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Men's Boxing Scotland’s Josh Taylor reaches for greatness

BOXING in its pure primal sense is a sport that lends itself to the works of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. For example: “The higher man is distinguished from the lower by his fearlessness and his readiness to challenge misfortune.” 

Talent and ability aside, in boxing what is it that dictates the difference between those who become world champions and those who don’t, if not fearlessness and the readiness to challenge misfortune?

It’s the difference between hoping and believing, between trying and doing, between the primacy of hope and the primacy of will.

A fierce primacy of will has informed the career of Scotland’s Josh Taylor from his amateur days all the way to now. It has done so to the point where there has long been an inevitability about him becoming a world champion. 

Indeed, all the way through his amateur career, which culminated in him representing GB at the London Olympics in 2012 and taking the gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Taylor has carried the aura of a young fighter who would not — regardless of obstacles or setbacks — be denied.

In Glasgow tonight at the SSE Hydro all the years of hard work, dedication and desire come together in one fight to determine if he can at last lay claim to the mantle of world champion. 

Standing in his way is undefeated IBF super lightweight champion, Belorussia’s Ivan Baranchyk, in a fight that will not only decide who leaves the ring with the IBF strap, but also who goes forward into the final of the World Boxing Super Series to meet Regis Prograis of the US for his WBA title along with the Muhammad Ali trophy.  

Freddie Roach, Baranchyk’s newly appointed trainer, is confident his man will be able to cope with Taylor’s height and reach advantage to gain the stoppage.

“I’ve put a gameplan together to nullify Taylor’s attributes,” the Hall of Fame trainer claimed after putting his fighter through a public workout in Glasgow earlier in the week. 

“I always do my homework and I’ve been studying footage of Taylor for weeks.”

Elaborating, he concluded: “I look for habits in an opponent, bad habits that can be exploited, and he’s got a few. I’m confident we’ll get the knockout.” 

While no-one in their right mind would argue with Roach’s credentials — and certainly Baranchyk with a record 19 fights, zero losses and 12 KOs is no joke — you do wonder if, having studied Taylor’s previous performances, Roach is really as confident as he makes out.

Speed kills and Taylor has an abundance of the stuff. Moreover, the fast hands he was endowed with by Mother Nature now have excellent footwork to accompany them — this after 14 fights as a pro under Shane McGuigan at his London base, who himself has legitimate claim to being recognised as one of the world’s premier trainers. 

Having trained Manny Pacquaio for the best part of two decades, another speed fighter, Roach is well aware that speed not only kills it also makes it difficult for an opponent to take advantage of mistakes or gaps that may suddenly appear in the course of a given exchange. 

That said, it would be folly to suggest that Baranchyk faces an impossible task in Glasgow tonight. In fact, far from it. The Belorussian possesses excellent conditioning, timing and punches with serious intent, ensuring that Taylor will have to maintain a high level of discipline and concentration to make sure he exits the ring victorious.

Taylor’s camp is, unsurprisingly, extremely confident he will do so. Terry McCormack, Josh’s amateur coach at Lochend Boxing Club in Edinburgh, will be in his corner tonight as McGuigan’s assistant.

When I caught up with him earlier in the week, he told me: “Josh has never looked as good. His conditioning, speed, reflexes and power are frightening. Shane’s done a superb job and unless Josh switches off I’ve no doubt Baranchyk won’t be able to live with him.”

Interestingly, McCormack and Roach are old friends, having met back when Roach took on the role of head trainer to another Scottish world champion, Alex Arthur, for a brief period. 

McCormack was Arthur’s trainer for most of his pro career, but after his loss to Michael Gomez in 2003, in one of the all-time classic British domestic battles, Roach was brought on board to augment things.

Both trainers have remained good friends ever since, guaranteeing that mutual respect between both camps will not be in short supply tonight.

Returning to Taylor, not since Ken Buchanan was fighting in his legendary tartan shorts at New York’s Madison Square Garden has Scotland produced a fighter as talented or exciting. 

His job is to win fights and win them convincingly, which up to now he’s done so emphatically. Win tonight and he achieves a dream which he’s held since he was a boy just finding his way in the sport. 

Fighting at home in front of a packed partisan crowd, the resulting pressure could not be more intense. 

Unfortunately for Ivan Beranchyk, Josh Taylor is a fighter that thrives on pressure.

Saunders returns, hungry for titles and redemption

On the same night Josh Taylor goes for glory in Glasgow, Billy Joe Saunders does likewise at the Lamax Stadium in Stevenage for the vacant WBO super middleweight title against Shefat Isufi of Germany. 

If Saunders, making the move up from middleweight, gets the win as expected tonight, he becomes a two-weight world champion at first time of asking, in the process putting himself in the frame for a potential unification clash against Liverpool’s Callum Smith, not to mention possible encounters against Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin.

Since leaving Dominic Ingle to team up with Ben Davison in the same stable as fellow Traveller Tyson Fury, Saunders appears to have flourished, getting himself into the best condition of his career. 

Despite being undefeated in 27 fights, for long stretches of his career he’s carried himself like a fighter going through the motions, lacking any serious intent or discipline. 

But that all now seems to have changed, with the transformation in mindset and application to his craft commendable and remarkable.

That Saunders is an elite-level fighter is not in question. The way he schooled Canada’s hard-punching David Lemieux in Montreal in 2017 over the distance left no doubt of it. 

Outside the ring, however, Saunders by his own admission hasn’t conducted himself like the world champion he was and hopes to become again tonight.

He has in the past instead exuded the ravages of cultural impoverishment and moral turpitude. There is no getting away from the fact that 2018 was his annus horribilis, what with the sickening footage posted on social media of him abusing a drug addict in the street in the company of friends, which earned him a hundred grand fine by the British Boxing Board of Control, followed by a failed drug test in advance of his middleweight clash with Demetrius Andrade, which saw him stripped of his WBO middleweight title and slapped with a six-month ban.

So tonight for Billy Joe Saunders not only is it about bagging a world title at super middleweight and opening the door to an abundance of fresh opportunities, it’s also about redemption.

One thing that isn’t up for debate, as mentioned, is his raw talent. His skills are sublime when he’s in shape and focused, putting him up there with the likes of Alvarez and Golovkin. As for a possible match up against Callum Smith, my word what a fight that would be. 

But first things first, he needs to get past Shefat Isufi tonight in Stevenage.

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