Barry McGuigan: 'Every fighter has a story that could break your heart'

A quarter of a century after he thrilled Britain and Ireland by winning the world title, the Clones Cyclone opens up on the peace process and why he had to carry a gun. Alan Hubbard meets Barry McGuigan

"The trouble with boxing," says Barry McGuigan, "is that too often it ends in sadness. Every fighter has a story that could break your heart. We lose, we get hurt and everything comes apart. That's when it's so difficult to stay on the straight and narrow. Old fighters slip back into the game because it's so addictive, or they take to drink and drugs and end up being the opposite of what they were."

The former world featherweight champion has always been something of a fistic philosopher who has managed to avoid that bleak route to self-destruction. Britain has never produced a more lucid exponent of the dark trade than the charismatic Irishman who made hearts soar and voices sing when he won the world title on an unforgettable night at Loftus Road 26 years ago this weekend.

Moreover, the Clones Cyclone emerged with his faculties intact and his popularity undiminished, comfortably enough off to send all four of his children to public schools, live happily ever after in a splendid Regency home in a picturesque Kent village with Sandra, the teenage sweetheart to whom he has been wed for 30 years, and remain an icon to all who seek a better life from boxing.

It has helped that McGuigan, now 50 and retired for 22 years, has always had the gift of the gab. There may be a bit of the blarney but essentially he is someone who is conscious of the power of words in a world where fists are expected to do most of the talking.

Yet only now has he decided to put several thousand of them on paper, waiting until his half-century before penning his autobiography and bucking the fashionable trend of so many sports personalities who regale us with trite tomes about careers which have barely begun. The result is a measured reflection of the life and times of a man who, like his own hero Muhammad Ali, has transcended his sport through who he was and what he did out of the ring.

There is no sleaze, no headline-seeking scandal. "I've spent my life navigating through sensitive issues. Not wanting to upset people," he tells me. Controversial it isn't, he admits, surprisingly adding: "If that's what you are expecting, don't buy the book."

Yet tucked away on page 93 we find an astounding revelation about a man whose personal life is so unblemished he could be the Mary Poppins of pugilism. Back in 1985 he carried a gun. "Ah yes, the gun," he muses, explaining that it came at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland when he was told that the Republicans had put a price on his head, and that there was a plot to kidnap him.

"It came at a time when people were disappearing, and not long after the Shergar business [when the racehorse was kidnapped]. I was issued with a gun and police taught me how to use it, but the truth is I couldn't hit a barn door. I was a terrible shot. I also had plain clothes police with me everywhere in case I was nabbed.

"My suspicion was that it was all about ransom, trying to raise money for terrorist activities. But because of my popularity and non-political stance, kidnapping me had the potential to backfire. Yet when I look back now on some of the things I did and said, I was lucky to come through it unscathed."

His paternal grandfather had been a captain in the IRA in the 1920s but McGuigan says: "From the outset I always promoted peace and reconciliation from a position of neutrality." He has a United Nations Inspiration for Peace award and on the jacket of his book Bono writes: "At a dark hour in Ireland Barry McGuigan's spirit shone a light towards peace."

"I had broken all the rules in one of the most divided towns in Northern Ireland, a Catholic who married a Protestant, an Irishman who fought for the British title. There were people dying of bullets and bombs and so much depression. It was very important for me that I didn't wear colours or play any anthems. My father sang 'Danny Boy' on the night I fought [Eusebio] Pedroza for the WBA title and I wore the UN flag of peace on my shorts. I knew who I was and where I came from.

He adds: "What has happened now with the peace process is just amazing. If anyone had told me 25 years ago that the Queen would be cheered in Dublin and that Gerry Adams, Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson would put their arms around each other, I would have said 'put that man in a padded cell'. Of course, it worries me that there's still some bitterness, polarisation and division but what is happening now has to be the way to go.

"I always felt a responsibility to help create a harmonious situation. When I beat Pedroza, 12,000 Irishmen flew to London, there was a TV audience of 19 million and a crowd of 75,000 on my return to Belfast airport, Catholics and Protestants together.

"It was in 1987, the year my father died, after I had lost my title in Las Vegas, that I decided to move the family to England. It was a bit of a wrench. I've been back several times to see the house Sandra and I lived in. The roads are no longer barricaded, and now I'm involved in a schools organisation called Integrated Education, which is the very essence of a shared future; putting kids of different faiths together when they are about four years old and haven't formulated their opinions and can grow up together."

McGuigan has lived through troubles of his own. While he earned plenty, investing it wisely, there was a costly lawsuit after an acrimonious split with his former manager Barney Eastwood, his devastation at the post-fight death of one of his opponents, Nigerian Young Ali, in 1982, and the suicide of his brother Dermot, as well as his daughter Danika's battle with leukaemia, with which she was diagnosed at 11. She recovered and is now an actress.

"I still think of Young Ali every day, wondering about his wife and child. I knocked him out in the sixth round and he never recovered. It had a dramatic effect on me. I really didn't want to fight on but I did, and in my next fight I honestly pulled my punches. I had the guy in trouble and he was expecting me to finish him off but instead I hesitated and he nearly took my head off with a left hook. I realised I had to get the job done but I cried in the dressing room afterwards."

McGuigan is still fighting on several fronts, including for the cancer charity Click following Danika's leukaemia. The little man whose name has even gone into Cockney rhyming slang (a "McGuigan" is a big 'un) has plenty of work as a TV pundit and has "fingers in many pies", especially after winning Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen "though I couldn't cook a bloody thing".

The man who founded the pugs' trade union, the Professional Boxers' Association, remains immersed in the sport. He has opened four academies, where the emphasis is on educating minds as well as fists, and mentors the unbeaten Belfast bantamweight Carl Frampton ("the best prospect I've seen in 30 years") who was in an eliminator for the British title on a show that McGuigan himself co-promoted with Barry Hearn's Matchroom in Cardiff last night.

Until recently he schooled his son Shane, 22, a talented amateur who has taken a sabbatical from the ring and is studying for a degree in nutrition. "I don't think he'll box again. He doesn't have my obsessive genes and I think he found the McGuigan name a bit oppressive. But he's gone into personal training. He'll be an amazing coach – he's brilliant with Carl – and I'm sending him over to work with Freddie Roach.

"Boxing is changing and training methods are slowly being dragged into the 21st century. The amateur game in particular needs professional coaches, which is why I find banning the likes of GB's Robert McCracken from the Olympics so stupid. Who are these people to deny young boxers the best possible expertise in their corner? Rob is a great coach and I don't see why his position should be made vulnerable by a bunch of blazers who have dug up a silly and archaic rule. What is their motive?

"What excites me is how many talented kids there are out there. I'm very enthused about 2012 and I'll be surprised if we don't win a handful of medals."

However, he says the professional game is "going bonkers" with governing bodies creating a plethora of meaningless titles. "It confuses the public and demeans the sport. If we want boxing to be around in a hundred years there needs to be one governing body, one set of rules and one world title."

Wearing his pundit's hat McGuigan surprisingly tips David Haye to clobber Wladimir Klitschko on 2 July. "It would do boxing the world of good. The Klitschkos are intelligent, but they are mechanical. Haye's cheeky, an exciting devil. I feel sure he'll knock him out once he gets past that long jab.

"I may be in my dotage but I'm still young enough to remember what it's like to take a bit of leather in my mouth, to feel aches and pains, push myself to the limit. I've been there, I've felt it."

'Cyclone: My Story' is published by Virgin Books, £18.99

Life and times: The Mary Poppins of pugilism

Name Finbar Barry McGuigan.

Born 28 February 1961, Clones, Co Monaghan. Now lives in Dargate, Kent.

Record 35 pro fights: won 32, lost 3.

Titles All Ireland amateur (1976); Commonwealth Games bantamweight gold (1978); British featherweight (1983-84), European featherweight (1983-84), World Boxing Association featherweight (1985-86).

Family Late father Pat finished fourth in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1968. Married to Sandra for 30 years. Four children: Blain, 28, a politics graduate; Danika, 25, an actress; Jake, 23, assists Barry in boxing promotion; and Shane, 22, an Ulster amateur boxing champion, now a trainer.

Other interests Boxing analyst for BSkyB, formerly with ITV. Won Hell's Kitchen reality TV show, earning plaudits for potato dish "McGuigan's Mash". Established the Professional Boxers' Association in 1993, is involved in the rehabilitation of ex-boxers and has set up his own boxing academies.

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