Boxing: Union man leads with rights as he fights for a new future in the scrappers' corner

The Interview - Barry McGuigan: A champion of the past is championing the cause of others. Alan Hubbard hears the voice of boxing speak up for the needy
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Boxers are a breed apart, according to Barry McGuigan. Highly individualistic, incurably brave and invariably lonely. Well, he should know. There have been few more accomplished practitioners in the annals of the sport than "The Clones Cyclone", the charismatic featherweight who made British hearts soar and voices sing when he won the world championship on an unforgettable night at Loftus Road exactly 18 years ago tomorrow.

Moreover, he emerged with his faculties intact and his popularity undiminished, comfortably enough off to send all four of his kids to public schools, live happily ever after in a splendid Regency home in a picturesque Kent village with Sandra, the wife who was his teenage sweetheart, and remain an icon to all who seek a better life from boxing.

It has helped that McGuigan, now 42 and retired for 15 years, has always had the gift of the gab as well as the jab. But there is more to him than blarney. His late father may have sung for his country in the Eurovision Song Contest, but McGuigan's own vocal chords are equally resonant, not only as a perceptive Sky TV pundit but as an advocate for the profession of pugilism and its tradesmen. It is in this capacity that he is gloved up once again.

McGuigan has long believed boxers need better care and protection, in the ring and out, which is why he was instrumental in setting up the Professional Boxers' Association 10 years ago. It was, he admits, a struggle to elicit interest and extract financial support. But he refused to give up, and now the PBA have developed into the BBA, the British Boxers' Association, backed by one of the biggest trade unions in the land, the 750,000-strong GMB (General, Municipal and Boilermakers).

So, for the first time Britain's boxers have the facility to become a relevant "strike force" when it comes to sorting out contractual and legal disputes. But, as McGuigan says, there is much more to it than that. Under the aegis of the Wakefield-based GMB, who also embrace rugby league players, boxers also have access to medical, legal and educational facilities. No more need to end up on the scrappers' scrapheap. McGuigan says it is a milestone for boxing, notably because the majority of boxers do not earn fortunes and are often left in limbo when their careers end. "We all put our lives on hold for 15 years, and when the final bell rings, some of us have no idea what to do."

"Didactic" is not a word you hear too often in the environment of the thick-ear trade, but it is how McGuigan describes the BBA's role in helping to bring about this union of brotherly glove. "Not every boxer earns millions. It's not a big-money business unless you are at the top, and even then, while some of the purses may sound fabulous, there isn't a great deal left out of, say, £100,000 when you take the manager's cut, the trainer's cut, training expenses for weeks or months. Then there's the tax man. And sometimes a boxer can go three or four months without a bout. It's different for footballers or rugby players. They get salaries.

"Boxers are the most maverick of individuals. They are unusual, brilliant, amazing people. They are used to being loners, but they need support. What we are trying to do is make sure they have a pension, help find them a new career, or set up a business. Give them a new purpose."

The man largely charged with this task is not McGuigan, who is the BBA president and on hand to advise, but another ex-boxer, Micky Cantwell, newly recruited as the paid national organiser. He seems the perfect choice to be the boxers' union boss. A former ABA champion, England international then British professional champion who fought three times for various world light-flyweight titles yet never earned more than a few thousand pounds at his peak, he has real ring cred with the sport's supporting bouters. "I can relate to those undercard fighters because I've been there myself," he says.

East Londoner Cantwell knows what it is like to be on the breadline, having once had his house repossessed. This time 18 months ago he was a part-time postman, following his retirement at 36. But his new role, subsidised by the GMB, has helped him back on an even keel.

"I can talk to fighters who are finding things a bit hard," he says, "but there are too many, some of them ex-champions, who have a chip on their shoulder. This is why it is so good to be working with someone like Barry, who has always been one of my heroes. He had the talent, he knew how to use it in the ring and he knew when to quit and what to do with his life."

Currently, the BBA are on a recruitment drive, with membership standing at around 160, or about a quarter of the professional workforce, ranging from four-round novices to stars like Lennox Lewis, Audley Harrison, Ricky Hatton and Joe Calzaghe, all paying a £2 weekly sub which gives them access to an advisory panel of lawyers, accountants, psychologists, physiologists, insurance and mortgage brokers, even marriage-guidance counsellors.

"OK, so people like Lennox Lewis and Audley may not really need us," McGuigan says, "but we need them to support us. The people who need us are young or journeymen fighters most of the public have never heard of.

"Our membership crosses all divisions, all factions. We welcome women boxers, amateurs too, if they are interested. We also have some referees and matchmakers. We want everyone to leave the sport better off than when they came into it. We want them to feel they've got something out of it, not just a few bob in the bank.

"We can arrange courses in things like IT, plumbing, carpentry or even the Open University. The GMB have put all their resources at our disposal. They've been brilliant. So have the Boxing Board and promoters like Frank Warren."

McGuigan continues: "We're in this to make it a better sport, to help improve safety, to make boxers feel more secure in the ring and when they've finished. But we don't set out to interfere with any fighter. Some of the things that occur have to be sorted out between boxer and manager. We're here to help if they need us, but more to ensure they have something to look forward to after their careers."

He speaks as someone who has been through the fistic mill himself. While he earned plenty of money, and invested it wisely, there was a costly lawsuit with his former manager, Barney Eastwood, his devastation at the post-fight death of one of his opponents, and his daughter Danika's battle with leukemia. Now 17, she is at Princess Anne's alma mater, Benenden, while sons Jake (15) and Shane (14) are at Millfield, and Blain, 19, who went to King's School in Canterbury, is spending a gap year in Guatemala.

"I believe in a good education," says McGuigan. "There were times during my own career when I could have done with the advice on offer now. If a fighter has a problem it can affect how he fights, and remember, this is a high-risk business."

It can also be a disturbingly ignoble one as those at Saturday's Battle of Bethnal Green witnessed. The Harrison-Herbie Hide post-fight fracas was, says McGuigan, "an ignominious night for boxing". He adds: "We don't need incidents like this, for God's sake. I wasn't there so I'm not apportioning blame. But it was appalling. We are trying to set a tone for a tough and dangerous sport, and we cannot allow people to behave in a disreputable way, whoever they are. We will back any action the board take."

McGuigan and Cantwell are striving to emulate the football equivalent, the PFA. "The BBA is a passion for Micky and I. But it is not so much about what is happening now, but in the future. It could take 10 years, but we will be a formidable force."

But will boxing itself still be a formidable force in 10 years? McGuigan had spent the morning arguing with an abolitionist doctor on Irish radio. He won easily on points, as you would expect from someone whose eloquence can counterpunch even more effectively than the body shots which were his trademark.

"Of course it will never be banned. It is there because society needs it. They were talking about banning it 100 years ago, but it is still the most popular one-on-one sport in the world. There will always be aggression and people who want to watch it when it is properly channelled through skill, courage and athleticism. It has saved the lives of thousands who might otherwise have turned to crime. There is no other sport which breeds so much discipline and dignity. It crosses all barriers.

"But for every fighter who has done well, made money and a name for himself, there are dozens who haven't, about 90 per cent in fact. That's why we are in their corner."

Biography: Barry McGuigan

Born: 28 February 1961 in Clones, Co Monaghan.

Professional fight record: 35 fights, won 32, lost three.

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

Personal: late father, Pat McGuigan (aka Pat McGeehan), finished third in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1968.

Currently: boxing analyst for BSkyB television. Also established the Professional Boxers' Association (now the British Boxers' Association) in 1993.