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A force of nature in the ring, a force of unity out of it

Barry McGuigan remembers a feeling of expectation. It was the summer of 1980, and the Irish amateur team were busy preparing for the Olympic Games in Moscow.

For two weeks they sweated and sparred in Limerick’s Thomond College. For two weeks boxers suffered under the hail of McGuigan’s punching power and this was an era of 6oz gloves and no headgear.

The International Boxing Hall-of-Famer remembers the roll call: Gerry Hawkins, light flyweight; Hugh Russell who would go on to win a bronze medal; Philip Sutcliffe from Dublin, Martin Brereton, his great friend and one time adversary; and Tony Deloughrey, the Limerick light heavyweight.

McGuigan had recently moved up a division from bantamweight but had lost none of his strength. He could whack for a featherweight. Everybody knew it.

One afternoon, someone arrived in the gym with a pad which measured punching power.

“It was a new kind of technology,” says McGuigan. “So we all lined up to see who could bang the hardest?

“Some of the lads stood side-on and threw hooks, others threw crosses, but for me it was the right hand over the top.

And when I hit the pad more energy went through it than the rest of them, Deloughrey included. I was only nine stone.”

Teammates and management watched as McGuigan turned the pad inside out, over and over again. He didn’t fully understand how he could hit so hard but he reasoned his capacity to train excessively was setting him apart.

He remembers his sisters, standing and counting punches when he worked the heavy bag at the back of the family shop in Clones – 300 shots a round.

“I was an animal in the gym,” he says. “I would train and train because I knew I could and because I knew I had to. I was very ambitious. My teammates thought I was mad but my biomechanics were perfect. I had a great club coach, a guy called Danny McEntee. He taught me to hit fellas at the end of the punch. I could turn my shots over and hit guys with wicked power and speed.”

McGuigan remembers a piece of advice from that time. It was delivered by a seasoned pro, a fella by the name of Sweeney who was friends with his father.

“He told me: ‘Don’t punch his head. Punch a foot behind his head. That’s how you deliver power.’”

Barry McGuigan’s record as an amateur nationally and internationally was stellar. In 1978, he was selected to fight for Northern Ireland. In his first International competition he won gold. It wasn’t just any competition it was the Commonwealth Games.

He shone again from a dark corner of East Germany one year later. Then, he defeated the unbeaten Mario Behrendt, the son of 1956 Melbourne Olympic gold medal winner Wolfgang.

Later, in 1979, he sparred six rounds with then world lightweight champion Jim Watt. They got down to it in a gym in London’s Canning Town and McGuigan bloodied his nose.

The Cyclone was building.

So on the eve of the Olympics, McGuigan believed it was his time to shine on the biggest amateur stage of them all. He was going to turn that special something, that wicked punching power, into a gold medal. He dreamed about raising the tricolour in Moscow; about the podium, about international glory, but it never happened. Wilfred Kabunda from Zambia beat him in the third qualifying round.

McGuigan says his style didn’t work all the time, but he beat Kabunda that night. He is sure of that and the decision blew his career apart.

He decided to turn pro. He would become world champion on his own terms but for political reasons the colours green, white and gold, could play no part in his victory parade.

****

Barry McGuigan says his talent came with some unwanted expectations. Clones was a different place in 1981. The town hung off the edge of Northern Ireland and shivered with the shockwaves of violence.

Raised on the border and Catholic by birth, some Republicans expected McGuigan to become a kind of default figurehead for Irish nationalism.

But he “was sick to death” of flag waving so he ignored that expectation. So when he turned pro, Barry boxed in blue shorts emblazoned with a white dove. He represented peace. And he wanted to represent the people – all of them.

“There would have been some hardened republicans who wouldn’t have been happy,” he says. “But I didn’t care about those guys. There would have been loyalist guys who thought I was putting a fig leaf out too. But I was just making sure people could come to my fights and not feel threatened.

“There was very little to shout about then. We were submerged in death and sadness and I was sick of it. It took some of my energy. I was a kid and I was thinking, ‘I hope people accept this’.

“But I made the decision and my manager Barney Eastwood made it with me. Barney was a Catholic from Dungannon. He felt the same. He mixed with Protestant guys. We thought ‘fuck it; we’re not going down that road’. So I boxed in the colours of the United Nations and my old man sang Danny Boy before every fight. It was an outstanding success.”

There was a Barry McGuigan supporters’ club on the Falls Road and one on the Shankill. On occasion both sides travelled to Britain together to watch their man fight.

McGuigan’s story made him a global star. He was a hell of a boxer, possessed of heavy hands and a savage work-rate, but he wasn’t naïve either. He knew the political situation in the North – and his preferred position in the neutral zone – fuelled interest.

“I’m not stupid,” he says. “It was the political situation as well. I wouldn’t wear any colours and people coined the phrase: ‘Leave the fighting to McGuigan.’ The night I fought Pedroza to win the world featherweight title, 20 million people tuned into the BBC to watch the fight. We had gone coast-to-coast on American television for five fights before that. The interest was crazy.”

McGuigan had become a force of nature in the ring and a force of unity out of it.

His career peaked on June 8, 1985, when he beat Eusebio Pedroza to become the WBA featherweight champion of the world. It was a night of tears, triumph but most of all, togetherness.

The win offered a rare glimpse of unity to be enjoyed by Ireland and England, Catholic and Protestant.

“Within hours of beating Pedroza, there were 70,000 people welcoming me on the Royal Avenue in Belfast,” he says. “Three days later in Dublin there were 200,000 people.

“I loved the fact that people were very proud of me and that it really meant something to them. We were answering between 8,000 and 10,000 letters a week then. It was bonkers.

“I was doing all my foundation work in Clones that time. I’d a gym out the back of the shop and people would just walk in and watch me train. My mother would say: ‘Go in the back. He’s out the back.’

“It got to the stage when me and my brother Dermot would start training at 11 at night and we’d stay going until 1.30 because after I won the world title, that was the only chance I’d get.”

****

McGuigan says he was 15 when he realised that boxing could change the course of his life, and 24 when he realised just how much it changed the lives of others.

He was staggered that his talent for fighting could create an atmosphere of peace between fighting men.

Looking back there were signposts. At 17, he boxed in the Shankill men’s working club. It was in the wrong side of Belfast for a Catholic from the south. Yet his style, aggression and work rate won him unlikely fans.

“I was boxing for Northern Ireland that night,” he says. “In against this 6ft tall bantamweight called Torsten Koch, a German, and I beat the living daylights out of him.”

McGuigan was enjoying cross-community support long before that expression became a political catchphrase.

That’s the bit that makes him proud. He saw what boxing could do to a world beyond sport and he loved his sport even more for that reason. He never fell out with boxing and he never hung about for longer than was healthy, so his career will always be associated with Pedroza.

To a lesser extent it will be associated with losing that WBA title to Steve Cruz, the tough Texan who weathered the desert heat in Nevada and the hail of McGuigan’s heavy hands.

Yet despite political complexity, his route to success had simple foundations. He set a pace few could live with, he was the Clones Cyclone and he scalded better fighters with that searing work-rate.

“The feeling was incredible,” he says reflecting on the aftermath of the Pedroza fight.

“It’s difficult now to describe it. The sense of elation, of achievement, it was overwhelming. To have all those people around me, cheering and celebrating, my Dad and my brother Dermot, for them to be part of that moment was just fantastic.”

In the ring on that June 8 night, Harry Carpenter of the BBC interviewed McGuigan who dedicated the win to Young Ali, the Nigerian fighter who fell into a coma after fighting the Monaghan boxer in 1982, and never recovered.

“I was struggling to hold my emotions back,” he says. “I told him it hadn’t been an ordinary fighter who beat him (Young Ali) that night… but a world champion.”

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