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'Katie hasn’t seen the film. She says she looks forward to watching it when she retires'

Award-winning director Ross Whitaker on worries about doing an Irish trailblazer’s story justice and discovering her ‘unusual charisma’.

The official poster.
The official poster.
Image: Ross Whitaker

IT IS JANUARY 2017, just a few months after her devastating defeat at the Rio Olympics and, despite the bitter cold of her newly adopted home in Connecticut, Katie Taylor is warming to her new environment.

The tough, no-frills, old-school approach of new coach Ross Enamait has helped Katie to fall back in love with boxing after a year of family disruption and sporting defeat left her devastated and demoralised.

Her training mirrors the traditional boxing timeline, three minutes on and a minute to rest in between. She’s slamming a giant tyre with a sledgehammer, the sound of each whack bouncing off the hard walls of Enamait’s garage. It’s stunning to watch the dedication that Katie puts into every moment of training.

I’ve been following Katie for about three months at this stage, from the moment she turned professional and through her opening two victories. Katie is getting used to me being around with a camera, quietly witnessing her attempted comeback and hoping it will amount to a film at some point in the future. Most of the time, I’m completely ignored, as close to a fly on the wall as one could wish for. Then, in one of her breaks, Katie turns to me.

Ross, what awards can we win for this film?”

I reply that the most important result of the film will be that we’re happy with it and that audiences enjoy and go to see it. Katie nods. She goes back to slamming the tyre. After three minutes, Katie speaks again.

Okay, but what awards can we win?!”

Enamait laughs and adds, “Are you starting to get a sense of how competitive she is?”

When I started filming, my biggest concern was that it could be difficult for audiences to get to know Katie because she’s famously so camera shy. 15 months of filming later and that worry had completely dissipated. It became clear to me that Katie, while quiet, has an unusual charisma and in the edit, when we started to shape the film, we saw that this charisma clearly leapt off the screen.

From the beginning, Katie agreed that the film should be “honest, real and truthful” and in the early interviews there was almost a sense that she had things that she wanted to get off her chest. It seemed like everyone in the media had written about Katie’s difficulties. Some had written her off. This film was Katie’s opportunity to tell her story, from her point of view. At times I felt sick to my stomach watching Katie break down as she discussed the devastation of 2016.

As I spent more time with Katie, I started to capture special moments that gave us a window into her character. I hear her discussing the possibility of forfeiting her own fee, to boost the pay packet of a possible opponent and lure them into the ring. While now everyone wants to fight Katie because it’s the “money fight” (as Eddie Hearn describes it) of women’s boxing, in the early days of her pro career few opponents wanted to step up and fight Katie. Even a career high purse wasn’t worth getting in the ring with Katie.

After that particular fight, Katie lost her cheque, indicating how far money is down her list of priorities. That’s not to say she doesn’t know her value. One gets the sense that this mission in pro boxing is as important to her as the missions she has previously undertaken. She is one of a few boxers who have the star quality to put women’s boxing on the map. When Katie first started boxing, girls weren’t permitted in the ring in Ireland and she dressed as a boy to fight in the early days. When she dreamed of Olympic gold, it was in a sport that wasn’t yet in the Games. She was key to the changes that came before and Katie knows she’ll be central to the changes that will come in pro boxing too.

Katie Taylor celebrates her victory with her team Taylor with trainer Ross Enamait and manager Brian Peters after her recent victory over Cindy Serrano. Source: Emily Harney/INPHO

Away from Katie, I discuss with her team the two different Katies that we see on fight day. For most of the day, Katie is quiet, polite, pleasant to all around her (though perhaps a little more demanding of her mam, who makes sure she has everything that she needs) but at a certain point she becomes a focused, ferocious animal, ready to go to battle and push herself to whatever limit it takes to ensure victory. We think the change happens when Katie puts on her gloves. Her eyes gloss over. She retreats to the internal depths that she needs to go into combat in the ring.

Starting off this film, I was genuinely worried about doing Katie’s story justice. She is, after all, a national hero and already an historical figure despite the fact that her career is far from over. It was brave of Katie to take on this project at the lowest point of her career, so it felt like a big responsibility to get it right. We’re relieved now, as we get the reaction to the film, that audiences seem to be loving it and that the critical response has been overwhelmingly positive. Katie hasn’t seen the film. She says she looks forward to watching it when she retires, when she is ready to look back at her career. She did tell me that she is enjoying the reviews though.

People are starting to ask about a sequel and maybe it’s not such a bad idea. From Katie’s perspective, she’s just getting started. With half of the top 20 pound-for-pound female boxers being potential opponents, it’s easy to see why her team are excited about the next couple of years. I hope this film will bring attention to the history that Katie is making.

KATIE is screening all over Ireland now, book tickets at KatieTaylorFilm.com

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