Five or six years ago, Barry McGuigan was telling anyone who would listen about a kid he had that was going to take over the world. “Calm down Barry,” we all thought, “go easy on the hyperbole.” That kid’s name was Carl Frampton, the current IBF super bantamweight champion of the world.
Today McGuigan is at it again, with another kid, even earlier in his career this time. Such pronouncements in boxing circles should always be consumed with a generous punch of salt but, given Barry’s past record of clairvoyance, his predictions should be taken more seriously than most.
I heard the dull compact thuds of the oversized gloves severely testing the integrity of a padded head guard before I saw it. I had just stepped through the front door of Shane McGuigan’s Battersea gym and, with one wary eye lingering on Titanic, the LaMotta-esque bull dog sniffing my boots, I first witnessed Josh Taylor in the flesh. It became immediately apparent that the beautiful bulky mutt, who turned out to be as docile as they come, was not the most fearsome beast in the room.
The 24 year-old Scottish super lightweight is in preparation for only his second professional fight, yet I watched him bully and batter a seven and one super welterweight prospect around the ring for at least one more round than the visitor’s corner probably should have allowed. I’d say I was impressed, with the left hooks and uppercuts in particular, but that would be nothing more than a huge understatement.
A gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow meant the Prestonpans native was a hot property on the boxing market at the end of last year. All the big boys came in for him early but even as he mulled over their offers, Josh and his father secretly wished Team McGuigan would make a bid. The call came as Taylor travelled down to the Boxing Writers’ dinner in London and while relaying the story to me nearly a year later, he still struggles to hide his glee.
“It was by far the best all round deal,” he tells me over a dish of grilled chicken and broccoli around the corner from the gym. “Everything gets taken care of for you plus it’s a small concentrated camp with just a few select fighters so you get the focused training I was looking for.”
That the training comes from perhaps the best young trainer in the world, and one of his stablemates is knocking hard on the door of the world P4P rankings, is of course an added bonus.
From Barry’s point of view the move for Josh was a total no-brainer and his enthusiasm for signing the young Scot is still evident as he explains why.
“He was the star, the standout talent in the Commonwealth Games and the most impressive amateur in Britain. He has speed, pace, energy and he can punch like hell. Drive is so important in this sport and this guy has so much ambition and determination as well. As far as ability and ticking all the boxes you’d want ticked, this kid has it in shed-loads.”
Perhaps as important as anything, Taylor is a quick learner or as Barry more eloquently puts it, he possesses an “innate boxing IQ.” The willingness to learn coupled with an ability to pick things up so quickly ensures Taylor will continue improving, an asset that is by no means a given with such naturally talented athletes.
At this point the ex-featherweight champion of the world rises to check my own boxing IQ with a brief demonstration of the desired hand position when throwing hooks to the body. Even at the age of 54, and swinging in slow motion in a South West London wine bar, my kidneys shuddered involuntarily at the mere thought of one of those wrecking-balls fists on the end of such long levers catching me with even an accidental glancing blow.
When Taylor fought on the undercard of Frampton v Alejandro Gonzalez Jr. in Texas earlier this year he became the first guy to make his professional debut on a world title undercard away from home. Special dispensation, granted on the back of his outstanding amateur pedigree, was actually required to allow him to do so. It is an indicator of Team McGuigan’s faith in their latest addition, as well as Taylor’s confidence in himself, that such a baptism of fire was arranged and then so comfortably negotiated.
“It was just a great experience to be out there as part of a world title bill and meet the likes of Don King, Virgil Hunter and Julio Cesar Chavez senior and junior,” Josh tells me. He admits to a touch of nerves just before his first outing in small gloves but they quickly dispelled as he sized up Archie Weah and then stopped him in the second round.
It is also a sign that claims of the sky being the limit are more than standard boxing bombast. Barry is even on record drawing comparisons with the greatest of all Scottish pugilists, Ken Buchanan. This is akin to telling a young lad in Panama City that he is going to be the next Roberto Duran so Taylor is understandably reluctant to fully embrace such analogising just yet.
Buchanan is naturally a hero to Taylor who tells me he has been lucky enough to build a close relationship with the great lightweight over the years. “His son, Raymond, was actually my first amateur coach and Kenny would always be in the gym to watch me train. It was brilliant getting to know him and hear all the old war stories from back in the day.”
But while the next Buchanan is, in Josh’s own words, “a very big shout”, do not mistake that for any lack of confidence in his own ability. “I can be the next Ricky Burns or Alex Arthur and bring world title fights back to Scotland. That’s my goal. And if I can be a world champion and achieve half as much as Kenny Buchanan, I’ll be very satisfied.”
Huge glory nights in Scotland are very much part of the plan. In fact, that was another big reason why Taylor chose to sign with Cyclone Promotions. Barry, still an icon in Ireland, knows better than most the value of building up a loyal and passionate fan base at home. He is also fully aware that there is an obvious gap in the market to exploit north of the border.
“With Ricky Burns entering the twilight of his career, they desperately need a star up there and Josh is going to be that star,” Barry says confidently. “I want to have his big fights at home in Scotland. That’s the name of the game, like we’ve managed to do in Northern Ireland with Carl.”
That is music to the ears of a naturally proud Scotsman who sports tartan in the ring and now has the alliteratively pleasing sobriquet the Tartan Tornado Taylor to go by.
Phase one begins next Friday in Edinburgh when the Meadowbank Arena will be packed to the rafters to see Taylor take on a level of opponent substantially higher that the standard journeyman fodder served up to one fight prospects. With a record of 17 wins, 10 by way of knockout, and five defeats, Adam Mate is no tomato can. Regardless, Taylor is expected to blow him away.
The big title fights shouldn’t be too far behind and McGuigan already believes that, Jack Caterall aside, he would have no problem putting Josh in with anyone domestically very soon. Taylor himself says he wants to be challenging for major titles inside two years.
And all on Scottish soil, of course. Who knows, perhaps even the Edinburgh Castle Esplanade could be converted into the grandest of venues to crown and new Scottish world champion.
One step at a time until he reaches those royal heights but for this kid, such is his talent, there may well turn out to be far fewer steps to the top than you might think.