Out of the darkness, and into the light: How Deirdre Gogarty helped revolutionise women’s boxing

By Bernard O’Shea

AS the greatest Irish athlete of her generation, Katie Taylor has constantly pushed the envelope in women’s boxing. The word ‘trailblazer’ often gets bandied about, but Taylor is quick to acknowledge those who paved the way for her success.

“I wouldn’t be in the position I am now today, if it wasn’t for Deirdre Gogarty,” admits Taylor. Gogarty will be the guest of honour at ringside for Taylor’s homecoming clash with Chantelle Cameron, on May 20 in Dublin’s 3Arena.

Deirdre Gogarty may not be a household name, but before Taylor did anything, Gogarty did everything. Gogarty was Ireland’s first female boxer and world champion at a time when women’s boxing was banned in the UK and Ireland. She was a pioneer helping to break the glass ceiling for other female fighters both at home and abroad. Ahead of the Cameron fight, Gogarty wrote an open letter to Taylor, who had first written to her as a 11-year-old with Olympic aspirations. “I’m truly grateful for what you have done for the sport,” wrote Gogarty, “it’s only brought more eyes to all of us trailblazers.”

Speaking to Boxing News from her home in North Louisiana, Deirdre Gogarty sounds more like a Southern Belle than a native of Drogheda, Ireland as she recalls what piqued her interest in boxing, “I was secretly interested in boxing after seeing a clip of Jack Dempsey, but when Barry McGuigan fought for the world title [in 1985] – he totally captivated me.”

It’s easy to forget the immense popularity Barry McGuigan enjoyed on the island of Ireland in the 1980s. In market towns, around the border counties, it was not uncommon for traders to sell pictures of McGuigan alongside religious art of the Pope. As McGuigan-mania swept the country, Gogarty was one of the many young souls swept up in the Cyclone’s march to the title.

“McGuigan was my inspiration for getting into boxing, but I still kept it very secretive,” admits Gogarty, “he was a mainstream topic, which made it easier to talk about boxing but I couldn’t disclose that I wanted to do it.” It would be another two years before she would find the courage to join a boxing gym.

Gogarty’s parents were dentists, her sister was a doctor and her brother an orchestra conductor. Being dyslexic, academia did not come naturally to her, but she was athletic, dabbling in track and field, hockey and tennis. One day while waiting in her father’s surgery she noticed a sign for Drogheda Amateur Boxing Club and, the following day, she introduced herself to the head trainer Joe Leonard, who agreed she could watch the boys train.

Eventually, Gogarty was allowed to train in the gym, and she persuaded one of the male boxers to be her sparring partner. Despite being outclassed in her first spar, Gogarty won the respect of her stablemates. As she lay deflated on the ropes, the rest of the gym chanted, “Deir-dra! Deir-dra! Deir-dra! She later admitted in her autobiography, My Call to the Ring that, “It was the most uplifting sound I had ever heard.”

When Gogarty was 19, her parents separated and she found herself the sole occupant of the family home. With the house becoming increasingly dilapidated, debt collectors at the door and feelings of abandonment, Gogarty decided to cycle to the banks of the River Boyne, the scene of Ireland’s greatest ideological battle, and take a long walk off the short pier near the local fishmeal factory. Ultimately, it was the memory of the young men chanting her name in the boxing club that brought her back from the brink.

When her parents eventually put their house up for sale, Gogarty moved to Dublin to study animation and graphic design in the Fitzwilliam Institute. She later worked for Murakami Wolf studios painting animation cells for a new television series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. “I worked all through my boxing career as a full-time graphic artist,” Gogarty explains, “I didn’t need to box to pay the bills, If I did, I would have been living under a bridge a few times.”

Gogarty also joined St Saviours boxing club, in Dorset Street, Dublin led by the McCormack brothers, Pat and John who once held the British welterweight and light-heavyweight titles respectively. “I didn’t think any club in Dublin would take me in,” admits Gogarty, “Pat saw my passion, my dedication, my willingness to learn and he was a bit of a rebel, so I guess that why he wanted to take a chance.”

Gogarty began training in earnest but admits that she was actively discouraged, even by those closest to her, “Most people’s reaction was – why? Why are you spending all of your time working your butt off in a boxing gym, what’s the point they are never going to let you fight,” but Gogarty remained undaunted, “I felt misunderstood like no-one else could see the vision. I just thought, if I could keep working hard and show my skill, there would be other women out there doing the same, and if I could just keep going, I would have to be given a chance.”

Gogarty’s first two professional fights took place in the garden of a pub in Limerick and the in the basement of a bar in London. The ban on female boxing eventually prompted a move to the US and her link-up with Beau Williford, a one- time sparring partner for Muhammad Ali, and head trainer of Ragin’ Cajuns Boxing Club in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Initially, Williford had no interest in training female fighters, “He told me, ‘I don’t know shit from Shinola about women’s boxing and I don’t want to learn’,” laughs Gogarty. Williford had only agreed to take her on as a favour to a friend in the UK, but over time a special bond grew.

Gogarty experienced a steep learning curve in her first 12 months in the US, fighting Kansas City’s Stacy Prestage three times during that period. In the first fight, Gogarty was stopped on cuts, but the result was later changed to a technical draw when a review by the commission determined the cut had been caused by a headbutt. The rematch, seven months later, in Kansas City ended in yet another draw. Prestage handed Gogarty her first professional loss in their final encounter, winning a 10 round decision for the vacant WIBF lightweight title at a time when the established sanctioning bodies paid little interest to the female code.

Far from home and short on luck, Gogarty was getting to grips with the business end of the fight game. “Leaving Ireland was no easy thing,” she recalls, “I was lonely and homesick and there were a million reasons to give up, but I had invested so much and dug such a deep hole that there was no turning around. I had to come out of it with a world title.”

A second attempt at the WIBF lightweight title in April 1995, ended in Gogarty’s one and only stoppage defeat, at the hands of the excellent Laura Serrano, but just two fights later she received a call that would change the trajectory of her career.

Don King was on the hunt for an opponent for Christy Martin, on the undercard of Mike Tyson’s world title challenge against WBC Heavyweight champion, Frank Bruno in the MGM Grand, Las Vegas in March 1996. “Christy’s matchmaker saw me fight and knew I was a decent fighter, they needed someone good who could go a few rounds with her,” explains Gogarty, “It was very short notice – 10 days, and I only got one sparring session in before that fight.”

At the time, women’s boxing was still considered a novelty act. Martin-Gogarty was the first women’s boxing match to be shown on pay-per-view at an event that attracted 16,143 spectators as well as 1.37 million customers on the Showtime network.

Despite her reputation as a knockout artist, Martin’s highest profile fight up until that point was a draw with Laura Serrano on the undercard of Julio Cesar Chavez-Frankie Randall II. The Gogarty fight would launch her career into the stratosphere and it would become the seminal event in women’s boxing. “We were both getting booed and jeered on the way to the ring, and by the end of the first round the crowd were on their feet,” explains Gogarty. In spite of an 18lb weight disadvantage, Gogarty was determined and aggressive, unloading a volley of punches that put her opponent onto the back foot at the end of the first. “Christy was super confident and she threw every punch with power,” recalls Gogarty, “I was trying to box and get my distance. I caught her with a hook and she dropped her hands and laughed at me. When fighters do that, their opponent usually stops, but I jumped on her because I knew she was going to come straight back. The crowd went wild and that’s when they realised this is a fight.”

Gogarty recovered from a second round knockdown to rally and by the fourth she had broken Martin’s nose, covering her in a veil of blood. Both women showed tremendous heart and skill, trading combinations right up to the final bell. Martin was awarded a unanimous decision, but women’s boxing was the real winner. The fight had convinced mainstream audiences that women’s boxing was a legitimate sport, women began to feature regularly on pay-per-view cards and it opened the door, albeit for a short window of time, for other female stars.

In the immediate aftermath, a despondent Gogarty left the ring heartbroken, “I thought I had blew it. I had my head down and was nearly crying when I met Harry Mullan, long-time editor of Boxing News. He said it was a great fight and I thought he was just being nice, but later when I read his ringside report he said, that when he saw me leave the ring, ‘he recognised the same battered nobility he’d seen in so many great men’s fights.’ It’s compliments like that, that made me push forward and not give up.”

In the weeks that followed Martin became a household name, featuring on the cover of Sports Illustrated and making numerous television appearances. On the other hand, Gogarty cashed her cheque for $3,000 for the fight and went back to the gym, although there was a definite sea change, “It got better,” admits Gogarty, “and the money got better, a lot better for Christy, a bit better for me (laughs).”

Following the Martin loss, Gogarty notched up six consecutive stoppage victories, which set-up a third world title challenge. The Irishwoman put everything into this attempt, even quitting her job to concentrate on training, “It was my last chance,” she admits, “I felt if I couldn’t win the title on my third attempt I was done.” In March 1997, Gogarty beat Bonnie Canino by unanimous decision to claim the WIBF featherweight title. “It was a relief to finally get a world title,” she admits, “It was a validation of everything that I had done.”

In typical fashion, there would be a final sting in the tail, “I quit my job, thinking I was going to get the biggest pay day of my career, ($12,500) but the promoter couldn’t pay any of the fighters on the card. I didn’t get paid anything, but I did win a world title.”

Today, Gogarty lives in North Louisiana with her husband and young son and continues to work as a Graphic Designer. The Deirdre Gogarty Legacy Committee have campaigned for a statue in her honour in her hometown of Drogheda. “It doesn’t get any bigger than that,” admits Gogarty, “Sometimes I feel that everything I did went unnoticed, but now I’m receiving recognition for it. I describe it as coming out of the shadows and into the light.”