Ireland’s Best Hope for Gold: Boxer Katie Taylor Punches Her Way into Women’s Semifinal

With Ireland's heavy expectations on her shoulders, the four-time world champion — who has already electrified the boxing ring in London — sets her sights on winning the ultimate prize

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Murad Sezer / Reuters

Ireland's Katie Taylor (L) fights Britain's Natasha Jonas during their quarterfinal Women's Light (60kg) boxing match at the London Olympic Games August 6, 2012.

The semifinals of the women’s lightweight division in boxing don’t kick off until 2 p.m. GMT on Wednesday. But if the reaction of spectators during the quarterfinals on Monday meant anything, then London 2012 has already crowned Katie Taylor Queen of the Ring.

Taylor, a former member of Ireland’s national soccer team, left her opponent black and blue en route to a decisive 26-15 victory during the quarterfinals. A four-time world champion, she’s emerged as her country’s best shot at striking gold in London. Dublin is waiting. Thus far in the Games, the Irish have failed to secure a medal of any color.

Soft-spoken, rising to just 5 ft. 5 in. and possessing a somewhat slight frame, Taylor doesn’t exactly scream pugilist. But the moment she straps on her gloves and head guard she transforms into a fierce street fighter. With her clinical jabs and nimble footwork, she wears opponents down as she uses them as punching bags. Those in the know expected her to advance from Monday’s quarterfinal. But Taylor faced a sizable adversary in Britain’s Natasha Jonas, a former European champion who — like Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis and so many other British athletes before her — could benefit from the home crowd willing her on. Not even fighting on home turf, however, could help her overcome the Irish juggernaut.

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“I will make no excuses. I have come here feeling the fittest, the leanest, the healthiest, smartest boxer I could be but she is still the best. I take my hat off to her,” Jonas said during her postmatch interview. “There was nothing else I could do. I could’ve thrown the kitchen sink at her or maybe driven a bus into her. I hope she goes on to win it.”

As the top seed in the tournament, Taylor received a bye in her first round. Winning the quarterfinal match guaranteed her of at least a bronze: as in judo and Greco-Roman wrestling, both losing semifinalists receive the same medal. That doesn’t take the pressure off Taylor, who knows all of Ireland is watching. “It’ll only be a relief if I’m on the top of the podium with the gold medal and nothing else,” she said on Monday evening. “I’m just concentrating on my next fight. No one is happy with a bronze medal.”

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That’s not always true. But Taylor, whom Ireland chose as its flag bearer for the opening ceremony, has heavy expectations to shoulder. Around 6,000 people gathered on the seafront in Taylor’s hometown of Bray to watch her first fight. The Irish Times said locals were “punch-drunk with pride” afterward. And the Irish Independent flashed “Katie the Great” on its home page.

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Taylor may not have read the headlines or seen live footage of her starstruck neighbors, but surely she felt the roar of the crowd inside London’s ExCel Arena. Fans wore wigs in the Irish tricolor, painted shamrocks on their faces and waved their flags so frantically you’d think they were batting off an attacker. Afterward, the match officials at the arena revealed that the noise level reached 114 decibels — the loudest measurement thus far at the Games. A jet taking off and a siren both clock in at around 120 decibels.

Women’s boxing, which British lawmakers actually banned until 1996, is making its Olympic debut in London. The noise — and the jubilant atmosphere inside the arena — suggests it’s a hit. “People didn’t realize the standard of women’s boxing,” Taylor said after her match. “I think people have really opened their eyes to women’s boxing this week. We put on a showcase for the sport, and they can’t believe the standard of the sport. It’s incredible.”

And it’s not over yet. Taylor will face off against Tajikistan’s Mavzuna Choriev in the semifinals. Choriev, whom Taylor defeated in the semifinals at last year’s world championship, won’t be a pushover. The 5-ft. 4-in. Tajik defeated China’s 5-ft. 10-in. Cheng Dong in the quarters, so she’s used to slaying giants.

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The other semifinal will pit Russia’s Sofya Ochigava against Brazil’s Adriana Araujo. Ochigava, the world No. 2, is expected to cruise to victory over the Brazilian, who took up boxing 12 years ago to lose weight. If all goes according to script, the gold-medal match will be a repeat of last year’s world-championship final between Ireland’s darling and the outspoken Russian.

During the Monday press conference, a Russian journalist told Taylor that Ochigava felt like she deserved to win their last meeting and that she’s been preparing for a showdown specifically with Taylor.

“It’s always going to be a difficult contest between the two of us, so we’ll see if she gets through her bout and I get through my bout,” Taylor said in response. “At the moment I’m just concentrating on each fight as it comes along.”

If she deflects like that in her next two bouts, surely a gold medal will follow.

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