Katie Taylor’s Olympic qualifier preview (9th May)

Updated: May 9, 2012

Katie Taylor sets out for China today seeking not only a fourth successive world title at 60kg but also in search of a historic first – a place in the 2012 Olympic Games – the first time that women’s boxing officially features in the Olympics, though in fact when boxing was introduced at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, women’s boxing did feature on the programme as a “demonstration” sport albeit as with the men’s boxing in St Louis only U.S competitors took part.

So for Katie Taylor today is but the starting point on the long and winding road to London 2012 via Qinhuangdao , a coastal city located in Hebei Province in Northern China. Qinhuangdao is best known for its ice-free port, the Great Wall at Shanhaiguan Pass and the summer resort of Beidaihe. Boasting a population of some 2.7 million, at the last census, Qinhuangdao lies between mountains and the sea, and enjoys a pleasant climate without unduly cold winters or hot summers. The yearly temperatures average at 10.5 degrees Celsius.

This is not the first time that the Qinhuangdao Olympic Sports Centre will host an Olympic related event for it was one of the football venues for the preliminary rounds of the 2008 Beijing Games. And so to the 2012 Women’s World Boxing Championships there between May 9th and 20th. Ireland will have but three competitors in the championships with Cavan BC’s Ceire Smith and Drimnagh’s Sinead Kavanagh joining Taylor in the quest for an Olympic quota place.

We had four in Barbados 2010, Belfast’s Alanna Audley Murphy being the fourth. This time round Murphy will be cheering on her friend and former ‘foe’, as the pair have remained friends since that first ever Irish women’s boxing bout in October 2001.

Even at this late stage, there is still no definite news regarding who exactly will be taking part in this Olympic qualifier. If we look for example at the 60kg weight class, we can expect not only the usual 60kg boxers to participate but also top ranking women from both the 57kg and 64kg categories thus ensuring that for Katie Taylor this will be her toughest test to date and with huge improvement in the quality of the opposition in the past 18 months, Team Taylor will be taking nothing for granted, but then they never do.

The seventh AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships serve as the only qualifying event for the London 2012 Olympic Games. For the very first time in history, women boxers will be competing at the Olympic Games, in three weight categories: 48-51 kg, 57-60 kg and 69-75 kg. With 24 quotas places (eight in each weight categories) up for grabs, this 2012 AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships is sure to be fiercely competitive. There are will remain some additional places to be filled for London 2012 later via the Tripartite Commission invitational system.

So just what has Katie Taylor to do to ’ensure ’a place in London 2012 ? The IABA’s Bernard O’Neill in a recent comment in the ‘Irish Independent’ explains : “In a worst-case scenario Katie Taylor will have to reach the lightweight final at the AIBA World Championships in China this month to guarantee qualification for the 2012 Olympics. This, however, can only happen if all four semi-finalists are from Europe.

Four Olympic places are available for the Europeans at Taylor’s weight in the championships, which will be the only London qualifier for women boxers. It has emerged, however, that in conjunction with the Continental Quota System, just three places can be won in competition. The fourth berth will be awarded by invitation.

If Taylor, who will be aiming for her fourth World title in-a-row, reaches the semi-finals and there are three other Europeans in the last-four, she may still not have qualified for London.
However, if she lost at that stage to the eventual gold medallist, that would secure her place. Ideally, the earlier Taylor’s European rivals depart, the quicker the Bray boxer can qualify”.

Who then are her main competitors in China? Let us firstly look at the Official AIBA rankings released only on April 1st this year. Bear in mind that ranking points are from official AIBA competitions including such as the World Championships, Europeans etc:

1 TAYLOR, Katie IRELAND 2000
2 DONG, Cheng CHINA 1300
3 GRACZYK, Karolina POLAND 900
4 ARAUJO, Adriana BRAZIL 900
5 UNDERWOOD, Quanitta USA 850
7 SARITA DEVI, Laishram INDIA 800

One would normally expect the top 10 to be the ‘elite’ of that division and the greatest threat to Taylor. Yet in my opinion that is not going to be the case in China. Why not?
Firstly there are many fine women boxers who have not fought in a sufficient number of qualifying events to gain an official ranking. Secondly the position at no. 8 of Russia’s Sofya Ochigava is a very ‘false’ one since she was out injured for best part of ten months in 2010/11.

Ochigava will be one of the main threats here, of that there is no doubt. Also missing are such as Turkey’s Gulsum Tatar, the current world champion at 64 kg (who has twice before defeated Taylor albeit always in Turkey. And what about Great Britain’s Natasha Jonas who defeated Queen Underwood in the final of the Olympic Test event at the ExCeL Centre in London’s Docklands last November?

Yes she too is one that will be ‘there or thereabouts’. . She missed out on the rankings as she has fought at 64kg on several occasions in the past two years when GB were trying to decide which of Jonas, Amanda Coulson or Chantelle Cameron would get the 60kg slot. That choice was made last month hence Jonas from the Rotunda club in Liverpool will also be a big threat in China, and indeed even more so later in London in London if she and Taylor get there.

Other ‘major’ threats wait in the wings too – as I said this will be the toughest test for Taylor to date. The competition though could have been even tougher but since each country can only nominate one boxer per weight category several potential threats are not likely to be in China.
Australia’s Claire Ghabrial misses out due to injury. She was in the top 10 before that injury. Others unlikely to appear due to the one country rule include: Elena Savelyeva, the world no 1 at 54kg, Turkey’s Ayse Tas (world no 3 at same weight). From potential 57kg challengers those not in China will include no 2, Yanzi Yang of China, and from 64kg there will be Anastasia Belyakova (no.2) nor Vera Slugina (no.3) since Ochigava seems sure to be the Russian entry .

So who are likely to be the major threats then? The 57kg champion is one ‘newcomer’ who is not well known in Europe or indeed outside of Asia – Thailand’s Tassamalee Thongian. She has been in superb form of late. From the ‘existing’ 60kg fighters I would say that Queen Underwood, India’s Laishram Sarita Devi, Chorieva Mavzuna of Tajikstan, GB’s Natasha Jonas, Russia’s Ochigava and China’s Cheng Dong plus Puerto Rico’s Kiria Tapia and Brazilian Adriana Araujo are, in this writer’s opinion, the ones to watch. That leaves but the 64kg boxers of whom Turkey’s world champion, Gulsum Tatar offers the greatest threat.

So who will be the last eight? That is the 64,000 dollar question especially as the AIBA tell us that ‘ the AIBA Seeding Commission will review all current rankings and approve the seeding immediately after the General Weigh-in and before the Official Draw” so we will not know until the boxers have ‘;weighed in’. It would however be a major upset if Taylor is not ranked no.1 based on her record in all events. The current ranking list is also in my view not truly representative of the current state of women’s boxing as in the AIBA’s own words : “This very first edition includes the results at the AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships Barbados 2010, the AIBA Youth Women’s World Boxing Championships Antalya 2011, the European Women’s Boxing Championships Rotterdam 2011, the 2012 American Women’s Championships and the 2012 Asian Women’s Championships”.

I would be very surprised indeed if Ochigava remains at no.8 and on form would anticipate her being at no 2 or 3. Room will also have to be found for such as Tatar, Jonas and Thongian so will be some dangerous “non seeds” in the 60kg division. In view of the confusion that there has been regarding the seeding system in the past inc Trabzon , SportsNewsIreland asked the AIBA’s Communications Director, Sébastien Gillot to tell us about the seeding process for China and indeed for London 2012: “ The seeds for women is the same as the one for men. Thus, if less than 4 entries, no seed. From 4 to 15 entries, maximum 2 seeds. If more than 15 entries maximum 4 seeds. At the Women’s World Championship, we will have 8 seeds per weight category. For the games, we will have 2 seeds for Women’s”.

So eight seeds in China seem certain as there are likely to be between considerably more than 15 taking part, perhaps as many as 36 .

What is the AIBA’s own view of the forthcoming events. The AIBA’s President, Dr Ching-Kuo said recently when announcing the current world rankings : “Launching the AIBA Women’s World Ranking makes me really proud. I have always been convinced that the future of our sport will be led by Women’s participation. Boxing is growing very fast and I cannot wait to witness the first women boxers competing at the London 2012 Olympic Games”.

Are the 3 Olympic weights the only weights in China? The AIBA again : “Women Boxers aged 17 to 34 compete in 10 weight categories: 45-48 kg (Flyweight), 51 kg (Bantamweight), 54 kg (Featherweight), 57 kg (Lightweight), 60 kg (Light Welterweight), 64 kg (Welterweight), 69 kg (Middleweight), 75 kg (Light heavyweight), 81 kg (Heavyweight) and 81+ kg (Super Heavyweight). For the very first time in history, women boxers will be competing at the Olympic Games, in three weight categories: 48-51 kg, 57-60 kg and 69-75 kg. With 24 quotas places (eight in each weight categories) up for grabs, this 2012 AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships is sure to be fiercely competitive”.

So although Katie Taylor is Ireland’s best hope in China let us not also forget that there will be two other Irish Elite women champions in action – Cavan’s Ceire Smith (48-51kg) and Drimnagh’s Sinead Kavanagh (69-75kg).
Both can, as always, be depended upon to give of their all but in this Olympic Year it would be a truly magnificent achievement if either were to gain a last eight place and thus qualify for London 2012. The standard of women’s boxing is very much improved from anything we have seen before.

Can Taylor repeat her previous victories in the World Championships? She has been in great form in the past year or two and has certainly trained harder than ever for this year’s worlds. Her Dad and coach, Pete told the ‘Independent’ recently that the next few weeks is all about the qualifiers and the world championships adding : “We want to go to London as world champion” and as for Katie herself she recalls that September day in 2010 in Barbados when she last met Queen Underwood in the ring. “I was very nervous that day and she was just so much stronger than me. Then she really hurt me in the fourth round and began to box out of her skin. One punch can change a fight and, that day, it almost did. I was really lucky to get through that one.”

Irish Head Coach, Billy Walsh is another who remembers Barbados. As he spoke with the Irish media in London after London 2012 (LOCOG) Chairman, Seb Coe had suggested that Katie could be one of the real stars of the Olympics, Walsh continued to stress that the Bray superstar is “only one punch away from defeat”.

“There’s a lot of expectation around Katie but she hasn’t qualified yet,” Walsh warned. “There’s 10 days in China next May (World Championships) and if she’s injured or out of form there she might suffer something similar to what happened her in Barbados (at the last World Championships).
“She got an injury, took too much difene, got diarrhoea, weighed in two kilos below her weight and nearly lost a fight. Anything is possible in sport, particularly in boxing. Katie’s only one punch away from defeat.”

At that briefing also, Walsh described Taylor as “the best athlete Ireland has ever produced. Not one of our male boxers lives the high performance life that Katie lives. She prepares with the men, spars with the men and she’s equal to them, sometimes better.
“There is huge expectation on Katie to win a gold medal,” he said whilst going on to warn that Taylor’s task is now harder than ever before because so many other countries have been investing so heavily in women’s boxing, especially Great Britain.

And on the controversial subject of judging, especially after own her previous bad experiences in Bulgaria and Turkey and Joe Ward’s recent troubles in Trabzon? Boxers and their coaches usually know who the judges are but would the Taylors ever complain if they were unhappy with anyone on the list?

Peter Taylor again: “We never even look at the judges’ names,” he says. “We don’t care. Just go in and box to the best of your ability, that’s our attitude. Anyway, things have improved dramatically under AIBA President Wu. You get very few robberies in major tournaments now. There are more good judges than bad, more honest ones than dishonest ones.” The champion herself smiled and simply added : “It’s just not right but I try not to think about it. There are things you’ve just got to put in God’s hands really. If it’s God’s plan, I’ll win the fight.”

Coaches in the United States, Russia and China are amazed to learn that Taylor has never used a sports psychologist, “the Bible is my sports psychology manual, God is my psychologist ” the ever gracious Bray woman added. For now her concentration is purely on the World Championships and getting that elusive place in the Olympics. As she told the ‘Independent’ :

“Obviously I’d love to go down in history as one of the greatest female boxers . “But I’d like to be remembered for being a good person too and for my faith in God.
“I don’t want people to define me by my medals, but by how I live my life.”

The big threats will be Ochigava, Tatar, Underwood and Jonas and if there is to be a ‘surprise’ then watch out for Thongian and/or Tapia… oh, and yes it is not impossible that there will be four Europeans in the last four standing !

… and finally, will Taylor win her fourth world title in a row and qualify for the Olympics and without any need to seek a Tripartite Commission invitation? It most certainly will not be an easy task but Taylor has prepared for this like no previous competition, and if free from illness or injury throughout the tournament then if anyone can, Katie can.

As always, you can find all the news relating to the World Championships and Olympic qualifier here on SportsNewsIreland.com between now and 20th May.

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