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Katie Taylor glances at the belts that make her the undisputed lightweight champion of the world.
Katie Taylor glances at the belts that make her the undisputed lightweight champion of the world.
Image: Matchroom Boxing/Mark Robinson/INPHO

For the first time, Taylor enters a fight with as much on the line for her as London 2012

Scrutinous eyes not only from Ireland but from all corners of the globe will be on her performance tonight, the weight of the world on her shoulders.
Aug 22nd 2020, 5:33 PM 70,364 16

REMEMBER WHEN PEOPLE thought Katie Taylor’s professional boxing career was a pointless endeavour?

Rewind to as recently as July 2018, when Taylor demolished a comparably hapless Kimberly Connor in London in what was a mandatory defence of the Bray woman’s IBF lightweight title — a fight to keep one of pro boxing’s four major sanctioning bodies sweet; a fight to get out of the way to pave the path towards altogether bigger ones.

Taylor’s third-round stoppage of the American was met with the usual deluge of shamrock emojis and tricolours and declarations that she’s ‘our greatest ever sportsperson’, and suggestions that ‘that other fella could learn a thing or two from this woman’, and so on. There is a need among Irish people to be seen to like Taylor even if they haven’t seen her fight since 2012 and, contextually, the facile nature of her victory over Connor saw some of the typically celebratory reaction stray over the top into mawkish territory; people were waxing lyrical about her for winning a fight that she would still have won if she had worn pillows for gloves.

But Newton’s third law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction and, sure enough, it was around the time of her predictable steamrolling of Connor that some of the nation’s self-appointed sweet scientists barreled into the sickly-sweet Taylor discourse, raging against the emoji junkies and their performative plaudits.

Columnists and armchair pundits — much of a muchness where boxing is concerned — questioned the credibility of the female professional code and, by extension, Taylor’s venture into it; for surely if Connor, a 37-year-old mother of three with a full-time job at Arkansas Water Company is challenging for world titles, then Taylor, whose sole occupation is boxing, should win all of the titles and, more bluntly, probably shouldn’t actually bother?

katie-taylor-finishes-kimberly-connor Taylor finishes Connor in the third. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Notwithstanding the fact that plenty of recent and current male world champions have full-time jobs outside of the ring (as well as the fact that were a boxer to actually train full-time in the truest sense of the word, their career would last probably no more than two years), it was with this stick that Delfine Persoon’s credentials were beaten by dissenting voices in Ireland the following summer: a 34-year-old policewoman for the undisputed title. Another joke.

Not a particularly funny one, as it turned out. Thank God she wasn’t allowed to use her baton.

What was undeniably funny, though, was how the same dissenting voices changed course in the aftermath of Taylor’s highly contentious majority-decision victory over this supposed part-timer from Belgium: unwilling or unable to critique Taylor’s below-par performance, they instead screamed ‘robbery’ even more loudly than Persoon herself while several newspaper columns called for the people of Ireland to re-examine our abusive relationship with sporting injustice.

Reading back over some of that fallout 14 months on, the inherent comedy is accentuated by the fact that Persoon has subsequently watched her first fight with Taylor back on several occasions and believes she won by a solitary round, 96-94, while acknowledging that even a draw would have been palatable.

Regardless, almost overnight between the 1st and 2nd of June last year, the casual Irish sports fan’s opinion of women’s professional boxing changed for the better while their perception of Katie Taylor, for so long the nation’s untouchable sporting darling, worsened slightly: she was still great, maybe still even our greatest, but in the eyes of many, professional boxing had somewhat corrupted one of Irish sport’s purest stories, albeit through no real fault of its protagonist. That many of those same eyes hadn’t even seen Taylor’s fight with Persoon didn’t really matter: the ‘robbery’ narrative had been established and perception became reality.

katie-taylor-and-delfine-persoon Taylor lands a left hand on Persoon. Source: Matchroom Boxing/Ed Mulholland/INPHO

Comments on Taylor-related articles and social-media posts in Ireland have ever since come with a healthy sprinkling of ‘let’s be honest’ caveats, wherein it is invariably implied that while she might be great, ‘she lost that fight’.

But it’s outside of Ireland where people’s impression of Taylor is far more interesting.

A sizeable portion, particularly in Britain, now bow at her altar the same way most Irish people have for 15-odd years. It is a testament to her dedication and ability, to Brian Peters’ career guidance, and to Hearn’s promotional nous, that Taylor has become not only the posterwoman for professional boxing but one of the sport’s leading names, male or female, both across the Irish Sea and back across the Atlantic. Her fight purses have duly moved into seven-figure territory, a feat matched or bettered by only a tiny fraction of prizefighters globally, all of them men.

But there is equally a flip side to her ascent: there are so many part-time professional boxing fans in Britain, America and the world over who simply weren’t privy to the decade of Taylor’s life in which she blazed a trail and became arguably the greatest ever female amateur pugilist; most of them don’t care much for the unpaid game anyway and, understandably in that they’re not Irish, care even less for what Taylor achieved for her country — be it her crowning glory at the London 2012 Olympics or the gold medals with which she returned home from umpteen major international championships.

Until recently, many of them didn’t give a hoot about women’s boxing, either, and so the first time they would have paid any great heed to Taylor was during her memorable scrap with Persoon for the undisputed lightweight championship at Madison Square Garden, New York last summer, as the clock ticked down towards Anthony Joshua’s headline-slot heavyweight title fight with Andy Ruiz at the same venue or on the same channel.

And directly as a result of what transpired that night, wherein Taylor was to their mind ‘gifted’ a majority-decision win over the bookies’ rank outsider Persoon, a fair portion of boxing fans globally are simply not fans of Taylor’s.

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It’s not so much that they dislike her on a personal level — even her most vocal detractors to either side of Ireland will acknowledge that she’s a fundamentally decent person — but rather that, by dint of her association with Hearn and the influence they allege he and other major promoters have on judges’ decisions, they dislike what Taylor represents in the professional sport.

katie-taylor Taylor shadowboxing. Source: Matchroom Boxing/Mark Robinson/INPHO

Taylor will tell you that she herself doesn’t pay great heed to such external noise but she lives and breathes and occasionally even tweets, so she’s far from oblivious to criticism, either. Case in point, this quote from her earlier this week: “It’s been hanging over my head over the last year”, she said of the fallout from her narrow victory over Persoon last summer, “so I was delighted when the rematch was nailed down. I’m looking forward to putting on a more dominant performance and shutting up everyone that has criticised me over the last year.”

In a weird way, Taylor can count the condemnation from cohorts of international boxing observers among her greatest achievements. It can’t be overstated how influential she has been on a seismic the culture shift within the sport where, in the space of four years, its predominantly male fanbase has pivoted from saying, ‘It’s women’s boxing, who cares?’ to, ‘I want to see Taylor rematch Persoon’. When even detractors are invested in who you fight, you know you’re onto something.

And they will tune in tonight with many of them being granted their wish — as are Taylor and Persoon themselves — in the shape of an opportunity for the record to be set straight once and for all.

But where Persoon’s unexpected shot at revenge comes without any great pressure — she’s still not expected to win and if she was to lose tonight, she can still justifiably claim to have won the original bout — Taylor’s mission to avenge her own victory will be carried out under significantly more duress.

The 34-year-old Irish icon is under no illusions as to the jeopardy inherent to this sequel.

Lose, and her entire four-year professional career will be effectively written off by those who pointed the finger at her last summer as being a promoter’s creation, the hype surrounding whom rang hollow. Perhaps all of that noise could be shrugged off — who cares what those people think, ultimately — but what would undeniably rankle to her core would be her having to silently internalise the idea of being merely second best; that, after 14 months of mulling it over, after weeks, months, years of training, and after 19 major international medals, six professional world titles at two weights and countless barriers broken, she just wasn’t quite as good as Delfine Persoon.

Win again controversially? See above and add accusations of fraudulence. The fact that the bout will take place in the backyard of Hearn’s Matchroom mansion only adds to the imperative for something approaching an emphatic Taylor victory: she needs to not merely win but to beat Persoon clearly, for only then will she be able to truly move on from this rivalry and silence those who, like Persoon, believe she is the weaker component of it.

katie-taylor-emotional-after-winning-the-wbo-world-super-lightweight-championship Taylor soaks up the plaudits following her win over Christina Linardatou in Manchester last November. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that Taylor’s legacy in the punch-for-pay ranks is on the line in Brentwood tonight, and she is hellbent on both protecting and extending it.

Of course, intense pressure is nothing new to an athlete of her calibre; she has competed at the highest echelons of both boxing codes for almost two decades, and in 2012 won an Olympic gold medal that would not have been possible had she not herself previously fought — literally — for women’s boxing’s inclusion at the Games.

But this is a different sort of pressure. Eight years ago, as 1.1 million of us tuned in to watch her edge out Russia’s Sofya Ochigava to take London gold, it felt as though she had won it for Ireland as well as herself. Tonight, even though thousands on this island will fork out the few quid to watch her rematch with Persoon on Sky Sports Box Office and the rest of the country will follow the fight in some form or, at least, inquire as to how she got on afterwards, it’s more personal.

Nobody doubted her in 2012. She carried the weight of a nation’s expectations on her shoulders and became a living Irish sporting legend.

Tonight, there doubts are palpable: ‘Can she stay out of harm’s way?’ ‘Is she on the decline?’ ‘Will Hearn rob Persoon again like he did the first time?’ Scrutinous eyes not only from Ireland but from all corners of the globe will be on her performance, the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Ultimately, a mere 20 minutes — 10x two-minute rounds — will ostensibly decide if she should ascend to living legend status in her full-time job or if she should consider accelerating plans for an eventual career change.

For a journey that was deemed pointless by some until relatively recently, it has taken a pretty exciting turn.

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Gavan Casey

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