A tale of two sports stars: Taylor and McGregor

A tale of two sports stars: Taylor and McGregor
UFC fighter Conor McGregor shares a joke with Katie Taylor following her WBA & IBF Female Lightweight World title bout against Cindy Serrano at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Showman McGregor has carved a career out of controversy and a cryptic communications strategy. Taylor has done the polar opposite, working hard in silence and letting success be her noise, writes Joyce Fegan.

It’s been a busy month for Irish sports stars. Katie Taylor has received the Netflix treatment. Conor McGregor has supposedly retired from mixed martial arts.

Katie, the 2018 documentary directed by Ross Whitaker, was uploaded to Netflix this month. The athlete’s story, both inside and outside of the ring, seems to be resonating with viewers. The documentary currently has an 8.3/10 rating on the movie review site IMDB, and 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

McGregor also engaged the public this week, but with his ambiguous announcement that he was retiring from the “sport formally known as ‘Mixed Martial Art’”. That was Tuesday. But on Monday night, in an interview that was recorded a week before, McGregor told US TV host Jimmy Fallon that he was “eager to fight”.

“I don’t necessarily need to fight. I am set for life, my family is set for life. We are good. But I am eager to fight. So, we will see what happens. I’m just staying ready, as I like to say,” he told the chat show host.

This, and his social media statement, were said against a backdrop of rumours about a fight between himself and a man who goes by the name of Cowboy, real name Donald Cerrone. Cowboy described McGregor’s retirement news as “a ploy to stay relevant” in order to “stir up media”.

Tell us something we don’t know, Cowboy. McGregor, the showman, has carved a career out of controversy and a cryptic communications strategy. Katie Taylor, on the other hand, has done the polar opposite, working hard in silence and letting success be her noise.

Watching her documentary, you try desperately to get to know her, to find out something about this enigmatic figure many hold up as a national hero. While many of us were vaguely aware of Katie prior to the London Olympics in 2012, this female fighter dominating the amateur boxing ranks, her gold medal at the games solidified her position in the Irish hall of sporting achievement fame. We focused on the gold medal and assumed her backstory was littered in relatively easily-achieved success, owing to a natural talent and lots of training.

That’s not anywhere near the story. She pretended to be a boy, tying her hair up in a bun so she could get fights as a teenager in Ireland. For years she had been training away, never knowing if she would ever be able to fight in her own country. Her fights were happening both inside and outside the ring, from the get-go, and she finally succeeded in being allowed to box as a female in Ireland.

This all preceded her road to London. But even her road to London wasn’t a sure thing. She again had to lobby, travelling to Chicago, to showcase her skills, and prove that women should be allowed to box in the Olympics. This was another fight she won outside of the ring.

For the lay person, we just saw with the thick gold medal draped around her neck in 2012, relatively unaware of her path to success. But this is not where her story ends, and I’m not talking about Rio. Yes, there was the stunned Katie who stood, lost for words, when being interviewed by RTÉ after she lost her quarter-final fight in the Rio Olympics in 2016, but it’s her story after this that showcases the sports star’s resilience.

In the documentary she becomes emotional when talking about her dad and trainer Pete, who decided “to do life with another girl”, meaning Katie lost her lifelong coach as he stepped away from the family.

She competed and lost in Rio without him in her corner, and many thought that was the end for Ireland’s Olympic gold medalist.

Later on in 2016, and of her own volition, she sent a short message to boxing promoter Eddie Hearn, managing director of Matchroom Sport. She was considering turning professional.

Hearn said:

She said she could not do it without the help of a promoter before asking me to do it for her.

Next up was a trainer. Katie headed off on her own to Connecticut, to train with a man she had long admired, boxing coach Ross Enamait.

Baseball cap on head, with the peak turned backwards, there is a scene in the documentary where Katie has a tennis ball attached to the cap by an elastic string. With singular focus she repeatedly hits the tennis ball, keeping it off her face at all times.

The scene comes to summarise the athlete’s unwavering focus and dedication to her sport. And just like she did for women’s boxing in Ireland and women’s boxing in the Olympics, Katie is now poised to hit the record books in professional boxing too. She hopes to appear on the Anthony Joshua-Jarrell Miller bill in New York on June 1, live on Sky Sports Box Office.

With one Olympic gold, five world amateur titles, six European amateur titles, and three world professional titles to her name, Katie is now one world title away from becoming an undisputed champion.

Her social media posts are captioned with things like “it takes a team”, and “watching my two nieces perform in the Nutcracker tonight was one of the best experiences of my life”.

And yet it’s been Conor McGregor’s material success, flamboyant dress, colourful use of language, pageantry performances, and fleet of cars that the media, and users of social media, have been salivating over for these last few years.

He is undoubtedly a man who attracts intrigue, from the labourer waiting on the side of the M50 for his lift to the building site, to travelling around on luxurious yachts and jets.

But maybe it’s Katie who has the goods of a true sports star, staying the distance, maintaining focus and riding out the troughs of defeat, while silently seeking success. As a tartan-suited Conor McGregor once told Katie Taylor: “You deserve way more respect. Take your respect; demand it.”

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