Jimmy Wilde reigned as the world’s first flyweight champion and is regarded by some as the greatest British fighter of all time. Wilde once declared, “The idea of women in the boxing ring is repulsive and will receive no support from real lovers of the art. Girl boxers will ruin their matrimonial chances. No man could fancy a professional bruiser for a bride.”
That was a long time ago. But women’s boxing has yet to enter the consciousness of mainstream sports fans. Christy Martin was a blip on the radar screen by virtue of her appearance on Mike Tyson undercards. Laila Ali garnered attention because she was Muhammad’s daughter. Lucia Rijker, the best female boxer of her era, was largely unknown. The talent pool is thin. Many women boxers don’t know how to slip a punch or where to hold their hands.
Katie Taylor, who fought Victoria Noella Bustos in a 135-pound title unification bout at Barclays Center on April 28, is changing the perception of women’s boxing.
Both of Taylor’s parents were involved with the sweet science. Her father was an Englishman who married an Irish woman and moved to Bray, County Wicklow, where Katie was born on July 2, 1986. He boxed as an amateur and was Katie’s first boxing coach when she took up the sport at age ten. Her mother was one of Ireland’s first female boxing judges. Katie has three older siblings, one of whom is a professor of mathematics at Trinity College.
Katie grew up physically gifted, competitive, and loving sports. She was an elite athlete at a young age in both boxing and soccer. The downside to being a fighter is that fighters get hit. But in the end, she gravitated to boxing.
Later, she would explain, “There comes a point in the life of all junior boxers, when you hit fourteen or fifteen years old, when the punches start to hurt and you have to decide whether you’re going to take it seriously or not at all. There is no middle ground.”
At age 15, boxing as an amateur, Taylor participated in the first officially sanctioned woman’s match in the history of Ireland. Thereafter, she won six gold medals at the European Championships and five at the Women’s World championships. She was the flag bearer for Ireland at the 2012 London Olympics and became a national hero after winning a gold-medal at the 2012 Olympic games.
“Listening to the anthem [at the awards ceremony],” Katie later reminisced, “was the proudest moment of my life.”
Then came what Taylor calls “the lowest moment of my career.” At the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, she lost in the first round to Mira Potkonen of Finland.
“I just didn’t perform well,” Katie says of the outing. “It’s a simple as that.”
Taylor turned pro in late 2016 and fashioned an 8-and-0 record en route to winning the WBA woman’s lightweight title last year. Her trainer, Ross Enamait, describes his charge as being totally dedicated to her craft.
Katie is confident but not arrogant with regard to her ring skills. She has a well-muscled frame with shoulders that are broader and thighs that are more powerful than might appear at first glance. She’s poised, gracious, articulate, laughs easily, and is unfailingly polite.
She’s also a study in contradictions. She likes attention but is wary of it. There’s a private, somewhat shy, person behind the public facade.
“I lead a simply life,” Katie says. “It’s built around my family and my faith.”
The faith is reflected in her strong Christian convictions and commitment to the Church of the Nazarene. Her family life is a bit more complicated.
For the past year, Taylor has lived in Vernon, Connecticut, an ocean away from many of her loved ones.
“I love the fact that I’m anonymous in America,” Katie explained recently. “I can go for walks and be left alone when I want to be alone. I can just be myself over here.”
All fighters have demons and dreams that drive them. Fame means exposure. And exposure means leaving oneself exposed.
“When you reached an age when the punches hurt and boxing became serious for you,” Katie is asked, “was the motivation you were most aware of when you got in the ring to defend yourself or attack?”
“That’s an interesting question,” she counters.
Taylor-Bustos was on the undercard of an HBO doubleheader featuring Danny Jacobs vs. Maciej Sulecki and Jarrell Miller vs. Johann Duhaupas.
Bustos had 18 victories and 4 losses on her ring ledger but had never fought outside of Argentina. More significantly, in 22 professional fights, she had never scored a knockout. The odds favoring Taylor ran as high as 20-to-1 despite the fact that Bustos had been the IBF lightweight champion for over a year.
There was a blip during the medical examinations at the weigh-in on Friday when a New York State Athletic Commission doctor noticed a cold sore on Bustos’s lip. One doesn’t normally think of a cold sore as preventing a fight. But Victoria was told that she needed a clearance letter from a dermatologist. The dermatologist then sent a letter to the commission saying that the sore was “likely” to be contained. That wasn’t good enough for the NYSAC, which consulted next with an infectious disease specialist. It wasn’t until 1:15 PM on fight day that Team Taylor was advised the fight was on.
Taylor’s status as a star and also her gender dictated that she not share a dressing room with other fighters on Saturday night.
Carrying her own gym bag, Katie arrived at room 1B11.09 (the Canarsie Room) in Barclays Center at 6:45 PM. Her long dark hair was pulled back in a single braid. She was wearing black pants, a black T-shirt, gray sneakers, and a black jacket with “Katie Taylor” emblazoned in gold on the back.
Ross Enamait and manager Brian Peters were with her.
The dressing room was fifteen feet long and ten feet wide with black industrial carpet, walls painted pale yellow, and recessed lighting above. A gray table built into one of the walls ran the length of the room with a wall-to-wall mirror above it. Seven black cushioned folding metal chairs were set against the table. A black leather sofa stood against the opposite wall.
Tomas Rohan (who works with Peters) and filmmaker Ross Whitaker joined the trio. It was a small group. No expanding circle of family, friends, and hangers-on.
Enamait unpacked his bag and put the tools of his trade on the table.
Veteran cutman Danny Milano (who would be working Katie’s corner for the first time) brought in a half-dozen white terrycloth towels.
“I’ve been following the women for a while now,” Milano had said earlier in the day. “They tend to lose their composure more quickly than the men when things aren’t going their way. But not this one.”
Katie sat on the sofa, propped her feet up on a chair, and sipped from a bottle of water.
At 7:10, Enamait asked a New York State Athletic Commission deputy commissioner if Bustos had arrived at the arena.
“I’ll feel better when I know she’s here,” the trainer said.
At 7:20, Brian Peters left the room to see if Bustos was on site yet. Five minutes later, he returned.
It was a quiet dressing room. For much of the time that Katie was there, she sat alone on the sofa, watching undercard fights on a TV monitor. Other times, Enamait or Peters sat beside her, engaging in quiet conversation.
Male or female, the rituals for battle are the same. A pre-fight physical examination and the taking of a urine sample were followed by the referee’s dressing room instructions.
Occasionally, Katie stood and stretched.
At 7:40, she put on a pair of black-and-gold boxing trunks, a matching top, and a fuchsia T-shirt with words from Psalm 18 in white letters on the front (“It is God who arms me with strength”) and back (“He trains my hands for battle”).
Enamait began taping Katie’s hands, right hand first. At 8:15, the job was done.
Katie stretched on her own and shadow-boxed briefly.
Enamait greased her hair with petroleum jelly to hold it in place.
The assumption was that Katie would win. But boxing is boxing. She was about to venture into the unknown. In less than an hour, a woman trained in the art of hurting would try to hurt her.
“I get nervous before every fight,” Taylor has said. “I’d be worried if I wasn’t nervous. But I feel like I’m most alive when I’m in the ring. You don’t know what will happen. That’s what makes it so exciting.”
There was more shadow-boxing. Katie’s face looked harder now. She was transforming into a warrior.
Enamait gloved her up.
Trainer and fighter worked the pads together.
“Don’t give her any free shots,” Enamait cautioned.
Brian Peters helped Katie into a black robe with gold trim.
At nine o’clock, a voice instructed, “It’s time to walk.”
The fight went largely as expected.
Taylor has good footwork and good hand-speed coupled with a nasty jab, a sharp straight right, an effective left hook, and a serviceable uppercut. She’s not a big puncher but mixes her punches well.
Fighting at a distance in the first half of the bout, Katie was totally dominant. In rounds eight and ten, she chose to trade on the inside (which was the only place Bustos could reach her), stayed in the pocket too long, and took some unnecessary punches. The judges were on the mark with their 99-91, 99-91, 98-92 verdict.
After the fight, Katie returned to her dressing room and sat on the sofa. There were ugly welts on her back and shoulders, a bruise on the left side of her forehead, and a smaller bruise beneath her right eye.
“I’m tired,” she said.
Pressed for more, she elaborated on her performance.
“I can always do better, but I did okay tonight. She [Bustos] was durable, and it was a different style from what I’m used to fighting. I’m still learning my trade. There’s a big difference between the amateurs and the pros. The pros are more physical. But I’m happy with the win, and I’m happy to be a unified champion.”
In recent years, championships have been sadly devalued in boxing. That’s particularly true on the women’s side of the ledger.
John Sheppard, who oversees BoxRec.com, recently reported that boxing’s world sanctioning bodies have created 110 different women’s titles. This means that, assuming each title is available in 17 weight divisions, the sanctioning bodies have belts for 1,870 women’s champions. Meanwhile, according to Boxrec.com, there are only 1,430 active women boxers in the world today. “Thus,” Sheppard notes, “there are approximately 1.3 titles available for each female boxer.”
How can that be?
The answer is that the sanctioning bodies have an insatiable lust for sanctioning fees. For example, the World Boxing Council has thirteen different denominations for women “champions”: World Female, Diamond Female, International Female, Youth Female, Silver Female, Latino Female, FECARBOX Female, FECOMBOX Female, CIS and Slovac Boxing Bureau Female, Asian Boxing Council Female, Asian Boxing Council Silver Female, Asian Boxing Council Continental Female, and Baltic Female.
In this nonsensical world, Katie Taylor stands out as a “real” champion. She now has two world championship belts and, given her druthers, will be in the ring soon competing for the other two quasi-credible titles. By the time women’s boxing advances to the point where there’s a serious pound-for-pound conversation, she hopes to be at the top of the list.
“Everyone has different skills and talents,” Katie says. “This is mine. When people watch me box, I hope they see a boxer, not a female boxer. I would love to bring the sport to another level and take women’s boxing to a place where people really respect it.”
Men’s boxing has a storied tradition. Today’s male fighters can look back in time and say, “I would have loved to have fought Sugar Ray Robinson. Or Muhammad Ali. Or Joe Louis.” Maybe someday, young women fighters will look back on this era and say, “I would have loved to a have fought Katie Taylor.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book – There Will Always Be Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.
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