“Once you’re world champion, no one can take that away from you.”
In January 1997, Deirdre Gogarty became the first Irish woman to win a world boxing title. She was promised $12,500 for the fight in the United States, but never saw a dime.
With us, it was not the news on the front page. Four months after the fight, the Irish Times ran the headline ‘Gogarty back to evangelize Ireland’ when she was greeted by friends, family and a handful of reporters at the airport with her belt.
But the same newspaper also published articles opposing women’s boxing.
“You get in the ring and give it your all, and there are still people against you, who want to put you down and not allow you to do what you love,” Gogarty said.
Women’s boxing was illegal in Ireland. Gogarty had his first professional fight on Irish soil in 1991, but would never be allowed to do so again.
But there was one person who noticed her – 10-year-old Katie Taylor.
Taylor would become a decorated amateur, win olympic gold. As a professional she won world titles in several weights and is the current undisputed lightweight champion.
But when she was a preteen, none of these options were available to her. Boxing wasn’t even in the Olympics.
Despite this, Taylor still wanted to be a boxer. She wrote a letter to Gogarty and met her at her mother’s house, asking, “How did you do when everyone tried to stop you?”
“If you keep working and showing your skills, somebody’s going to say ‘we gotta let that girl box,'” Gogarty told Taylor.
“When I got the letter from her, I could see the frustration and I could totally relate to it.
“It’s mind blowing. Especially when she writes ‘maybe one day they’ll let us box in the Olympics’.”
This Saturday, in Dublin, Taylor fights in Ireland for the first time in professional. This is the story of the world champion who preceded her.
“No man will ever want to marry you if you do boxing”
Gogarty was 17 when she got into boxing. She moved to Dublin from Meath to join trainer Pat McCormack and hid an obsession with boxing from an early age.
His mother was against the idea and instead tried to get him interested in golf.
Ireland was traditionally conservative in its expectations of women, but Gogarty wanted something different.
“I was raised to be very feminine and caring for others, and respectable. My mom definitely would have liked me to go into a more feminine field,” she says.
“It was too hard. I was really very secretive about my love of boxing, because it was very taboo and a bit unacceptable. So I tried to suppress it as much as possible for as long as possible.”
“No man will ever want to marry you if you go out boxing,” was something Gogarty heard a lot as she spent four years trying to get a fight back home.
Irish boxing authorities put her on a mad rush to get a medical and when she found a doctor who cleared her to box, they suggested she become a judge or referee.
But on June 30, 1991, after four years of searching for an opponent, 21-year-old Gogarty had his first professional boxing fight in Limerick against Anne-Marie Griffin.
Gogarty traveled with McCormack in combat, not telling anyone, not even his family.
“I kept my friends and family life very, very separate from my boxing world,” she says.
“I didn’t want the two to merge because I thought my little boxing world would fall apart.”
The fight was meant to be an exhibition, but Gogarty was declared the winner and the fight remains on her professional record.
Boxing authorities would crack down on women’s boxing and it wasn’t until 2001 – when a 15-year-old Taylor fought Alanna Audley as an amateur – that a women’s fight was again sanctioned in Ireland.
“I just felt like I couldn’t give up”
Gogarty – who worked full time as a graphic designer – had a few “underground” fights in London but was not paid. Women’s boxing was also not allowed in the UK.
So she moved 7,000 miles from her home in Louisiana, convincing a former Muhammad Ali sparring partner, Beau Williford, to train her.
She fought nine times between May 1993 and May 1995. It was an exhausting experience.
“I just had to keep going. I dedicated my whole life to it. I left my friends, my family and my country for it. I just felt like I couldn’t give up until I got that world title between hands,” Gogarty said.
“I hated the idea of other women having to go through everything I had been through.”
In 1996, over a million people watched Gogarty fight American Christy Martin in Mike Tyson’s heavyweight contest against Frank Bruno.
The women were booed as they entered the ring, but the crowd was on their feet to cheer at the end of an epic six rounder.
Gogarty came out of the canvas to go the distance with heavy hitter Martin. She was paid $3,000 to fight on 10 days notice and battled a 15 pound weight difference.
Her trainer put coins in her pockets on the day of the weigh-in to make sure she stayed within the limit.
“I certainly didn’t realize how game-changing this fight would be,” Gogarty said.
The bout would catapult women’s boxing onto the main stage for the first time. Just two years later, the British Boxing Board of Control was forced to allow women in the UK to box after Jane Couch’s legal challenge.
In 2001, Deirdre Nelson of Northern Ireland won a gender discrimination case against the Boxing Union of Ireland which ended a ban on women’s boxing.
Eleven years later, Taylor would be among the first women to fight at the Olympics, winning gold in London in 2012.
“The timing was really important,” Gogarty said of Taylor’s success. There were many heartaches in Gogarty’s career, constant obstacles to the lack of recognition that continues today.
A fundraiser in Drogheda on Friday aims to boost the campaign for a statue honoring Gogarty; it would be one of the few recognitions of his achievements in Ireland.
But Taylor has always named the featherweight as one of his idols.
“I felt like I came too soon,” Gogarty said.
“My coach Pat was always telling me, ‘You’ll be opening doors for women in 10, 15 years’. But I wanted to open them and walk through them.
“He was so right, so they were amazing. But I felt like I was cheated.
“I really feel like I was good enough to fight in the Olympics and get a medal.
“I could have been a multi-world champion, all those accomplishments on my track record. The opportunities just weren’t there, but seeing where women’s boxing is now, sure heals my heart.”