By Jonny Stapleton
It was uncomfortably close and has proved controversial, but while some are disputing Katie Taylor‘s undisputed status today, there is no disputing from this writer that she is the greatest Irish athlete of all time.
At the Mecca of Boxing in front of the watching world last night Taylor [14(6)-0] became the first Irish undisputed champion in the multi-belt era. Indeed, throw in the Ring Magazine title, just the second won by a woman in the ring, and the 32-year-old walked out of the ring with more belts than her team could carry.
Granted Delfine Persoon was a tougher test than expected and Taylor fought the wrong fight. It should be noted, Taylor may have been somewhat lucky to get the nod against the hard as they come operator, with some claiming the police inspector was ‘robbed’.
However, get the nod she did, and the bottom line is that she secured all the marbles showing massive heart to get over the line, being out on her feet in the final round. Cries of ‘robbery’ are wide of the mark and a more definitive result will surely be forthcoming in the inevitable rematch
Indeed, for whatever reason, a successful Irish sportsperson undergoing toil seemingly endears them even more to the general public.
As an undisputed champion in the four-belt era, the Bray ground-breaker will go down in history alongside names like Bernard Hopkins, Terence Crawford and of course Claressa Shields as a fighter to have achieved such heights.
Even more impressive was that she reached the pinnacle in just her 14th pro fight and within two and a half years of turning over – and even if there are some questioning last night’s decision – it doesn’t detract from the sensational career Taylor has had.
Taylor’s infallibility may now be questioned but her quality, heart, guts and certainly achievements can not. A 40-plus fight veteran and champion of nine years ran the Bray fighter close and that should never detract from the supreme talent’s legacy.
Regardless of the controversy, last night will go down as another historic moment for a fighter that has forced boxing historians to update their ledgers with an astonishing degree of regularity over the years.
It’s a moment that should cement her status as the greatest fighter ever to come out of one of the world’s most famous fighting territories – a title she should have held a long time ago.
Taylor has long since been heralded the queen of Irish boxing but she now queen of boxing full stop and ruler supreme in terms of Irish sporting greats.
If it was a case of put your medals on the table the female fight pioneer wins hands down. No argument. To display the medals, belts, awards and accolades the lightweight has won you’d need a medieval style banquet table.
The now WBA, WBC, WBO, IBF and Ring Magazine world champion is easily Ireland’s most decorated fighter as well as Ireland’s most decorated sports star.
In terms of boxing she has the most packed mantlepiece of any Irish fighter. Celebrated legends such as Steve Collins and Barry McGuigan have three world titles between them. More recent leading lights and fellow greatest Irish fighter of all time candidates Carl Frampton and Ryan Burnett have both unified, but have yet to flirt with undisputed status and can’t boast the amateur success of Taylor.
It’s not just trinkets and prizes that make Taylor stand out – a fortunate run of big pro fights could see any fighter rack up a nice collection of belts in a relatively short period of time – it’s the regularity at which she shows world class ability and produces world class performances that make her unique.
Ireland first female undisputed champion has been winning since she was 15 and has consistently doing so at the very top.
18 major gold medals and now all the pro marbles represent nearly 13 years of complete dominance. No other Irish fighter can boast that level of success and it’s the consistent level of greatness which makes her the greatest in many eyes.
No one other athlete in any other code has ruled at the top of their chosen sport for even a fraction of that time.
Granted a host of Irish sports stars have represented Ireland in their chosen sport with great distinction and should be celebrated enormously, but none have been pound for pound front runner for a decade.
An RTÉ poll carried out in 2009 had an Irish sporting great top 10 made up of Pádraig Harrington, Brian O’Driscoll, Joey Dunlop, George Best, Roy Keane, Sean Kelly, Sonia O’Sullivan, Christy Ring, Vincent O’Brien and the great Paul McGrath.
If you were to put Taylor into that mix and play success top trumps the fighter would be the most coveted card come dealing time. She would be unbeatable if ‘Years at the Top’, ‘Major Honours Won’, ‘Impact on their Sport’ and even ‘Humility’ were rated categories.
Reflecting on that list in particular its clear sporting greatness isn’t just justified by what you have won.
However, Taylor’s greatest achievement may not be what she has won, but the fact she essentially personally ensured she was afforded the opportunity to collect such a trophy haul.
Legendary Irish boxing scribe Gerry Callan argues Muhammad Ali is the greatest fighter of all time for a number of reason one of which is ‘he did the impossible twice’ – by that he means defeating Sonny Liston and George Forman in fights people feared for his life going into.
Taylor hasn’t quite had to defy possible death to win in the ring, but she has achieved what looked impossible when she first laced up the gloves as a 10 year old and fought as ‘K. Taylor’ pretending to be a boy.
When the now undisputed world champion first began boxing there was no female fighting in Ireland.
The current 20×20 campaign – which aims to change the overall perception of women’s sport – are running with slogan ‘If she can’t see it, she can’t be it’ warning us that female sporting success is impossible without role models or a visible path to follow.
While Deirdre Gogarty was a role model, there was no real rocky road, nevermind clear pathway to visualize or follow. The Bray native has been dreaming in a bulldozer and forged a sporting path of her own, in the process changing the face of boxing in Ireland and further afield in less than a decade.
The now 32-year-old’s talent was too good to be ignored and the fact she was on a par with the majority of top males she shared the ring with in her early fight years meant, by 15, the IABA had to accommodate.
The Bray BC graduate took part in the first ever sanctioned female amateur fight in Ireland defeating Alanna Nihell [then Alanna Audley Murphy] and took step one to changing the face of female boxing for ever.
Taylor wasn’t long about winning the hearts of the boxing fan and the changed the perception of the female of the boxing specie with the same speed as one of her now lauded combinations.
Even the most staunch anti-female fighting lobbyists in Ireland couldn’t deny her talent and quickly turned from detractors to vocal supporters outraged if she wasn’t handed the respect she deserved.
That process and narrative carried onto the world scene. It wasn’t long before the Wicklow wonder woman was being heralded as a supreme boxer rather than an excellent fighter ‘…for a girl’ in the wider boxing world.
It’s no secret that Taylor was a major force in ensuring that boxing became an Olympic sport in 2012.
The AIBA used Taylor and her talents in a now-legendary exhibition in Chicago in 2007 to persuade to prove to the Olympic Council that boxing should no longer be the only sport with out female representation at the greatest sporting event in the world.
No athlete in the history of sport has had that sort of direct impact on their chosen code. There have been icons, sure, market expanders, interest drivers, but has a single competing individual ever brought about so much change.
There have been a number of trailblazers for women’s boxing, of course, but Taylor has brought the sport to the next level, created pathways on which new talents prosper.
So in terms of boxing in Ireland and amateur boxing the world over, Taylor changed the sport. Bringing it back to the greatest debate how many of our sporting greats can lay claim to such an achievement?
Many commentators – both contrarians and well-informed – have consistently pointed to the ‘lack of depth’ and ‘lack of competition’ which should apparently disallow Taylor from the ‘Ireland’s Greatest’ conversation. This, however, misses the point. It’s not Taylor’s medals and belts which she her rise above. You can devalue these achievements down in some sort of spreadsheet debate but the simple fact of her impact means that Taylor is unrivalled.
Taylor’s talent and determination punched down doors that first forced the IABA to allow her to compete in Ireland. She then all but single handily created a scenario that allowed her to achieve a dream that was literally impossible for a female when she threw her first punch in anger.
Taylor was the first to climb female fighting’s Everest and possibly more impressively left clear footprints in the snow for others to follow. Taylor has proved a torch bearer of Statue of Liberty proportions. The talented fighter, who also played football for Ireland, has been pioneer in her chosen sport and more important to it home or abroad than any other Irish sports star.
Less than 20 years ago Taylor inspired the IABA to host Ireland’s first sanctioned female fight and now Ireland’s biggest Olympic 2020 prospects in any sport are female boxers. Not to mention Ireland’s most successful international sport last year ensured 41 international medals for the country to celebrate. Of the 39 bringing sporting honour to the country, 27 were females, none of whom may even be in gyms or even allowed to fight but for Taylor. That legacy alone is worthy of Ireland’s greatest sports star tag.
Indeed it was somewhat apt that, just hours before the action in Madison Square Garden, Dubliner Chloé Gabriel became the 15th Irishwoman since Taylor to claim a major international gold. Her podium topping finish at the European Juniors in Romania, along with every triumph before and every one after adds to Taylor’s legacy.
Her trail-blazing approach has carried through into pro ranks. While Taylor ditched the headgear in 2016 she didn’t ditch her pioneering cape.
It has to be said that other female pros – particularly Claressa Shields and Cecelia Braekhus – have played a part, but Taylor has helped bring female pro boxing into the mainstream.
Her talent has not only seen her collect titles and become a well-paid fighter but has helped fans watch a female fight as they would any other fight. With Taylor ‘it’s not female or male boxing, it’s just boxing’ as Eddie Hearn would explain it.
Taylor has brought increased exposure, respect and revenue for all fighters in her short stint as a pro. Again, name us an other Irish sporting great who can back up a Taylor style medal haul with that kind of legacy?
So if the Bray boxer is the most successful participant in Ireland’s most successful sport, most decorated Irish athlete by some margin, created her own pathway to success by winning things that virtually didn’t exist in terms of female sport 20 years ago and has revolutionized and changed the face of her sport to such a degree that boxers all over the world benefit… why is there still a debate?