garden great Katie Taylor’s Madison Square Garden dance will be up there with the best in boxing history
Ireland’s boxing memories will always be about the heroics of McGuigan, Carruth, Harrington and the mould-breaking Taylor – and not the cancer of Kinahan involvement
Katie Taylor will dance into Gotham’s most storied and sacred parcel of sporting real estate next weekend and underline again the bone-deep intensity of Ireland’s emotional relationship with the sweet science.
Across the decades, boxing has continuously and miraculously polished the national psyche, bringing an imperishable shine to the darkest days.
From Barry McGuigan to Kellie Harrington, Michael Carruth to Taylor, fighters have been clearwater tributaries of courage and integrity flowing into the polluted, stained river of everyday life.
Their effect at times of economic or political turbulence has so often been to steady and cleanse; beacons of hope just when it seemed unemployment, emigration or violent lawlessness had eclipsed the very last of the light.
The sport has bobbed and weaved onto the front pages recently as, from America to Ireland to the UAE, the law enforcement walls inexorably close in on the Kinahan crime gang.
Boxing’s grubby links to the mob are as ancient as the stories of Jake La Motta or Sonny Liston, an ever-present cancer gnawing away at any healthy tissue upon which it can gorge.
After all, it is, to borrow the title of Donald McRae's masterwork, the Dark Trade.
However, there is an honour and truth and humanity to so many of the individual fighters that soars high and untouchable above the stink.
Barry and Kellie and Katie profoundly touched the lives of a great number of people on this island.
Those of us who came of age in the 1980s remember Ireland as a forlorn socio-economic basket case, a terrain of dole queues that snaked desolately to the horizon, a zero-opportunity wasteland that haemorrhaged its young to the ghettos of London and the building sites of east coast America.
Paddy the Irishman punchlines were spat at young emigrants. Security interrogations at Heathrow or Holyhead greeted those whose passports were green.
In the North, it was a theatre of bombs and bullets, fear and loathing.
Into this vacuum of hopelessness stepped a moustachioed, charismatic prize-fighter, the dove of peace stitched to his blue trunks.
Barry McGuigan, from the border town of Clones, delivered nights in the King’s Hall that brought colour to monochrome lives, that offered a blessed antidote to the brutal sectarian division.
He was an all-world boxer, an all-universe unifier.
The night in the summer of 1985 he took the world title from Eusebio Pedroza at a packed, emotive, swaying Loftus Road felt like a turning point in so many Irish lives.
QPR’s West London home was reimagined as a gaga, swaying, life-affirming swell of humanity.
The delirious rush that invaded the veins was a forerunner to the electrifying sense-of-place jolt that, five years later - the summer of Italia ’90 - would spark an unforgettable and euphoric fire in so many Celtic hearts.
McGuigan’s fearlessness and ambition and aura rose like a purifying tsunami to wash away the shame and wretchedness that colonised the Irish psyche.
His dancing feet and speed-of-light hands, his conquering of the world, delivered the sweetest message in vivid calligraphy: It is okay to be Irish.
Barry’s gift was a brimming thousand gallon-drum of self-esteem that was poured into cups drained by desolate times.
We drank from it until we were woozy with joy.
Kellie Harrington, so radiant, approachable and human, driven yet unassuming, invaded the Irish soul last summer.
From Portland Row in Dublin’s north inner city, a place ravaged by the barbarity of the Kinahan-Hutch feud, she presented the alternate, often-ignored reality of an area brimming with elemental decency and powerful community spirit.
And smitten, Ireland fell head over heels for the sunburst of her smile, the joy and wonder she derived from her journey.
Not even the Olympic gold medal she brought back from Tokyo could sparkle as brightly as the enriching glitter of her gorgeous personality.
Nine years earlier, Katie Taylor had landed in London at the 2012 Games carrying a weight of expectation that might have crushed a lesser athlete.
The Olympics had belatedly invited women to the boxing rang almost exclusively because of the evangelical work of the phenomenon from Bray.
Katie's brilliance had made women's boxing impossible for even stiff-shirted officialdom to ignore.
Now she was besieged by the most suffocatingly intense pressure not to fluff her lines.
Taylor’s softly-spoken intensity, the responsibility she felt to deliver, her gladiator spirit, unswerving focus, her elemental need to succeed, seduced Ireland.
Fittingly for a woman of such strong faith, her journey felt almost spiritual, a Celtic Camino that concluded on an immortal August day of thunder in the ExCel Exhibition Centre.
The detonation of joy when she was announced as Olympic champion was otherworldly.
Relief oozed from the ordinarily restrained Taylor, a floodtide of adrenalin that crashed through her walls of reserve. Wrapped in a tricolour, high on the euphoria of the moment, she lapped the ring where she had just made history.
There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
A decade on and Taylor arrives at another defining moment in her professional career.
Before a packed Madison Square Garden, Manhattan’s boxing Mecca, the same canvass rectangle where Ali and Frazier battled to a standstill half a century ago, Katie tackles the remarkable seven-weight champion Amanda Serrano.
The old Pennsylvania Plaza coliseum will pulse and shiver, as back home Ireland burns the midnight oil to follow its beloved daughter.
Boxing – the sport that has delivered an unrivalled 18 of Ireland’s 35 Olympic medals – will once again seize the nation in a powerful emotional chokehold.
Taylor will dance into a roped rectangle and unveil the very best of what this small, proud island has to offer.
And for a little while, for so many of us, the dimensions of the universe will narrow down to a roped rectangle 3,000 miles from home.
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