Once again sport is playing its part in the regeneration of a great city. Thirty-odd years ago Barry McGuigan was the beacon bringing light to Belfast, a place riven by religious and political divisions. Tomorrow night McGuigan’s ring protégé Carl Frampton is part of a different dynamic, one that is looking out not in, projecting across the globe the best of Belfast, a city on the geopolitical move.
The “quarter” is the ultimate symbol of urban cool. A tidy portion of the millions spent on infrastructure projects has transformed a part of the Belfast waterfront into the Titanic Quarter, a shimmering architectural flourish the like of which this old town could not have dreamt of when McGuigan was trading leather. Tomorrow night Frampton will appear before 16,000 beating hearts in a purpose-built, pop-up arena that will be gone by Tuesday.
That’s magic, as is the impact Frampton is having on this community. A product of Tigers Bay, a loyalist stronghold that runs right up against the republican estate of New Lodge, Frampton is every bit the boxing gold dust that was McGuigan. Regarded by his mentor as technically superior, Frampton has even taken the same cross-cultural marital leap, if in reverse, taking a wife of Catholic background to share his journey.
Frampton’s political antenna does not twitch with the sensitivity that McGuigan’s did. It doesn’t have to. Frampton is a product of rapidly changing times and, though well aware of the antecedents that shaped his forebears, is happily not governed by the same forces. Tomorrow night's show is all about, well, the show. It does not carry an overt political message, rather it is wrapped in the warm glow of progress, demonstrating a city at peace with itself yet immersed in reinvention.
And there is history to be made. Never before have this many people attended a bout in Belfast. McGuigan packed them in but under a roof at the King’s Hall. Frampton is fighting under the stars in his first crack at a world title, the IBF super bantamweight crown. It has taken five years to reach for the sky, longer than McGuigan or Frampton anticipated when Ireland’s iconic boxer turned manager and promoter with his first signing.
Though a blue-chip amateur on the Irish scene, Frampton did not have McGuigan’s stellar CV, but he caught the master’s eye with his range, granite chin and butane fists. “I won silver at the Europeans in Dublin, Barry saw it and came over to the gym. Billy [McKee, his trainer] told him to eff off. After that I won a few multi-nation titles as well as the Irish senior title. In 2008 I should have been sent to the Olympic qualifiers and wasn’t. I was upset by that. I was travelling to Dublin from Belfast all the time beating guys on more funding than me. So in ’09 I thought it was time to give the pro game a go. A few people approached me but it was a pretty easy decision to go with Barry.
“He rang me at a training camp with the Irish team. I was stunned. I had only met him a couple of times but didn’t know him. Me and Billy went to meet him. I got a good offer but it wasn’t just that. He told me his plans, wanted me to come and stay with him in England, and said he would help with the training himself. I could have tried to qualify for London. I think I made the right decision. It has turned out how I expected. He believed I would be a world champion. I am one fight away. I have already beaten the guy standing in front of me.”
That guy is former European champion Kiko Martinez, dethroned by Frampton in a stupendous display last year but a tough hombre who is not coming to lose a second time. Frampton is aware he is in so many ways following a trail set by McGuigan but he is most definitely doing it his way.
For all sorts of reasons, fight nights in Belfast carry an echo of the McGuigan years but this is Frampton’s night. “I knew about Barry because he was a world champion and Ireland’s most famous boxing son but didn’t see much of him when I was growing up. I’m not from a big boxing family. I was curious, just wanted to try it. There were about eight or nine of us. I was seven years old. It was my mum who took us down to Tigers Bay. Through the years they all left and I stuck at it. I remember the first night. I wasn’t allowed to train. I sat the whole night on a chair just watching. Loved it.
“I’m not trying to be him [McGuigan]. It is a question I get asked a lot. I’m being me. I’m getting a lot of support in a city I love. I’ll never leave. I train in London but when it’s time to hang my gloves up this is where I’ll be. To have 16,000 come to see me is an amazing feeling. Boxing is a big sport in Northern Ireland. The people will get behind you if they believe in you. They are kind of expecting me to win a world title now. This is a hard game, it’s not that easy. You lose a fight, it can set you back a year or more. I don’t want to let the people of Belfast down. I want the people of this city to be proud of me. You can pretty much see Tigers Bay from the venue, which is where it all started for me. Everything is falling into place.”
Indeed. This is the point of departure for a fighter about to migrate from the trade pages of boxing magazines and websites into the mainstream occupied by McGuigan. In every sense tomorrow night is an unveiling, after which details about Frampton’s personal circumstances will be sought and dissected on television sofas. Here is an introduction from the man himself.
“I grew up at the back end of The Troubles. I lived in the street closest to New Lodge. I saw a lot of trouble, particularly in the summer marching season, pretty much rioting every day, buses being hijacked and burnt out, people running around shooting guns. When you grow up in that environment it is scary and exciting. If a riot kicked off I knew my mum and dad would be out looking for me and I would hide so I could see it.
“It’s much better now. But it will take a generation to disappear in the housing estates around the city. My wife [Christine] is from the republican community. It’s OK. I’m from a decent family who don’t care about that stuff. And there is no pressure in the community. I went to a school about 10 miles outside of Belfast. I was running around with Catholics and Protestants as a kid. And when we were boxing we were in and out of Catholic areas all the time. Education is the key. I have a young daughter. I want to make a point of her going to an integrated school. Every school should be integrated. If you grow up going to different schools how are you ever going to get out of it? You aren’t.”
Boxing was a rapid route to big esteem, the kind of kudos that doesn’t accrue to small kids with big ears. “I was a bit shy. I was short, had big, sticky-out ears, so very quiet. But in the gym I could express myself and it felt great. I was more confident and getting the better of kids who were more boisterous than me in the street. I remember my first fight at the age of eight, beating the tripe out of the kid and coming out of the ring and all my uncles giving me a fiver.
“I won the Irish seniors in the week of my 18th birthday and again in 2009 at featherweight, beating a guy called David Joyce, who from the age of 11 had won 14 Irish titles across the age groups. I dropped him in the last round as well. That is when I thought I might really do something in the sport.”
McGuigan thought so, too. “It’s an amazing story and exciting times. Thirty years ago when I won the world title, and leading up to that, Belfast was a dark and treacherous place. Today it is unrecognisable, an amazing, cosmopolitan city and Frampton is at the heart of it. He is in a mixed marriage like me, albeit the other way around. Of course people compare us. Stylistically there isn’t a comparison, but he reaches out to people like I did. I knew he was a phenomenal talent and he has not disappointed in any way.”
As far as the base metal is concerned McGuigan is kept at arm’s length these days. Son Shane, a decent amateur and trainer of growing repute, holds the pads, choreographs the moves, works the alchemy. It will be his voice in Frampton’s ear tomorrow night, not the old man’s. McGuigan is cool with that. “I’m so proud of them both. They have a brilliant relationship, deeply respectful. I just sit and watch from a distance. We have a big night on Saturday. Frampton has to win. I want him to win spectacularly. It can’t be any other way because Martinez will bring it to him. It’s going to be some night, an important night, a victorious night.”Reuse content