Katie Taylor is doing to the world what she once did to Ireland. While propelling her sport into the mainstream she has become by far the biggest thing in it. For much of the general public, Katie Taylor is women’s boxing.
ack when the whole story began, Taylor already had a couple of world amateur titles under her belt before most people here started taking notice.
It took her Olympic victory in 2012 to cement her status as one of the country’s sporting greats. Ten years later her win over Amanda Serrano at Madison Square Garden will have the same effect on the global audience.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Taylor’s stardom is that it’s been achieved by dint of sheer athletic excellence alone. In a world where every celebrity wants to be regarded as a fearless independent spirit, she is the genuine article.
The Irish woman is not consciously trying to be a rebel. But just by the simple act of being herself, Katie Taylor cuts a countercultural figure. She swims against a tide so powerful that almost everyone else has decided to go with the flow.
In an age of never-ending disclosure, we know little about Taylor aside from what she does in the ring. Her personal life, political opinions and feelings in general remain largely mysterious.
Last week a tabloid newspaper described Taylor’s unwillingness to talk about her private life as “controversial.” But most people would regard her reticence on these matters as refreshingly normal. It wouldn’t have seemed odd in any other era.
At a time when fame is seen as the most precious prize life has to offer, Taylor appears to have little interest in it. For her, fame seems nothing more than the inevitable, perhaps even regrettable, consequence of the pursuit of sporting greatness.
She does not seek fame and she does not seek sympathy. The falling out with her father must have been incredibly painful at the time yet she kept her counsel. People pieced together the story from the evidence of others. Taylor did not want to enlist public support in a personal struggle. That’s also an unusual attitude these days.
It’s a massive tribute to her talent that despite almost entirely eschewing the publicity game, Taylor is probably the second most famous Irish sports star in the world.
The most famous is Conor McGregor, who could be seen as the dark doppelganger to his compatriot.
Moral considerations aside, the most striking difference between the duo is one of style. A quick glance at last week’s papers revealed McGregor had been “showing off his custom £2.6m Lamborghini yacht,” (hopefully he remembered to insure it), praising his partner’s breasts and executing a “brutal putdown” of a “YouTube star’s outfit.”
The MMA man, never shutting up and always on show, is so in tune with the zeitgeist it can be difficult to tell them apart. His enormous popularity in America is largely built on embodying a stage Irish stereotype which the Yanks are comfortable with, the Irishman as boastful, aggressive, voluble, colourful gom.
“Buck-lepping,” Patrick Kavanagh called this kind of thing. There is a certain genius in the way McGregor, who doesn’t just act like a lad wearing a leprechaun beard on St Patrick’s Day but looks like one, deployed it to his advantage.
McGregor’s is one version of Irishness. Yet Katie Taylor’s modesty, her almost puritanical seriousness of purpose, her absolute unpretentiousness, her determination not to give too much away and belief that deeds speak louder than words, may actually be a better reflection of what we’re really like.
This austerity of character runs deep in our national grain. It’s what we’re like when we’re not putting on a show for outsiders. Katie Taylor might be anomalous in terms of modern celebrity, but she’s very Irish. Possessing a personality rather than a persona has its advantages. The great French essayist Montaigne wrote that one of the most valuable things we can possess is an “inner fortress” which cannot be affected by outside events.
Few athletes give the same sense of possessing this inner fortress as Katie Taylor. It was never needed more than in the fifth round of last weekend’s fight when Amanda Serrano inflicted such punishment Taylor was in danger of being stopped.
This was entirely new territory for her. The entire fight was new territory. For the first time in either her amateur or professional career she had gone in as an outsider. And now she was being hurt more than she ever had been before.
She survived that fifth round but at this point, half-way through the fight, it seemed almost impossible that she’d recover to win. That she did so largely by dominating the four rounds which followed spoke volumes about her physical resilience, but also about her extraordinary mental fortitude.
Serrano’s favourite status perhaps derived in part from the idea that a Puerto Rican fighter from a tough part of Brooklyn just had to be tougher than a woman from a suburban seaside town.
Yet it was Taylor who came through the closest thing women’s boxing has seen to the ninth round in Manila after which Muhammad Ali, pummelled mercilessly by Joe Frazier, told his corner, “Man, this is the closest thing I’ve ever been to dying.” The inner fortress was not breached.
That fifth round showed why Taylor’s difference from someone like McGregor matters. Faced with difficulty McGregor can become easily disheartened. It’s as though all the exterior carry on leaves him exhausted before he even gets into the octagon. Taylor, on the other hand, can focus on the fight.
McGregor’s flair for publicity made him as invaluable to MMA as Taylor is to women’s boxing. He achieved this status by taking the essential elements of MMA, the trash talk, the brutality, the whole anything goes feel of the game, and turning them up to the max. He was the spirit of MMA made flesh.
Taylor has done the opposite. She’s become one of the biggest names in boxing while being a rebuke to the sport’s current spirit. Because in recent years boxing, perhaps running scared of MMA’s increasing box office appeal, has accentuated its unpleasant side.
Almost every fight seems to be portrayed as a grudge match with accompanying trash talk, threats and press conference bust ups. Taylor’s occasional attempts at trash talk are so tentative as to betray her lack of interest in the concept. She also had the good sense to avoid the embrace of MTK Global when some of her old Olympic colleagues were hanging out with and praising Daniel Kinahan.
Amanda Serrano is a wonderful fighter and a worthy opponent for Taylor. Yet she has not been able to avoid contact with Bullshit World. Her coach Jordan Maldonado has served a prison sentence for supplying steroids and verbally abused her opponents during and after fights. When Taylor fought Amanda’s sister Cindy, Maldonado shouted, “you picked the weaker Serrano,” which was quite the comment considering Cindy is his wife.
Serrano also happens to be managed by ‘social media personality’ Jake Paul. Soon after her defeat she was posting on Twitter and Instagram. Not till late on Sunday night did Taylor break her silence and then it was simply to post a clip of the verdict being delivered and to thank her fans.
Her low key approach goes against the conventional wisdom about sports stars ‘growing their brand’. But while so many celebrities try to win public affection by faking authenticity, the world’s greatest female boxer captures hearts by the simple expedient of being herself. The result is no Irish sporting figure is loved as much as Katie Taylor.
The American writer Chuck Klosterman once interviewed Bono and put the U2 singer’s boundless self-assurance down to the fact that, “Bono knows who he is.” Katie Taylor’s diffidence might make her seem like the opposite of Bono yet she possesses the same steely sense of self-belief. She knows who she is too.
That kind of confidence may owe a lot to the Evangelical Christianity which has inspired both. Just last year Taylor told an interviewer that God “is my anchor, is my rock and there are definitely times I cling onto the word of God.”
Even those without an ounce of religion have to be impressed by the way Taylor lives out her faith. No-one could ever charge her with hypocrisy. The strength she draws from it brings to mind the title of the famous hymn ‘A Mighty Fortress Is My God’.
The American director James L Brooks once said he wanted to make decency exciting. Katie Taylor has managed that. Watching her we feel like the Jack Nicholson character in Brooks’ As Good As It Gets. She makes us to want to be better people.
That’s an almost unbelievable achievement for someone starring in one of the world’s most violent sports. But Katie Taylor rips up the rule book in all kinds of ways.
She’s one of a kind, she’s ours and we’re lucky she is. There is no-one Ireland can be prouder of than Katie Taylor.