There were plenty of men in the Excel South Arena yesterday. Joyce Carol Oates’s observation that ‘boxing is for men and is about men and is men’ was about as wide of the mark, though, as the many punches thrown in the direction of Katie Taylor, the Irish fighter who yesterday crowned a glorious career by becoming the second ever gold medalist in the latest Olympic sport to push back the boundaries of sporting equality.
Men like Peter Taylor, father, coach and corner-man of Katie, whose shadow-boxing across the kitchen floor fifteen years ago initially inspired the first lady of Irish boxing to take up the sport. Like the thousands come across the water, or maybe all the way down the A5 from Kilburn, to support her, so that when she stepped out into the arena they damn near blew the roof off the stadium.
Plenty of men, for sure, but the focus lay elsewhere. The focus of the thousands (how did they all get tickets by the way?) in their painted faces, their leprechaun hats and their bodies wrapped in the flag of Ireland, lay on an unassuming-looking woman, about five foot five inches tall, her mousey features bare for now but soon to be framed by protective headgear, and her marble-white legs carrying her sturdily from the corner of the arena to the fighting ring where the overhead glare was about to shine an unforgiving light upon her and her ambitions.
What did it reveal? Not much, if truth be told. There was pandemonium in the stadium by now, the noise levels a good few notches higher than during the previous bout when the 29-year old British fighter, Nicola Adams, had surfed the support of the Irish to seal her own gold medal, brilliantly and courageously, and in the process of a fearsome assault early on in round two showing the uninitiated that women’s boxing is not for the faint-hearted.
Not once did Taylor acknowledge the crowd; nor did her father who, in a previous fight, had admitted that the numbers of Irish in the crowd would have moved him to tears, if only he had looked towards them. No, it was better to focus on the job in hand. Her opponent, a Russian southpaw called Sofya Ochigava stood in the blue corner and endured the boos mixed with polite applause when the introductions were made, and had she looked hard to her left she might just have seen the one Russsian flag draped over a stairwell. Just one.
Narrower of stance and more flat-footed that Taylor, Ochigava nevertheless seemed to have done her homework well, warily avoiding Taylor’s waiting right hand. The first round was scored even by the judges.
Alarm surfaced briefly in the next when Taylor slipped to the floor and there was a crescendo of boos when the Russian indulged in a spot of wrestling. There was urgency in Peter Taylor’s exhortations at the end of the round, whilst the Russian sat calmly and confidently, her own corner-man using the towel as if a giant fan.
They say that the fighters don’t know the scores that are flashed up on the big screen for the benefit of the audience. Don’t know the scores? When, at the end of round two, there were groans and boos, any fighter with a brain not turned to mush could have guessed which way the wind was blowing. And then, at the end of round three, the greatest cheer of the night would have told Taylor that she had put her nose in front, which she had courtesy of a change of tactics and two flashing right hands as the round came to a close.
She didn’t make it easy for her followers, though. Ochigava was a brave opponent. Lennox Lewis, before the fight, had given Taylor the ultimate accolade by saying ‘she fights like a geezer,’ but he must have been equally impressed by the Russian’s fortitude. In the face of the best pound for pound female fighter in the world and overwhelming home support, she held herself magnificently.
When the final bell went, Taylor pointed to her chest, but it was more questioningly than confidently. As they stood waiting for the judges’ decision, it was the Russian who looked more assured, pointing her right arm skywards, whilst Taylor remained unmoved and anxious. Two points only separated them, according to the judges, but they were the sweetest two points of Taylor’s life and then came the tears, and the hugs, and for a moment Taylor was just a little girl in the arms of her father.
After Claressa Shields, the 17-year old American, had won a slug-fest to cap her own amazing rags-to-riches story, it was time for the medals which Taylor received in green, her hair now slicked back into a ponytail, and Ochigava with her arms folded, her disgust at the decision as plain as day. Still, it didn’t stop the joyous singing of the Irish anthem, or the celebrations, as Taylor did a lap of honour, draped in an Irish flag.
It was a stirring night. There are those who abhor women’s boxing but the only way that argument has any validity is if they would see men’s boxing go the way of the Dodo, too. You cannot love boxing, but hate women’s boxing. Equal opportunity for brain damage it may be, but that is the choice women deserve to make. Katie Taylor made that choice a long time ago and last night, in front of thousands of her countrymen, it was vindicated, gloriously.
We’ll leave the last word to a man, though; her father, Peter, who knows a little about this brutal game. He hopes his daughter retires now to play football. ‘It’s a little bit safer,’ he said. And wouldn’t you just know it, she’s pretty damn good at that too.