Friday 21 July 2017

Review: Autobiography: Cyclone: My Story by Barry McGuigan

Virgin Books, €13.99

Just champion:
Former WBA champ Barry
McGuigan 'spars' with a you
fan at the opening of
Rowandale Primary, Moira, Co
Antrim, in 2007
Just champion: Former WBA champ Barry McGuigan 'spars' with a you fan at the opening of Rowandale Primary, Moira, Co Antrim, in 2007

Nineteen-eighty five was a dreadful year for Ireland, North and South. In the North, the violence which had ravaged the province since 1969 continued unabated.

In the Republic, a vicious recession saw unemployment soar to 17.3pc, higher even than it is today. Young people were fleeing abroad in search of work and an air of despondency had settled over the land. There was very little to be cheerful about.

But all this was set to change. On the evening of June 8, 1985, in a football stadium at Loftus Road in Shepherd's Bush, London, a 24-year-old boxer called Barry McGuigan from Clones, Co Monaghan, was about to make history.

Before the evening was over he had defeated a Panamanian fighter called Eusebio Pedroza to become the WBA featherweight boxing champion of the world. The impact was enormous. That evening, the Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald rang McGuigan to congratulate him. It was a prelude to what was to come.

When he went back to Belfast, he was greeted by 70,000 people and given a civic reception by the lord mayor. When he returned to Clones, he found it almost impossible to enter the town, so dense was the throng.

A few days later, an estimated 250,000 people turned out in Dublin as he rode in an open-topped bus along O'Connell Street with his young wife and child to a reception in the Mansion House.

Everyone wanted to see McGuigan, shake his hand, get his autograph or take his photograph. It was as if the Irish people, North and South, had been waiting for something like this. McGuigan had given them a reason to be proud in the midst of the gloom.

Until June 8, 1985, few people outside the boxing fraternity had heard of Barry McGuigan. But his success was no mere fluke. He had been boxing since the age of 13. His father, Pat, had built a gym in the back garden of their home in Clones, and to improve his strength, the young McGuigan carried 50lb bags of potatoes in each hand at the family's grocery store.

His achievement in winning the world title was due to a combination of talent and a relentless programme of training under the direction of his manager, Barney Eastwood. Since turning professional four years earlier, McGuigan had been steadily building towards this day.

His cross-border appeal and his ability to draw support from all sections of the community was no accident either. Although based in Clones, McGuigan had cultivated a huge following in Belfast. Most of his fighting career had taken place in the North and he held a British passport to enable him to compete for UK titles. From the beginning, McGuigan encouraged a non-sectarian appeal. At contests he entered the arena behind the UN Peace flag and his father, a singer, entertained the crowd with a rendition of 'Danny Boy' -- a song that every Irish person could identify with.

And he carried his non-sectarian approach into his personal life. Although raised a Catholic, he chose a Protestant girl -- he married his wife, Sandra, in 1981 at the local Anglican church and had a blessing afterwards in the Catholic Church.

He has long been an advocate of integrated education and performed the opening ceremony of Hazelwood College, one of the first integrated schools in Northern Ireland.

Sadly, McGuigan's professional boxing career was to have a short span. Barely a year later, it came crashing down in the heat of the Nevada desert when he lost on points to the Texan Steve Cruz at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. There followed a rift with his manager, Barney Eastwood, and a costly legal battle.

McGuigan withdrew from boxing temporarily and later attempted a comeback under a new manager, Frank Warren. But after only four fights, he finally retired on May 31, 1989. He was 28 and had fought 35 professional contests winning all but three.

Barry McGuigan went on to build other successful careers as a sports commentator and a media columnist. He worked with the film producer Jim Sheridan and actor Daniel Day-Lewis on the movie The Boxer. In 1995 he was awarded an MBE and in 2005 was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

He established the Professional Boxing Association as a forum for practitioners and set up the Barry McGuigan Boxing Academies at colleges throughout the UK to enable students to combine boxing, training and education.

But it is for his role in lifting the spirits of the Irish people, on both sides of the Border, in the bleak days of the mid-1980s and bringing some joy and pride into their lives that Barry McGuigan will be most fondly remembered.

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