Katie Taylor is seeking to cement her place in history

Is the boxer Ireland’s greatest athlete?

On Friday, March 15, at the Liacouras Centre in Philadelphia, Katie Taylor secured her third professional boxing title. The Bray native stopped Rose Volante in the ninth round to add the latter’s WBO title to her WBA and IBF straps. In doing so, Taylor became the first Irish fighter in the four-belt era to hold three titles simultaneously. She is now likely to face the veteran Belgian champion, Delfine Persoon, on June 1, in an attempt to prise away her WBC title, completing the set and unifying the lightweight division. If she is successful, Taylor will have monopolised the competition in just 14 professional fights.

So, is Taylor Ireland’s greatest ever athlete?

Taylor turned professional in 2016 at the age of 30, having laid waste to the field at amateur level. Five consecutive World Championship golds, paired with six European Championships, as well as the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics in London and the 2015 European games in Baku, left nothing else to conquer. Her dominance at amateur level has thus far translated perfectly in the professional ranks.

Entering the London Olympics in the incredibly unusual position of an Irish athlete being expected to medal, she carried the flag during the opening ceremony in a symbolic image of her place at the head of Irish sport. Handling the weight of the nation’s expectation, she duly delivered Ireland’s ninth-ever Olympic gold, and first since 1996. Her success at every level at which she has competed is unprecedented for an Irish athlete. Her career has been one of relentless dominance, but she isn’t recognised for her achievements to the degree which that dominance demands.

There are few sportspeople so beloved in this country as those who compete in combat sports. The cliché of the “fighting Irish”, built upon by generations of World and European boxing champions, has in recent years been mercilessly monetised by Conor McGregor in mixed martial arts. McGregor’s undoubted skills put him in a position to have a successful combat career, but it was his charisma and marketing nous which made him a millionaire and global icon. Taylor, by comparison, is a humble, retiring personality, whose interviews are never likely to entertain. This lack of bravado and controversy is a disadvantage in the theatrical world of combat sport, but Taylor’s historic achievements should be enough to bridge any gap to the public.

So, too, should her style in the ring. Taylor is a front-foot, aggressive fighter, who alternates ferocious, rapid combinations with digging power punches to the head and body. She has shown time and time again that she is willing to take a shot in order to deliver one, perhaps never more so than in her most recent bout. Watching Taylor, like watching many of the greatest boxers, is to witness an act of translation. She converts the raw violence of her work into a mesmerising, synchronised display of skill. Her coordination, her timing, her movement, all befit a master of a craft, and one rarely leaves a Taylor fight without being awed by her technical prowess, married so harmoniously to a terrifying intensity of purpose.

Taylor has been shortlisted for RTE’s Sportsperson of the Year award six times since 2010, winning it once, in 2012, following her Olympic victory. There has, at least, been acknowledgement of her incredible and consistent greatness, if not a widespread embrace. Part of this problem is undoubtedly the place of women’s sport within society. Taylor has spent years representing Ireland with distinction at the highest levels of her sport, but it is a sport without a following. If a male Irish boxer had captured three of four world titles in an undefeated professional career, adding these to European, World, and Olympic gold, surely we would be hailing one of the nation’s greatest sons?

Consider the case of Bernard Dunne, the charismatic Clondalkin fighter who headlined raucous cards in the capital that were broadcast live on RTE, culminating in his world title victory over Ricardo Cordoba in March 2009. Dunne had an excellent professional career, and was a likeable, entertaining fighter, but certainly not on Taylor’s level. His popular success, and the promotional force behind him, must be seen, by comparison, in the context of gendered perceptions of sport.  

McGregor’s boss in the UFC – though he would insist on the title co-promoter – Dana White, famously vowed never to let women compete in his promotion. As of today, there are multiple women’s divisions in the UFC, and female fighters have headlined major pay-per-view events with a degree of regularity. White’s mind was changed, by his own admission, by one woman – Ronda Rousey. Rousey was a phenom, who dismissed opponents with an almost ludicrous ease. And yet she, when the talent pool was widened, was found out to be a glass cannon, and two devastating knockout defeats back-to-back put an end to her MMA career.

Taylor’s success in boxing has been more dominant than Rousey’s was in MMA, and she has risen to each step up in competition. Unfortunately for her, the sport of boxing lags considerably behind MMA in organisational terms. A marquee fight in boxing can still draw enormous numbers in PPV as well as gate receipts, but the UFC’s brand recognition allows it to showcase mediocre fights to a loyal audience ever willing to receive it. Taylor has thus had to be contented with fighting to largely empty arenas on undercards, hours before most of the audience arrives or tunes in to witness the main event.

There is however some hope that things may be beginning to turn in her favour. Taylor’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, was hopeful, in the wake of her victory over Volante, that the upcoming unification bout with Persoon will be confirmed for the undercard of Anthony Joshua’s United States debut, at Madison Square Garden in New York. This event is certain to be a landmark in the boxing calendar, and is a stage befitting Taylor’s talent and ambition in seeking to acquire a fourth world title. Whether she is successful or not, her legacy has been long secured. The historic achievements that she continues to build are unlikely to be matched by an Irish athlete any time soon, if indeed ever. Taylor has said that she intends, beyond the Persoon fight, to continue with her professional career for a number of years more. One can only hope that, before she finally hangs up her gloves, she is given the sort of recognition and adoration befitting an athlete of her generational ability.

Dean Hayes

Dean Hayes is a former Sport Editor of Trinity News. He is an English and History graduate.