Boxing: Is Carl Frampton the next Barry McGuigan?
He has Belfast rocking to a boxer's beat the like of which hasn't been heard for 30 years when his mentor, who speaks to Kevin Garside, was in his pomp
Barry McGuigan has been this way before. The Ulster Hall in Belfast would tremble as a divided city left the Troubles at the door and unified for one night only behind the phenomenon from Clones. Thirty years on Belfast is again rocking to a boxer's beat and McGuigan is conducting the cabaret. In truth, he never left the sport. Retirement meant a shift to the commentary box and the quill, and latterly to the post of manager. Carl Frampton is the kid McGuigan could not ignore, the special one around whom he hopes to build a small stable of champions.
Like his mentor, Frampton is reaching beyond the circumstances of a community scarred by political schism. More than 8,000 crammed into the Odyssey Arena on Saturday night to witness the demolition of European super-bantamweight champion Kiko Martinez. Belfast is not the town that McGuigan knew, but the geography of the Troubles is still maintained, and, as the recent riots ignited by the lowering of the Union flag over City Hall demonstrated, the tendrils of a violent past extend deep into the present.
McGuigan was the Catholic boy married to a protestant wife, Sandra. He campaigned under a flag of peace etched with a dove. Frampton, a protestant, marries his Catholic bride in October. Though not as murderously toxic as Seventies Northern Ireland, Frampton is compelled to tread the same ground.
"His partner is from The Falls and he is from north east Belfast," McGuigan says. "They have a daughter. Our stories are similar in that regard, but this is not something we like to talk about these days. We want to leave that old rubbish behind. But the parallels are there. I had no idea of his personal circumstances when I first clapped eyes on him. I just saw the most explosive little guy I had ever seen."
Saturday's superstar gig kept Frampton busy until four in the morning, signing autographs and posing for pictures. On Sunday there was a full round of media demands to meet. More than 70,000 turned out in Belfast to welcome McGuigan home after his WBA featherweight championship victory over Eusebio Pedroza at Loftus Road in 1985, which drew a live television audience of 19 million. A quarter of a million later lined the streets of Dublin. Frampton is only at the foothills of his journey but McGuigan recognises the signs. "I said to him before he went out, 'look son, when you walk out here it is going to be incredible. Just concentrate, don't let it overwhelm you. Enjoy it, soak it up but don't let it control you.' He was so energised by it and yet so calm. It can be terrifying for guys but he just loves it.
"It is getting close to the kind of atmosphere I generated at my peak. If you go on YouTube to the Bernard Taylor fight, the first defence of my title, and you listen to the sound. It is deafening. That was very similar the other night. It is going to be like that from now on. Because he is such a loveable guy, a nice kid, even the casual fans are coming. When I went to the security meeting before the fight I asked the box office about the make-up of the audience. They were able to tell me that 40 per cent of the tickets sold went to people who were not regular boxing fans. That is the sort of scenario he is creating."
McGuigan is from the border county of Monaghan. Though his first steps were taken in a local ring it was in Belfast where he shaped his amateur and early professional career. He trained at gyms across the community, at St Agnes's, Holy Family, Holy Trinity and finally in Castle Street, where his promoter, subsequently estranged, Barney Eastwood had premises. It was an early experience at the Immaculata Boxing Club, housed in the basement of the Republican Divis Flats, that typified the atmosphere of Seventies Belfast. "It was during the worst time in Northern Irish history. The British army were ensconced on the roof. The gym was in the basement of one of the four tower blocks. We had to do commando runs to get in because the kids would throw things at you from above. There were seven or eight floors. On this occasion my mate, Ned McCormick, looked around and said it was clear, so we walked. Then some little bastard threw the leg of a cow. He must have been four or five floors up. It missed Ned by a foot. If it had hit him it would have killed him."
Frampton has not had to negotiate the kind of casual hooliganism that was attached to the McGuigan period. He was a member of the Ireland elite squad and trained at the Midland Boxing club in the Tigers Bay neighbourhood. McGuigan first spotted him six years ago contesting the EU finals in Dublin. "I watched him in the semis and the final. He was outpointed in the final but I knew he was the one, the kid I was going to sign, the first boxer in my stable. When I told his trainer Billy McKee that he would make a great pro, Billy, who was all of 77, gave me the death stare. He was not happy about the idea at all. I kept an eye on him over the next year. It was pleasantly surprising to me how bright he was, how intelligent, funny, witty, yet so phlegmatic. There was an impressive self- assurance and not a trace of arrogance."
These, of course, are qualities shared by McGuigan. But how do they compare in the ring? "I was a bundle of energy, non-stop. I walked everybody down, put my opponents under tremendous pressure. He doesn't do that. I was a volume puncher, he is a quality puncher. My strength and pace wore people down then I could take them out. He uses intelligence. He is patient. He does not fight as well as I did going forward, but then I could not fight going back."
The demands of management are, according to McGuigan, more challenging than fighting. "As a fighter I had control. I got nervous but knew when all was said and done it was up to me. As a manager I am under pressure in a way I never was as a fighter. It is more nerve-wracking."
There is also the uncertainty inherent in a business where outcomes can be decided by a single punch either way. Not everybody shared McGuigan's belief in Frampton's gifts. The doubters were a source of irritation and motivation. Saturday was therefore a special day.
"This wasn't any ordinary fighter. He [Martinez] was a rock-solid puncher with a great chin. He was in the best shape of his life, training with the great Sergio Martinez for five weeks in Los Angeles, and for four weeks after in Spain. Frampton beat him up and stopped him with one shot. That is gold dust. That is why he sells out arenas. He has the X-factor. He is going to be a huge star in Ireland, and I hope in England, a box office fighter with real credibility."
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