Josh Taylor V Ivan Baranchyk: East Lothian boxer recalls childhood ‘scraps’ ahead of world title fight
In view of unseemly events in the boxing ring this week when one fighter took a bite out of another, I get a bit worried as soon as Josh Taylor, the Tartan Tornado, announces that he’s “absolutely starving”.
But the world title contender from “the ’Pans” has no intention of copying Kash Ali who was disqualified for gnawing at David Price’s chest in an incident recalling the worst excesses of Mike Tyson and our man seems perfectly happy with his high-carb supper.
Super-lightweight Taylor is in his flat in Wandsworth, London, close to the gym where he’s just put in a gruelling double session. It’s gone 9.30 at night and he’s “absolutely knackered” as well.
Everything right now – training, eating, living – is targeted at his May 18 showdown with Belarusian Ivan Baranchyk. His pet staffie Manny doesn’t seem to be on-message, though, and jumps up at him demanding attention. So his girlfriend plunges those aching feet into a basin of iced water – “Christ, that’s cold Danielle!” – and this prompts the mutt to retreat with one of his socks.
It’s too late for the couple’s usual evening downtime of catching up with the boxset of Outlander so instead Taylor tells me via Skype how he hopes to become Scotland’s latest fighting hero.
Did I say hope? This is the Prestonpans, East Lothian southpaw’s prediction for the showdown at Glasgow’s Hydro: “I honestly believe I’m going to be world champion. I’ve believed that ever since turning pro. When it happens – and I don’t want this to come across as big headed – I won’t be surprised.”
And the reasons for his optimism? “I have to win,” he says. Winning for Taylor, 28, seems to be a bit like breathing – a necessity. “I’ve always had to win, at everything, right from being a laddie with the board games. If I was playing Snakes and Ladders with my mum and dad and I didn’t win the board would go right up in the air.
“I’ve always been a terrible loser. I’ve always been super, super competitive. And right now I’m dedicating my life to boxing and this title.”
Taylor may not be surprised if he emerges triumphant next month but he’s not taking anything for granted with a strict code governing training and refuelling.
“There’s a lot of carbs in my diet – sweet potato, rice, avocado, good fats – because I need energy for the gym. It’s two sessions a day, five days a week, then a run on Saturdays.
“There are days when you can’t be bothered and yesterday was one of them. You might be tired or sore and you can’t be arsed training again but they are the times, as soon as you get into the gym, where you must give 110 per cent.”
Come fight night Taylor would not appear to have had too many moments of sluggishness or indecision. Or if he has, they’ve quickly been obliterated, usually along with the opponent.
Fourteen fights, 14 wins. That’s his record since turning professional in 2015, the year after grabbing light welterweight gold at Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games. Little wonder he’s evoking comparisons with Scotland’s last great east-coast pugilist, Ken Buchanan.
Outlander fan Taylor had a rumbustious, happy, carefree childhood in Prestonpans, scene of the first significant battle of the 1745 Jacobite uprising.
“It was brilliant, full of fun and nonsense: playing every kind of sport in the street, playing ‘Armies’ in the woods, building gang-huts, sneaking onto the golf course at Royal Musselburgh and hunting for balls in the rough.”
Dad James was big into bikes so there was a lot of two-wheeled fun. “I rode BMXs and motocross from the age of five. Dad would take me down the bing to scoot around and we went to meets at Knockhill and East Fortune.”
There was a lot of scrapping in this childhood too. “Boys will be boys and I was aye fighting in the street. I mean, I wasn’t a bad kid but I was always getting into these wee punch-ups and I must admit I liked them.”
Initially Taylor found an outlet for this aggression in taekwondo. Tournaments would be a blizzard of bouts and he reckons that all told he fought “hundreds and hundreds”. But he continued to battle in the street.
“The thing was I was tiny – little man syndrome! – but I never let anyone pick on me. I was the smallest in my year at school, all the other boys were huge. They started to get hairy chests but if they tried to bully me I would defend myself. That continued until I was 17, 18.
“But then I started boxing. I got good at evading punches and hitting folk properly. That was a good time to stop fighting in the street because I was developing useful weapons. I grew up a bit and learned how to walk away.”
Before then Taylor had a flirtation with football, winning leagues and cups with juvenile team Musselburgh Windsor as a midfielder and earning a trial with Hearts. “Even though I’m a Hibs fan I wouldn’t have minded that working out. Football’s a much easier life than boxing!”
There was an even shorter flirtation with being a motor mechanic. He enrolled in a college course but lasted just one term. “It was changing tyres and oil, stuff I already knew. I went to work in a garage with my uncle, but standing in the freezing cold under a car one day, I just thought: ‘This isn’t me.’” By then he was well on the way to being entranced by boxing.
Mum Diane, working as a receptionist at Meadowbank Stadium, told him: “Alex Arthur trains here – why don’t you come down and watch?” He rounded up five mates from Preston Lodge High School for these excursions on the No 26 bus although one by one the friends lost interest, leaving Taylor to eventually pluck up the courage and ask if he could join in the sessions.
Down in the range hall underneath the main stand the Meadowbank trainers were impressed – the kid had good timing. He must have boxed before, they said. No, just some martial arts. “So they asked if I wanted to spar. There were a couple of Scottish champions in the hall – I was crapping myself. At first, when guys came at me in the ring, I’d lapse back into taekwondo. The trainers would be like: ‘No, no you can’t kick them!’”
Taylor’s second fight as a pro was at Meadowbank. “The crowd was 1,200 – a brilliant atmosphere.” He was back there for his seventh fight, in a space big enough for 4,000, to knock out England’s Dave Ryan and claim the Commonwealth title. “The crowd went mental that night. I thought the roof was going to blow off. Even in my short career I’ve got great memories of Meadowbank and it’s a shame the old place has been knocked down.”
When Taylor gets back to Scotland between fights he’ll look in at the Lochend club in Edinburgh where he received early tutoring and invariably bump into the craggy legend that is Buchanan. “He tells me his stories about sharing a dressing-room with Muhammad Ali and fighting Ismael laguna and Roberto Duran and he’s inspirational.”
Buchanan never fought in his home town. Taylor, if he earns the right to call himself the best in the world or in his mind when he does, would love to defend the title in the capital and he’s got a venue in mind. “My dream is to fight on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. After the Tattoo’s finished they could leave the leave the stands up, couldn’t they? I can’t think of a more spectacular setting anywhere else in the world.”