By Thomas Myler
In the ring at Bray Boxing Club, near the harbour in the seaside town in Co. Wicklow, Katie Taylor went through a sparring session with her dad Peter, who was also her coach. They wore pads on their fists and he let his daughter punch away with jabs, hooks and uppercuts.
They did four fast two-minute rounds before having her pads and headgear removed and taking a break. This would be their daily routine as an amateur, which started in the early 1990s.
Today the unassuming Wicklow woman, 36 on July 2, is one of the world’s leading sporting figures, and one of the richest, with a net worth of $1.6 million, roughly translated at €1.5 million. Not bad pickings in any currency.
Queen of the Ring and undisputed lightweight champion of the world, she has won all her 21 professional fights, and has been collecting titles, amateur and professional, the way a philatelist gathers stamps.
On May 1 at boxing’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden in New York, and before a capacity crowd of 19,187, she came back from a horrendous fifth round to have her right hand raised in victory over the seven-weight world champion Amanda Serrano of Puerto Rico on a split decision.
The sensational fight prompted talk of a return match in Dublin, with Croke Park the likely venue and talk of an 80,000 attendance. Katie’s fights are arranged by the top British promoter Eddie Hearn and the American streaming service DAZN. Her Irish promoter and agent is Co Meath restaurateur Brian Peters. They set up her fights and her purses.
With her fast-paced aggressive style, she has managed to keep on top of her game.
It is an inescapable fact that there are a great many people out there who are diametrically opposed to women’s boxing on obvious grounds. But on the other hand, to deny a woman a chance to pursue whatever career she desires is also wrong.
Katie acknowledges the dangers. “I know all about the risks in boxing but if you didn’t take risks you’d never get out of bed in the morning,” she says.
Ever since she officially started boxing as an amateur at the National Stadium in Dublin back on October 31 2001, Katie has succeeded in attracting young girls to the sport all over the land. Before Katie, women’s boxing was taboo in Ireland, even though it was thriving around the world.
But on that historic night when Halloween bonfires blazed in the suburbs and exploding fireworks lit up the night sky, the sport for the ladies got off to a flying start – and has never stopped. There are female boxers practicing the noble art all over the country today.
Whenever Katie gets back to Dublin, and that’s not often these busy times, the family always manage to get to St Mark’s Pentecostal Church in the inter-city for noon service on Sundays.
Katie and her mother Bridget, both Christians, make sure they pray before a fight wherever they are in the world, and it was no different before the Serrano bout.
“It’s always the same and that’s one of the most important parts of the preparation,” says Katie. “I actually don’t know how people get through difficult moments without God in their life. God is my anchor, my rock and there are definitely times I cling onto the word of God.
“One of my favourite verses is in the Book of Romans and the gist of it is that whatever you’re going through there’s a defining moment you can actually use for your benefit. I believe that.”
On St Patrick’s Day 2010 Katie achieved a personal ambition when she visited the White House in Washington and met President Obama. The invitation came from the First Lady Michelle Obama, who had heard of Katie’s great achievements in the sport.
“It was an honour to be invited to meet President Obama and Michelle,” she recalled. “The First Lady told me she did a bit of boxing herself in her young days and always retained her interest in the sport. It was really a tremendous experience and I never dreamt my boxing career would present me with opportunities like that.”
In her early days, Katie was a good soccer player. She follows Leeds United today. The first girl to play in the Wicklow Schoolboys League before the name was changed to include girls, she lined out for Ardmore, winning over 40 caps for Ireland at all levels right up to senior and claiming 19 caps for the women’s international team.
Indeed, she could have made a career at soccer. Before she sat her Leaving Cert, a number of US colleges sought her services. She did complete one year of a health and leisure degree in University College, Dublin but her main interest was always boxing.
Taylor makes it clear she is not motivated primarily by money but agreed that the Sorrano fight was surely a milestone for women’s boxing. It was the largest boxing show headed by females in history and attracted a record-breaking 1.5 million viewers across the world.
“No, money isn’t my main priority but it obviously is important because boxing is a very limited career,” she told the Irish Times. “You really want to make the most money you can in a short space of time.
“Over the last few years, women’s boxing has made huge progress in this area. When I first turned pro in November 2016, women boxers were making pennies compared to their male counterparts. All that has changed for the better.”
When Katie won gold at the London Olympics in 2012, her world changed forever. Basically shy, and thrust headlong into the world spotlight, she accepted the fame and adulation that goes with success with a dignity. She was now a role model, and has remained so.
In 2016 her private world came crashing down when her dad Peter walked out on the family. It was a big blow, heavier than any punches she had received in the ring, and it has taken her a long time to get over it.
But today Katie shows no resentment. She has not spoken much about it in public but agrees: “It was tough. It was heartbreaking but life goes on. My relationship with my dad is fine now. I obviously love him.”
Katie’s No 1 fan is Kelly Harrington, the current Olympic Lightweight gold medalist who works as a psychiatric nurse at St Vincent’s Psychiatric Hospital in her native Dublin.
Kelly has shown no desire to follow Katie into the professional ranks just yet as she is concentrating on continuing her amateur career. But she admires Katie.
“There wouldn’t have been any women’s boxing here, or it would have been much delayed, if it hadn’t been for Katie Taylor,” she says.
On her performances around the world, Katie has made women’s boxing respectable for her innate modesty, demeanour and all-round ability. She’s an Irish sporting icon for the ages. As Tina Turner might have put it: Simply the Best, Better than All the Rest.
Just two weeks after Katie’s New York triumph, the Irish women’s boxing boom continued on the international stage when Dundalk’s Amy Broadhurst and Lisa O’Rourke of Roscommon won gold medals at the world championships in Istanbul. Both said Katie Taylor was their inspiration.