The Pugilist

Heroes of 2012: Katie Taylor

You often hear the phrase 'no individual is bigger than the sport' but if anybody challenges that old adage it has to be Katie Taylor when it comes to women's boxing.

There were more than a few detractors to idea of adding female pugilists to the Olympic family before London 2012, but it is hard to imagine a more spectacular dismantling of an argument than watching Taylor's fist of fury, metaphorically and figuratively, smashing away anyone that dared stand in her way of ultimate sporting glory.

Boxing has always been as romantic as it has been brutal — that's why boxing movies make such drama — and Taylor's story is one that is easy to fall in love with.

A humble, deeply religious Irish woman from Bray just outside Dublin, she started boxing at the age of 12 back in 1998 when any ideas of glory seemed pie-in-the-sky stuff.

Women's boxing was not an Olympic sport back then, it was barely even in the conversation, while the women's professional game was a little respected sideshow.

Looking ahead towards potential success is what helps the great sports stars develop in their formative years, but when Taylor first strapped on pair of gloves 14 years ago, there was no path to glory for her to follow — she would have to find her own way.

A swimmer could get through the 5am starts by picturing themselves atop an Olympic podium, a young football player could manage the cold winter training sessions by imagining every goal he scored was a Wembley winner, but such fairytales didn't exist for a young female boxer.

Sure Taylor could talk about an Olympic dream, as her father and she did on Irish television back in 2002 when she was just 15, but it is takes a rare breed to stick with a dream that you know might not be realised even if you prove to be the best of the best.

From very early in her career though, it was clear that it would not be a lack of talent that stood in her way.

By 2005 she was European champion, by 2006 World champion, and the titles kept coming with no let up.

Taylor in action during the 2007 European Championships

The Irish love both sport and winners without discrimination so Taylor's successes helped her become a household name in her homeland even if many of the people who praised her personality and achievements had never actually seen her fight.

By the time 2009 came around she had two World and three European championships to her name. The promoters of a Bernard Dunne world title fight decided to put her as second billing on a fight night at Dublin's biggest arena. She destroyed her opponent and the capacity crowd went wild.

That was the night the Irish really knew they had found a woman who deserved to be global icon — it was time for the world to play catch-up.

In August 2009 it was confirmed that women's boxing would be added to the London 2012 programme, helped massively by the credibility Taylor had brought to the sport, but not everyone was impressed.

Labour MP Paul Flynn said the decision was "foolish", Amir Khan said he would support the female fighters but added that "deep down I think women shouldn't fight," while even the British Medical Association released a statement saying that boxing should "play no part in a modern Olympic games."

Taylor wasn't going to worry about such critics though - what had once looked a fanciful dream, winning an Olympic gold, had now become a real possibility.

The Olympics were still three years away but the titles kept coming. She won the World Championships in 2010, the European Championship in 2011, the World Championships again in 2012 — she just did not lose on the biggest stage.

And then it was here, London 2012, Ireland without a gold medal since Michelle Smith's highly suspicious haul of three swimming golds in 1996, were not hoping for a gold from Taylor, they were expecting it.

The Games, including the men's boxing, were already in full swing when it was time for the women to make their debut.

The atmosphere in the press seats at the ExCel Arena was one of cautious curiosity, but by the time Taylor had beaten Natasha Jones 26-15 in a thrilling quarter-final tussle, this had turned to worldwide fascination.

There were some noisy, rambunctious crowds at the London Olympics, but nothing recorded reached the same decibel levels of that first Taylor fight.

Katie Taylor was the name on everybody lips, the story you have just read was told around the world, but she still had two more chapters to write; only this time the world was watching.

Her semi-final opponent from Tajikistan was dispatched with relative ease, but the final would be a tougher test against a spiky Russian called Sofya Ochigava.

It was a repeat of their world championship decider from earlier in the year, and in sharp contrast to her softly spoken opponent from Co. Wicklow, Ochigava showed she was the queen of a boxing tradition almost as old as the sport itself — thrash talk — as she claimed the 'whole system' was on Taylor's side and and the Irish woman had the judges in her pocket.

Ochigava also described Taylor as 'just another boxer' but one person who didn't agree with that assessment was Amir Khan. Three years after saying that he was against women's boxing, the two-time world champion now said that he felt Taylor "would beat any of the men in (her) 60 kg division." Former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis also fancied her chances against the boys saying that she "had the killer instinct."

There was so much praise and goodwill swimming around Taylor, but she still had to try and block it all out. It took her 14 years of hard work to get to a stage where she would fight for Olympic gold. Now it will all come to down to four, two minute rounds.

At 4:45pm on a Thursday afternoon, Ireland completely shut down as they tuned in to see if their heroine could become their golden girl. The final wasn't great, the tension was; Taylor looked nervous and half-way though the fight she found herself 4-3 down. The Irish, who crammed into the ExCel Arena, were in danger of losing their heads, but Taylor kept hers. A superb third round put her in control and she then hung on in the fourth to ensure joyous scenes.

Taylor lands a sweet right in the Olympic final

She had done it, she had won gold, she ran around the Arena draped in an Irish flag — a nation cried.

"How are you feeling?" she was asked in the post-fight press conference.  "It's a dream come true," was her simple reply.

Britain's Nicole Adams also won gold that day, and has been deservedly nominated for BBC Sports Personality of the Year as a result, but even she would admit that Taylor is the woman who really knocked women's boxing into global public consciousness and gave it credibility with all but the most misguided of critics.

And the way she did it, with hard-work, humility and no sense of arrogance or ego is what makes her one of the sporting heroes of 2012.

She is a credit to her country, her gender, and her sport.

No individual is bigger than their sport, that remains true, but women's boxing sure is lucky that,back in 1996, a 12-year-old named Katie Taylor dared to dream the seemingly impossible.

Thanks to her, any young girl who now wishes to strap on some gloves and step in the ring has a path to glory that she can follow.

Seán Fay

HEROES OF 2012

Andy Murray

Laura Trott and Jason Kenny

Didier Drogba

Alex Zanardi

Bradley Wiggins