The hushed and exclusive New York Athletic Club on Central Park South is a long way from St Fergal’s Boxing Club in Bray, County Wicklow, where Katie Taylor first pulled on the gloves in a remarkable career which will reach a crescendo on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden. Taylor moves through the strange new surroundings with a light touch, smiling and chatting as we meander down the opulent corridors in search of a suite where she will consider the danger she faces against Amanda Serrano in the most significant fight in the brief history of women’s boxing .
Taylor and Serrano will become the first female fighters to headline a bill at the Garden and the first women to make well over $ 1m each from a single bout. At least in this superficial sense our lavish surroundings make sense. But Taylor would be more at home in a gritty gym and I am so unsuited to the high life that urgent talks were held in the lobby to decide whether I should even be allowed into this enclave of privilege. Having rolled straight off the plane from London and hopped into a cab to see Taylor on time, I am still in my creased and possibly grubby old jeans. I failed the dress code and a compromise was finally struck where I was granted entry into the club via a service elevator at the back of the building.
Taylor is amused and relaxed and, knowing how much she usually loathes interviews, press conferences and any kind of fuss, it is striking to gauge her amiable mood as we approach the biggest fight of her life. When I ask if everything feels more serious now, she makes a key distinction. “The part that feels much more intense is the media side. There has been so much more than normal but it’s special to headline a huge fight at Madison Square Garden. It’s the most iconic venue in boxing and I’m like everyone else. I think of Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier [in 1971] and those nights when history was made in the Garden. It’s a dream to be in a fight like this against a great champion in Amanda Serrano and it’s good to tell people about how far we have come. ”
Taylor goes back in her head to Bray where, as she told me last year, “we were a very, very poor family living in the roughest area.” Since then there has been wealth and glory, and Taylor has long been the most cherished sports personality in Ireland, but boxing is a solitary and brutal business. Women’s boxing is even more isolating and difficult. On a languid afternoon, Taylor reflects on all she has to overcome to reach this point as well as the pain in not being allowed to fight in Ireland.
“It was not easy at the start,” she says. “Boxing runs in my family’s blood but there were no opportunities for girls. I followed my brothers to the gym [at St Fergal’s] as my dad was a boxer. But I still had to pretend I was a boy to get fights. We had to put my name down just as K Taylor. I would pull the headgear on, tuck my hair inside so no one could see it and get into the ring that way. When I won and took the headgear off there would be uproar when everyone suddenly saw I was a girl. ”
Taylor is most inspired by the women in her family, led by her mother and grandmother, who is just about to turn 90. It helped that her mum, Bridget, was the first female boxing judge in Ireland. “I was too young to really understand what she did,” Taylor says of her pioneering mother. “But it shows how much my family helped me to box.”
She has had a complicated relationship with her father, Peter, especially since her parents’ separation, but he led the struggle to force the Irish boxing authorities to lift their draconian ban on girls stepping into the ring. On Halloween night in 2001, a 15-year-old Taylor and Alanna Audley, a teenager from Belfast, met in the first officially-sanctioned bout between two female boxers in Ireland. It was held at the National Stadium, in Dublin, and Taylor remembers that, “it seemed like a huge deal. Alanna gave me a good fight but the hardest part was the media interest. I was very shy and I hated it. It was a bit much for a girl of 15. ”
Taylor emerged as an unlikely revolutionary but her desire to fight ran deep and her sheer aptitude for the ring flowed out of her. By the time she had won six European titles and five world championships Taylor had such clout in amateur boxing that she led the lobbying of the IOC to allow women fighters to make their Olympic debut at London 2012. Taylor, of course, won gold amid excruciating pressure as the whole of Ireland roared her on.
Her ability to withstand such expectation, as a trailblazer, should help in the heat and fervor of the Garden. Serrano, an outstanding and ferocious Puerto Rican fighter from Brooklyn, has won world titles in seven weight divisions. The calibre of her opposition has often been suspect but, at 33, Serrano has lost only once in 44 bouts. Taylor agrees that this is a genuine 50-50 contest and she clearly respects Serrano in and out of the ring. But the 35-year-old has her own formidable pedigree as a pro. Her record remains pristine at 20-0 and she is the undisputed world lightweight champion. Serrano is moving up from featherweight but her ability to switch between weight classes has long been her trademark.
“I know she’s very good,” Taylor says. “But I’ve always wanted to fight the best. That’s exactly what I’m getting because Serrano has a really good engine and she is very aggressive and hits hard. But she is polite and respectful out of the ring because we both know this fight sells itself. It’s the biggest fight out there – not only in women’s boxing but in the whole sport. ”
Taylor, with her deep Christian faith and innate humility, is not a hype merchant. So this last statement is eye-catching. It proves that, like all great boxers, Taylor has a self-belief and fighting ego which sustains her. Yet even that conviction was almost not enough the first time she fought at the Garden – against Delfine Persoon on the undercard to Anthony Joshua’s shock defeat to Andy Ruiz Jr in June 2019. It was a savage battle and Taylor was perhaps fortunate to get the decision. .
“It was not my best performance,” she admits. “But it was a great fight. Those are the fights people remember. They’re part of your legacy. The atmosphere was incredible but Saturday night will be far bigger. ”
Taylor is used to huge stadium bouts, fighting on Joshua undercards, and she has been through the Olympic cauldron twice. Serrano, in contrast, has not been exposed to such bedlam and until she linked up with Jake Paul, the YouTuber who has become her promoter, the Puerto Rican had sometimes fought for as little as $ 5,000 or $ 10,000 a bout. After the fight against Taylor had been delayed by the pandemic, Paul’s arrival in her camp shifted the landscape because he brought a vast new audience with him. The fact that it is now also being promoted so enthusiastically by Madison Square Garden, and shown exclusively around the world on Dazn, the giant streaming network, has turned the bout into a multimillion-dollar money-spinner.
Taylor, in her unassuming way, reflects on the presence of Paul and the subsequent reaction of her grandmother with good cheer. “I know lots of people were unsure about Jake Paul but he has been really professional. He has not tried to take the shine away from us as fighters and he helped make this a huge event. When I told my granny this was the richest women’s fight in history she was surprised but really happy. ”
Taylor beams when she tells me that Roy Keane, whom she had idolised as a schoolgirl when playing junior football for Ireland, had texted her a few weeks ago to wish her luck. That bond with Ireland, and life at home, means that Taylor has been wounded by the one glaring omission on her record. She has not fought a single pro bout on home soil.
Professional boxing in Ireland came to a grinding halt in 2016 after a gangland shooting at a weigh-in in Dublin led to the death of an associate of Daniel Kinahan, the alleged leader of a notorious drugs cartel. The bullet was apparently meant for Kinahan and the killing unleashed a wave of murderous reprisals which have had a catastrophic impact on Irish boxing. It became too dangerous to stage professional boxing in Ireland and only a few small-hall shows have taken place over the last six years.
“It’s been really disappointing,” Taylor admits. “And such a shame. I would love to fight in Ireland. ”
Earlier this month, at a searing press conference in Dublin, the American ambassador announced the US government intends to pursue Kinahan, his father and brother, and their closest associates. They are exiled in Dubai but the UAE government claims to have frozen their assets. In answer to the US stipulation that everyone in boxing cuts all ties with Kinahan, there has been much hasty backtracking. MTK Global, the boxing management company Kinahan founded in 2012, will cease trading on Saturday – the very day of Taylor’s showdown in New York.
It seems highly symbolic – but does Taylor Harbor fresh hope she may yet fight in Ireland? “I am a little more hopeful but it’s probably too early to tell. But my dream is to fight in Ireland. I have had such support from people back home, in both my good and bad times, that I feel sad they’ve not been able to see me fight in Ireland. Whenever I come home from a fight the airport is packed and that shows how good people have been in supporting me. I would love to box in Ireland for them more than anything. ”
Taylor, understandably, avoids any specific comments about MTK, Kinahan or how his baleful influence permeates boxing. “I have focused on my own business,” she says. “And always been totally happy with my own team. The rest is out of my control. ”
There is little doubt that Taylor would sell out Croke Park, with its 82,000 capacity in Dublin. But, until that dreamy day comes, if it ever does, she will have to settle for turning the Garden green on a fevered Saturday night in New York. It is going to be raucous and intense and nothing like the luxuriously quiet expanse of the New York Athletic Club.
As she looks around her incongruous setting one last time, and prepares to light up the Garden, Taylor pauses. “This is such a tough sport. You have to beat your body into submission in training and be ready for anything and everything mentally. It’s a real test but when you have a fight between the best, and that is me and Amanda Serrano, it makes for an incredible night. ”
We think of her and her mum saying a prayer together just before she steps into the perilous ring late on Saturday night. And then she smiles. “I can’t wait,” Taylor says softly. “I’m ready.”