When Katie Taylor defended her title in the biggest ever women’s boxing match at Madison Square Garden, it was expected that she would take some hard-earned time off to rest. Instead, she turned up to resume her rigorous training regime just three days later.
Her trainer says this drive and focus, which he describes as “pretty much unheard of”, has made her the undisputed lightweight world champion, a title which she will defend at Wembley against Argentina’s Karen Carabajal on Saturday – the UK’s biggest ever female match.
Taylor, who is from Ireland, based in the US, and promoted by the UK’s Matchroom Boxing, is one of the biggest stars in the meteoric rise that women’s boxing is finally enjoying after becoming legal two decades ago.
2022 was the year the sport truly went mainstream, says Taylor. “For the first time, people are getting to see the best of women’s boxing. It’s not unusual for women to headline a big show.
“This year the two fights of the year were probably myself and Amanda Serrano, and Claressa Shields and Savannah Marshall – two female fights. This is just a great time to be involved.’”
Growing up in the 90s watching male greats such as Sugar Ray Leonard, she never believed this possible. She started her own career pretending to be a boy under the pseudonym Kay to evade the ban on female fights in Ireland until 2001. “It’s amazing young female fighters have female role models to look up to. Some of them are household names. We never had that growing up.”
Saturday’s fight will be another important fixture in the women’s boxing calendar, and for Taylor personally, as it marks her return to the venue in which she made her professional debut six years ago. “Every single one of my belts is on the line on Saturday night, the undisputed title is on the line. Every fight is a big fight for me at this stage,” she says.
It’s also her first fight since her history-making appearance at New York’s Madison Square Garden, which she describes as “an iconic night in the sport”.
“Everyone was very, very excited before the fight, but I think it actually exceeded everyone’s expectations. I don’t think 10 years ago I would have ever believed I was going to be headlining Madison Square Garden. You’re automatically thinking of the likes of Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier and it’s amazing that myself and Amanda Serrano are in that category as well now.”
Reaching that is no simple feat. Taylor submits herself to a gruelling regime involving training sessions six days a week, including running, strength and conditioning, but mostly sparring in the ring. On her rest day, she lives “a simple life” in which her main treats are Netflix and chocolate.
Discipline is one of the aspects of boxing Taylor most values. “I think the days when you’re not feeling up for it, you’re tired, those are the most important days, which make the difference between winning and losing.”
In London on Wednesday, she showcased the result of that hard work: the lightning-quick jabs that have gained her a reputation for the fastest hand speed in the women’s sport.
“You’d have a hard time finding someone even close, as far as second place going,” says her trainer, Ross Enamait.
Taylor is the “full package”, Enamait adds, thank to her natural athleticism and competitive instinct, but mostly her “consistency and work ethic”. “A lot of people get to the top, look around, see there’s no one else there and fall off. She got to the top and wants to stay there.”
Enamait sees this tenacity as one of the best features of women’s boxing: “The women seem more willing to fight the best than in men’s boxing, we’re at a stage where a lot of top guys are avoiding each other.”
Audiences, which comprise more families and women, praise the distinctive atmosphere at female matches. “There’s a lot of feeling, the pace is faster, the best are fighting the best, so it tends to be an exciting fight for the crowd,” says Enamait.
Enamait and Taylor agree that women’s boxing will go from strength to strength in 2023, with more megafights, terrestrial TV coverage and higher pay – all progress towards “women’s boxing” being simply referred to as “boxing”, an important goal for Taylor, who is a well-known opponent of all-female cards.
Taylor hopes her own career will see her first homecoming fight in Ireland, but she also wants a higher profile for lower-level fighters. “We’re very lucky over the last few years that we’re getting the platform, but I don’t think it should be just for a handful of female fighters. I’d love to see every girl getting that opportunity.”