World's Top Female Boxer Fighting to Turn Pro

Ireland's Katie Taylor knows that the payoff or publicity won't be great when she breaks the gender barrier and enters the World Series of Boxing this fall. But she's ready for the challenge. “I really embrace it,” said the sport's female world champion.

Irish Olympic boxing champion Katie Taylor.
Irish Olympic boxing champion Katie Taylor.

Credit: J P. Ireland Photoline on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

MULLINGAR, Ireland (WOMENSENEWS)- On July 7, Katie Taylor, the world champion of female boxing, won her fifth European Union Amateur Boxing Championship title for Ireland in Keszthely, Hungary.

Over all, the Irish women's team came away from the 23-nation tournament with 15 medals; a record for Irish boxing. Taylor, Kristina O' Hara, Grainne Gavin, Jacqui Lynch and Amy Broadhurst all received gold medals in the 7th European Union Women's Senior, Youth and Junior Championships.

However, none of their fights were televised.

“We still don't get equal publicity with the men,” said Taylor in a phone interview, a few days after the Irish team returned home to Dublin from the tournament, and hours before Taylor jetted to New York for a holiday. “I've worked my whole life to get where I am and no television coverage for those fights is not fair.”

Taylor has now won 15 major gold medals since 2005 and is the reigning Olympic, World, European, EU and Irish lightweight champion. She is planning to fight professionally for the first time in her career.

In September or October, Taylor will enter the World Series of Boxing (WSB), a professional competition in which amateurs are encouraged to take part. Taylor describes the opportunity as a “transitional event,” where she will fight, for the first time, without head gear and compete for prize money.

“There are no women boxing in the WSB so it will be another first and I really embrace it,” said Taylor. “But again it's not easy for women boxers to move from amateur to professional ranks.” Taylor will face another woman in the competition but doesn't know yet who she will box against.

“If a man won the Olympic gold and turned professional the contracts coming in would be huge, but the signing on contracts are not as good for a woman,” added Taylor, who has longstanding sponsorship deals with Toyota, Adidas, Lucozade and Sky Sports Television.

But money was never her goal. “As a little girl, I always knew there was an Olympic champion inside me,” said Taylor. “But I had no idea how hard it was for women's boxing to get the recognition it deserves, and that has been the fight of my life.”

Family Tradition

Growing up in Bray, a small fishing town in County Wicklow on Ireland's East coast, Taylor hung around a local boxing club, Saint Fergal's, where her father worked as a trainer. “My father was a boxer and my two brothers box, so it was in the family,” said Taylor, who started training when she was just 10 years old. “At that time there were no women boxers in Ireland, I was the only one, so it was very difficult to get fights,” said the 27-year-old, who is still trained by her father, Pete Taylor.

The aspiring Olympian started making history at 15, when she won the first officially sanctioned women's bout ever held in Ireland. And at 17, she became the first Irish woman to win a gold medal at the Senior European Boxing Championships. But for Taylor these early accolades didn't bring enough recognition to the sport.

“There was a lot of negative talk about women's boxing and there have been a lot of setbacks along the way, particularly the decision not to allow women's boxing in the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008; that was heartbreaking at the time,” she said. “But I knew it would eventually get in the Olympics because the standard was so high.”

At the London 2012 Olympic Games, Taylor completed her lifetime dream by winning an Olympic gold medal when she beat Russia's Sofya Ochigava, 10-8, in the women's lightweight final at the ExCel Arena. “My whole career led up to that point and it surpassed all my expectations.”

As a boxing ambassador, Taylor says her Olympic crown has brought with it a great level of responsibility. “It's not about winning medals it's about how I live my life and my relationship with God that makes me who I am,” said Taylor, a devout Christian. “It's very important for young girls to have strong role models with good morals to look up to because there are so many bad role models out there.”

Sexualizing the Sport

Taylor also believes that promoters and advertisers tend to sexualize images of women in sport in order to up the profile of their game, whatever that game may be.

Earlier this year, the Amateur International Boxing Association faced heavy criticism after suggesting that female boxers wear mini-skirts in order to distinguish themselves from the men during international competitions.

“It was something we were all against because it demeans the sport,” said Taylor, whose campaigning played a pivotal role in having the uniform rule amended to allow for a choice between shorts or a skirt. “We want to be treated like any other boxer and no one is going to force me to go into the ring with a skirt on.”

Taylor added that, “Sport can be used as a tool to empower women, but sexism and discrimination still exist,” saying she has also experienced gender inequality in other sports she has played, including soccer and Gaelic (Irish) football.

Discover Football, a Berlin-based nonprofit, is dedicated to advancing gender equity, emancipation and women's rights through football, or soccer as it's called in the United States.

“It's OK for women to do yoga or to dance, but generally not to play a sport in which they fight or have physical contact,” said Pia Mann, an amateur German soccer player, who belongs to Discover Football.

‘Second-Class Athletes'

When asked about the possibility of sports women turning professional, Mann's response echoed that of Taylor. “Female athletes are oftentimes seen as ‘second-class' athletes and for many becoming a professional is just not really an option. In fact, most female professional football players have other jobs in order to make a living.”

She added that, “female football players are oftentimes considered ‘wanna-be' men, which in turn is usually associated with lesbianism…The media prefer sports in which women dress or behave in a ‘gender conforming' way, like tennis for example.”

Former Longford County footballer Geraldine McManus agrees that media coverage is hard on female sports and athletes. “If you open the sports section of any national newspaper it is littered with images of men not women,” she said. “Last year the women's All Ireland Final had to be put back a week so the men's All-Ireland hurling final could be replayed; that is discrimination.”

Claire O'Carroll, a spokesperson with Irish Feminist Network, a Dublin-based voluntary group committed to advancing gender equality in all aspects of Irish society, said that for change to happen in sports, women's bodies must be illustrated in the way the male body is: as a vehicle of achievement.

“By the Irish media promoting women in sport and highlighting the great achievements of our sporting stars, like Katie Taylor, stereotypes can be broken down and sport can be something to be enjoyed, not an occasional activity come summer to meet the male gaze,” she said.

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