Interview: Josh Taylor on his quest to be world champion
But the world title contender from “the ’Pans” has no intention of copying Kash Ali who was disqualified for gnawing at David Price’s chest in an incident recalling the worst excesses of Mike Tyson and our man seems perfectly happy with his high-carb supper.
Super-lightweight Taylor is in his flat in Wandsworth, London, close to the gym where he has just put in a gruelling double session. It’s gone 9:30 at night and he’s “absolutely knackered” as well. Everything right now – training, eating, living – is targeted at his 18 May showdown with Belarusian Ivan Baranchyk. His pet staffie Manny doesn’t seem to be on-message, though, and jumps up at him demanding attention. So his girlfriend plunges those aching feet into a basin of iced water – “Christ, that’s cold Danielle!” – and this prompts the mutt to retreat with one of his socks. It’s too late for the couple’s usual evening downtime of catching up with the boxset of Outlander so instead Taylor tells me via Skype how he hopes to become Scotland’s latest fighting hero, without recourse to his gnashers or a muckle broadsword.
Did I say hope? This is the Prestonpans, East Lothian southpaw’s prediction for the showdown at Glasgow’s Hydro: “I honestly believe I’m going to be world champion. I’ve believed that ever since turning pro. When it happens – and I don’t want this to come across as big-headed – I won’t be surprised.”
And the reasons for his optimism? “I have to win,” he says. Winning for Taylor, 28, seems to be a bit like breathing – a necessity. “I’ve always had to win, at everything, right from being a laddie with the board games. If I was playing Snakes and Ladders with my mum and dad and I didn’t win the board would go right up in the air. I’ve always been a terrible loser. I’ve always been super, super competitive. And right now I’m dedicating my life to boxing and this title.”
The title is the IBF, currently held by Baranchyk. Victory would then give Taylor a shot at the WBC so he could end 2019 as the holder of two world championship belts. This, according to grizzled veterans of the scene, is the least he deserves, with one long-time correspondent, after last November’s win over Ryan Martin of America, declaring: “A superstar is born... the most phenomenal talent in the British ring.”
Taylor may not be surprised if he emerges triumphant next month but he’s not taking anything for granted with a strict code governing training and refuelling.
“There’s a lot of carbs in my diet – sweet potato, rice, avocado, good fats – because I need energy for the gym. It’s two sessions a day, five days a week, then a run on Saturdays. There are days when you can’t be bothered and yesterday was one of them. You might be tired or sore and you can’t be arsed training again but they are the times, as soon as you get into the gym, when you must give 110 percent. Crappy days like that can be the most satisfying and they’re also really useful. On the day of a fight you might feel not quite at it. You might be nervous. Your body might not have woken up. Your hands and feet are maybe not working right. You need to know what that feels like.”
Come fight night Taylor would not appear to have had too many moments of sluggishness or indecision. Or if he has, they’ve quickly been obliterated, usually along with the opponent. Fourteen fights, 14 wins. That’s his record since turning professional in 2015, the year after grabbing light-welterweight gold at Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games. Little wonder he is evoking comparisons with Scotland’s last great east-coast pugilist, Ken Buchanan.
Outlander fan Taylor had a rumbustious, happy, carefree childhood in Prestonpans, scene of the first significant battle of the 1745 Jacobite uprising. “It was brilliant, full of fun and nonsense: playing every kind of sport in the street, playing ‘Armies’ in the woods, building gang huts, sneaking on to the golf course at Royal Musselburgh and hunting for balls in the rough.” Dad James was big into bikes so there was a lot of two-wheeled fun. “I rode BMXs and motocross from the age of five. Dad would take me down the bing to scoot around and we went to meets at Knockhill and East Fortune.” There was a lot of scrapping in this childhood too.
“Boys will be boys and I was aye fighting in the street. I mean, I wasn’t a bad kid but I was always getting into these wee punch-ups and I must admit I liked them.” Initially Taylor found an outlet for this aggression in taekwondo. Tournaments would be a blizzard of bouts and he reckons that all told he fought “hundreds and hundreds”. But he continued to battle in the street.
“The thing was I was tiny – little man syndrome! – but I never let anyone pick on me. I was the smallest in my year at school, all the other boys were huge. They started to get hairy chests but if they tried to bully me I would defend myself. That continued until I was 17, 18.
“But then I started boxing. I got good at evading punches and hitting folk properly. That was a good time to stop fighting in the street because I was developing useful weapons. I grew up a bit and learned how to walk away.”
Before then Taylor had a flirtation with football, winning leagues and cups with juvenile team Musselburgh Windsor as a midfielder and earning a trial with Hearts. “Even though I’m a Hibs fan I wouldn’t have minded that working out. Football’s a much easier life than boxing!”
There was an even shorter flirtation with being a motor mechanic. He enrolled in a college course but lasted only one term. “It was changing tyres and oil, stuff I already knew. I went to work in a garage with my uncle, but standing in the freezing cold under a car one day, I just thought: ‘This isn’t me’.” By then he was well on the way to being entranced by boxing.
Mum Diane, working as a receptionist at Meadowbank Stadium, told him: “Alex Arthur trains here – why don’t you come down and watch?” He rounded up five mates from Preston Lodge High School for these excursions on the No 26 bus although one by one the friends lost interest, leaving Taylor to eventually pluck up the courage and ask if he could join in the sessions.
Down in the range hall underneath the main stand the Meadowbank trainers were impressed – the kid had good timing. He must have boxed before, they said. No, just some martial arts. “So they asked if I wanted to spar. There were a couple of Scottish champions in the hall – I was crapping myself. At first, when guys came at me in the ring, I’d lapse back into taekwondo. The trainers would be like: ‘No, no you can’t kick them!’ ”
Taylor’s second fight as a pro was at Meadowbank. “The crowd was 1,200 – a brilliant atmosphere.” He was back there for his seventh fight, in a space big enough for 4,000, to knock out England’s Dave Ryan and claim the Commonwealth title. “The crowd went mental that night. I thought the roof was going to blow off. Even in my short career I’ve got great memories of Meadowbank and it’s a shame the old place has been knocked down.”
These days when he fights in Scotland the Hydro tends to be the designated venue, with no diminution in the fervour. “The crowd’s great there too, they just go bonkers and throw every single punch with me.” Last time at the Hydro 6,000 witnessed Taylor’s flashing fists demolish the previously unbeaten Martin who America had expected would become their next world champion. The only disappointment that night was the contest not featuring on mainstream TV. “I’m currently fighting in the World Boxing Super Series and the organisers have done a deal for the rights with YouTube. I’ve got a range of folk who follow me, young and old, and some of them won’t know how to work streaming. It’s been a blow that my fights haven’t had a bigger platform, a kick in the teeth regarding my profile, but hopefully that will change.”
When Taylor gets back to Scotland between fights he will look in at the Lochend club in Edinburgh where he received early tutoring and invariably bump into the craggy legend that is Buchanan. “He tells me his stories about sharing a dressing room with Muhammad Ali and fighting Ismael Laguna and Roberto Duran and he’s inspirational.”
In London Taylor is trained by Shane McGuigan, son of Barry, and this great, too, has passed on valuable advice. “Barry has got me good exposure, the Carl Frampton undercard in Texas for my first pro fight, and I’ve learned a lot from him about operating at the top level, staying relaxed with the media, being friendly and approachable – that way people will hopefully be appreciative of my boxing – and coping with pressure. He’s in the gym in Wandsworth most days. He watches me sparring and says: ‘Give it your best shot, have no regrets, this is a short career’. He also tells me not to be stupid with my money!”
Taylor needs to wind up for the night; he’s got to get those feet out of the basin and under the covers in readiness for yet another double session. The music on his headphones is carefully selected: “Oasis, Motown, some ska, a dance track to get my rhythm going – then I start hitting his pads.”
Soon he’ll be hitting Baranchyk and he says of his fight philosophy: “This might sound a bit vicious but I’ll be doing my best to hurt the lad. I’m in the ring to do a job. It’s him or me. One of us will get hurt and I don’t want to be the guy who’s lying on the floor knocked out or with a pile of broken bones. I’ll nominate my opponent every time for that.”
Life is on hold for Taylor right now. “When I’m training for a fight I don’t see folk for months, sometimes a whole year. I miss weddings, stags, funerals, all kinds of family events – but the sacrifice will be worth it, I’m sure of that.”
Could calling himself world champ top even Glasgow 2014? Taylor has always said that nothing could beat the feeling of winning the gold medal. “It was so special because it was for my country, for my flag. I felt so incredibly patriotic doing it in front of 10,000 mad fans singing Flower of Scotland. I’d been tipped to win gold even before I was selected for the team. I was the poster boy and there was big pressure on me, so to come away with the result and stand on the top podium was fantastic. But maybe that could be topped… ”
Buchanan never fought in his home town. Taylor, if he earns the right to call himself the best in the world or in his mind when he does, would love to defend the title in the capital and he’s got a venue in mind. “My dream is to fight on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. After the Tattoo’s finished they could leave the stands up, couldn’t they? I can’t think of a more spectacular setting anywhere else in the world.”