Only in Belfast can a fight bring peace. It happened before, three decades ago, when a young Catholic man, who was married to a Protestant, won a world title and brought the belt home.
Home was actually Clones in Monaghan, but before he got there, he showed it off to 50,000 people in Belfast, the town where he made his name. “Belfast was good to me,” Barry McGuigan would later explain without knowing how good he was for it.
For this is a city where divisions run deep, where old habits and young men die hard, a city that was built up over centuries, and bombed out over 25 troubled years. Somewhere in the middle of that sorry saga McGuigan came along and his mixture of charisma and technique won over hearts and minds.
Plenty of other homegrown fighters would follow — some being good enough to claim world championships — yet the connection was never the same. It wasn’t just McGuigan’s skill which endeared him to a generation, but his story.
He was the Irish boy who fought for a British title, the man who dispensed with symbolic colours, instead fighting under a flag of peace. He didn’t stand for any anthems, just Danny Boy, a ballad his father, Pat, sung before each fight.
Touched by his humility, people of all ages and religions flocked to support him, 8,000 of them regularly packing the King’s Hall, twice as many more travelling over to Loftus Road in June 1985 to see him defeat the Panamanian, Eusebio Pedroza, to claim the WBA featherweight championship. “Enjoy these nights, Barry,” his father told him. “They don’t last forever.”
Soon he’d know exactly what his dad meant. Cancer separated them two years later when Pat was only 52. Later he’d lose his brother, Dermot, who took his own life. The memory of one of his opponent’s, Young Ali, dying following the impact of McGuigan’s punches, continued to haunt him.
And soon his title was gone, his father was gone and his career came to an end. Riots continued in Belfast and periodically ‘a new McGuigan’ would come and go without ever capturing the same audience.
“There’ll never be another one like you,” he was told one summer’s night in 2009. The man advising him must have been in his 70s. His shock of white hair stood above a purple face, its colour attributed to a drink or two that he had taken that evening. Looking him in the eye, McGuigan quietly replied. “This lad will be.”
They both looked at the ‘lad’. He was 22, had just beaten a Hungarian journeyman, Ignac Kassai, to record his third professional win and when he spoke to the press afterwards, he did so with a shyness which suggested he’d be a marketing man’s nightmare.
Instead, he has become a dream. Like McGuigan, Carl Frampton has the crossover appeal that all promoters hope for. He’s a Protestant, married to a Catholic. He fought for Ireland as an amateur, a reverse of McGuigan’s decision to box for a British title.
Fans love him, 16,000 of them snapping up the tickets which went on sale when he defeated Kiko Martinez in Belfast’s Titanic quarter last September to claim the IBF super-bantamweight world title.
“This kid could be the best Irish fighter there has ever been,” said McGuigan afterwards. And few are inclined to argue. One man who does disagree, however, is Chris Avalos, who challenges Frampton for his title next Saturday in Belfast’s Odyssey Arena.
“I have his number,” Avalos sneered at a recent press hearing. “I’m the better man.” The truth is the American challenger — with a 25-2 record — is not even the better boxer. As for being a superior man, well that is quite a claim.
Belfast loves its most famous son, Frampton. They sing his name on fight night and pay big money to watch him box. Next weekend, for the first time since 2008, ITV will screen a world title fight on terrestrial television. Frampton, with the boy-next-door looks, the family man who has crossed the sectarian divide, is set to reach a whole new audience.
“Carl is the story of a young boxer from a hardened loyalist area who fell for a girl from a hardened republican area,” said McGuigan in an interview with The Guardian. “He’s a great, bright kid and she’s amazingly clever and lovely. He’s a fighter and she’s a got a degree in criminology. It wasn’t meant to work, but of course it did. It shows hope for a new kind of Belfast.”
The old kind of Belfast needed a story like this. “Boxing has been good to me but I also think it’s a sport that even at the height of the Troubles was good to the city,” said Frampton. “In my opinion, it’s the sport that brings people together. I realised pretty quickly, maybe through boxing, that all the religious tit-for-tat and the divide, it’s so stupid.”
Lacking intelligence has never been one of Frampton’s faults. He was on his way to the top of the amateur game when he decided, at 22, to turn pro. And even though an appearance in the London Olympics seemed well within his grasp, he just knew the pro game was for him. “I was getting expenses and I’d be lucky if there was a few quid left over,” he once said. “I was beating guys who were on €20,000 a year, tax free. I was getting sick of it.
“I was living off (his wife) Christine’s student loan. It was embarrassing for me. It came to the point where I was getting money off my mom and dad and she still had to take me out and treat me. I remember getting a black taxi and it was £1.80. I put my hand in my pocket and I only had £1.60 and had to ask her for a loan of 20p. I always wanted to go pro and felt I was suited and thought why wait.”
He has had to wait for nothing since. McGuigan isn’t just his promoter, but his friend. Shane, his son, is Frampton’s trainer. “And one of my closest buddies,” says Frampton.
The promotional build has been patiently constructed. A chat-show here, a public appearance there.
Yet, more than anyone, McGuigan knows that the biggest selling point are his fists rather than his tongue.
It helps that Frampton is physically extraordinary, helped in no small way by Shane McGuigan’s nutritional advice and his boxer’s selfless dedication to his trade. “He’s a one-off,” says Shane.
It certainly seems that way when he is the ring. Thirteen of his 19 victims have failed to hear the final bell, their premature exit stemming from Frampton’s power and his capacity to deliver punches in an efficient and nasty manner. Beyond Avalos, he has his sights on Scott Quigg, a noisy Englishman who fancies his chances against the Ulsterman.
Few share Quigg’s optimism. Like many other Irish boxers, Frampton isn’t the new McGuigan. He’s even better.