After another trip to the judges’ scorecards, Katie Taylor added the WBO Women’s Super-Lightweight world championship belt to her four lightweight titles in clinical fashion. In the immediate aftermath of the fight praise flooded social media channels, with many lauding her as the greatest Irish sportsperson ever. This may seem like a knee-jerk reaction, but there is real weight behind the support of Taylor as a true talisman of Irish sporting endeavour.
Manchester Arena played host to the Bray native’s most recent title fight against Christina Lindardatou of Greece, where the judges reached a unanimous decision in the Irish boxer’s favour (97-93, 97-93, 96-94 were the scores on the night) to bring Taylor up to 15-0-0 in her professional career. Despite Lindardatou’s complaints to the contrary, Taylor seemed to be the clear winner after a more evasive and non-confrontational approach than the public are used to from the now two-weight world champion. After unifying the lightweight division via a split decision against Belgian-native Persoon in June of this year, Taylor became only the seventh boxer in the four-belt era to hold all four major titles simultaneously. Taylor then moved up to 140 pounds to fight the Greek champion and in doing so joins Steve Collins and Carl Frampton as the only boxers to have held world champion titles in two different divisions at the same time. BoxRec now has Katie Taylor atop the pound-for-pound list, ahead of Persoon and Welterweight champion Braekhus.
Few other Irish sportspeople attracted this level of international attention for the length of time Taylor has. In 2004 the young seventeen-year-old arrived on the global stage with a defeat of the then world champion Jennifer Ogg. This victory was the curtain raiser of a glittering amateur career that included five world championships and six European championships. In the 2012 Olympic games in London, the amateur bore, not only her nation’s flag, but their expectations too. The victory of Ireland’s ‘poster-girl’ over Ochigava of Russia to win gold and the subsequent outpouring of excitement and joy was a uniquely Irish moment, one that the entire country embraced. The well documented familial issues which disrupted her preparations for the Rio Olympics six years later may have left a box unchecked and a gap in the trophy cabinet, but you can’t take away from an amateur career that featured a spell of over a decade on top of the pound-for-pound list.
Little doubt can be cast on Katie Taylor’s dominance in her sport given her combination of success in the ring and media attention. Indeed, her remarkably humble mannerisms, quiet competitiveness and rare social media posts stand in stark contrast to the inflammatory and sometimes disrespectful comments of her counterparts. Her hardworking and (usually) abrasive style in the ring is typical of an Irish athlete. Her sporting achievements were not just confined to the ring, having represented Ireland at schoolgirl and senior level in a soccer career that included many successful campaigns with Peamount United.
If not Katie Taylor, then who else should be regarded as Ireland’s greatest ever sportsperson? While it would be remiss not to mention athletes from Gaelic games, the unique aspect of international athletes is their ability to produce sporting moments that transcend intercounty rivalries and provincial loyalties. Packie Bonner’s penalty save in 1990 is a moment every Irish person can get behind; even the most ardent Munster fan can celebrate a Brian O’Driscoll try while he’s wearing a green jersey; the entire nation cheered Sonia O’Sullivan around the track in Athens. There is also something special about pitting the best our country has to offer against the best in the world, something that unfortunately can’t be replicated fully in Gaelic games, something that edges Taylor in front of some of the phenomenal intercounty players in the running for the country’s greatest.
On the international scene, although we’ve had world-class athletes in team sports, Brian O’Driscoll, Roy Keane and the likes, we haven’t had the same success in team sports on the international stage. As the dust settles after the Rugby World Cup in Japan, we are acutely aware of the fact that we still haven’t won a knock-out world cup game in Rugby. The Irish soccer team have never occupied top spot in the FIFA rankings. The most recent international team success came in the form of the women’s hockey team and their remarkable run in the World Cup, but this is a recent, albeit rapid, rise through the world rankings. Athletes from these sports haven’t shared Taylor’s success or dominance on a global stage. This leaves a handful or individual athletes to complete with the Bray boxing star. Pádraig Harrington, Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry have all shared success at opens and major championships, but again haven’t been the face of their sport in the manner that Taylor has for the length of time that she has.
AP McCoy and Jason Smyth perhaps come close, but Katie Taylor is women’s boxing. After fights the slightly hoarse and instantly recognisable voice is usually drowned out by the travelling or converted fans in the arena. She is a household name across the country and has been the truly formidable face of her sport for quite some time. If she isn’t the greatest Irish sportsperson of all-time, I don’t know what she has left to do to earn that title. Will her status hinge on a flawless run in the twilight stage of her career? Will she have to wait for the 37-year old Braekhus to drop from the welterweight to a division and closer to super-lightweight so she can beat the only other person in her sport that holds the same undisputed nametag? Will a slip-up tarnish this era of domination and receive Rio levels of inquiry into the personal lives of the Taylor family? Nobody knows what the future holds for the girl from Bray, or how that will affect the way Taylor is remembered, but with shouts of ‘Óle’ still echoing around Manchester Arena, it’s hard to imagine Katie Taylor not going down in Irish sporting folklore as one of the greatest, if not the greatest Irish sportsperson ever.