The fight turned in the last seconds of the seventh round when a massive, unanswerable right from Barry McGuigan crashed home. It was then that Eusebio Pedroza, 32, the WBA featherweight champion, in this, his 20th title defense, finally lost out to the years and to the coolly marshaled aggression of the 24-year-old Irishman from Clones, County Monaghan. Pedroza went down for a mandatory 8-count from that right to the head and the flashing left hook that followed. But the exultant chant of "Easy, easy!" that thundered out of the dark from the wildly partisan crowd was patently wrong and unjust to both fighters.
In all his wanderings over the globe in defense of his title, Panama's gallant soldier of fortune had never fought back as bravely as he did on Saturday night. In the eighth, counterpunching then advancing as if that right had never landed, Pedroza looked like he still had the ring-craft to hold onto the crown he had worn since 1978. Almost until the end of the fight there was that chance. But it was that single blow, it would be plain later, that sapped him, paving the way to his first defeat in nine years.
It was the biggest fight night London had seen since Henry Cooper met Cassius Clay in 1966. The chilly June weather threatened rain, but this was by no means the only threat. Twenty-five thousand seats had been crammed into the West London soccer stadium of the Queen's Park Rangers club, and half of them were to be occupied by fans who had traveled to England from both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. The tragedy of Brussels was in the back of many minds. Police were everywhere, 2,000 ushers were drafted into service, and, even though the flags snapping over the stands identified the liquor company sponsoring the bout, drinking had been forbidden at the stadium. Though, as Barney Eastwood, McGuigan's manager, had observed, "You can confiscate the bottles and the silver flasks, but there's not much you can do about the human flasks." You could see the point of what he was saying as, all along the route to the stadium, green-hatted fans spilled out over the sidewalk, mugs in hand.
Back in McGuigan's native village of Clones, the 2,500 townspeople had mobilized in his support, HIT HIM IN THE CHIPS, BARRY, advised a poster in the butcher shop, and another one read BEEF HIM, BARRY! And a sign on the police station said CHARGE HIM, BARRY. But by fight night nearly half the population of Clones had gone off to London aboard one of the two-an-hour jumbo jet shuttles that British Airways had to lay on. As every Irishman tried to explain, this was the one issue over which Ireland was united.
In London, though, as the fight approached, there was a curious dampening in the Irish mood. Shortly before McGuigan arrived from Bangor, County Down, where he trains, a disquieting report had appeared in the London Times that the young fighter was losing his confidence. The story said that earlier in the week, McGuigan had called Eastwood at 3 a.m. complaining that he couldn't sleep.
Eastwood confirmed the report, saying that he drove over to the Bangor rooming house where his fighter was staying, and together they went for a walk. Once settled in London, the manager was inclined to laugh the matter off. "He's called me before, often," Eastwood said. Still, doubts remained in the public mind. McGuigan had worked out briefly on his first morning in London, but then went into seclusion. Eastwood pronounced him "ready." Others, however, feared that the loss-of-confidence theory was proving all too true.
McGuigan was under constant siege by the British press, even though he had negotiated a reported $65,000 exclusive contract that allowed him to talk only to reporters from the Daily Star, one of Britain's juicier tabloids. That evidently provoked another tabloid, the Daily Mirror, to write two doomsaying stories in the days before the fight. The first, on Wednesday, said that Eastwood had resigned himself to the prospect that if the fight went the full 15 rounds, his lad would lose the decision. Bad enough, but the following day the Mirror announced boldly: MCGUIGAN IS BROKE. And it quoted him as saying, "I owe my bank, my dad, my manager." It turned out the quote was accurate. However, the statement had been made three years ago.
By Thursday McGuigan had failed on two successive mornings to show up at his gym. His absences enhanced the impression that he was running scared, as did Eastwood's unsuccessful campaign to get rid of the appointed, referee, Stanley Christodoulou of South Africa, who had officiated five of Pedroza's previous defenses.
In his suite at the Grosvenor House Hotel on London's Park Lane, Pedroza was unmoved by all this hoopla. He was, after all, to have his biggest-ever payday by far—more than $1 million; McGuigan collected $100,000. "That Eastwood, he always has something to say," Pedroza said, referring to Eastwood's criticism of Christodoulou and other prefight utterances. "He wanted me to fight in Belfast. I would have wanted much more money to fight there. If they paid the money, I would fight in McGuigan's bathroom."
Questions were raised about whether Pedroza really had the stomach for yet another fight. If you wanted to make him mad, all you needed to do was suggest he was in London to take the money and run. "I am being paid to fight, not to sell the title," he said with dignity.
There were also questions about Pedroza's ability to make the 126-pound weight. On Friday, the day before the fight, there was a special weigh-in requested by the WBA. The two fighters were not expected to meet on this occasion, but Pedroza deliberately hung on in the gym so that he could pounce on McGuigan and grab his hand. "I could see in his eyes he was scared," the Panamanian said later. And at the official weigh-in on Saturday morning, there was more brouhaha. Pedroza, in his brown briefs, skipped onto the scales for only a split second, and Eastwood protested when the champion's weight was quickly announced at 126, right on the limit.
But the McGuigan camp didn't lose all the rounds in the psychological skirmishing. After the national anthems were sung, Pat McGuigan led the crowd in a drawn-out version of Danny Boy that left his son and fans visibly charged up.
If McGuigan was scared, he had a curious way of showing it as he tore into the champion from the start. Working his left jab steadily on the retreat, Pedroza scored well early on even as the crowd, seeing only a man on the run, began its chant of "Easy, easy" and "Here we go!" But the crowd was, in fact, a lot more worried than McGuigan; because it had been fed the theory that its man had to kill quick, in the first six or seven rounds, or be outpointed over the 15.
Pedroza tried to stand his ground, counterpunching with his left as the Irishman charged ahead. Then at the end of the seventh came that mighty right. Pedroza was down, and Santiago del Rio, the champion's manager, turned away in pain himself.
But in the eighth, Pedroza took the fight to the Irishman. McGuigan said later, "He'd been in deep trouble, but he was still so hard to connect with." Then, at the end of the ninth round, another big right left Pedroza rubber-legged. He was also rocked by another McGuigan right in the 13th.
By then, the crowd knew it was over. "Champion, champion!" they shouted, but not to Pedroza, who bravely tried to fight off the blazing bolt of energy that McGuigan had become.
And then the referee, scarcely audible, announced a unanimous decision for McGuigan that set off wild jubilation among the 12,000 Irishmen on hand. McGuigan had become only the fourth home-based Irishman in boxing history to wear a world crown.
Even before the official decision was announced, Pedroza, in a sportsmanlike gesture, acknowledged defeat, one arm around McGuigan, the other indicating him as the new champion. That was just as well, because suddenly the crowd lost restraint, crashing through the barrier marking the section for press and officials, smashing telephones and clambering into the ring to get to the man they worshiped. "Remember last week," an official shouted desperately. "Remember the eyes of the world are on you."
Later, in the peace of the dressing room, McGuigan, wife Sandra at his side, 20-month-old son, Blaine, on his knee, explained his monastic behavior during the week. "Sparring Monday," he said, "I pulled a ligament in me left arm, and they've been working on it with ultrasound ever since. Thank God that Gerald Hayes [an adviser] guessed that Pedroza would have trained to avoid my left.... But wasn't that a pacy fight? Wasn't it good? Wasn't Pedroza a great champ?" McGuigan could have talked, as usual, all night. But he was interrupted by a phone call from Irish Republic Prime Minister Garret Fitzgerald. "The country is delighted," Fitzgerald told McGuigan.
Indeed, so delighted that gigantic bonfires were lit in McGuigan's native Clones to celebrate his victory. But now a doting Ireland may owe its favorite son an even greater debt. During the night the house in Clones in which McGuigan grew up, and in which his parents still live, caught fire, and investigators said that sparks from the bonfires may have been the cause. Two rooms of the house were destroyed, and, perhaps the saddest loss of all, the McGuigan family's videotape collection of Barry's previous fights was lost.