Katie Taylor: ‘I definitely come from a strong line of great women’

“I love the fact that God chooses the lowly ones,” Katie Taylor says quietly in a conversation that is very different to the punishing dialogue she produces in the ring. She might be the most loved sporting personality in Ireland, and ranked the best pound-for-pound woman boxer in the world, but Taylor retains her humility.

She is in the midst of describing her maternal grandmother and how she and her family overcame impoverishment in Bray, not far from Dublin. “My granny had a tough life but she is such a fantastic woman. There’s not a bitter bone in her body. She grew up in poverty and we were the same. We wouldn’t have had a lot of money growing up. We were a very, very poor family living in the roughest area but God chose our family and did something with us. I have two brothers and one sister and we all became successful. But nobody would have looked at our family or our house and thought: ‘Success will come to them’.”

A week on Saturday in Liverpool, Taylor defends her undisputed world lightweight title against Firuza Sharipova. Taylor has won all 19 of her professional bouts and if, as expected, she beats Sharipova, it is likely she will move on to the most lucrative fight in the history of women’s boxing. Next year she should finally meet Amanda Serrano, the great Puerto Rican, in a contest which could earn both women in excess of $1m each.

But, before discussing this possible landmark, Taylor is happy to concentrate on the success of her older siblings. Her brother Peter obtained a first class degree in mathematical science at University College Dublin before completing his Master’s in theoretical physics at Cambridge. I had heard he was a Professor of Mathematics at Trinity. “He was at Trinity, yeah, but he’s a lecturer at DCU [Dublin City University] now,” Taylor says. “They’ve all done so well. My sister [Sarah] has a managerial job and my other brother Lee is working in business as well.”

Taylor also won a place to study at UCD but, when she became Olympic champion at London 2012, her world changed forever. A shy, likable and intensely private woman had to accept the almost suffocating attention of a nation. It was unbearable at times and life did not run in a smooth upward curve. Four years later Taylor felt almost broken when she moved away from her father, her boxing mentor and trainer, after his relationship with her mother had ended. That decision caused immense pain.

“It’s like a lifetime ago now,” she says, “but I felt like I was missing my right arm because I hadn’t boxed without my dad in the corner.” She was in such turmoil that, while her teammates in the 2016 Irish squad returned to their hotel, Taylor chose to sometimes sleep in her car. “I would have thought it was too close to the next training session to travel back an hour from the hotel to the training centre so I slept in the car. It was probably not a great decision.”

The pressure on her intensified and she went to the Rio Olympics as an overwhelming favourite to win gold again. But she lost a highly dubious decision in the quarter-finals. Taylor felt crushed. “Sometimes, when I go back to that moment and talk about it, I still get emotional,” Taylor says. “But I wouldn’t be in the position I am today if that hadn’t happened. So I feel things have worked out even better for me with that loss, even with how heart-breaking it was at the time. I dealt with the loss and the heartbreak and I came back a better fighter. I’ve matured a lot since then.”

How is her relationship with her father now? “Things are fine. I obviously love my dad.” Taylor is much more comfortable talking about her grandmother and her mum as she reveals how they sustain her. “My granny is the most generous and soft-hearted person you could meet, and my mam is the exact same, and such a strong person. She’s the reason why we grew up believers in God and she brought us to church. I guess my parents would have been the biggest influence on my life growing up. But I am the person that I am today because of gran.”

Does she still watch Taylor fight? “Yeah, she does. She’s 89, still going strong. She can’t travel now but her mind is so sharp and everyone in the family absolutely loves her. She’ll be watching me on television [against Sharipova]. She watches all my fights.”

Taylor’s mum, Bridget, will be with her in Liverpool and they will pray together before she steps into the ring. “It’s always the same and that’s one of the most important parts of the preparation. She prays over me before every fight. It will be the same this fight. I actually don’t know how people get through difficult moments without God in their life. That’s my anchor, my rock and there are definitely times I cling onto the word of God. One of my favourite verses is in the Book of Romans and the gist of it is that whatever you’re going through there’s a defining moment you can actually use for your benefit. I believe that.”

It’s tempting to look ahead to the Serrano fight but Taylor is right to focus on Sharipova. “She had a big amateur background. I also know she has good technical skills because all the Kazakhstan fighters are like that. I’m preparing for a very tough fight because she’s very different to Jennifer Han [the cagey American Taylor beat in September]. Sharipova comes to fight where Han came to survive. It was very hard to make any big impact against Han because she was so defensive. But Sharipova is more aggressive so that makes for an exciting fight.”

If she beats Sharipova and Serrano defeats Miriam Gutiérrez [the Spanish woman Taylor outpointed last November] the biggest contest in women’s boxing will finally happen. Taylor is backed by Eddie Hearn and the American streaming service Dazn while Serrano recently forged links with the influential YouTuber-turned fighter Jake Paul. Their combined financial muscle should ensure boxing history is made.

Taylor makes it clear she is not motivated primarily by money but surely the fact that it could be a multi-million dollar purse would be a milestone for women’s boxing? “Absolutely. Money isn’t my main priority but it obviously is important because boxing is a very limited career. You really want to make the most money you can in a short space of time. Over the last few years, women’s boxing has made huge progress in this area. When I first turned pro [five years ago this month] women fighters were making pennies compared to their male counterparts. So if we reach $1m each that would be huge for women’s boxing and another great milestone. It’s a fight that deserves that kind of money. It would be a mega-fight.”

Serrano, who has lost only one of her 43 bouts, presents the most difficult challenge of Taylor’s career. “She’s obviously a fantastic fighter and a seven-division world champion. She’s been very consistent and she’s very experienced. That’s why this fight will be fantastic. It’s a genuine 50-50 contest.”

Female fighters might not punch as hard as men do but Serrano is extremely dangerous. Taylor has also been caught up in two gruelling bouts with Delfine Persoon, whom she was fortunate to beat the first time in New York in June 2019, and a thrilling battle earlier this year against Natasha Jonas. “That first one against Persoon was my toughest fight. It was very, very close, back-and-forth for 10 rounds. It was an absolute war. The second toughest was Persoon again. That’s always a difficult style to fight against.”

Did it take a long time to recover from those two bouts? “No. I’m a quick healer. I obviously had lumps and bumps on my head both times but after a few days I felt fine again. After those battles, it’s nice to have a couple of weeks off to rest.”

Taylor is an intelligent woman and she understands that the worst damage is hidden. Brain damage can take years to emerge but it’s the silent, malevolent threat facing all boxers. “Yeah, but I think the damage usually comes during sparring. That’s why it’s very important to have the right team around you to monitor your sparring. In the weeks leading up to a fight you can’t consistently be in heavy, tough spars because that’s where the damage is done. My team is very organised and makes sure we do hard training which is not always tough sparring.”

Taylor is the superstar of women’s boxing but she is 35. Does she feel time closing in on her? “Yeah. I definitely realise you can’t do this forever. At the same time, I don’t feel like I’m slowing down. I also have a group of honest people around me who would tell me when it is time to hang up the gloves because the fighter always wants to keep going. I have a great family as well who are going to be honest with me. But my desire hasn’t diminished at all.

“I still love boxing. I still love getting up in the cold mornings and training. These days make the difference between winning and losing. It’s very easy to stay in bed and take a day off here and there. But I never cut any corners. That consistency makes a difference.”

Canelo Álvarez, her male equivalent at the top of the pound-for-pound rankings, is one of Taylor’s current favourite boxers. The Mexican loves to market his ‘No Boxing, No Life’ mantra but Taylor says: “I’m not defined by that saying. I’m much more than a boxer and Canelo is as well. Boxing is a huge part of our lives but my identity won’t be wrapped up in the sport forever. Still, right now, I’m so excited having a dream and focusing on these fights. I want to make the very most of them because I’ve come such a long way.”

Those impoverished days in Bray remain deep inside her but Taylor knows that the women in her family strengthen her most. “I definitely come from a strong line of great women. My gran and my mam most of all.”

She laughs when I tell her that I like the fact such solidity means she has always been, simply, Katie Taylor and never Katie ‘The Terminator’ Taylor. “You’re giving me ideas now! When I was growing up I always pretended to be Rocky Marciano. I didn’t even know who Rocky Marciano was beyond the fact he was an undefeated fighter.”

Taylor’s ambition is to retire, like Marciano did, as an unbeaten world champion. Her fame will grow during these last years but she seems determined to remain the same. “I’m always such a quiet person anyway,” she says with a wry little smile. “I always keep myself to myself and don’t reveal too much. It’s actually very easy to live a quiet life regardless of the spotlight on you. We are a very private and quiet family and that’s the way I like it.”

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