Interview: Barry McGuigan: Mild man blues

His father famously sang Danny Boy at the ringside; now Barry McGuigan is going to sing at the Cafe Royal. The former world featherweight champion may be strong, writes Jonathan Rendall, but he's certainly not silent

DRIVING AIMLESSLY the other day, I turned on the radio. It was the Sybil Ruscoe afternoon chat show on Radio 5 Live, and Barry McGuigan was the guest. Nothing unusual about that: in common with most former sports stars, Barry, or, as he used to be known, the "Clones Cyclone", is happy to put himself about a bit in the media. And Sybil likes boxers, so she quite often invites them on to her show. Usually, Barry is a real pro at interviews, but on this occasion he seemed strangely hesitant.

"No I, er, I don't think I should ... "

"Go on," urged Sybil.

"What, now? Here?"

"Oh yes, Barry. You must."

I didn't know what he was being encouraged to do, but I feared for him. When it emerged that he was going to sing, I almost crashed the car.

It was "Tempted", the old Squeeze song. There was to be no backing track, no accompaniment. Just Barry's voice and the barren, judgmental airwaves. I lit a fag in sympathy. Here it came, the first line: "Tempted by the fruit of another/ Tempted but the truth is discovered." Bloody hell, it was going to be OK. Quite tuneful, actually. I started to relax, and so did Barry. "What's been going on, now that you've been gone," he crooned mellifluously, even risking a chord-change flourish on the final "gone". Actually, it wasn't just OK, it was good. Not a sophisticated voice, but an honest, competent one, with a certain emotional resonance that came from ... well, from knowing that it belonged to Barry, the Clones Cyclone? Or from the quality of that voice?

Whichever, it was just as well, because Sybil went on to inform us that Barry was shortly to make his singing debut at the Cafe Royal. So this was serious, then.

After a couple of days had lapsed, I couldn't be so sure. I needed someone to corroborate that Barry had a good voice, so I rang my friend Frank. Being Irish, au courant with boxing and, unlike me, also with music, Frank was uniquely qualified to unravel the resonance question. Also, being unemployed, he would almost certainly have heard the Sybil show.

"Did you hear Barry on Sybil?" I asked Frank.

"Course," said Frank.

"Frank, straight up, does Barry have a good voice?"

"Definitely," averred Frank. "But I knew that already. He was on The Late Late Show with Gay Byrne about a year ago."

By this time, as I told Frank, I had fixed up an interview with Barry. Despite Frank's undaunted view of celebrity (no doubt due in part to his constant exposure to it on daytime television and radio), I could tell he was impressed.

And that is the thing about Barry (or, as he was christened, Finbar Patrick McGuigan, born 28/2/61). He is not just a former sports star. To a lot of people over the age of, say, 28 - women as well as men - he is an icon. Try, for example, shouting out the name "Eusebio Pedroza" in the office or at some gathering - I bet you'll get a response. Not immediately, perhaps, but as memories stir it will eventually come, in the form of the words, "Barry McGuigan, wasn't it?" Eusebio Pedroza was the deadly, inscrutable Panamanian whom Barry defeated to become world featherweight champion at the Loftus Road football ground in west London on 8 June 1985. A crowd of 27,000 was there - a full house - and at least 270,000 more claim to have been present. There were a further 19 point something million watching at home on television - more viewers than for any other British sporting event in history, not including tragic football semi-finals against Germany.

For many of us, the victory against Pedroza was a Kennedy moment. We remember where we were. Me: by a then innovative giant television screen in a dodgy pub in Oxford. Frank, of course, claims to have been there live at Loftus and - the clincher - didn't even have to pay for a ticket.

To put things in context, sport was unfashionable in those days. Art students, for example, hated football on principle. Yet I remember an art student friend, in fact the exemplar of art student dandyism, coming back from a trip to London enraptured. "I saw Barry Mc-Guigan on the King's Road," he said. "He looked at me!"

There were diverse reasons for Barry's iconic status. The Troubles were on. Barry, a Catholic, was married to Sandra, a Protestant. They were childhood sweethearts (they had sat on Clones walls together since the age of four). Barry fought in blue velvet trunks decorated only with the white dove of peace. There were his looks: with his hair slicked back as he entered the ring, he looked like an angel in boxing gloves. There were his old-fashioned, deferential manners. His manager was an Irish bookie known as Barney, except to Barry, who called him Mr Eastwood. There was his father, Pat, who, misty-eyed, sang "Danny Boy" before the first bell; there was Dermot, Barry's devoted, toothy, hyperactive brother, who loyally served as his punchbag sparring partner between fights, and during them hopped about by the corner smoking cigarettes. There was the shortness of it all: it seemed like the blink of an eye, from the heady hysteria of the Pedroza fight to the horror of Vegas in June 1986, where, in heat so fierce that it fried his milky skin into cruel orange welts, Barry lost his title to a Texan, Stevie Cruz. It was about all of these things, but about none of them individually. Barry, Sandra, Pat, "Danny Boy", Dermot, Pedroza, Vegas: what they all added up to was a fated, crystallised innocence.

I had interviewed Barry once before, in 1987, while he was still shadowed by the highest peak of his fame. The photographer and I - both young, unqualified and as yet uncommissioned - had hoped for 10 minutes. Barry gave us three hours. The last was spent sitting dumbstruck in his sponsored car while he played his tape collection, giving us a running commentary on the tracks. It came as a shock to discover that Barry was a young man too; until now, I realised, he hadn't seemed to have a real age, or a real personality, or any real purpose beyond the pure, almost fictional one that an icon has. But there he was - a young man, although one who had always been surrounded by older men, the money men of the boxing business. A great fan of Eddi Reader and Fairground Attraction, Barry was. "Listen to the way she hits this high note here," he enthused, re-winding "Perfect" to the relevant bar for about the sixth time.

Thinking about that, as I drove down to Kent, where he and Sandra now live in an elegant farmhouse surrounded by acres of lovely countryside, it didn't seem so surprising that Barry could sing.

In the kitchen, a creative maelstrom was in progress. There stood a still-trim Barry, his shirt hanging out, slapping his thigh in a ready-to-pounce stance reminiscent of early Van Morrison. Beside him sat Dave, a goateed guitarist in his twenties. Barry was singing a ballad, every note spot on: "The wheel of fortune took me/ From the highest point she shook me/ By the bottle live/ By the bottle I shall fall."

"It's about a boxer called Jack Doyle," he broke off to inform me. Since Barry has always been a teetotaller, it was unlikely to be about him. "He once drew 400,000 people to Haringey. Died in the gutter, totally penniless. Wasn't a great fighter but he was so handsome. It's called `The Contender'. A guy called Jimmy McCarthy did it. Lovely melody. Will you come and have lunch with us at The Dove?"

He resumed singing: "When I die I'll die a drunk down on the street." The audience comprised his 12-year-old daughter, Danika, (one of four children), the photographer, me and, occasionally, Sandra. She and Barry have been together so long that they seem almost to have grown into an organic whole. Speaking to them is like talking to a single brain cross- referencing itself. Barry, it is true, sometimes strays in conversation - one suspects possibly through a tendency towards exaggeration (400,000 at Haringey?) - and on these occasions Sandra shepherds him back into the shared brain. She is also trying to shepherd him down to The Dove, where they are about to stop serving lunch: "I tell you what, you ought to be shifting yourselves."

It was some time before we reached The Dove. First, there was the matter of Jerry Reid, crazed deep South bluegrass songster, to attend to. Barry produced the tape and began his normal commentary duties. "This is kind of extreme stuff . My dad brought me this in 1970. You know the film Smokey and the Bandit? He did that. But when my dad bought me this nobody had heard of the guy." The manic bluegrass guitar began. It was good. "And the lyrics are fantastic!" Barry shouted over the lyrics.

At first the procedure was that Barry, hovering near the tape recorder, did a near simultaneous translation of Jerry Reid's deep South lyrics. But this proved untenable, so the system changed: we would listen to a chunk of untranslated Jerry Reid; Barry would pause the tape and give the translation; then he'd press play again and on we'd go. "I've got a car that's mine alone/ That me and the finance company own," Barry translated, using his own plausible deep South twang. "A ready-made pile of manufactured grief/ And if I ain't out of gas in the pourin' rain or changin' a flat in a hurricane/ I'm spending three days lost on a clover leaf." At one point, while Barry ferreted around for a Reid song called "Amos Jones", Dave struck up some bluegrass licks of his own. "Check it out," Barry advised over his shoulder. "Top player."

After I'd checked it out, I asked Dave how he and Barry had got together. "We met three years ago at a restaurant called Johnny Foxes," Dave said. "It's the highest restaurant in Ireland." Before I could press Dave on whether "highest" meant physically the highest, or was some Irish or muso vernacular, Barry shouted, "Here's the Amos lyrics!" and we were off again, all hoe-downing it with some abandon by this point, led by Barry. "`Now everybody blames his old man/ For making him as mean as a snake/ When Amos Jones was a boy/ His Daddy used to use him for alligator bait ... ' Let's do a few more! ... Here's the Henry Ford lyrics!"

At The Dove, over his usual lunchtime order of the avocado and bacon salad, without the bacon, and a Coke, Barry, cross- referencing with Sandra, explained how his life had been soaked in music from day one. His father, Pat, was a proper professional singer, long before the "Danny Boy" pre-fight cameos. He won the Irish national song contest in 1968 and finished third in the same year's Eurovision. In 1969, in Malta, Barry informs me, David Bowie was his dad's warm-up act ("It's Bo-ee, Barry," Sandra corrects).

"I remember cleaning the shoes in the showband," Barry continued. "And when he was in a band called Cecil Kettle and the Skyrockets, I used to clean the band's clothes. I'll never forget it. They were sand-coloured." "Do you remember when they had the blue suits with the black shirts?" enquired Sandra. "No, no, darlin', that was the Seventies," said Barry firmly. "What they had was dark brown shirts with, like, tan tops and no collars on the jackets."

Once he was in the ring, he blocked out the sound of "Danny Boy": "I never listened. You're right on the edge of breaking into tears already. You're holding it in. Your adrenalin is screaming. I just said a simple little prayer to myself, over and over and over again. I didn't listen to it, but I needed it."

On the night of the Pedroza fight, Pat McGuigan was judged by many to have made an uncharacteristic balls-up of "Danny Boy", but Barry explains that at the soundcheck earlier that day everyone had forgotten that there would be a 27,000 crowd later on.

"He didn't have the ear-things they have now. He couldn't hear a thing. Then he heard a note so he started, but he was about half a verse behind. He tried to catch up and by the end it was almost right."

That night, as the week-long celebrations began in Clones, the McGuigan family house burnt down. Barry: "They were burning a holy candle on top of the TV. What happened was that they went to bed and the candle melted down, into the back of the TV and all the electrics had ..." Sandra: "You can't say that, Barry." Barry: "No, I can't say that. We don't know that." Sandra:"What happened was the surge in electricity used in the town actually overdid the whole area. A lot of television cameras were in the house that night, all plugging in and ... " Barry: "But there was a candle on top of the TV." Interceding, I asked, yes, but was there a candle there every night? It seemed the pertinent sleuth question. "Yes, and it had never happened before, so it couldn't have been that," Sandra replied, quickly. Barry offered: "It could have been divine intervention."

The night that Barry lost in Vegas, his dad was booked to play a celebratory set in Caesar's Palace lounge. He honoured the booking. "It was very difficult for him but he still sang. He was a professional."

The fame was harder for Sandra than for Barry. "Do you remember when I had the miscarriage, Barry? I was at the hospital waiting to see if I'd lost the baby or not. I was very traumatised, and this trainee doctor says, `I really am in awe of your Barry, you know.' He started talking about all his fights and everything."

Barry says, grimly, "They should find out where he is and sack him."

Barry's life has been beset by trauma. He killed an opponent, Young Ali, in the ring in 1982, and dedicated all his later fights to him. Danika was diagnosed with leukaemia, but is now on the mend. Dermot committed suicide in 1994. Pat had died seven years before. And that's why, although I like the mad bluegrass stuff, I think that, in "The Contender", Barry McGuigan may have found himself a very special song.

The wheel of fortune took me

From the highest point she shook me

By the bottle live

By the bottle I shall fall

This, metaphorically or literally, is the story of almost every champion boxer you can think of. But not of Barry: he has come through. He's still got his money, his wife, his kids, his mind. He was in the horror, but he's not of it. So no one else can sing "The Contender" quite as he can. I intend to watch him sing it, probably with my friend Frank, and I doubt either of us will care much where the resonance comes from, as long as Barry hits the right notes.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future