Timing is everything. For Josh Taylor and, as it transpires, for me. I was initially scheduled to interview the ‘Tartan Tornado’ around two weeks before the toughest test of his career to date, a WBC super-lightweight final eliminator with Viktor Postol on June 23. Despite his status with the bookies as a significant favourite, a few dissenting voices wondered if, after just 12 professional contests, this crunch clash had arrived too soon. Taylor and I missed each other a couple of times before I made the decision to postpone, concerned that a lengthy and in-depth conversation so close to the fight might prove a distraction. No, that’s an outright lie; my reasoning for the delay was predictably selfish. I felt that by the time the piece was published, the fight would be imminent and the article would falter on the unforgiving rocks of irrelevance; my ego would simply not allow such a (relative) failure.
Taylor, thankfully for us both, faced Postol at just the right time, his late-rounds charge and some astute advice from trainer Shane McGuigan securing a gruelling, high-level victory that was unfortunately not reflected by the wide official scores. Promoters Cyclone, who have been widely celebrated for their matchmaking of Taylor, had made another inspired move. Josh’s 150-ish amateur fights and experience at major international championships, including a Commonwealth Games gold medal in 2014, didn’t hurt either. I was delighted of course, again mostly for myself. A triumphant postscript would prove far more marketable than a preview with a short shelf life. Then, mere days before we spoke, something incredible happened. Buoyed by the best victory of his brief paid career, Taylor doubled down and entered the World Boxing Super Series, an eight-man tournament that will place at stake at least three world belts and feature most of the top fighters at 140 pounds. I had to double check he was still willing to talk, given the demands on his time had just increased exponentially, but I needn’t have worried. Unlike me, Taylor has remained refreshingly humble.
“I hadn’t really been negotiating to go in, I just heard a possibility it would happen if I won,” he reveals. Given my embarrassing difficulty with his thick Scots brogue, I was relieved the intermittent telephone connection would improve during our chat. He is from the Edinburgh suburb of Prestonpans. “We probably got it sorted in the week after, so it’s just gone from strength to strength; it’s getting better and better all the time. I’m back in the gym ticking over already.
“The format of it, the potential to win two, maybe three belts in three fights, and the platform is huge. It’s a chance to become a multiple world champion. It’s been brilliant, obviously my stablemate George Groves is involved in it this time around, and I’ve seen the exposure he’s getting, his profile, big fights; it’s been amazing to watch him come through it, the best meeting the best. The tournament has an American tv deal now as well [with DAZN for the second season]. I thought, ‘If I beat Postol, America will sit up and take notice and I think they have.’
Taylor has another reason to be grateful to the US. It seems their press, on the whole, treated his victory over Postol, a formidable former world champion, more generously than their counterparts in the UK. The 27-year-old does not come across as resentful over this disparity in tone. It’s more a matter of principle was invoked when he noticed selected publications emphasising the inaccuracy of the judges’ scores – a point he is in full agreement with – at the expense of his achievement. The best win of his career had been rendered a subplot to the latest mistakes made by officials. A proud and resolute character, Josh was understandably a little peeved.
“I knew I could do 12 rounds, I’d done it so many times and was flying in the gym, but to actually do it in a fight situation, and to do well doing it,” he begins, explaining his elation with the performance to illustrate why certain headlines infuriated him by later diminishing it. “My strongest rounds were mid-to-late, I won every round from nine onwards and I felt great afterwards.
“The scorecards were far too wide but it annoyed me a little bit, everybody focusing on the cards instead of the actual result; I still thought I won the fight and they cannae take that away. I beat him in my 13th pro fight, and all of them were like ‘What a shame’, or ‘Too close to call’, that was one headline, instead of ‘What an achievement’, then mention the scorecards. It’s a wee bit annoying.
“As for the judges, I don’t know why they do it. The judges shoulda scored it with honesty, I don’t know what they were watching. Eleven rounds to me is absolutely ridiculous. I’m not gonna bulls*** or blow smoke up my own arse. It takes away from the result and the fight, the press making a deal about it rather than the fight.”
And what a fight it was, a strong contender for the most dramatic of the year on these shores. Many observers and, evidently, the bookmakers, felt Postol’s best days were behind him, his prime stolen by the mercurial Terence Crawford two bouts previously and Viktor having then been dropped in the intervening keep-busy matchup. Postol was thought by some to be rigid and upright, well-schooled but one-paced, with fast, agile Taylor tipped to overwhelm him using youth, angles and vitality. The reality proved rather different, the showcase anticipated – albeit not by Taylor and his team – soon morphed into a titanic struggle. Reports of Postol’s decline had been greatly exaggerated and he displayed admirable judgement of distance throughout. His workrate remained impressive until the final third – despite being seven years Taylor’s senior – and he refused to crumble under the latter-stages onslaught. In narrow defeat, the Ukranian showed he still had plenty to offer, while Taylor proved – to himself as much as anyone else – that he belonged at the very top level. Sickeningly trite as it may sound, they were both winners, of sorts.
“I thought the fight was good,” he says, typically understated now our discussion of the media coverage is over. “I learnt a lot in there. It surprised me how sharp he was on his feet, with his timing; he is very experienced. I’ll be going back to the gym and working on the mistakes I made, to keep improving, but I’m happy with the way it went. We were in two minds whether he would try to nick rounds, use his experience or come over and go for it right from the off.
“In the intervals, Shane was saying, ‘Keep relaxed, keep focused, stop loading up. You need to start jabbing more.’ Once I started relaxing I started getting my work off. Early on I was trying to find a happy medium – to be relaxed but switched on – and I was making silly mistakes, sometimes pulling out with my hands down. He was good but he also had that Eastern European sort of amateur style, which I always found very awkward as an amateur, that bouncy awkwardness. Once I tried relaxing and stopped trying to take his head off I was alright.
“I knew if I won I was probably going into the series, and I couldnae go in or fight for a world title next if I lost. The great opportunities I had off that fight, they were laying on my mind a little bit, ‘I’ve gotta win this fight, I’ve gotta win this fight.’”
Fortunately, he did just that and he can thank, in part, an inexorable competitive spirit honed from a very young age. Prestonpans may be an ostensibly tranquil fishing town of around 10,000 residents, but they have a rich tradition of coal mining, of honest toil and standing up for one’s beliefs. Taylor, one of two working-class children born to a receptionist mum and landscape gardener dad, is cut from that same rugged cloth. His parents have fervently supported his ambitions throughout, but he is undeniably a product of his environment and this has bred in Josh an inner steel.
“It’s a lovely little place, and it taught me well; I learnt my fighting here,” he laughs darkly, and it’s clear he’s not entirely joking. “It’s a small town, I used to get in a lot of fights when I was young, and you did have to learn how to defend yourself, to not let people bully you. My family were miners on both sides, tough people, so you learn how to react if someone picked on you.
“Since I was five, I did taekwondo, my uncle instructed it. I got my black belt, I was British champion at a young age, but I eventually lost interest. I was always into boxing, my mum worked at Meadowbank Sports Centre, and [Edinburgh’s former world champion] Alex Arthur used to train there for title fights, so when I was off on school holidays I used to watch him training. I also watched him on TV, had one or two classes, then I was addicted to it. I had been doing taekwondo for 10 years, so I wanted something new and exciting.”
At 15 he pledged his troth to boxing and the ever-alluring siren has yet to let him down, not fatally at any rate. All this time later, Taylor is still loving the sport – though, with a girlfriend for the last eight years, boxing has been relegated to more of a loyal mistress. This is predominantly due to the fact there are always new worlds to conquer.
“I’m absolutely loving it,” he declares and I can hear him loud and clear for the first time. There is no mistaking his enduring passion for one-on-one competition. “It’s always different, a new challenge, something else coming up. It’s pure competitiveness and to become a world champion, look after my family, make sure I’m financially secure. Initially I want to become a world champion and be the best I can be, but I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for my family so I want to return the favour.
“Regis Prograis [who will enter the WBSS should he emerge victorious over Juan Velasco this Saturday] is a good fighter, but I can beat anybody. Everybody’s saying they’d like to see me against Prograis and I like to fight who people think is the best, so him.
“Next year will be a tough year. I’ll be in real 50-50 fights with the best in the world but hopefully next time we speak, I’ll be talking to you as the undisputed world champion.”
Without thinking I reply, “I hope it’s not that long!” I try to explain – the WBC belt, for example, is unlikely to be up for grabs in the tournament – but Taylor is laughing and understands my intentions. He retains a healthy sense of perspective, born in him, cultivated by Prestonpans and now put to good use in what is famously a noble art but a sometimes shady business. He’ll never have a better chance to become a member of the super-lightweight elite, and Taylor knows he must strike while the iron is hot. After all, timing is everything and his time is now.