’s child along in a sled through the snow at her Moscow training base, she has arrived in Liverpool with a team of around six or seven and an entourage of 40-odd. She’s more Ivan Drago than Rocky, after all.

Her training camp and, I believe, at least some of her entourage’s trips to Liverpool have been funded through Instagram, where she has over 150,000 followers.

Shock the world in Liverpool and that will double overnight but, more importantly, she’ll be taking Taylor’s belts back to Kazakhstan on the eve of the 30th anniversary of its independence. (Well, figuratively: the new champion or their team actually hand back the belts to the beaten champion in the changing room post-fight, and they keep them as a mark of their reign).

Taylor may not have recognised Sharipova when she introduced herself to her “idol” at the media workout on Wednesday but there is no danger of her having overlooked the Central Asian even with a bigger carrot being dangled in front of her in the shape of Serrano.

The Bray woman mentioned at Thursday’s press conference that she had once paid the price for complacency during her amateur career and that she would never make that mistake again.

So, it’s fair to suggest that her performance tonight, live on DAZN after 9pm, will be a fair reflection of where she’s at. By 10pm or so, we should have a gage of how much road she has left, and whether Hearn’s plans for her beyond the Serrano bout will hold as much water.

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