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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Katie Taylor: An Appreciation of Poetry in Motion

Katie Taylor: An Appreciation of Poetry in Motion

Katie has treaded through the ill-tempered weather of pugilism to stake a claim for herself
Katie Taylor blasts Viviane Obenauf

Katie Taylor: An Appreciation of Poetry in Motion

“Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot,” wrote the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “but make it hot by striking.” Competing this Saturday in her fifth professional prizefight since debuting only last November, Katie Taylor, known as ‘The Bray Bomber’ after her birthplace in County Wicklow not far from Dublin, is doing precisely that.

Taylor takes on the likewise undefeated 23 year-old German southpaw Nina Meinke (5-0, 2 KOs) in a scheduled 10-round title eliminator which will establish the winner as the WBA Intercontinental Lightweight belt-holder and mandatory challenger to World Champion Cecilia Comunales. This essentially means that Katie is gunning for the title belt first worn around the waist of six-time world champion Layla McCarter who, as it so happens, returns to the ring for the first time since last summer to fight Szilvia Szabados in Las Vegas later that same night.

McCarter has been forthcoming with her admiration of Taylor–like Layla, an advocate for three-minute rounds in female fights–in addition to dropping a hint or two that she would be open to the possibility of a future showdown opposite Katie wherein the past, present, and future would collide in phenomenal, almost paradoxical fashion, like mighty atoms inside a particle accelerator, producing an epic explosion of big bang proportion which will set off a significant expansion of the women’s boxing universe as we know it, one which is already growing at an exponential rate.

But, tempting as theoretical speculation may be, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. “I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today,” as James Joyce ruminated. “I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day.”

90,000 fight fans are expected to occupy every single seat inside Wembley Stadium by the time Wladimir Klitschko attempts to reclaim his IBF Heavyweight Title from Anthony Joshua, with the currently unclaimed WBA and IBO hardware thrown in at no extra charge. Depending upon their appointed slot on the undercard, it is conceivable that there will be few vacancies when Katie Taylor makes her ring walk to a rousing welcome. This will be the second pairing of fellow 2012 Olympic gold medalists Taylor and Joshua on the same bill. After notching a third-round TKO of Karina Kopinska in her first paid outing, Katie was back beneath the spotlights just two weeks later at Manchester Arena to outpoint previously 9-1 Viviane Obenauf over six rounds as a prelim to Anthony Joshua’s truncated defense against Eric Molina by way of technical knockout.

Taylor has since systematically dismantled Monica Gentili with a virtuoso performance which could and should very well serve as the inspiration for contemporary composers of symphonies or sonnets, the creative impulses driving novelists and lyricists, then sent Milena Koleva, who fights under the moniker ‘Hell’s Baby’ back to the nether regions from whence she came, or Bulgaria anyway.

“Illusions are art, for the feeling person, and it is by art that we live, if we do,” Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen beautifully articulated. “Art is one thing that can go on mattering once it has stopped hurting.” At its absolute best, boxing puts on vivid display the creative genius of causing hurt and Katie Taylor is quickly becoming one of the bruising business’ most skilled artisans.

It all begins with and works off the jab and hers come courtesy of the left hand; sometimes single rangefinders but more often than not in couplets and triplets. Riding in hot on their trail will be a succession of left hooks to the body, although the right will sneak over to the midsection on occasion. Taylor leans in suffocatingly close, eyeball to eyeball, as if staring into her opponent’s very soul, taking inventory of what there is left to give and how much of that she can take or at least use to her advantage, scanning the blueprints for vulnerable points of entry that can be exposed and exploited. All of this occurs in a mere instant, like the unnervingly anticipatory interval between the lightning strike and the crack of thunder. Katie will then push off using her left elbow to find just the right amount of distance necessary to pivot to her left and fire off a hook or body shot or both while bent at about a 60 degree angle and then, bouncing on the balls of her feet, take two quick hop-steps to her right, find true north, plant herself to establish a stable center of gravity, square up her shoulders, and make the sky fall down before skipping away from whatever collateral debris may enter her orbit by way of retaliatory measures. The speed and strength of her punches must be, by the very laws of nature, as disorienting as their alternating variety and the different directions from which they depart and detonate, as impossible to predict as trying to spy the precise spot in the entire galaxy where the next comet will come hurtling through space during a meteor shower. Dazzling and devastating. Poetry in motion.

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, from Castledawson in Northern Ireland, once mused that “I have begun to think of life as a series of ripples widening out from an original center.” For Katie Taylor, the point of origin relative to her pugilistic aspirations can be traced back to the adolescent age of 11 when her father Peter nurtured her desire and would remain her coach until their abrupt and cryptic parting. More on that to follow.

Bewitched by watching the exploits of boxers from abroad like ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard, Floyd Mayweather, and Manny Pacquiao as well as national heroes such as Barry McGuigan and Steve Collins, who plied their trade much closer to home, Taylor undertook her vocation with single-minded, dogmatic determination. She fought Ireland’s first officially sanctioned female match, beating Alanna Audley of Belfast, as a 15 year-old and would soon after become an entrant into the European Championships where she placed first six times and the World Championships from which she brought home an additional five gold medals.

Having gotten in some quality sparring with Guillermo Rigondeaux and teammate Michael Conlan along the way, Taylor qualified for the 2012 London Olympics as the 60kg representative of the Emerald Isle by winning all five of her bouts (one by walkover) and,
thus, her fourth straight World Championship in Qinhuangdao, China. She cruised through the first two rounds of Olympic competition, after an initial bye, with a 26-15 drubbing of Great Britain’s Natasha Jonas (who resurfaces at the end of our little tale) and then outpointing Mavzuna Chorieva of Tajikistan 17-9. Her adversary in the gold medal match turned out to be a familiar foe. Sofya Ochigava, a southpaw from Moscow, Russia, was a 2010 World Champion at featherweight who, that same year, had ascended the scales to deal out to Katie her first loss in more than three years at the Usti na Labem Gran Prix in the Czech Republic. Samuel Beckett said it best, I think. “Ever tried. Ever failed. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Taylor certainly made the most of trying again by defeating Ochigava in China in defense of her World Championship and succeeded wildly at failing better by eking out a 10-8 victory over Sofya in the Olympic finals three months after that before a packed and raucous house at the ExCel Arena. “When you fight Katie, you are already minus 10 points,” Ochigava later griped. “You are fighting the judges and the whole system.” While by no means suggesting that AIBA scorekeeping is in any way, shape, or form above reproach (the aforementioned Michael Conlan, who famously flipped off and cursed out the judges after his controversial 2016 Olympic loss to Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin, will gladly attest to that), Ochigava’s remarks don’t resemble constructive criticism so much as so much as the pouting of a resentful malcontent.

Taylor had considered turning pro following her Olympic dream come true but, like Claressa Shields and Nicola Adams who faced similar quandaries in 2012, chose to remain in the amateur ranks. An interesting postscript to this part of the story is that, had Katie transitioned into prizefighting at that time, Holly Holm was being talked about as being her first paid opponent.

Sofya Ochigava had the opportunity to avenge her pair of losses to Katie at the 2014 World Championships in Jeju City, South Korea but failed to weigh in for her quarter-final match with Taylor, resulting in an anticlimactic walkover victory for Katie (it was later
revealed that Ochigava had injured her knee in the previous round) who won for the fifth and final time. Two years later, Taylor would lose her World Championship in Kazakhstan by a razor-thin 2-1 margin to eventual gold medal winner Estelle Mossley of France and have to share the third tier of the medal stand with Finland’s Mira Potkonen. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Unfortunately, Katie would fail again in Rio de Janeiro, though not for lack of trying again of course, bowing out in her first fight of the 2016 Olympics to Mira Potkonen with whom she had just split the bronze medal at the World Championships. She trained for Rio not with her father Peter but Zaur Antia and Eddie Bolger after discord of an unknown nature resounded throughout the house of Taylor. Dad and daughter parted ways not only professionally but also, it seems, personally due to what a tight-lipped Peter would only succinctly refer to as “a family matter”. When pressed for details, Katie, whose corner is supervised now by Ross Enamait with whom she formulates battle strategies out of his Vernon, Connecticut training center, suggested to the inquiring reporter that “I think you will have to speak to him about that. He’s entitled to a break,” she said and summed up dismissively, “it’s not something that really bothers me.”

Beyond the ring, Katie is a mild-mannered and soft-spoken woman of thirty who would rather let her fists do the talking. In this generation that values instant gratification over quiet contemplation, this will simply not suffice. So, there are incessant demands upon her time and uncomfortable intrusions into her personal space. These conditions she seems to accept as part and parcel of the promotional nature of professional prizefighting, not unlike the rough and tumble physical aspects of avoiding head clashes and elbow strikes, studies into what she refers to as “the dark arts”.

In order to be a necessary practitioner, however willing or begrudging the participation, Taylor possesses what was described by Irish Times correspondent Johnny Watterson as “a part of her that is pragmatic and ferocious”. She appears, however, to be able to expertly compartmentalize these traits, summon them forth when circumstances require, and store them away until they are needed again. These characteristics are reminiscent of this line from Patrick Kavanaugh, “Malice is only another name for mediocrity.”

It should go without saying, but I will regardless, that Katie is neither malicious nor mediocre. Tiresome and unsavory behavior will override ambition almost every time and get you nowhere fast. Katie is hell-bent on going wherever she damn well pleases at the pace which best suits her, stepping lively with purpose and respectful humility in each stride. The map to where Taylor’s journey will lead her is still being drawn and redrafted by the slow and steady hand of her promoter Eddie Hearn, leaving the paths she may cross yet to be determined. The upcoming crossroads terminate at Wembley Stadium against Nina Meinke this Saturday. This we know for sure, conveying her to the next logical step which is a world title shot at Cecilia Comunales in Dublin by grand design, either before or after a planned detour to fight stateside in New York City.

It is tantalizing to think that Layla McCarter will materialize at some juncture and perhaps Sofya Ochigava, now 2-0 as a professional after having bypassed a trip to the Rio Olympics, will lurk behind a bend in the road looking to slake her thirst for revenge. Natasha Jonas of Liverpool, who you will recall lost to Taylor in the opening round of the 2012 Olympics, recently made public her intention of fighting professionally despite an admission in 2015 that “I don’t think I’ve got the hunger and dedication to achieve any more. My mind is wandering to other things,” she confessed during her retirement announcement, “and there’s younger people coming through that want it a bit more.” Jonas’ recent change of heart may have been fueled to some degree by Katie’s success. “I think that is what everyone would like to see,” she said of a potential rematch with Taylor. “The noise was unbelievable and the atmosphere was unbelievable.”

As hard to imagine, I would guess, as the very wishes and wants of youth that gave these self-evident pursuits a jumping off point or the struggles demanded of one who sets out to realize these yearnings yet keep you grounded once you’ve touched down to earth from the ether where dreams exist.

“I have spread my dreams under your feet,” penned William Butler Yeats. “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

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