In the depths of The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, moments of peace from the political and sectarian violence had unlikely provenance—the inherently bloody battles that happened in the ring.
Barry McGuigan is a Catholic from Clones, in the Border Region of Ireland, and married to a Protestant woman. When he fought, he wore simple trunks with a white dove, beholden to neither the Irish Republicans nor the northern Unionists.
Some 20 years after he retired from the ring, it was another young fighter, a Protestant from Belfast with a Catholic wife, who struck a chord with McGuigan. Thus started the relationship between the Irish legend and his young charge, Carl Frampton.
As Frampton was rising up the ranks, McGuigan saw something in the young scrapper: a window into the past, a reflection in the ring. They even fought near the same weight—McGuigan at 126, Frampton at 122. Around the time Frampton was to turn professional after a wildly successful run through the amateur ranks, McGuigan became Frampton’s manager.
“Barry is not only a hero to boxing fans around Ireland and the U.K., he’s just a real sporting icon,” Frampton said. “When he was fighting, Ireland was in a terrible place. There was a lot of fighting in the streets. It was in the middle of the Troubles, in the dark days.
“The old saying was ‘Leave the fighting to McGuigan.’ It doesn’t seem like much, but when Barry fought, the trouble on the street stopped for a couple of hours while everyone was inside watching McGuigan fight. It doesn’t seem like much, but in Belfast it was huge.”
Since McGuigan took Frampton under his wing, the younger fighter has grown close to his mentor’s family. McGuigan’s son, Shane, trains Frampton. The other McGuigan boys, Blain and Jake, are both involved in his Cyclone Promotions.
Still, there’s something of a Hollywood improbability to having the most celebrated fighter from a region shepherd his own second coming up through the ranks. It’s essentially the plot of Rocky V through XXIII.
“I've known Barry so long, it just seems normal now,” Frampton said. “I’ve been with him six years. I’ve been at his house. I know his whole family very well. I feel like part of the McGuigan family, and I would like to think they feel the same way.”
Beyond the familial, there’s a side benefit to the whole thing. The relationship affords Frampton the chance to step out of the limelight from time to time when he walks the streets with a bona fide national hero.
“It’s a little bit surreal,” he said. “If you go back to Belfast, the people still love him and idolize him, and I’m just kind of hanging around.”
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