It's no doubt possible to spend half an hour in a Belfast pub without hearing the name Barry McGuigan, but it's not likely. No more than 10 minutes after I dropped in at the Errigle one evening in mid-December, an old fellow took a solid grip on my lapel and pulled me up close. "Listen," he said, "Barry is the greatest fighter Ireland has ever produced. I compare him with Sugar Ray."
I started to say something about Leonard, and the old fellow glared at me. "Sugar Ray Robinson," he said impatiently.
The Errigle is a fancy, newish place out on Ormeau Road in South Belfast, where men sit appreciating their Bushmills whiskey as a Muzak When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New comes heartrendingly through the overhead speakers. This particular old fellow was none other than Billy Barnes, who fought as a flyweight in the London Olympics of 1948.
"Barry is the new messiah," Barnes said with a hoarse passion. McGuigan, though, isn't the rallying point for yet another religious schism to torment Belfast, but just the reverse. "We're all one, Catholics and Protestants, when Barry gets into the ring," Barnes said. "Nothing brings the people of this town together like Barry."
Another drinker joined in. "Belfast was a ghost town at night," he said. "You got in the habit of sitting at home after dark. Belfast, let alone boxing, had been dead for 20 years. I'll not say it was Barry alone who was responsible for getting things going in the evenings, but the boy has united this city like nobody else could."
Barry (short for Finbarr) McGuigan is a native of the Republic of Ireland who now resides in Northern Ireland. His wife, Sandra, is Protestant, and he's Catholic. Ring opponents have found him a little-c catholic in the matter of dealing out punishment; his record is 23-1-0, and only three of his fights have gone the distance. He's the WBC's No. 4-ranked featherweight and the WBA's No. 7. McGuigan (pronounced mic-GIG-gan) looks a bit like Alexis Arguello, the superb featherweight champion of the late '70s, and his idol is Roberto Duran, the former lightweight great, for whom he has named one of his pair of German shepherds. (The other is Bandit.) To many observers, even those less prejudiced than Barnes, McGuigan is the most serious challenge in many years to the current Latin domination of the lower weights.
On one recent morning, though, while breakfasting austerely on tea and oatmeal in the Victorian rooming house in Bangor, half an hour's drive northeast of Belfast, which he uses as training headquarters, McGuigan, though the British and European champion, looked no threat to anyone. But one best not be deceived by his soft, polite voice and natural courtesy. His eyes can take fire instantly, and there's a near-palpable impression of physical strength that belies his 126 pounds. His hands seem to be the size of a light heavyweight's, and his reach is 70 inches, which wouldn't be bad for a welterweight. One senses a blatant physical self-pride in McGuigan, a quality that's rare in a European boxer. It reminds one of Hector Camacho.
He'll need every bit of his strength, size and pride in his toughest fight so far, against former WBC featherweight champion Juan LaPorte of Puerto Rico on Feb. 23 in Belfast. Assuming that McGuigan wins, he and Barney Eastwood, his manager, want a shot at a world title—either the WBC championship held by Azumah Nelson or the WBA title of Eusebio Pedroza.
McGuigan's quest for a professional crown began in 1978, when, at 17, he won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, B.C. and immediately came under pressure from London's Mickey Duff to turn pro. "I have managed a few Irish fighters in my time," says Duff, England's most successful boxing promoter, "but they all approached me. Barry is the first fighter I've ever approached, and now, after his progress and showing, I feel sick at [having failed to sign] him."
Another fellow impressed by McGuigan was Eastwood, a Belfast millionaire who runs 33 betting shops all over Northern Ireland. "I used to promote in the early '60s," says Eastwood, an urbane man of 52 who lives in a baronial estate in Holywood, County Down. "But I'd been out of the game a long time when I saw Barry on the telly, and I took a great shine to him. He wasn't doing all that great in the amateur ranks, but that didn't worry me. I could see he wasn't just a three-round fighter. He was a 15-round man. After three rounds he wasn't even breathing hard. People thought I'd gone away in the head because the sport had been dead in Belfast for so long. But in Belfast, if you can fight, they'll support you."
Eastwood got in touch with McGuigan, persuaded him to take him on as manager and helped McGuigan launch his professional career in May 1981. McGuigan scored two quick knockouts, and then England's Peter Eubanks took a decision from him. That defeat was avenged four months later, when McGuigan beat Eubanks on a TKO in the eighth.
In June 1982, McGuigan knocked out Nigeria's Ali Mustafa, known as Young Ali, in the sixth round of a bout in London. Eastwood recalls the right that finished the fight: " 'He's ginna get up,' says the man next to me. I said, 'He'll nivver get up. He's gone. He went down face first.' "
Young Ali never did get up. He was flown to a hospital in Lagos, and he remained in a coma for six months and then died. McGuigan still agonizes over Young Ali's death, which came very close indeed to ending his own ring career. "I'm not over it," he says. "I never will be over it. It is the most"—he searches for a word—"important thing that has happened to me. I pray every day for him. My whole family prays for him. I just hope he's in heaven. What makes me feel worse is that his wife was pregnant. His baby came two weeks after the fight. He was just trying to get money for his family, and he didn't even get to see his baby. Thanks be to God it was a boy, to bring his name to the next generation. I wish I could reel the whole tape back."
McGuigan didn't put on a glove for almost seven months after that fight. "I was out on the hills for days," he says. "I wouldn't speak to my wife." He'd take Bandit and Duran and go hunting rabbits, pheasants, whatever he could get, mostly with an old friend, 64-year-old John McCormack.
"All that time," McGuigan says with a touch of shame, "I did nothing, and my wife worked as a hairdresser to keep me and our baby she was carrying." In the end he talked to a priest and, after some contemplation, decided to give boxing a try again. Even so, he says, he froze in the middle of his next two fights, thinking of Young Ali. "I nearly got knocked out," he says.
But McGuigan was beginning to develop as a boxer, which isn't easy for a kid with no pugilistic tradition in his background. If you were a 12-year-old with an itch to fight and you happened to live in the little town of Clones in County Monaghan, in the Republic, just south of the Ulster border, you had to bike the nine miles to the nearest gym, which happened to be at Wattle Bridge in Northern Ireland. "There were very few people about in the evenings," McGuigan says, "and not much light. I'd train on me own. Then me father stopped me from going there, for only about a half mile from the gym they found two men with pitchforks in them and left dead in the ditch with black bags pulled down over their heads. My father decided he'd better drive me himself to a gym in Smithborough in the Republic."
It was about that time that the younger McGuigan developed a deep desire to help bring his divided people together. "When I lived in Clones, there was no such thing as a barrier as far as I was concerned," McGuigan says. "I had Protestant and Catholic friends. But at the same time I could feel the bitterness. Clones is a very republican town. Sandra lived over the road from me and the two of us was back and fore over the hedges like grasshoppers. When we married in 1981, there was no problem. The local people accepted it."
The folks in Clones may have accepted the marriage of Barry and Sandra, but there were some reservations among them when the young couple decided to build a house in the tiny hamlet of Kilrooskey, which is—by a bare 50 yards—just inside County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. And somehow that choice of site symbolizes the strange amalgam of tragedy and absurdity that the border represents.
Head there to visit the McGuigans, and you might notice men from Southern Electricity—that's a company in the Republic—just up the road, working on the McGuigans' power supply. Their tap water, though, comes from Northern Ireland. "There's a fellow near me who gets welfare checks from both the North and the South," McGuigan says, "because his house straddles the border." On the other hand, men less innocent than electricians often make use of the side roads. "This was real bandit country, all right," McGuigan says. "They spent ¬£1.5 million building checkpoints. All the roads 'round here used to get blown up on a regular basis, but things have quieted down some now."
Some resentment surfaced back home when McGuigan applied for and received British citizenship for professional reasons—the road to the European, Commonwealth and world titles comes easier via the more prestigious British championship than via the Irish crown. "It didn't cost me a thought when I took out Brit citizenship," McGuigan says. "There was never a hint of any political thing in my mind. But a lot of people was very bitter. There was bad letters, bad things in the paper." A little cynically, he adds, "But when I kept winning fights, things changed."
The truth, of course, is that McGuigan is what the gray and battered city of Belfast had longed for, for close to 20 years. You can dismiss as gimmickry his insistence on "neutral" colors—no Republican green or Protestant orange—for his trunks and the blue "flag of peace" he carries into the ring, with its vaguely U.N. design, incorporating a dove. But what can't be ignored is that McGuigan is one of the very few men for whom the red carpet would be rolled out as readily in Belfast's Protestant Shankhill as it would in that city's Catholic Falls Road section.
True, to get across the center of Belfast to the little gym that Eastwood has built for McGuigan on Castle Street, you'll have to pass through two police and two army checkpoints. But once inside, you'll find nobody who cares about your politics or religion—and that's very rare in Belfast these days.
Meantime, McGuigan's boxing development has proceeded apace. Once prone to throw low punches, he has changed his style. In January 1984, against Charm Chiteule of Zambia, he was warned frequently about throwing low blows, and he suffered an injury to his right eye. "As an amateur," McGuigan says, "I was strictly right hand and jab. I never had a hook and never threw combinations. Then, when I went pro and I was developing this left hook of mine, I tied the right hand to my side. In a fight, I tried to go left, left, left. As some of my opponents got tired, sweaty and slippy, my punches would glance off and land on the top edge of the cup. The referees would warn me a lot, but I've changed my delivery now."
Indeed, it was only three months after that labored win over Chiteule that McGuigan demonstrated to the world that he could handle the class of his division. He scored a seventh-round TKO over Jose Caba of the Dominican Republic, who six months earlier had gone the distance against Pedroza. "You're the real world champ," Caba told McGuigan later.
While taking a break from training not long ago, McGuigan visited his parents, Kate and Patrick, and grandfather, also Patrick, back at the old place in Clones. It's a granite block house connected with the grocery the family runs. It was in the store that young Barry started putting on some heft, lifting 50-pound sacks of potatoes with either hand.
In the whitewashed kitchen, where a panful of sausages sizzled on the stove, Barry's father played a videotape of the Caba fight, in which a left hook to the body was his son's bread and butter. Barry carefully explained the mechanics of the punch: "It has to be swept up in a half hook, half uppercut, and it has to land in the upper abdomen—that's an area of the body that can't be built up with muscle to a great extent. It also has to be thrown with one single motion, with the front knee bending and the whole weight of the body swung forward."
As a bombardment of those hooks to the body brings the Caba bout to an end, Barry's grandfather says, "That's how he does them all. In the body."
When Barry's father, absurdly young-looking at 48, isn't dispensing spuds and sprouts, he travels as lead singer with a pop group called the Big Four. You could have caught the combo last year in New York City, at the Cork Cabaret Lounge in Queens, or at the Fireside in the Bronx, or at The Real McCoy or Tom O'Reilly's in Manhattan. He dismisses his music lightly. "Middle-of-the-road Irish-American stuff," he says.
Which may not be a bad description of how American TV currently views Barry. "Boom Boom with a brogue!" said Tim Ryan of CBS on June 30, 1984, when McGuigan stopped Paul DeVorce of New York in the fifth round on U.S. network TV. It's plain that McGuigan is tailor-made for an Irish-American TV audience, just as Mancini is for Italian-American viewers.
"Barry's like a classic horse," Eastwood says. "Seven furlongs he went well, a mile he went well. But he's not been over the mile and a half yet. That's when you'll see the real feller. Nobody's seen the best of him yet, because he's never been off the bit."