Barry McGuigan: Father figure hands down gift of the jab

Irish legend of the ring is making a fist of promoting the latest generation of highly prized fighters and he is intent on making sure every corner is covered. Alan Hubbard meets... Barry McGuigan
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The Independent Online

There have been few more accomplished and articulate practitioners in the annals of British sportthan Barry McGuigan, the charismatic featherweight boxer who made hearts soar and voices sing when he won the world championship on an unforgettable night at Loftus Road 23 years ago.

Moreover, the Clones Cyclone emerged with his faculties intactand 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 47 and retired as a boxer for 19 years, has always had the gift of the gab. But there is more to him than blarney. His late father, Pat, may have sung for his country in the Eurovision Song Contest, but McGuigan's own vocal chords are equally resonant, not only as a TV pundit but as an advocate for the profession of pugilism and its tradesmen. And now he is returning to the ring – as a promoter.

"The idea has been in my head for some time," he says. "Up to now I've resisted it, but now there's time to go for it because there's a wealth of talent, a lot of good kids around." His intention is to have "a small stable of fighters". Among them, eventually he hopes, will be his youngest son, Shane, 19, whom he is grooming as an amateur welterweight and who, although he is taller and heavier than dad, looks a chip off the old boxing block.

"I'm not going to go intothis slam, bam, wallop," says McGuigan Snr. "This worldis full of flash-in-the-pan merchants and then they're gone again. Boxing has been my whole life for 35 years. Ever since I was 12 I've been absorbed with the sport. I'm going to do this properly."

Which is why his initial promotional venture is some way from Madison Square Garden. Middlesbrough, in fact, and the Eston Sports Academy, where his first signing,the Coventry super-featherweight Troy James, will make his debut on Friday night. Initially McGuigan will co-promote with the established Barry Hearn's Matchroom organisation, and he has two multimillionaire backers in businessmen Paul Dunkley and David Hammond. "While I can relate to fighters on every level, this is a new business for me, which is why I have got good business people around me, and Barry Hearn is a very clever guy," says McGuigan. "I'll learn a lot from him."

He hopes James will be the first of a number of young fighters with whom he is negotiating. "Troy has done nothing special in the amateurs but he's a tremendous puncher who can really fight. He's 25 now but did not put on a pair of gloves until he was 22, and I believe he can be a really big name. He's dedicated, hard-working and has the right attitude, exactly the sort I am looking for."

McGuigan has long believed that boxers need better care and protection, in the ring and out, which is why he was instrumental in setting up the Professional Boxers' Association (now the TUC-backed British Boxers' Association). "I think that I can have a very close relationship with my fighters, and we are going to set up a training camp for them near my home.

"I took out a trainer's licence two years ago to start working with Shane. There's myself and a guy called Lee Pullen, a fabulous coach. He [Shane] has only had 21 bouts and will stay amateur for at least a couple of years. I'd like him to get some internationalexperience, but it depends how he is treated. His style is certainly conducive to the professional game."

McGuigan also plans to promote in Ireland, where the McGuigan name is revered. Shane is already the Ulster senior champion, and he is eligible to box for either Britain or Ireland in the Olympics. "So we'll see what happens. Obviously his mother is not particularly happy about it because she doesn't want to go through all that again. I understand that. It's not easy for me either. You take every punch. I don't like to see him getting hit. Of course, the whole point is not to get hit, but you can't walk through the shower without getting wet. I want him to do something he enjoys and is good at."

McGuigan admits he has had discussions with several of the GB Olympic squad and may still sign one of them. "But by and large they were talking silly money. To be honest, I'm not so sure that the top amateursmake the best pros. Look at Audley Harrison. Thirty or 40 years ago, that might have been the case, but the amateur game has changed so much now. There is now a wide division between the sports because the training is so different.

"The [amateur] scoring system has messed it up. It's a quick sprint, tat tat tat, grab, hold, stop. Touching the target, getting away– it's fencing. When you are inculcated with that style it's nigh-on impossible to get out of it. In the pro game the ref would say, 'Get on with it, son'. When you have to stand in the trenches and let puncheswhistle over your head you'll feel extremely uncomfortable. I'm not saying all good amateurs don't make good pros, but it's not a given any more."

McGuigan acknowledges that he is going into a crowded promotional market, with fighters David Haye, Joe Calzaghe and Ricky Hatton becoming promoters alongside the big-name impresarios. "It doesn't worry me. I think it's great for the sport and I have the utmost respect for the current promoters, especially Frank Warren. He's brilliant. If I do an eighth as well as him it will be fantastic."

He speaks as someone who has been through the fistic mill himself. "Some of the experiences I had myself when I was fighting left me with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, which is why I want to take total responsibility for any fighter Ipromote or manage."

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, the Nigerian Young Ali, and his daughter Danika's battle with leukaemia, with which she was diagnosed at 11. She recovered and is now an actress.

McGuigan was brought up as a Catholic, one of a family of eight, and succeeded in drawing fans from both sides of the Irish community during a glittering career. "I was married to Sandra, a Protestant, when I was just 20. We grew up together, buddies from kids. The house we bought in Clones was on what was called an "unapproved" road, which meant that for about a mile in either direction the roads were blown up and there were barricades. Some of our time there was during the most tragic years for Ireland, and I always felt a responsibility to help create a harmonious situation. When I beat Eusebio Pedroza in 1985 for the WBA feather- weight title, 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 to see the [Clones] house several times. 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. It worries me to see that separatism is still festering there, but by and large so much fear has been removed and you can walk the streets of Belfast without fear."

So McGuigan continues fighting on several fronts, including for the cancer charity Click, following his daughter's leukaemia. But the little man whose name has even gone into Cockney rhyming slang (a McGuigan is a big 'un) will continue to work as a pundit for ITV, and jokes about having "fingers in many pies". This was literally so when he appeared in Hell's Kitchen with Marco Pierre White. "Now nobody else makes mashed potato in my house, only me."

But shouldn't he be worried that promoting is going to be something of a hot potato in the current economic climate? "This may be a difficult time for anyone financially but, I'll tell you what, I've never known boxing to be in a better state. There are so many kids coming into it and they'll be wanting to turn pro because they'll need to put bread on the table, it's the same in any recession. Any amateur kid not getting fifteen hundred quid or so a month in the elite squad will be looking to earn a living. We are going to have a return to the hungry fighter.

"This is an exciting time for British boxing and I completely believe I can produce champions, otherwise I wouldn't be wasting my time. I'm not looking to make money, that's the last thing on my mind. My reward will be in producing talent.

"I'm not callow and uneducated about the business. I'm not stepping outside of what I am good at. 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 and push myself to the limit. I'm still a real masochist when it comes to working out. I can look a fellow in the eye when he's knackered and say, 'I know, I've been there, I've felt it'."

Life and times

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

Record: 35 professional 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 third in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1968. Married to Sandra for 27 years. Four children: Blain, 26, a politics graduate; Danika, 23, an actress; Jake, 20, a business management student; and Shane, 19, an Ulster amateur boxing champion.

Other interests: Boxing analyst for ITV, formerly with Sky. Won 'Hell's Kitchen' reality TV show, earning plaudits for potato dish 'McGuigan's Mash'. Established the Professional Boxers' Association in 1993 and is involved in the rehabilitation of ex-boxers.