Headliners: Katie Taylor Takes Thrilling Split Decision Over Amanda Serrano

Christy Martin punched like hellfire but looked like a Dollar General assistant manager. Laila Ali was a lovely scrapper with a world-class pedigree — but was she an all-timer or a paper tiger? Today, Ebanie Bridges leans into her looks with top-heavy gusto, and “The Blonde Bomber” is eviscerated on social media — almost exclusively by men, it should be noted — for failing to somehow simultaneously embody the elemental qualities of both Gal Gadot and Sugar Ray Robinson.

It’s been the plight of women boxers for … well, for as long as women have boxed: fight like a man, flirt like a woman. Be authentic and be beautiful. Have fun — but not too much of it. Also: Despite the historically shallow talent pool in the women’s ranks, make sure to fight in a division at which you’ll be challenged by another X-chromosomed colossus, thereby cementing your legacy as a “real” fighter. Easy-peasy.

And that, friends, is what made Saturday’s main event at New York’s Madison Square Garden befitting of the mantle of “The Greatest Fight in the History of Women’s Boxing” even before the clanging of the opening bell. Because the lightweight matchup between Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano — the first women’s headliner ever at MSG, which drew a sellout crowd — covered every imaginable base, removing every wisp of oxygen that might sustain its critics. And when the fighters were finished, with Taylor (21-0, 6 KO) eking out a dramatic — but fair — split-decision victory, and with Serrano (42-2-1, 30 KO) celebrating both her opponent and women’s boxing in the immediate aftermath, the event had somehow managed to exceed even the grandest expectations.

It helped that the fighters hailed from boxing-bonkers locales (Taylor from Ireland; Serrano from Puerto Rico and Brooklyn). It helped that a bunch of belts, for whatever handful of magic beans they might be worth, were on the line. And, yes, despite the obviously problematic river of patriarchal bullshit that runs through it, the fact that both women reveal a public sweet side and are objectively easy on the eyes certainly helped build the fight, too. Here, though, was the payoff: none of it mattered. When referee Michael Griffin delivered his instructions at the center of a venue lionized for its boxing lore and now turned up to 11, the focus of the fight receded to the exact proportions of the ring canvas — precisely where it belonged. Serrano grinned through her gumshield and shouted across to Taylor, “This is crazy!” For a moment, Taylor broke character, savoring the scene: More than 19,000 had turned out to holler their lungs raw in anticipation of a killer prizefight between a sublime technician and a posthole puncher. And then the fighters gave it to them.

Taylor controlled the early action, deftly moving around the ring, maintaining distance and poking at Serrano with her jab and a couple of counter left hooks. It was effective, if not epic, and Serrano’s efforts to pin her opponent on the ropes or corner her long enough to get off her own arsenal were initially frustrated. Still, as early as the second round, Serrano made clear that her thunderous left hand — and even her jab — delivered the kind of power that could be a difference-maker in the fight.

In the 4th, Serrano began breaking through. Few of her biggest headshots landed clean, but they were heavy and frequent. A cut formed over Taylor’s right eye. If the Irishwoman wasn’t fazed by Serrano’s power, thudding shots to the body and constant forward pressure, her 35-year-old legs absolutely were.

It was never more noticeable than in the 5th, when the southpaw Serrano used her jab to set up Taylor and back her into a corner, where the Puerto Rican unloaded a barrage. By the time Taylor worked her way free, she appeared gassed with more than a minute remaining in the round. Serrano’s pressure and body work were already paying off, as Taylor’s feet slowed and her hands dipped. A short left cross from Serrano buckled Taylor’s knees and prompted her to back out. When Serrano followed, Taylor seemed to sense her wheels failing. Squaring up may have been a last resort — just not a good one. When Taylor wobbled to a halt, Serrano set her feet, laser-sighted a three-punch combination and busted open Taylor’s nose.

Now bleeding and reeling, Taylor began absorbing all those big shots Serrano had been missing with in the early rounds. If Taylor was going to hang on through the round, she would have to literally hang on — and so she did, falling forward, clinching, tying up and otherwise holding on to Serrano for dear life. With just enough time to collect herself, Taylor was able to stick, move and survive the rest of the round. The decision almost certainly spared her a knockout defeat.

Which is what made Serrano’s choice in the 6th so strange: The Puerto Rican took her foot off the accelerator. Perhaps she had punched herself out in the previous round. Maybe she was cautious of making an overeager mistake. But Serrano’s relative inactivity would cost her. Although she won more of those middle rounds that followed, Serrano gave Taylor the space to recover her legs and her wits — arguably her two greatest strengths.

By the 9th, Taylor had found her preferred gear — let’s call it third — peppering the tiring Serrano with punches, stepping away, then timing another combination before the Puerto Rican could properly load up. Taylor had tasted the worst of Serrano’s fury, and she seemed to realize she was most vulnerable to it while doing the least. Working in and out of the pocket, occupying Serrano, outboxing her — not just outmaneuvering her — was the way.

The action over the last two rounds was the capper the fight deserved, and legitimized the Fight of the Year buzz that immediately followed. The fighters threw 248 punches between them during the four-minute stretch, Taylor opened a cut over Serrano’s right eye to match her own, and their collective skill and spirit at the end of a gnarly, knackering fight made it the match of any men’s scrap in 2022. Probably more.

This, above all, was on Serrano’s mind during the post-fight formalities. After she slipped an arm behind Taylor’s back, Taylor returned the gesture and the fighters toured the ring, waving to the crowd — all before the scores were announced. (96-94 Serrano, 97-93 and 96-93 Taylor, by the way.) “We put on a helluva show,” Serrano said. “Women can sell. Women can fight.”

They did, and they do. Now, will they choose to run it back? There would be no bigger fight for Serrano, who undoubtedly would jump at a chance to close the business she left unfinished in Round 5. Taylor has never ducked a challenge. But at 35, and after taking (albeit surviving) an unprecedented battering against Serrano, would she be willing to walk back into the fire.

These things have a way of getting decided by cooler heads and strategic numbers of zeroes. But when Taylor was asked about a rematch, her response reflected the same mettle — hell, why not: the same balls — she’d demonstrated over her previous 10 rounds in the ring with Serrano: “Let’s do it again!”

(Photo by Ed Mulholland)