Sunday 18 February 2018

'Terrorism, Trump and segregation - It's a worrying time'

Barry McGuigan and his son Shane believe there is more to life than boxing, writes Jonathan Liew

Barry McGuigan. Photo: Getty
Barry McGuigan. Photo: Getty

Jonathan Liew

The first member of the McGuigan family to appear is not Barry, the former world champion, or his son Shane, the world-famous trainer. Prowling the corridors and pacing the floors of the McGuigan gym in south London is a two-year-old snow-white bulldog called Titan.

Titan watches George Groves warming down after a session, dodges Carl Frampton as he strolls into the kitchen. "We only think we run this place," says Barry on arrival, bending over to ruffle Titan's coat. "He's in charge."

While we wait for Shane, Barry gives us a quick lowdown on the facilities.

Through the door on the left: ice baths, infra-red sauna, treatment room.

To the right: dressing room and green room. On the first floor, offices and conference facilities. No accoutrement has been spared in the pursuit of excellence. "We've got an apartment just off the King's Road where the boxers are staying," Barry explains. "Far too good for them, really."

If you try to visualise a boxing gym in your mind's eye, chances are you are not imagining an infra-red sauna. But in many ways, it encapsulates the journey McGuigan has been on, from the "spit and sawdust" gyms in Co Fermanagh where he learnt his trade, to the cutting edge of the fight game.

McGuigan returns to Northern Ireland most weeks. We talk about Brexit, and how it might affect relations with the south. "I wish we'd stayed in Europe," he says matter-of-factly. "But we're not, and there's going to be some sort of effect.

Growing up, we knew there was a border. It was the Troubles, and every time you went across the border, you had to go through customs and then a police checkpoint. In the last 15 years, they've got rid of most of that. I wonder how that's going to develop with Brexit. Will there be another hard border?"

It is now more than 30 years since he ruled the featherweight world, winning the World Boxing Association title in 1985. Then, as now, he seemed to stand for something larger: an athlete who transcended the traditional divides between north and south, Protestant and Catholic. He united. He uplifted. At his peak, McGuigan broke down borders. Now, all over the world, those borders seem to be going up again.

"It does worry me," he says. "You see people wanting independence, wanting this, wanting that. There seems to be more rather than less segregation: metaphorical, or whatever. With all of this terrorism, with what's going on with Trump, it's a worrying time."

Immediately, however, he checks himself, and brightens up. "But everything will be all right," he smiles. "It'll turn out OK."

This is McGuigan all over: always positive, always striving to look forward rather than back, to the next goal, to the next project. And besides, he has a film to promote, to which the McGuigans have devoted a good deal of time. It is called 'Jawbone', and is unashamedly British from first reel to last: Ray Winstone plays a hard-nosed trainer, Ian McShane the promoter, and Paul Weller has done the soundtrack.

The starring role - a former amateur boxer returning to the sport while battling his personal demons - is played by Johnny Harris, who the McGuigans spent months knocking into shape.

It is a role they know well. Two decades ago, they worked with Daniel Day-Lewis for his part in 'The Boxer'. A few years ago, they helped train former cricketer 'Freddie' Flintoff for a one-off pro fight.

Which means the McGuigans are better placed than most to ruminate on how you 'build' a fighter. Is is an innate trait? Are fighters born? Or can they be made?

"It's a long old process," says Shane, who has arrived and - unlike his father - speaks in a clipped English accent. "Johnny must have sparred 200-plus rounds for the film. He lost a lot of weight. He didn't need to.

"But if you're going to play the role, you have to know what the role feels like.

This game isn't for everyone. Boxers are emotional people, but they're hardened people at the same time. They fight so many fears to get themselves into that ring that anything else outside becomes almost meaningless.

"You see so many tragedies outside boxing, whether that's addiction, whether that's being a lunatic on a motorbike."

"They're complicated people," Barry agrees. "And often, the better the athlete, the more complicated."

As one of the most promising young trainers in the sport, it is Shane's job to untangle the complications and find the pure fighter within. Not yet 30 and yet already entrusted with the careers of Frampton, Groves, David Haye and several promising youngsters, the secret to being a good trainer, as Shane puts it, is "knowing people".

"Fighters are motivated in different ways," he explains. "Which ones are motivated by fame? Which ones by money? George once said: 'If I could go in there and box, and the next day nobody had a clue who I was, I would take that every day of the week.' He wants to win a world title, prove people wrong, and make a better life for his family and kids. He doesn't really like being famous."

Groves fights Fedor Chudinov for the WBA super-middleweight title later this month, and the McGuigans agree he is in better nick than in the past.

Competitively, British boxing is arguably in better shape than it has ever been, with 11 world champions and a new heavyweight star in Anthony Joshua.

But the wider picture is less rosy. These days, the likes of Frampton and Groves attract a fraction of the recognition of their predecessors. The days when 19 million tuned in to watch McGuigan win the world title are long gone.

"We have to be realistic," Barry says. "Sky's been around 20 years. A whole generation has grown up with pay-per-view. What we need is constant, good-quality boxing on terrestrial television, and executives willing to be patient. Because it will deliver the numbers."

"It's a different era," Shane adds. "Anthony Joshua was on pay-per-view in his 16th fight. Muhammad Ali's fights were pretty much always free-to-air.

"You had dad, you had Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank, Frank Bruno, Steve Collins.

"They didn't have Instagram or Twitter, they couldn't self-sabotage on social media. That'll never happen again.

"Unfortunately, to get traction these days you've got to f***ing throw a table in the air and say you'll put somebody in hospital. You can't do it from charisma and charm, because people don't want to see that. They want to see some stupid s**t."

It is why both McGuigans believe strongly in boxing as redemption, as edification, as education. Like the character in the film, who discovers in boxing what he never could at the end of a bottle.

"It's a redemptive story," Barry says. "For many kids, boxing puts contour and shape into their life. Even the ones who don't make it. It teaches them what it is to put time and effort into something.

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