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‘She’s not an athlete, she’s a deity’: Katie Taylor and a nation in awe

Katie Taylor is one of the most-beloved athletes in Irish history  (Sportsfile/Getty)
Katie Taylor is one of the most-beloved athletes in Irish history (Sportsfile/Getty)

I remember seeing her move with my naked eye for the first time. I was like: ‘What in the name of God is this?’”

Peter Carroll, a combat-sports journalist and Dublin native, is recalling his first time meeting Katie Taylor. “She was 2-0. Me and maybe five other media guys are called to this tiny boxing gym in rural Ireland,” Carroll tells The Independent, leaning over a raised table in the foyer of the Convention Centre Dublin. “The gym’s roof is leaking, it’s this run-down spot, there’s room for the boxing ring and nothing else.”

That’s all Taylor has ever needed. Four corners, three ropes, one canvas on which to physically plant her feet and figuratively paint a pioneer’s legacy. Born in Bray, 13 miles south of Dublin, Taylor was raised by her mother Bridget Cranley and father Pete Taylor – a former boxing champion who would coach Katie for some years. Early in her boxing journey, Katie was a girl pretending to be a boy, just for the chance to compete; now 37, she is a queen of combat sports who has carried women’s boxing on her back for over a decade. As an amateur, she claimed Olympic gold for Ireland in 2012, after carrying her nation’s flag at the opening ceremony in London. She won five consecutive world titles and took six European crowns. As a professional, she has reigned atop two weight classes, ruling the lightweight division as undisputed champion. She has headlined Madison Square Garden and earned the first seven-figure payday in women’s boxing. Until May, she had never been beaten as a pro.

But this is to tell Taylor’s tale as an outsider. Ireland, however? Ireland will tell you stories about Katie Taylor.

“My first time hearing about Katie would have been before the 2012 Olympics,” says Mel Christle, who will be supervising Taylor’s rematch with Chantelle Cameron on Saturday, as the chairman of the Boxing Union of Ireland. “There was this little ‘legend’ – but a true one – that she was boxing teenagers and grown adults when she was young. I also heard what a talented footballer she was.” Indeed, Taylor received a call-up to Ireland’s under-19 side when she was just 15, and went on to be capped 11 times at senior level. “She’s just a special athlete,” Christle concludes. Or something more. “She’s like a deity, she’s not like an athlete,” Carroll says. “I don’t think anyone has meant as much to Ireland as Katie.”

Taylor salutes her compatriots in Madison Square Garden, after edging past Amanda Serrano in the biggest women’s fight in boxing history (Getty)
Taylor salutes her compatriots in Madison Square Garden, after edging past Amanda Serrano in the biggest women’s fight in boxing history (Getty)

Christle, Carroll and other Dublin locals are speaking to The Independent two days out from Taylor vs Cameron 2. Six months ago, Cameron stepped off a plane from England, strode into the 3Arena, and outpointed Taylor. In truth, she outworked Taylor to do so. With that, Cameron retained the undisputed super-lightweight titles, but this weekend, Taylor has another chance to take those belts from the first woman to beat her as a pro – and to become an undisputed champion in a second division.

“I think what happened was, all week we celebrated the icon and forgot about the competitor,” Carroll says of the first fight. “Immediately after the event, we’re face to face with the competitor, when [her promoter] Eddie Hearn is like: ‘She wants to do the exact same thing again.’ We’re thinking, ‘Oh, my God.’ I personally think she’s the greatest Irish athlete ever, and that won’t change if she loses on Saturday. People will bring up GAA [Gaelic football] players and rugby players... Where are the world titles? I want to see you leaving this island and doing something magical.”

Carroll mentions former rugby union captain Brian O’Driscoll and retired jockey Ruby Walsh as Irish athletes who “might be held in that regard”. But? “I don’t think anyone comes near Katie Taylor. I’ve never heard anyone go, ‘You know what? Katie Taylor really p****s me off,’ and she’s been around since I was a child! You can’t even compare Conor McGregor to her,” Carroll adds, referencing the former two-weight UFC champion, who once held a nation’s adoration in the palms of his 4oz gloves.

“His achievements are overlooked in Ireland now, based on what he’s done outside of the cage. The thing with McGregor was, he became a massive sensation over the space of three years, then it went away. He’s not beloved by everyone in Ireland any more, but he was what we are. Katie Taylor is what we want to be. That’s why she’s taken on this saintly aura to Irish people. She’s the definition of Irishness for a lot of people, and when she fights and represents us, we come away feeling good.”

Taylor suffered her first pro defeat when she was outpointed by Chantelle Cameron in May (Action Images via Reuters)
Taylor suffered her first pro defeat when she was outpointed by Chantelle Cameron in May (Action Images via Reuters)

And crucially, you don’t need to be immersed in boxing to feel that effect – the Katie Taylor effect. “She is a deity, she’s brilliant,” says Tony Coleman, a sightseeing guide in Dublin. “She put boxing on the map for every woman in Ireland, for every woman in the world. Everybody looks up to her, all the kids around Ireland look up to her. She’s not a show-off. She wouldn’t walk by a person on the street without saying hello. She’s not one of these people like Conor McGregor, coming out and shouting at people; she’s a beautiful person. You can tell that just by the way she goes on. She’s a lovely woman.” Christle echoes that sentiment. “If I could sum it up for you in one word: humility,” he says emphatically. “She never boasts or brags. If you’re nine years old or 90, she’ll afford you the same respect.”

Taylor’s commitment to her religion also contributes to her stark connection with a Catholic country. “Sports fans love Katie, and priests like Katie! She’s pure,” Carroll says, while Christle concurs: “She’s a religious soul to her core. She’s a very principled person, whether or not you believe in the same principles as her.” A patron at The Storyteller on Grand Canal Street is also quick to acknowledge that element of Ireland’s affinity with Taylor: “She believes in a higher power. The good Lord is looking down on her.”

So, when Taylor fights, God looks down and Irish children look up. Everybody looks on. At 10.30pm on Saturday, Dublin and its people will stop in their tracks, having sought out the nearest TV or laptop screen – if not a seat at the 3Arena. “We’ve shown every one of her fights,” says Paul Lynch, assistant manager at the River Bar on Burgh Quay. “There’s always more people, it’s packed. It’s standing room only. And all our doormen are boxers or did MMA.” Carroll adds: “I think everybody’s always aware it’s happening. For instance, I’ll be at the fight on Saturday night, and my missus will be at home with all her mates, watching Katie fight.” Christle, meanwhile, will stop by Taylor’s locker room before the deity appears in front of the worshipping masses in the 3Arena.

‘Undisputed’ status is just one of Taylor’s numerous accolades (Getty)
‘Undisputed’ status is just one of Taylor’s numerous accolades (Getty)

Even in the moments after Taylor’s defeat by Cameron, the mood around Ireland was positive. “It wasn’t so bad, she still did everybody proud,” Lynch says, while Carroll recalls: “All the press were saying, ‘Regardless of the result, thank God this event happened and she got to walk out in front of the Irish people and be embraced like an icon.’ We had a moment.” The mood in Taylor’s locker room, however, was altogether different. Christle insists that something was not right, just as Taylor has stated over the last two weeks.

She is adamant, however, that things will be different this time. Already, she says, she “feels” different.

On Saturday night, Ireland will hold its breath – a nation in awe of an athlete who has transcended far beyond that label.