RIO DE JANEIRO – The loud, passionate crowd in London that almost willed her to victory was gone. Instead, Pavilion 6 had a few diehards who did their best to shake things up in an otherwise mostly empty arena, leaving reigning women’s lightweight gold medalist Katie Taylor on her own.
And whether it was the lack of crowd support or the departure of coach Billy Walsh for a job in the U.S. or incompetent judging or the improvement by her opponent, Monday wasn’t Taylor’s day.
She lost an extraordinarily tight decision to Finland’s Mira Potkonen, whom she’d beaten in all five of their previous meetings, and will leave Rio without a medal.
The judges were split. Mykol Karakulov gave Taylor three of the four rounds and had her winning, 39-37. Judge Vuong Trong Nghia gave Potkonen the last three and had Potkonen up 39-37. Judge Clemente Carillo of Ecuador had it 38-38, but forced to pick a winner, he chose Potkonen.
With Carillo’s choice, out went the reigning gold-medal winner in the biggest upset of the tournament. Potkonen earned at least a bronze and possibly more.
Assistant coach Eddie Bolger of Ireland was irate and challenged reporters to call the International Boxing Association (AIBA) on what he alleged was corruption.
The fight was close and Yahoo Sports saw it 39-37 for Potkonen, giving the Finnish fighter, who didn’t take up boxing until she was 26, the final three rounds.
An angry Bolger kept trying to yank Taylor away from reporters, believing she’d been cheated and apparently seeing no reason to allow her to explain her thoughts.
“Right hand, left hook, right hand, left hook, right hand, left hooks,” Bolger said, describing what he felt Taylor was doing. “It’s up to you guys [in the media to report] this is happening, [because] this happens a lot. It happened more often … That fight wasn’t even close. You can make it close, you can add it up and you can do it, but it wasn’t close. It’s a shocking decision. All the place knows it.”
Taylor thought she’d won, as well, and it was hard to blame her in a fight so competitive and with so much to choose from. But the faces of her fans in the crowd as the decision was read, with mouths open and hands folded, was evidence that anyone remotely unbiased knew this was one which could go either way.
“Boxing, from the inside I guess it looks very different than it does from the outside, I’m sure,” Taylor said. “The judging is very, very subjective. Congratulations to her.”
Potkonen moved forward but was getting countered frequently in the first by Taylor, and all three judges scored the first for Taylor. That was a clear round for the Irishwoman, who landed sharp, hard punches that developed a shiner around Potkonen’s left eye.
Potkonen held an ice pack to it as she spoke in the mixed zone following the bout. She knew after the first that she had to change.
“In the beginning, I gave her too much space,” she said. “That was not my game plan. But then I got into my rhythm.”
She landed a series of hard rights, though Taylor’s face showed few signs of the battle.
Potkonen was stinging Taylor with a straight right and said she felt Taylor was hurt by at least one of them.
“The right cross, I felt it in my right hand that I connected heavily with it,” she said.
It was sheer will that pulled it out for her. She kept attacking, but more importantly, she’s kept improving over the years, steadily adding to her arsenal and steadily moving up the rankings.
Potkonen failed to qualify for the London Games when Taylor became the darling of the crowd with an electrifying win in front of a boisterous, passionate crowd.
Potkonen improved to ninth in the 2014 world championships and made it up to third at this year’s event in Kazakhstan.
But she never had a bigger win than she did by outlasting Taylor on Monday.
“It was awesome,” said Potkonen, 35, who may have pulled out the fight with a blazing right hand in the final 30 seconds of the fight. “I’ve lost too many times to her. It was great to hug my coach. We’ve done so much work for this goal. I developed in all areas of my boxing. I’m more experienced and more confident.”
And now, she’s not only at least a bronze medalist, she also has beaten the world’s top-ranked fighter and defending gold medalist.
For a 35-year-old mother of two who didn’t take up boxing until she was in her mid-20s, this day was about as good as it could get.
But she wasn’t ready to dub it her best day ever in the sport.
“Not yet,” she said. “That will come.”
Potkonen will fight Junhua Yin in the semifinals. Yin upset fourth-seeded Yana Alekseevna of Azerbaijan, 40-36 and 39-37 twice.
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