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Ireland's first female pro boxer Deirdre Gogarty carved the way for Katie Taylor

'I fell totally in love with boxing, though it took me another two years to get up the courage to go to a boxing club'

Deirdre Gogarty

Sean McGoldrick

DEIRDRE Gogarty broke the glass ceiling for women's boxing in Ireland.

She was our first professional female boxer and world champion as well as being Katie Taylor's role model.

When she was 11, Taylor wrote to Gogarty, saying: "I can't see boxing for girls taking off here in the near future."

The pair later met and Gogarty encouraged her protégé to follow her dreams, just like she had.

But if not for Gogarty's pioneering work, it is doubtful that Taylor would be topping the bill this weekend in New York's iconic Madison Square Garden.

The Meath native was the unlikeliest of fighters.

Deirdre Gogarty fights Stacy Prestage in 1993

Her parents were dentists, she didn't step inside a boxing club until she was 17 and women's amateur and professional boxing was banned in both Ireland and the UK at that time.

Her cause looked hopeless. Yet she overcame seemingly impossible odds to win a world professional title.

Gogarty traces her obsession with boxing to the moment she chanced upon a TV documentary about the former world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey.

Deirdre fights Debra Stroman in 1996

"It just captured my imagination," she said.

Around the same time Barry McGuigan was captivating the nation with his drive to become a world champion.

"Once he came along it really ignited my interest. I fell totally in love with boxing, though it took me another two years to get up the courage to go to a boxing club," she says.

Her career might not have begun had her father not relocated his dental practice close to the then newly-opened shopping centre in Wellington Quay in Drogheda.

Deirdre used to spend hours in the clinic after school waiting for a lift home. From the window, she noticed a sign reading: 'Drogheda Amateur Boxing Club Founded 1936.'

Deirdre Gogarty with Michaela Stowe

On the night after Sugar Ray Leonard's famous win over 'Marvellous' Marvin Hagler in the US, Deirdre spotted a man outside the club. Taking inspiration from Leonard's performance, she introduced herself to Joe Leonard, the head trainer in Drogheda BC.

"He seemed very unsure of what I was on about. I probably struck him as being very strange. I asked him so many questions he finally agreed to allow me into the club to watch the boxers train.

"I just kept going back. Joe obviously saw I wasn't going to go away so he said I could go ahead and start training with them. I was thrilled with myself."

But there was no pathway in Ireland for female boxers at the time.

Gogarty refused to give up on her dream. She moved to Dublin to study in the Fitzwilliam Institute and landed a work placement job with the animation company making a new television series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

But her most important life decision was walking into St Saviours Boxing club on Dorset Street, run by the McCormack brothers, Pat and John, legendary figures in amateur and professional boxing both in Ireland and the UK.

She trained three nights a week and also found time to spar with eight-time national bantamweight champion and European medallist Mick Dowling in his club, Mount Tallant.

Eventually, on June 30, 1991 Gogarty made her debut in the back garden of a pub in Limerick against a local girl.

Gogarty won and had another couple of 'illegal' fights in the UK before she made the decision to move to the US in 1993 and link up with a trainer called Beau 'Bo' Williford, based in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Thus began a friendship and a journey which changed her life and opened up a pathway for Katie Taylor and others.

It later transpired that Williford had no interest in training a female fighter and only agreed to take her on as a favour to a friend in the UK.

Sixteen months after her arrival in the US, she first fought for a world title but lost on points. But her breakthrough moment came in 1996.

She was invited by promoter Don King to take on the then legendary Christy Martin in a non-title fight in Las Vegas MGM on the same bill as the world heavyweight title fight between Mike Tyson and Frank Bruno.

"Don King called Bo and asked him did I want to be on the card. I was given ten days' notice. There was no negotiation about when the fight would be or how what I would be paid.

"My fee was $3,000. It was the biggest purse of my career but in the bigger scheme of things it was nothing," she recalls.

Up until the Martin-Gogarty fight, women's professional boxing had little exposure on television.

But an audience of millions tuned in to see a captivating contest between the unbeaten Martin and the plucky Irish opponent who was giving away 11 pounds to the 'Coalminer's Daughter' who won on points.

"There was an explosion in publicity afterwards. I had hoped it would kickstart my career and certainly I started to be paid more afterwards. But I still didn't get as many big fights as I had hoped.

"Then I picked up a bad shoulder injury in 1997. I fought again in 1998 and I damaged my shoulder again. I tried for a bunch of fights, but they all fell through. So I had a very anti-climatic end to my career."

Even when Gogarty achieved her burning ambition and was crowned the International Boxing Federation featherweight champion in New Orleans in March 1997 with a unanimous victory over Bonnie Canino, it turned into a nightmare.

"I was supposed to get $12,500 which was a lot for money for me, but I never got a cent."

Deirdre's boxing career was the inspiration for the movie Million Dollar Baby for which Hilary Swank won an Oscar.

She doesn't regret a moment she spent in the ring. And it was through boxing she met her husband, Victor. Deirdre now lives in rural Louisiana with Victor and seven-year-old son Calum and works as a graphic artist.

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