“It’s hard to say this without sounding vicious, but you want to hurt him,” Josh Taylor suggests quietly on an otherwise ordinary Tuesday morning. “You want to go in there and do as much damage as possible. But, having said that, you hope you don’t do any real damage after the fight is over. You’re just there to do a job. You’re going to hit him as hard, as fast and as often as you can. In boxing you don’t get paid overtime. So you want to get him out of there as soon as possible. You’re not going in there just to tap and move. When you hit him, you want to hit him hard. And you want to hurt him.”
The seriousness of Taylor’s compelling and dangerous world title unification fight against Regis Prograis at the O2 in London on Saturday night is obvious. The two world super-lightweight champions are both undefeated and driven by a conviction they have the beating of each other in the most interesting fight to be staged in Britain this year. It is also the final of the World Boxing Super Series – a tournament which has featured eight of the best super-lightweights in the world. Prograis and Taylor have each won two fights in dominant style.
Taylor is an engaging 28-year-old Scot. His name is not as widely known as it should be but the IBF champion is arguably the most skilful boxer in Britain. He also has a ruthless streak, and the calm way in which he speaks about hurting Prograis sounds ominous.
Yet there is no doubting the compassion Taylor feels for Patrick Day. The young American fighter still lay in a coma, after a brutal bout in Chicago, when Taylor and I met. He died a day after this interview, in another upsetting reminder that boxers really do risk their lives inside the ring. Taylor’s sympathy for Day and his family is profound and, as he tells me a few days later, “I’m so sad that Patrick lost his life. He was just a year younger than me. It puts into perspective how dangerous our sport can be. I want to send my deepest sympathies to his family.”
He also makes it clear, again, that he has no wish to cause lasting damage to Prograis. But in such a hard fight, against the WBA champion, Taylor knows there is no point in sanitising the truth. Prograis is also intent on hurting him and, if Taylor is to prevail against the assured American, he needs to win a ferocious battle. Both men are in their prime. The 30-year-old Prograis has a perfect 24‑0 record. Taylor has won all 15 of his fights. Both have knocked out 80% of their opponents.
“He’s definitely a good fighter,” Taylor agrees. “We are the best two in the world in our division. But I’m better than Prograis. I’m going to prove that on Saturday night.”
This week will be testing. They have to meet each other twice more, at the press conference and the weigh-in, and there has been an edge to their previous encounters. Taylor shrugs it off. “I’m not bothered. He’s not getting in my head. The only thing is that I’m not very good in situations where you have to listen to a guy who talks about beating you up. The way I was brought up, if you have a problem with somebody you fight him there and then.
“In Prestonpans [just outside Edinburgh] you didn’t allow anyone to talk down to you. I was always smaller than everyone. People used to talk badly to me and verbally pick a fight. I would fight them straight away rather than say: ‘Come outside and we’ll settle it.’ If I did that it would give away my size. So I quickly sorted them out. I’ve seen a lot of Prograis during this tournament and the only thing I’d be nervous about is losing my temper when I’m in such close proximity to him.”
Barry McGuigan and his son Shane, Taylor’s manager and trainer respectively, will use all their experience to calm him. Taylor also insists he has seen chinks in Prograis’s cool persona – despite his obvious respect.
“Of course we respect him. He’s a world champion. But there’s definitely no friendship. If anything, there’s a bit of needle. He may be OK with me after the fight. But until then he’s my arch enemy. He’s not pissed me off. It’s just annoying, because he’s so cocky and arrogant. He thinks he’s better than what he is because he’s got a big entourage, telling him how great he is all the time. To me that shows a little insecurity. I don’t need that.”
There is little to separate the two champions in their ring intelligence and will to win but Taylor points out: “I’m bigger than him. I’m taller and with a longer reach. He’s shorter and stockier than me. He might be a bit physically stronger than me. But I can handle that. I’ve got speed and boxing ability over him. I’ve got the reach. I’ve got good timing and footwork. I’ve fought better opponents. I just feel I’ve got the beating of him.”
Taylor has been working hard at the McGuigans’ impressive new facilities at the University of Kent in Canterbury – but does this fight feel more intense than any other? “Not really. I’m real focused and I’ve had the longest camp of my career. This is probably my 15th week in training because the fight was postponed [while Prograis and the WBSS sorted out his contract]. It’s meant I’ve not killed my body. The buildup of fitness, power and strength has been gradual. It’s felt like a smooth transition to peak fitness.”
Taylor’s face only clouds with sadness when he remembers that, in July, Danika McGuigan died from cancer. The daughter of Barry and Sandra, and sister to Shane, Blain and Jake McGuigan, Danika was a gifted actor and only 33. “It was a real shock,” Taylor says. “Danika was a lovely girl. She was larger than life. She was real happy and positive about everything all the time.
“She was always in a good mood, and she would talk to you and make you feel special. I couldn’t imagine how it has been for Barry and Sandra having to bury a child. It’s such a terrible loss.
“I hope that, for Barry and Shane, the boxing helps take their mind off it for a little while. In the gym with the lads, talking about boxing and working so hard, gives them a break from their loss. But we’ll always remember Danika.”
We turn back to boxing and I ask Taylor what he expects of Anthony Joshua, a teammate at the London 2012 Olympics, when the former world heavyweight champion tries to win three belts back from Andy Ruiz Jr in December – after the chubby 6ft 2in American, of Mexican heritage, shocked him in June.
“I’m leaning toward Ruiz again, purely because the way it went in the first fight,” Taylor says. “Joshua couldn’t deal with it. He couldn’t adjust to Ruiz’s fast hands.”
Did he expect that Joshua might be in trouble before their first fight against a heavyweight whose skills and speed had been derided because of his portly appearance? “Not at all. I didn’t even watch it because I thought it was going to last only a couple of rounds before Joshua stopped him. I didn’t know much about Andy Ruiz. I was at the TT [motorbike racing festival on the Isle of Man] and I decided I wasn’t going to sit up and watch it because I’d had a few beers with my dad. We thought about it but we were like: ‘Nah, we’ll go to bed. It’s more important we’re fresh to watch the bike racing.’ I woke up in the morning, saw the result and said: ‘Wow.’ I went on to YouTube and watched the fight before we went out to the racing. It was a massive shock. I don’t think anybody – except for Ruiz – expected that.
“I’ve known Joshua many years, being on the same GB team, and he’s always struggled with shorter, more compact opponents, especially guys quicker than him. And punching down the way he does, he always seemed to struggle with his distance control. He never really looked able to adjust to smaller, quicker guys. I know Anthony pretty well, and I like him, but I think the rematch may go the same way.”
Prograis loves books but Taylor, in contrast, reveres motorbikes. “My dream career was racing motorbikes. I was good at motocross. I was real competitive – getting top-threes in a field of 40 – and had one full season. But my parents couldn’t afford it any more so I found boxing. I still love riding but I haven’t been on a bike for two years because it’s safer to put them away until after the boxing is over.”
Instead of riding himself, Taylor relishes TT racing. “It’s unbelievable – I saw them going round blind bends at 160mph. Of course it’s incredibly dangerous. So I am in awe of the racers and I was lucky to meet some of them. We spent time with Lee Johnston, Hicky [Peter Hickman], Dean Harrison, John McGuinness.
“But the best of them all, Michael Dunlop, was the sanest one. I was really surprised by how approachable Michael was. He comes across as a bit grumpy in the media. But he was real nice to me. He was actually in the middle of fixing his own bike when we went into his tent. He took a good half-hour away from his bike to talk to us. He was asking me about my boxing and all I wanted to ask about was his bike. He was real cool.”
Dunlop lost his father (Robert), his renowned uncle Joey and, more recently, his brother William to racing accidents. The TT might be even more dangerous than boxing – but being in the ring is more demanding than riding a bike.
“You don’t put your body through quite as much torture on a day-to-day basis on a bike,” Taylor agrees. “You can come off your bike every single day and it could be over. But, as a boxer, you’re punishing your body all the time. You feel it most during fight week. It doesn’t help that you’re cutting weight. We do it right but your body’s still dry. You don’t eat much. So the night before the weigh-in’s always the longest and toughest. You’re crabby with people. But as soon as you’ve weighed in, you’re rehydrated and got good food back in, you start to relax. It’s time to have fun.
“That’s why I can’t wait for Progais. It’s been a long camp gearing towards this point. This is the big one, the one that we want to win most. It’s not going to be easy and there will be plenty of hurt – but I’m looking forward to fighting, and winning.”
The Guardian Sport