DUBLIN (AP) — Kaci Rock was an elementary school student when she laced up the gloves at Bray Boxing Club. Problem was, there weren’t many other girls.
Katie Taylor trained there, though.
“There was nothing really for girls at that time. I’d have to fight boys when I was younger. I know Katie had to do the same as well,” the 20-year-old Rock explained between sessions on a heavy bag at a Dublin gym.
Rock had idolized Taylor, still does, and stuck with it. She’s now the under-22 national champion in the welterweight division and hopes to fight in the Olympics.
Taylor’s success has been paving the way for young Irish fighters as women’s boxing gains popularity around the world. As a professional, Taylor sells out stadiums as the main attraction.
On Saturday, the 36-year-old Taylor will try to become a two-weight undisputed champion when she faces British fighter Chantelle Cameron at the 3Arena in Dublin. Cameron is putting her super-lightweight belts on the line.
The Olympic debut of women’s boxing at the 2012 London Games was seen as a turning point. Of the three divisions, Nicola Adams of Britain won the flyweight gold, Taylor the lightweight, and Claressa Shields of the United States took the middleweight.
Adams retired in 2019 with an eye injury, but Taylor and Shields have helped elevate the women’s professional game.
In the first women’s boxing match to headline at Madison Square Garden, a sold-out crowd of 19,187 watched Taylor edge Amanda Serrano in a split decision last year to remain the undisputed lightweight champion (135 pounds).
After her session at Celtic Warriors gym in Dublin, Rock explained that she got involved in boxing because her father was a former champion.
But she stayed because of Taylor.
“Katie Taylor is an idol to most boxers, male and female,” said Rock, who currently trains with the national team. “She’s taken on the biggest fights in the world. She’s not afraid of anyone. Everyone looks up to Katie. If it wasn’t for Katie, I wouldn’t be a boxer right now.”
Even Taylor’s British opponent on Saturday credits the Irish star.
“Women’s boxing is flying. If it wasn’t for Katie and Claressa, none of us women would be in this position,” Cameron said.
Female participation in boxing has increased 88% in England since 2017, according to the local governing body. Laura Sargeant, the women and girls officer at England Boxing, points to the Olympics as the driver.
“More and more girls see it and say ‘we’ll give it a go.’ Some will come because their friends have come. Some need more confidence. Some are getting picked on at school,” Sargeant said.
More all-female events are being organized. England Boxing’s first Women’s Winter Box Cup in 2018 was so popular they turned it into an annual showcase. Scotland held its first all-female boxing competition last month.
USA Boxing has announced it will hold its first-ever USA Boxing Women’s Championships in July to “provide females the same benefits as their male counterparts” but also as part of a growing power struggle over governance of the sport at the amateur level.
Taylor’s fight Saturday also features young Irish fighters who otherwise wouldn’t get the spotlight, said Paschal Collins, who owns Celtic Warriors gym and trains heavyweight Thomas Carty.
“She’s giving a platform to Irish fighters,” Collins said. “I’m getting work because of Katie Taylor.”
Another key factor for growth, boxers say, is promotion. Matchroom Sport chairman Eddie Hearn acknowledges he was initially worried about whether Taylor could fill up small-hall shows when they started working together after the Irishwoman turned pro seven years ago.
Broadcaster DAZN reports that women’s boxing “does great numbers.”
“Lots of buzz, lots of demand,” DAZN vice president of marketing Alfie Sharman said before Thursday’s news conference for the Taylor fight.
The broadcaster’s global audience for the Taylor-Serrano fight hit 1.5 million.
“It’s on a massive trajectory. Over the last two or three years alone it’s incomparable to where it was,” Sharman said. “The Madison Square Garden event for us was easily one of the most successful events that we’ve had on our platform, for multiple reasons.”
Back in the gym, Rock said boxing is no longer seen as a niche sport.
“People want to get involved in it now,” she said. “Parents are encouraging their kids now to join a boxing club.”
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