Thirty years after the Clones Cyclone first swept through Northern Ireland, another dynamic Ulsterman with lightning-fast fists is brewing up a storm.
It will erupt loudly over Belfast next Saturday night when Barry McGuigan’s unbeaten prodigy, Carl “The Jackal” Frampton, challenges for the IBF world super-bantamweight title, echoing an era when the pulsating endeavours of a wiry boxing icon temporarily united bitterly divided communities.
Frampton’s engagement with the champion, Kiko Martinez, the Spanish hard man he has beaten once before, will fill the purpose-built open-air arena in the Titanic Quarter dockyards with 16,000 fans from every sector of the city. It is the biggest fight Belfast has experienced since McGuigan, now 53, embarked on a career that took him to the world featherweight title and acknowledgement as one of the sport’s most articulate ambassadors.
That career is mirrored in so many ways by the 27-year-old, equally loquacious Frampton, whom manager McGuigan has skilfully nurtured through 18 professional contests with the assistance of his son Shane, at 25 one of the youngest trainers in the business.
Both mentor and fighter have lived through the vicissitudes of The Troubles. Frampton, a Protestant, is newly married to a Catholic girl, Christine, whereas McGuigan, born a Catholic, has been wed to Protestant Sandra for 32 years.
“Carl’s a very bright, articulate and intelligent kid who knows what he has to do,” says McGuigan. “He comes from a hardened loyalist area, his wife from an equally hardened republican area. There have been many horrible things said to them but they’ve had the equanimity to rise above it. Christine is a beautiful girl, really sensible, clever, bright, with a degree in criminology. This is the next generation.”
Frampton grew up in the fiercely loyalist territory of Tigers Bay, just a block away from the republican neighbourhood of New Lodge, where the popular refrain had been: “Leave the fighting to McGuigan”.
He recalls: “There were constant clashes. At the bottom of the street I’d see petrol bombs thrown at police Land Rovers and guys getting shot. People died. I saw one of my friends, Glen Branagh, who was 16, killed in a pipe-bomb incident. It’s horrible to think of.” Frampton was 14 at the time.
“Obviously it was worse in Barry’s day,” he says. “But I grew up on the back end of it and it wasn’t nice.”
Frampton was speaking at McGuigan’s gym in Battersea, converted from an old loading bay in a chic complex which also houses the studios of Victoria Beckham and Vivienne Westwood. One wall is devoted to the signatures of visiting world champions, among them Mike Tyson and Sugar Ray Leonard. Frampton promises to fly over from Belfast on Sunday morning to pen his own name alongside that of McGuigan.
It was in June 1985 that 20 million TV viewers watched McGuigan win the world featherweight title against Panama’s Eusebio Pedroza. He was then the most illustrious figure in Ireland and there was fear of a kidnapping. “It was the time they took Shergar,” says McGuigan. “They even gave me a gun for protection, but I said, ‘For fuck’s sake… I want to shake people’s hands. Not blow their heads off!’
“Boxing was an olive branch, it allowed you to do things nobody else could. It was a horrible, terrifying time. You look back and think, ‘Christ Almighty, did our neighbours and friends really do such barbaric things?’ But they did. It happened.”
Frampton adds: “Boxing brings people together in Ireland. Protestants and Catholics, the north and south, everyone. Without being big-headed, I feel I am doing that a little bit. I feel humbled I’m supported by both sides of the community, as Barry was.”
Back in 2007 Martinez blasted out another Irish hope, Bernard Dunne, in just 90 seconds, but McGuigan is certain Frampton will repeat the stoppage victory he had over the Spaniard in a brutal fight 18 months ago. “Let’s face it, Martinez can’t reinvent himself. He’s not suddenly going to turn into Sugar Ray Robinson.
“Carl’s style is different to mine. He has more flexibility and can box forward as well as going back. And he has one hell of a punch. This is the start of something really big.”
Frampton is aware that complacency can be perilous, having beaten Martinez before. “But I’m not going to let that happen. People are making comparisons with me and Barry. But I know who I am and what I am, and I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing.” Especially next Saturday, when Belfast unites again to celebrate the night of The Jackal.
Frampton vs Martinez is live on BoxNation (Sky 437/490HD & Virgin 546). Visit www.boxnation.com