Old fight folklore recollects that the legendary Harry Greb once lured rival Johnny Wilson into putting his middleweight title on the line via unorthodox means. No stranger to unconventional tactics in the ring, the man nicknamed the ‘Pittsburgh Windmill’ secured a date with the reluctant champion after publicly hitting all the prohibition era speakeasies from dusk till dawn, whilst apparently demolishing liberal quantities of hard liquor. Wilson and his crew concluded that Greb had gone soft on the high-life and would be in no condition to compete when they finally met at New York’s, Polo Grounds.
Not long after the first bell rang, it became obvious to Wilson and all those in attendance that Greb was actually in superb condition. The Highball glasses that he had made such a great show of knocking back in multiple Manhattan nightspots had contained nothing stronger than water. Over 15 rounds Greb performed with his customary runaway steam engine tempo and meted out a painful lesson to the startled Wilson.
Following an unexpected invitation to challenge the unbeaten Jessica Schadko for the WBC Youth title, along with the WIBA and WBF welterweight belts, Kildare-based Katelynn Phelan pulled off a heist of which Hall-of-Famer Greb would have been justifiably proud.
“We took everything off my Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. Absolutely everything. We totally went into the dark, so they wouldn’t find any film of me fighting [Perhaps another Greb parallel],” Phelan tells Boxing Social.
“It was great to get the chance to be the underdog going into the fight and no one knowing anything about me. But we won’t be able to do that again because, now it has been so well publicised, everyone knows now that we did it.”
This cautious approach was adopted as Phelan and her team were convinced that the opposite corner, prior to offering her the fight via a Facebook message, had looked at her thin 3-0 professional record and drawn their own lazy conclusions. “I have a lot of amateur experience, over 150 fights in total, and I don’t think they looked into that at all because if they did I don’t think they would have taken the fight,” reveals Phelan.
“We did a lot of research on Jessica and we know that if they had done the same level of research on me then they wouldn’t have taken it. They just took one look and completely underestimated me.”
Phelan had originally accepted the fight at just three weeks’ notice. However, a delay to the original September 2020 date enabled her to get a full camp in. Yet despite this additional preparation time and her confident mindset, Phelan does admit to having felt some nerves on the night as she entered a sparsely populated CPI Box Club, in the scenic Bavarian suburb of Danauwoerth, on October 17. “It was very nerve-wracking and scary,” she recollects.
“We only had five people on the team and I was fighting in her own gym, so of course everything was stacked against us. But as soon as I stepped through them ropes I knew this is exactly where I belong. I knew this fight was mine.”
And so it transpired as Phelan dominated proceedings and forced Schadko to quit on her stool after five one-sided rounds. The sweet-faced Irish girl, dubbed the “Smiling Assassin”, demonstrated her warrior instincts from the get-go as she took the centre of the ring and brought the fight to her German opponent.
For Phelan, the result was determined in the very first exchange, along with any notion that she would prove to be a meek pushover. “I reckon as soon as I threw my first jab, she figured it out. Her eyes changed straight away. That was the moment.”
Post-fight photographs show Phelan clutching her first three professional belts. The joy radiating from her is obvious, however, it has still taken a little time for the magnitude of it all to sink in. “It has been unbelievable the number of people texting me. It has just been amazing. I got a promotional video sent to me today and, until I had watched that, it still hadn’t fully hit me. Watching video clips of the fight now actually makes it feel real.
“In fact, it’s totally unreal,” she laughs. “I have so much pride in myself now. I just look at myself holding the belts and I feel so proud.”
For the Kildare youngster, this is merely the latest staging post on a journey that began as a five-year-old. Told by her father that she wasn’t allowed to box, the little girl tired of watching her brothers and a gym full of boys at the Ryston Club in Newbridge and eventually asked the owner if she could join in. “He was like ‘Yeah, no problem, jump in’” remembers Phelan. “So I was like this little girl training with all these boys. I was training with 13 year-olds and my brothers and stuff. I was tiny compared to all of them, but I jumped into the training and haven’t looked back since.”
Phelan went on to have a stellar amateur career, representing Ireland from 13 years old, and winning 10 national titles. In addition, she has collected a bronze medal at both the European and World Youth championships. The now rescheduled Tokyo Olympics would have been firmly within her sights had she not opted to turn over early last year, whilst still a teenager.
This may be a relatively tender age to join the pro ranks, but Phelan feels that it better complements her aggressive go-forward style. “I had started to lose my passion for the sport. I just wasn’t enjoying it as much and needed to make a change,” she admits.
“I went down the pro route because my brother was a pro [BUI Celtic super featherweight titlist Allan Phelan] and the training is based around you and your style. Whereas in the amateurs it’s focused on you and your team. With Team Ireland, it was all about how we could fit all the different styles together into one training session.”
With the ongoing spectre of Covid-19 looming over the world and the boxing community, Phelan finds herself in the advantageous position of being a full-time professional. With television shows in short supply and little hope in sight of live audiences returning to the sport, many of her peers find themselves in ever-increasingly perilous financial positions.
Phelan is grateful for the team that she has behind her, including her coach Niall Barrett and her father, Paddy. It is this solid foundation that seems destined to push her career onward to greater challenges. Despite time being on her side, there is a desperation from the 20-year-old to stay active and to propel herself towards the next career milestone. “I’d love another fight this year,” she says, eagerly.
“But we’ll have to wait and see how lockdown goes and the whole global pandemic. If I had my way I’d be fighting every single week. I just love it so much. But unfortunately, that’s not the way it works, right now.”
Not surprisingly she names Katie Taylor as a key influence and considers her a personal role model both in and out of the ring. Impishly she lets slip that she already has a few potential future opponents in mind before admitting her team “will kill me if she names any of them”.
In the meantime, Phelan (4-0, 1 KO) is clear on her career path and its final destination. “I know damn well I’m going to be world champion at maybe two or three weight divisions,” she says definitely. “I want all of those belts and I know I am capable of doing it as well. I am totally dedicated.”
This last sentence hangs in the air. It is a familiar staple, frequently wheeled out by boxers and other sportspeople. Some of them mean it, others think they mean it; but ultimately crumble. Yet when the “Smiling Assassin” says it you tend to believe her.
Outside of the ring and throughout our conversation, she is the epitome of good manners and politeness. The smiles and laughter are liberally applied, but you get the feeling that once the gloves are on and her feet touch the canvas that the smiles are readily forgotten and the “Assassin” takes over.