Best of BM in 2019: Tornado of emotions

John A. MacDonald
06/01/2020 10:11pm

Photo: Stephen Pond/Getty Images

Across Christmas and the New Year, Boxing Monthly is presenting some of our most memorable features from 2019. Today we go back to our December issue, when John A. MacDonald spoke to Josh Taylor in the days after his World Boxing Super Series super-lightweight final triumph...

Josh Taylor simply would not be denied. There was too much at stake: the WBA, IBF, WBC Diamond and RING Magazine super lightweight titles, as well as the World Boxing Super Series Muhammad Ali Trophy were on the line. It was the kind of fight the ‘Tartan Tornado’ dreamed of being involved in when he first laced up the gloves at 15 years of age, but Taylor was fighting for more than belts and prizes: he wanted to dedicate victory to his girlfriend’s father, who passed away the previous month.

Over the best part of a decade, Taylor had built a strong bond with James Murphy, Jimmy, as Taylor called him. His sudden passing, just under six weeks before the biggest fight of Taylor’s career to date, was a devastating blow. Murphy was admitted to hospital with sepsis on 15 September and spent a week in intensive care before finally losing his battle with illness the following Sunday.

Taylor never allowed himself the opportunity to grieve. He wanted to be able to fully support his partner, Danielle, but he simply couldn’t. He had to immerse himself in training. He had to bottle his feelings and push them down. His mind had to be focussed on Regis Prograis. If he allowed himself to process the pain, it would have been unbearable.

When Taylor was announced as the winner, he dropped to his knees, buried his face in his gloves and sobbed uncontrollably.

He was finally able to release the pent-up anguish.

“A whole rollercoaster of emotions,” Taylor told Boxing Monthly over the phone as he recalled what was going through his mind in the moment. “Obviously, there was the joy of winning, but it was more the emotions from everything that happened in the past six, seven weeks and in camp. It was a release of my emotions.

“That win was for Jimmy. The whole night was for him. For my ring entrance, I chose a song that really reminded me of him: The Happy Mondays’ ‘Step On’. ‘You’re twisting my melon man,’ he used to sing it all the time and say lyrics, he had the t-shirt with Happy Mondays’ lyrics on it. That song just really reminded me of him.

“Camp was difficult. I just had to block it out. When I was phoning my girlfriend back home seeing how she was doing, I was trying not to talk about it too much. She was kind of the same. She tried not to tell me how she was feeling because she knew what was coming up. She was there for me 100 per cent. She’s been great.

“He was a great guy. Nine years I’ve known him, I was really close to him. I really had a lot of love for him. It was hard. It is hard. It’s hard going at the minute.”

Despite the emotional trauma he had suffered, Taylor (16-0, 12 KOs) did not allow it to affect his performance. Even when Prograis exuded confidence in the early stages, finding room for a double jab from the southpaw stance at close quarters and using lateral movement to make the Scotsman miss, Taylor remained calm.

Taylor had a resolute belief that he would adapt and solve the puzzle. That belief was well founded as in the second half of the fight he was able to impose his physical strength on ‘Rougarou’ and land with increasing frequency.

Standing toe-to-toe with his opponent, the 28-year-old was certain he had his man hurt. He could see it, he could sense it. Ahead of the bout, he always felt he would be able to secure the stoppage victory. When what he felt was an opportunity to make good on his word presented itself, Taylor attempted to seize it. He unloaded a barrage of shots, constantly applying pressure, but to his surprise, Prograis was able to absorb it and come back with his own hurtful punches.

The result was an enthralling fight, but it was one which Taylor did not expect.

“I was prepared for that kind of fight, but I really didn’t think it was going to pan out like that,” he said. “I thought it was going to be more technical and a very high-skilled match, which it was at times. I really did think I could get him out of there because I’d seen a few chinks in his armour in his past fights, but all credit to him, he was a tough cookie. He adapted and changed his style of fighting at times as well. Hats off to him, credit where it’s due.

“It was one of the middle rounds, I can’t remember which, it was either six or seven, I think I hurt him a little bit. I got on top of him, I was pushing him back and hitting him with good shots. I had a good flurry and finished the round strong. I remember thinking to myself: ‘I’m going to get him out of here.’ I went out the next round and neglected my boxing a bit and then he came back strong and won a couple of rounds. I thought I was going to get him out of there, but he proved to be really tough. The tactics went out the window for a couple of rounds because I could sort of see the end in sight, so I went in for the kill and neglected my boxing. He stole a couple of rounds, so I had to adjust again. I enjoyed every single minute of it. I think he did as well [laughs].”

Taylor’s gung-ho approach had physical repercussions. Prograis’ jabs and left hooks had caused a swelling to form above Taylor’s right eye. With each passing round, the inflammation increased, and his field of vision diminished.

For the final quarter of the contest, Taylor battled on with the eye swollen shut. He could have opted for damage limitation, attempted to muster the final reserves of energy to move away from his opponent, in an attempt to be evasive, but the fight hung in the balance. Taylor wasn’t going to relinquish his IBF world title or his unbeaten record that easily. Instead, he went to the well once more and stood and traded vicious punches with his rival. When he lost his vision, he believes there was someone looking over him.

“I was blind in one eye from halfway through round nine, my eye was completely shut,” he said. “I was fighting with one eye. It was just heart and instinct. What I was thinking about was my girlfriend’s father, and that really got me through. He pulled me through the fight. Especially in the last couple of rounds. I couldn’t see and everything was going out the window, he definitely pulled me through it. He was there in the ring with me, 100 per cent.”

The contest may not have played out as Taylor or his coach, Shane McGuigan, had planned, but both men adapted. Taylor cannot recall a lot of McGuigan’s instructions between rounds, with adrenaline coursing through his body, he heard the words, but didn’t process them. However, McGuigan’s message ahead of the final frame have lodged in his mind.

“I can’t really remember much of what he was saying,” he said. “I can only remember wee bits and bobs. In the last couple of rounds, it was: ‘Do you want this more than him?’ And I was like: ‘Yes, let’s go and do it.’ He knew I couldn’t see anything, so he was just trying to keep me fired up, driven and motivated. ‘Do you want this more than him? You’ve trained your life for this. Let’s go and get it.’”

McGuigan’s words provided the motivation he required at a pivotal point in the contest. Judge Alfredo Polanco gave the final round to Taylor while his two colleagues awarded the frame to Prograis. Had Taylor’s work in the last minute not caught the eye of Polanco, the fight would have been a draw.

It is unsurprising that McGuigan knew what his charge needed to hear in that crucial minute between rounds, the pair have worked together for the past four and a half years. Their bond has been strengthened by the shared experience of loss. Shane’s sister Danika – known as Nika to family and friends – passed away on 23 July of this year, from cancer-related illness. After the fight, McGuigan told Sky Sports that he and Josh had helped pull each other through their respective pain, Taylor was quick to confirm the statement.

“We both had to block the emotions out,” he said. “We both had to stay professional and just focus on what we were doing. We had to block out our grief. We went through it together. It was a tough time for him as well. We pulled each other through it. It’s been an emotional time.”

The anguish both men had to endure was worth it. McGuigan’s elation was evident as he threw his arms around Taylor as his fighter sobbed upon hearing the result. With all of Taylor’s friends and family waiting for him, you would expected that he would have engaged in a few celebratory drinks after the fight, but this was not the case.

By the time Taylor had finished the press conference, one-on-one media commitments and provided blood and urine to UK Anti-Doping Association and the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association, he didn’t return to his hotel until two o’clock in the morning. Overwhelmed, exhilarated and exhausted he simply wanted to spend time with his girlfriend.

“All my friends were in the hotel, but by that time I was burned out, completely knackered,” he said. “I went straight up to the room and my girlfriend and I ordered pizza, we had to wait to give another urine test and once they were away, I had the pizza and went to bed. I never got to sleep until six, seven in the morning. I just couldn’t sleep. I was buzzing. I was up at nine. I’d had like two hours sleep. I got up and had a couple of beers with a few of my friends the day after.”

As he enjoyed drinks in the hotel, he ran into Prograis. Both men wore large sunglasses in an attempt to mask the injuries they had inflicted on each other. The build-up to the contest had been punctuated by acrimony with both men trading barbs at the final press conference, during which Taylor promised to “Send him back to America like a skelped dog!” However, after 12 hard-fought rounds animosity had been replaced by amicability.

“We were just wishing each other well and just talking about the fight,” he said. “I told him he is a hell of a fighter and it was a great fight. He said he’ll be supporting me when I fight [Jose] Ramirez. It was nice. He’s a cool guy.

“The respect was always there. It was just the competitive nature in us, the will to win. We are both highly competitive, so I think that’s what was coming out beforehand. I always said in the lead-up to the fight that I respected him, but obviously I didn’t show it. After the fight, we embraced each other and talked it out, shook hands and wished each other well.”

By the Tuesday following the fight, Taylor was able to remove the sunglasses. The swelling around his right eye had started to subside and the vision had returned. He had been scheduled to go on holiday with his friends on the Thursday but opted against it as he didn’t feel his body would withstand sustained drinking.

Despite the gruelling nature of the fight, Taylor felt surprisingly pain free. This was in stark contrast to how his body felt after the Ivan Baranchyk bout. The pair met in the semi final of the WBSS, in May. It was the night Taylor became a world champion for the first time. Taylor felt so in control at times that he was “bored”. To make matters more interesting, he decided to stand and trade with his formidable opponent. Taylor won a unanimous decision but paid the physical price for making the bout more entertaining.

“I got up on the Monday and I felt like I’d been hit by a bus,” he said. “I could hardly get out of my bed. My girlfriend and I went on holiday to Ibiza and I could hardly walk as we were going through the airport, she was miles in front of me. I was in a lot of pain for a few days and I was passing blood for three or four days after the fight. It was a pretty tough one on the body.”

Even after having had a few days at home to rest, the enormity of what he had accomplished in just 16 fights hadn’t sunk in. He has beaten three undefeated fighters in a row, having stopped Ryan Martin in the quarter finals of the WBSS, before going on to face the aforementioned Baranchyk and Prograis.

He became the first Scotsman since 1971 to unify two world title belts (when Ken Buchanan defeated Ruben Navarro to add the WBC lightweight title to his WBA version becoming the undisputed champion in the process.) Buchanan was an inspiration to Taylor growing up and he took the opportunity to show his belts and trophy to his idol. He still struggles to fathom that he is now been mentioned alongside Buchanan as one of the best boxers Scotland has produced.

“I’ve had a great start to my career,” he said. “I always believed I’d be world champion, but if you’d told me what I’d go onto achieve in such a short time at the start of my career, I’d have thought you were fibbing! It’s unbelievable. I couldn’t have picked a better route myself. It’s been a crazy, rapid rise. I’ve never had time to think about it. I’ve just been concentrating on what I’ve been doing and going from fight to fight. It won’t be until I get a little bit of time away from boxing that I’ll be able to look back and go: ‘Wow! This is what I’ve achieved.’”

Taylor isn’t one to rest on his laurels. Despite his success, he still wants more. Taylor wants to prove definitively that he is the best super lightweight in the world. To do so, he must beat Jose Ramirez. The London 2012 Olympian holds the WBC and WBO titles, having stopped Maurice Hooker in a unification bout, in July.

Ramirez faces Viktor Postol in February, a fighter Taylor defeated in 2018, and if he comes through unscathed Taylor has his eye on a four-belt unification to determine an undisputed champion.

“I would like the Ramirez fight next,” he said. “I’d really like to go and chase all the other belts, grab them and call myself number one and the best in the division. It’s not in my nature to have easy fights. Hopefully I can get Ramirez because I need something to get up for and that’s one I’ll definitely get up for. It should be relatively straight forward to make. Hopefully boxing politics doesn’t get in the way.

“I think it would be an easier fight, I really do. I think Prograis had a lot more to his game; a lot more variety and he was very hard to hit, he was strong and had the full package. Whereas, Ramirez is a lot simpler to work out.

“It would be great to have it here; either at Edinburgh Castle or Easter Road [Stadium, home of Hibernian Football Club]. It would be amazing. Scotland hasn’t seen anything like that: an undisputed world title fight, in Scotland. It would be iconic.”