Monday 23 October 2017

One glorious night and memories that go the distance

Tommy Conlon

M idway through the fight McGuigan needed water and his crew reached for the bottles, only to discover there was no water in them.

In the other corner, Pedroza was okay for water. It was Saturday June 8, 1985, in Loftus Road football stadium. Pedroza was defending his WBA world featherweight title; McGuigan had come to take it.

"When you are a professional fighter," says the great Panamanian, "boys are separated from men. You are either a professional or an amateur."

Jim Sheridan would go on to become an award-winning film-maker. He was in McGuigan's corner that night, there to witness the event for his book on the Clones fighter.

Loftus Road was heaving with 25,000 delirious supporters. Sheridan went looking for a tap. He filled the bottles but it wasn't much use -- the water was leaking out of them. "What happened was," says Sheridan, a Pedroza supporter "had come over with razor blades and said hello and shook hands and slit the bottom of all the water (bottles)." He pauses for a moment before adding, "That's professional."

This anecdote is told in a terrific documentary commissioned by Setanta Sports last year to commemorate the 25th anniversary of that electric night in London town. In Sunshine Or In Shadow is being shown today at the headquarters of the Irish Film Institute in Dublin (1.0pm); Setanta Ireland will show it again on March 3.

Barry McGuigan's victory was one of the landmark moments in Irish sport. The fight went the full 15 rounds. Eusebio Pedroza had been world champion for seven years. This was the 20th defence of his title. He was uncommonly tall for a featherweight, highly skilled and occasionally mean. And he had an aura about him in the ring: impassive, stoical, inscrutable. He didn't show pain; McGuigan inflicted a lot of pain that night. Pedroza was 32, his opponent 24; it was McGuigan's youth and hunger that took the champion down.

In the interests of balance, it should be pointed out that when I interviewed Pedroza some 12 years ago, he alleged that his dressing room in Loftus Road was freezing cold -- and not by accident either. He reckoned the heating had been rigged. It might have been summer in London but it was night-time and, for a man used to tropical temperatures, it was hard to stay warm.

McGuigan's story is familiar to those who were around to witness his dynamic rise and poignant fall. The documentary-makers sourced a stream of marvellous archive images to make it seem fresh again. (The film footage of Rinty Monaghan fighting Jackie Paterson in Belfast in 1948, for the world flyweight title, is a highlight.) They spoke to a lot of people too, including Pedroza in Panama City, who would only be recognisable nowadays by virtue of his trademark 'tache.

McGuigan's manager, Barney Eastwood, knew he had a charismatic fighter on his hands. Between them they negotiated Northern Ireland's sectarian divide with the sort of balance and dexterity that McGuigan demonstrated inside the ring too. As his reputation in the fight game grew, so did his stature as a unifying symbol in the midst of conflict. But it was vastly oversold at the time. It became the party line, a platitude trotted out ad nauseam by the political and media establishment. McGuigan meant it sincerely, but eventually the message was devalued to the point of cliché.

And anyway, Belfast had always been a proper fight town: good boxers were traditionally supported by both sides.

The journalist and author Eoghan Corry, who wrote a book about McGuigan, gets it right when he says that the unity theme was also a useful marketing tool. "Business didn't have a Catholic side, business didn't have a Protestant side. Barney Eastwood knew that if he confined himself to one side of that great divide, his earning potential would be halved. He knew that the earning potential for the McGuigan enterprise would also be halved."

Twelve months after winning the title, McGuigan lost it on a traumatic day in Las Vegas. He

was never more heroic than in that terrible battle with Steve Cruz in the desert heat. Though they would fall out bitterly after that fight, Eastwood had managed his boxer brilliantly en route to the title. He paid big money to get Pedroza to London; and he made sure to wait until the champion was in decline before arranging the match. (And they both made sure to steer clear of Azumah Nelson, the formidable Ghanaian who was WBC featherweight champion at the time and who hovers like a ghost in the background of Barry's career.)

McGuigan was a thrilling fighter and remains a compelling speaker on the subject of his sport. He told me once that, with "hands like boulders", he was born to fight. He punished himself long and hard in his home-made gym; the results could be seen in the roped muscle braided across his back. He had an appetite for the battle and a cold heart when it was needed.

All it takes is one day, one special day, to last a lifetime; McGuigan seized that day in June '85. They say 20 million people watched it on television. "And I done it," he says peacefully, 25 years later, a serene look on his face.

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