By Damian Dolan
Katie Taylor is assured of a very warm welcome when she steps into the ring at the Manchester Arena on Saturday night, as she bids to become a two-weight world champion.
The MEN will almost feel like home for Taylor. It will be the third time she’s fought at the venue as a pro.
That’s more times than she’s boxed at the O2 Arena, Cardiff’s Principality Stadium, Wembley Arena or even New York’s Maddison Square Garden.
Already the unified world lightweight champion, Taylor 33, has won all 14 of her professional bouts since turning pro in 2016.
Her second and fourth fights took place at the Manchester Arena.
In June, she defeated Delfine Persoon at the Garden to add the Belgians lightweight WBC belt to her WBA, WBO and IBF titles.
Her opponent on Saturday, 31-year-old Greek WBO super lightweight holder Christina Linardatou, has lost just once in 13 fights.
With local favourite Anthony Crolla also on the card in his farewell fight, it promises to be a very big night of boxing in Manchester.
But it’s Taylor, becoming the first female to headline a UK arena event, who tops the bill and her Irish fans will be out in force to cheer the Bray-native on to another “history-making moment” in her extraordinary story.
It says a lot about Taylor that she was “a small bit embarrassed” to headline over Crolla in his home town.
Speaking to Radio 5 Live last month, Taylor said she “always wanted to change perceptions of women’s boxing”. Saturday night will be a “great showcase” for the sport.
She added: “I’ve felt like I’ve always pushed boundaries and I’ve always tried to make history in this sport.”
One might argue she was doing that even before her sensational Gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games – the atmosphere in the ExCel Arena that day was like nothing else. Taylor is undoubtedly the darling sports loving of the Irish public.
“The Irish love her and she’s a great role model,” says Tommy McDonagh, owner and coach of Collyhurst and Moston boxing club in Manchester, which celebrated its 100th year in 2018.
“When I first took up coaching ten years ago we had no girls in the gym. Now, we’ve 10 or 12 girls and they’re competing. I’ve got five of them on my boxing team and the others will make it as well in the near future.”
Amongst those is three-time national champion Maria Edwards, while Ellie O’Brien is on the north west squad.
Also a very good footballer, Maria was on the books of both Manchester clubs, City and United. In years gone by, McDonagh might have expected to lose her to football, but not now.
The likes of Taylor have forged a path for others to follow, carving out a successful career both inside and outside of the ring.
Taylor’s success has “inspired more girls to come to the gym” and give the sport a try.
“There’s a pathway now and an end product. You can actually sell the dream to the girls now. ‘You can do that’,” said McDonagh, who has seen the overall standards in women’s boxing rise.
— Matchroom Boxing (@MatchroomBoxing) October 29, 2019
“The girls get routines and combinations easier than the lads and the skill sets of the girls have gone up.”
It may be Crolla’s final fight, but Taylor can expect a “big welcome” in Manchester says McDonagh, from aspiring young female boxers and the city’s Irish community.
“Anthony Crolla is a big draw, but Katie’s a big draw, especially for the girls,” he said.
“A lot of young up and coming boxers will want to go and watch her live.”
He added: “There’s a lot of Irish in Manchester and they’ll support her. Within half a mile of the MEN Arena is Cheetham Hill and that’s full of Irish, and a mile from the Arena is the Irish World Heritage Centre, where we have our boxing shows.
“Manchester’s full of Irish people and they’ll all be making their way down to see Katie.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Andy Rea, head coach at St John’s Boxing Club in Chorlton.
🗣️ “I want to continue to make history in this sport!” – @KatieTaylor
Gain rare insight for Taylor’s training camp base in our new feature 💪 #TaylorLinardatou
Watch in full 👇https://t.co/Dl2aSP8DSy
— Matchroom Boxing (@MatchroomBoxing) October 28, 2019
“I’ve had hundreds of calls asking about tickets for Katie’s fight. Looks like the Manchester Irish will be out in force,” he said.
One of the young boxers at St John’s is Harley Moran. His dad, Mario Conway, is a well-known figure within Manchester’s boxing community, and is friends with Anthony Crolla.
Unsurprisingly, he’s had people messaging him looking tickets for Saturday night.
“But not because Anthony’s boxing, but because Katie’s boxing,” he said.
“It’s a massive fight for Katie – she’ll create a lot of new fans. Tony’s got a big crowd coming, and every time Katie fights she draws a big crowd.”
Women’s amateur boxing has come a long way says Conway, and it’s improving all the time.
He said: “She’s done so much for women’s boxing – it’s really up and coming. You’ve got Natasha Jonas and Nicola Adams, who were both in the Olympics and they’ve both turned pro, but the amateur boxers out there now would give them a run for their money,” he said.
One of those is Stockport’s Stacey Copeland who last year became the first-ever British female boxer to win the Commonwealth title.
“But Katie being Irish gives her the edge [in popularity].”
Mario’s son, Macauley Moran, tragically passed away five years ago at the age of 16. Every two years St Kentigern’s Irish Club in Fallowfield stages a boxing event in his memory and to raise money for Manchester Mind – a mental health charity.
Kevin Fitzpatrick, manager of St Kent’s since 2002, says “everyone’s talking about the fight”.
“The Irish here are all behind her – everyone will be watching her in St Kent’s,” added Fitzpatrick, who has affiliations to St John’s and Moss Side Fire Station boxing clubs.
“She’s come a long way to be where she is today – she’s shown great guts and determination.
“They’ll be a full crowd at the MEN Arena. Crolla’s also a massive pull in front of his home crowd, but to hit the stage with Katie as well…..it’s a great line up.”