Katie Taylor, the undisputed lightweight champion, poses with her world titles
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Money and materialism find little place in the life of Katie Taylor, Ireland’s heroine and the antidote to the crass excesses of her compatriot, Conor McGregor.
Where “The Notorious” has built his brand on lairy antics in Dublin nightclubs, Taylor’s idea of a homecoming is a quiet meal with her childhood friends in Bray, on the coast of County Wicklow. Eschewing extravagant ring-walks, she has her mother, Bridget, read passages of scripture to her before each fight. As for crowing about her pay cheques, forget it.
“Half the time,” she says, “I don’t even know how much money I’m getting for a fight.”
“It’s always more than you think,” admits her manager, Brian Peters. “Yeah,” she agrees. “I ask, ‘Really? I’m getting that much?’ It’s all about legacy for me. I just want to make history in the sport.”
Her credentials as a trailblazer will be underscored on Saturday night, when she headlines a triple-header of women’s fights at Wembley Arena with a defence of her undisputed lightweight crown against Spain’s Miriam Gutiérrez. It is a billing far removed from her first bout in an under-age competition, when, to evade the Irish ban on women boxing, her father, Pete, would tuck her hair under her headgear and ensure she was listed in the programme simply as “K Taylor”.
“Everyone eventually found out,” Taylor says. “There was uproar. I grew up in a time when it wasn’t an accepted sport for girls. It was completely frowned upon. It was a crazy time, where I had to sneak into the ring and then sneak back out, but thank God things have changed dramatically since.”
At 34, with an Olympic gold medal and 16 professional wins to her name, Taylor is the pre-eminent Irish athlete of her generation, who has been honoured with two visits to the White House and whose exploits at London 2012 created a national state of rapture. And yet she is so determinedly low-maintenance that she is an enigma even to her own promoter.
“Do I know Katie?” asks Eddie Hearn. “Probably not.”
Schedule for Saturday's Wembley Arena card
All that she has discovered about herself, she insists, she has learnt in the ring. She seems to make a conscious effort, I suggest, to remain inscrutable.
“Yeah, you’ve picked up on that, have you?” she laughs. “I live a very, very quiet life, to be honest. I get people coming up for photos, but it’s not like Conor, where he goes around being hounded. I don’t enjoy the press conferences. Nobody remembers what is said in a press conference, but people do remember the result on fight night.”
For Hearn, whose fight-week build-ups have been known to descend into table-flipping mayhem, such reticence in a boxer is unusual. When one Argentine opponent, Anahi Ester Sanchez, warned in 2017 that it would be a “dark and rainy night for Katie”, Taylor just smiled impassively. “The more people talk, the more it’s a sign of a lack of confidence or of insecurity,” she says. “It’s always the quiet ones you have to watch out for.”
There is a deep soulfulness about Taylor that defies easy explanation. It is not just that she rejects the braggadocio one might expect in a champion fighter, but that she has such clarity in her life’s purpose. A belief crystallised in her as a child that she had to be a boxer, as she mocked up prizefights with her brother in the family kitchen, with one playing Rocky Marciano and the other Jack Dempsey.
On Irish TV, the young Katie memorably claimed it was “insulting” that she was not sanctioned to box, that girls were being dictated to on what they could and could not do with their bodies. “I’m still in that mindset now,” Taylor says. “Right from the get-go, I have wanted to break boundaries. I’m still trying to break them now. I’ve had to stay strong, not giving up on the dreams I had at that age. It has carried me through life.”
For all who encounter Taylor, her implacable resolve leaves a lasting impression. Hearn assures that he has “never met anyone so driven, not just in boxing but anywhere”. Their partnership was sealed when she sent him a direct message on Twitter, saying she was thinking of turning pro and needed to talk. This drive, this sense of knowing exactly what she wants, is one that she ascribes to female influences at home. “I come from a line of strong women,” Taylor says, “from my sisters to my mother to my granny. My mum has kept the family together.”
This is no exaggeration. In 2015, Taylor’s relationship with her father fractured when he left to live with another woman. There are scenes in Katie, the poignant 2018 documentary on her story, that show her shattered by the rift, by the loss of somebody who had been in her corner since she threw her first punch.
Her form instantly suffered, while she approached training sessions without Pete in tears. Through it all, her mother has been able to centre her amid the maelstrom. Ahead of a fight, it is customary that Bridget is at her hotel for prayers that she be guarded and protected as soon as she leaves the room.
“I grew up in a Christian household, going to church every Sunday,” she says. “Saying prayers before the fight is the most important part of my preparation.”
Taylor and Conor McGregor have reached the top of their respective games, but are polar opposite personalities
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For all that she bestrides her sport today, Taylor reached a nadir at the Rio Games of 2016, failing even to win a medal as the turmoil of Pete’s departure took its toll. She was so bereft by the loss of the gold that had been her abiding quest, she could barely speak. But just as doubts swirled around her future, she decided to join the pro ranks. From the depths of anguish, she found a reason to carry on.
“I never thought for a second that it was going to be the end for me, but I knew that my boxing was going downhill at the time. I had achieved everything I wanted to achieve at amateur level. I felt a bit stale.”
At a stroke, she transplanted her life to the small town of Vernon, Connecticut. There, her trainer, Ross Enamait, has transformed her conditioning to the point where she is the first pay-per-view headliner in the history of women’s boxing. Back in her homeland, the effects of such achievements are stunning.
“Go to any boxing club in Ireland and it is packed with female boxers,” she says. “Having the chance to be a role model for those girls means absolutely everything to me. I’d love them to have the same aspiration of becoming an Olympic champion.”
From some boxers, this might sound platitudinous. But Taylor’s moral code is so strict that it is more than credible. “It’s not enough just to win titles, you have to live a life of complete integrity,” she argues. “To be a great champion, you also have to be a good person.”
It is with this in mind that she resists any gold-flecked private planes or entourages of hangers-on.
“I don’t think I’d ever be carried away with celebrity, just with the family I have around me. They would be quick to pull me up on something like that. It’s very important not to surround yourself with yes people. It’s important to have people willing to tell you the truth when necessary. I’m not interested in fame. I just want to be the best boxer in the world.”
Although her father does not have any direct role to play in Saturday night’s confrontation with Gutiérrez, Taylor discloses that they have reconciled after the bitterness of the recent past.
“I’m in touch with my dad all the time,” she says. “I absolutely love him.” That reunion, one senses, is psychologically crucial as she sets about sustaining her dominance far into the future. “The valleys make you who you are. Mentally, physically, spiritually, I’m exactly where I want to be.”