If you are interested in watching a sports documentary that provides a no-punches-pulled account of its subject, then Josh Taylor: Portrait of a Fighter should be on your list.
The hour-long film screened yesterday on BBC Scotland and lived up to expectations. The Ad Hoc Films production was directed by Tom Magnus and followed the Scottish boxer for six months prior to his February encounter with Jack Catterall. Even people who only casually follow boxing are probably aware that the outcome of that bout was viewed as controversial. Taylor did not box to the level he had in his previous fights – becoming undisputed light-welterweight champion in just 18 fights – against Catterall. I hoped this feature would deliver some answers about how Taylor's preparation for Catterall truly went.
Using a three-part structure, the audience is introduced to the area Taylor grew up and his immediate family before we travel with the boxer to his training camp. The film concludes with the Glasgow fight night against Catterall and its aftermath.
Josh Taylor is proud of his roots. He comes from the small mining town of Prestonpans, located eight miles east of Scotland's capital, Edinburgh. Taylor still lives close by and talks about growing up in the town as he shows the film crew around. He discusses how he always asks ring announcers to introduce him as being from Prestonpans instead of just shouting out that he is from Edinburgh. He has certainly put his hometown on the map.
We meet his parents, James and Diane, who talk about the young Josh Taylor – highly competitive in everything he did, even eating breakfast cereal – and they offer an insight into the boxer's working-class upbringing, which saw both parents working two jobs to adequately provide for Josh and his younger sister. The film also features Danielle Murphy, Josh's fiancée, at the time of filming. Danielle offers insight into being the partner of a professional sportsperson who spends large amounts of time away from home each year. The difficulty of this is hammered home as Danielle talks about her father passing away while Josh was away in training camp. Taylor also discusses this on camera and is visibly still mentally scarred from not being able to be there for his partner when she needed him most.
From here, we got the first glimpse of Taylor in training camp. Training with Ben Davison, the fighter moves almost 400 miles to Harlow, Essex, in the south of England, to begin preparing to defend all of his titles against Catterall. The timeline presented in the film suggests this would have been September last year, four months after Taylor became undisputed champion by defeating Jose Carlos Ramirez in Las Vegas.
The beginning of training camp wasn't pretty, with Taylor needing to ship some weight. The fighter joked with the camera crew about his“pizza belly” and “dad body.” Joking aside, he then revealed that he was in excess of 170lbs. Not ideal for a 140lb fighter. The champion was clearly struggling physically. The work was getting done but not to the standard Taylor expected from himself. The boxer mentions his frustrations regarding this on camera, feeling drained of energy and wanting to train like crazy in order to improve his fitness quickly. Trainer Davison advises sticking to the plan to avoid injury.
First day back in the gym yesterday with The boss @BenDavison_ . What a fat arse I am 😆 all that pizza, Chinese and fancy dining has earned myself a wee dadbod 🤣 There’s dynamite in those hands. Watch this transformation 💪🏼👌🏼 #TTT #Dec18 #AndStill #HeavyHole pic.twitter.com/MZ5j8toq4G
— Josh Taylor (@JoshTaylorBoxer) September 14, 2021
Unfortunately, the injury is not far away, and the original fight date of December 18, 2021, needs to be pushed back to February 26, 2022, after a knee injury flares up. Taylor reveals being unable to run or lift weights properly because of this. The training camp struggles are amplified by the boxer's inability to shake off a chest infection – a carryover from a bout of Covid. Watching a world-class fighter coughing and spluttering in the ring as he attempts to spar or hit the pads with his trainer does not make for pleasant viewing.
Taylor openly admits that coming into the camp in less than good conditions has probably contributed to his ailments, especially the knee injury. He goes on to talk about the reality of a training camp: “I'm gutted at the fact I can't fight the week before Christmas. Having to cancel Christmas and keep training and keep dedicated. It's hard – everybody says, ‘Oh, you're so lucky, you're doing this, you're doing that,' but you're away from family, away from friends and home comforts, my fiancée. Putting your body through a whole lot of torture and pain. You're kind of miserable at times. It's not all big lights and glamorous stuff. It's a very hard way to earn a living.”
Taylor's thoughts on the positive impact participating in sport can have on communities is a theme that presents itself from time to time in the film. The boxer is shocked to see the area where he used to play football with his friends as a youngster no longer open and free for young people to use. Now it is behind an intimidating-looking iron fence. Taylor goes along to his old amateur gym, Lochend Amateur Boxing Club, and himself and gym founder Terry McCormack lament the fact that gyms remained locked while establishments like McDonalds and KFC were allowed to reopen during the COVID pandemic.
Taylor also had an encounter with a young man with autism who, since going along to his local boxing gym, was beginning to thrive. The boxer was clearly moved by this and expressed his delight for the teenager while commenting on how much good boxing does for individuals and, as an extension, wider society. It made me wonder if Josh Taylor will get involved in training kids or opening his own boxing gym after he hangs up his gloves.
Back to the present day, we saw Taylor, after a jaunt to Las Vegas to train, wrapping up his camp in Essex ahead of the rescheduled February date. The boxer still looked unhappy with how things were going – turning the air blue with his analysis of the quality of his work. Soon it would be time to weigh in. The hours before hitting the scales were caught on camera and made for uncomfortable viewing. Sweating off the last couple of pounds in his hotel room, Taylor looks skeletal, lying under many blankets, presumably with the heating on full blast. After confirming he was under 140 on the scale in his room, Taylor took a seat, looking more like a long-term hospital patient instead of an athlete who would be boxing the following evening.
In every sense, it exposed the confidence Taylor exuded at the pre-fight press conference. Back then, he had talked about how well camp had gone – what boxer doesn't – and he would be at the absolute top of his game come fight night. Of course, this has to be said to keep the opponent wary, but it was alarming just how far from the truth these words actually were. The film proves that the training camp had not gone well at all.
As most readers will know, the training camp issues carried over into the fight. Catterall presented a tough challenge on the night, and many observers thought he deserved to get the decision on the scorecards. It was Taylor, though, who was awarded the win by split decision. Portrait of a Fighter contains enough footage of the fight to convey Taylor's fight night frustrations and struggles.
In the locker room after the fight, Taylor is filmed receiving stitches above his right eye in a separate area from the rest of his team. It looked a lonely place to be as he muttered to the medical professional about being “pissed off” with his showing. Taylor offered some hints on the next phase of his career by stating his ambition to move up and win titles at welterweight. He also admitted he has a desire to rematch Catterall in order to prove the doubters wrong.
The film ended on something of a grim note as Taylor and Danielle; now, his wife discussed the abuse they suffered on social media in the aftermath of the Catterall fight. Death threats left the fighter and his family shaken up. Social media offers us all a chance to get closer to boxers and interact with them. It disgusts me to learn how many people use it as a tool to abuse and threaten people in the public eye. It is a sad reflection on large parts of society.
Overall, the documentary presents a hugely honest account of what a boxer, and those closest to them, go through before, during, and after a fight. The access afforded to the film crew was well used, with Taylor being comfortable enough with them to speak candidly about the sporting side of his career and life in general.
Portrait of a Fighter is presented straightforwardly with no artifice. The harsh realities of life as a professional boxer, even for one who has reached the pinnacle of the sport, are not sugar-coated in any way. I highly recommend that all boxing fans watch this film when you can find a free hour. Even if you aren't a fan of Josh Taylor, watching this documentary should lead you to respect him and, by extension, all fighters even more for what they put themselves through to make a living and provide entertainment for those of us who watch the sport.
Josh Taylor: Portrait of a Fighter is available on the BBC iPlayer.