McBride's corner in conflict

Harry Mullan reports on the Irish heavyweight beset by a clash of loyalties
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The Independent Online
KEVIN McBRIDE, perhaps the best Irish heavyweight prospect to emerge since Jack Doyle packed White City 60 years ago, is facing a conflict of loyalties that threatens his career. McBride is unbeaten in 17 fights (one draw) and last week he took another significant step forward when he stopped the vastly experienced Yorkshireman Steve Garber in seven rounds in Dublin. Frank Mulligan, a small, intense 45-year-old from McBride's home town of Clones, in Co Monaghan, was in the corner as he has been every fight, but now the simmering disagreements between Mulligan and McBride's promoter-manager Frank Maloney have come into the open.

Maloney feels that Mulligan's often eccentric training methods have no place in the development of a modern heavyweight, and he announced at a press conference a couple of days before the fight that Mulligan's involvement must cease if McBride is to progress. The Londoner, who also guides the careers of Lennox Lewis and the British champion James Oyebola, has invested substantially in the young Irishman's career, sending him frequently to box in America and work with the respected coach Tommy Brooks.

His estimate of his investment so far as being "close to half a million" probably owes much to the traditional promoter's hyperbole, but there can be no question that McBride's development has been expensive, particularly when the cost of "buying" opponents is added. (That expression may sound sinister to the outsider. In fact, it is no more than the truth: promoters have to pay more to persuade someone like Steve Garber to fight an undefeated prospect like McBride than they would for a routine match.)

McBride was clearly upset, and eventually the promoter offered a compromise whereby Mulligan would be allowed in the corner but not as the lead second, the man who plots strategy and relays instructions. Last week, Mulligan says, there were three others in the corner, all talking to McBride. "This kind of thing is useless," he said. "It only confuses the fighter. When I finally got to talk to him, after the sixth round, he went out and stopped the guy."

McBride was defensive of his mentor's position after the fight. "I owe Frank Mulligan a lot," he said. "I wouldn't be here tonight as an undefeated fighter if it hadn't been for him." He is in a difficult position, which may yet prove intolerable for a likeable youngster who is not yet worldly enough to separate sentiment from business sense when assessing what must be done. Mulligan and he are both country people from the small world of Monaghan boxing, where loyalty to each other and in-bred suspicion of London money men - even one whose Irish credentials are as impeccable as Maloney's - go hand in hand.

Mulligan has been down this road before, with Barry McGuigan. He became involved with the future world featherweight champion when McGuigan, then 13, joined his Smithboro Boxing Club in 1974. Mulligan and his associate, the club trainer Danny McEntee, immediately recognised the boy's potential and began its development. Mulligan later took over full responsibility for McGuigan's training, and the pair had an obsessive and even oppressive relationship. Mulligan demanded and got absolute dedication and commitment from McGuigan, who was for all practical purposes a full-time boxer for the last three or four years of his spectacularly successful amateur career.

Yet when McGuigan turned professional, his manager Barney Eastwood took the hard decision to jettison Mulligan, feeling that the boxer needed a fresh approach and professional input which Mulligan, for all his unquestioned knowledge and enthusiasm, was not qualified to provide. When the McGuigan gravy train set off, Mulligan was not on board, and there has been a marked coolness between the two ever since. He does not intend to go through the same experience again, and since McBride has stayed unbeaten in 17 fights under his tuition he can argue that he must be doing something right.

The relationship between a boxer and his trainer can be as rewarding or as claustrophobic as a marriage. The trainer has to know every nuance of his man's personality, interpret every mood, soothe every doubt. If that relationship sours, the consequences can be devastating. Over the next few weeks, McBride must decide whether that is a gamble he can afford to take.