Day of the Jackal: We profile boxer Carl Frampton
It's been three decades since a fighter united the country behind him like Carl Frampton. And tonight, 16,000 fans of the Sweet Science will throng Belfast's Titanic Quarter, willing him on to world title glory.
When your manager describes you as "the best prospect in 30 years", the weight of expectation could understandably be crushing, but Carl Frampton has worn it like a badge of honour.
Tonight, the 27-year-old will walk to the ring knowing he is less than an hour away from fulfilling his dream of becoming world champion, a prediction made by his manager when he signed him up five years ago.
Standing in the way is a man he has already beaten, Spain's Kiko Martinez, who, since losing to Frampton in a European title fight in February 2013 at the Odyssey Arena, has gone on to win the WBF World super-bantamweight title, making two successful defences of the belt.
Martinez has been haunted by that loss to Frampton and is eager for revenge, but the Belfast man is ready to reach the summit before 16,000 fans at a purpose-built arena in Titanic Quarter.
It is all a long way from the night he had his first contest as a seven-year-old in Portstewart, having two weeks earlier been encouraged to join the Midland ABC gym by his mum, Flo.
At that age, the young boxers have what are described as 'no-contests', where a decision is not given and Frampton's main memory from that night is "they had finger sandwiches and I was looking at them wondering, 'What are they'?"
Born and raised in Tiger's Bay, Frampton knows he could easily have ended up on a different path and, while it may seem a cliche to some, boxing – along with his family – made sure he had a clear focus throughout his teenage years.
Midland boss Billy McKee would be the man who taught him the fundamentals of the sport, guiding him throughout his days as an amateur.
Frampton always looked as if he had talent to go a long way in the sport and the professional business would always beckon, such was his style and natural power.
While his professional career has largely gone smoothly, the amateur days were filled with highs and lows. At 17, he entered the Irish senior championships – spread over three weeks – and a couple of days after his 18th birthday, he was celebrating flyweight success, even though he was yet to win an Ulster senior title.
It seemed he was destined to go on and compete at the Commonwealth Games and Olympics, but neither materialised as he struggled to make flyweight and, for a while, lost a bit of form.
Losing to Ryan Lindberg in the Ulster final denied him a place in the 2006 Commonwealth Games team, and it wasn't until 2008 that he finally got his hands on an Ulster senior trophy.
Coincidentally, that same finals night at Andersonstown Leisure Centre saw Shane McGuigan win the Ulster senior welterweight title – with dad Barry in his corner.
Only a couple of years later and Shane would be his full-time coach and, tonight, he will be giving the instructions as Frampton seeks to conquer the world.
A European Union silver medal would follow and, at the peak of his powers as an amateur in 2009 – when he defeated classy David Oliver Joyce in a memorable Irish final to win the featherweight crown – Frampton felt the time was right to turn professional, even though he would have been guaranteed a place in the Commonwealth Games team a year later.
"As a young guy, I always wanted to be a professional and be a world champion," says Frampton, who made his pro debut on June 12 at Olympia in Liverpool, where he comfortably stopped Hungarian Sandor Szinavel in the second round.
The Northern Ireland boxing fans would get their first glimpse of 'The Jackal' as a professional a year later, when he boxed at the King's Hall on the undercard to former European light-welterweight champion Paul McCloskey, before headlining his own bill at the Ulster Hall in September 2010.
Yuriy Voronin, a former European champion, was the man in the opposite corner and, while his best days where behind him, this was a good test for the young professional and he delivered a stunning third-round knockout.
The wider public were now starting to wake up to his talent and that was further enhanced when he won Celtic and Commonwealth titles in 2011, before going on to add the IBF inter-continental belt to his collection with victories over tough Mexican Raul Hirales and former World champion Steve Molitor.
Then came what many believed would be the moment of truth, when he signed to challenge tonight's opponent, Kiko Martinez, for the Spaniard's European title on February 9, 2013.
Martinez was known to Irish fight fans, as he had previously knocked out former world champion Bernard Dunne in a round, and the Odyssey Arena was buzzing with anticipation.
After eight tough rounds, Frampton uncorked a sweet right hand that sent Martinez tumbling to the canvas and the Belfast man's career into another orbit.
Now everyone in Northern Ireland knew who Carl Frampton was and wanted to know when he would be fighting for the World title. Could it be against Jhonatan Romero in the summer for the IBF title? Instead, Martinez was handed the opportunity and grabbed it with both fists, winning by knockout.
Frampton would go on to defend his European title with a stoppage of Frenchman Jeremy Parodi in an IBF title eliminator, expecting to then have a return with Martinez, but, in spite of offering the Spaniard's camp a huge purse, they declined.
Forced to go another route, manager Barry McGuigan turned his attention to WBC World champion Leo Santa Cruz, but first Frampton had to defeat the number one contender Hugo Cazares, which he duly did at the Odyssey in April in a WBC World title eliminator, in less than five minutes.
It seemed the performance was just too good, as the Santa Cruz camp went quiet on the fight and once more Martinez became the target for world glory.
Cyclone Promotions finally managed to tempt Martinez back and the little Spaniard has been predicting all manner of doom and gloom for Frampton and his supporters.
While his ring career was continuing on an upward spiral, Frampton became a father and his daughter, Carla, now three, will be joining mum Christine at ringside this evening for the first time.
"I've already imagined myself lifting Carla into the air to celebrate with the World title belt," said Frampton, who is being willed to victory by the whole country.
Family is crucially important to the 5ft 5in dynamo and the 15-week training camps away from Carla and Christine get harder and harder, but it is the sacrifice that is required for him to realise his world title dream and, as he says, "give my family the life I want them to enjoy".
In an outdoor arena 29 years ago – Loftus Road, the home of QPR – manager McGuigan rose to the occasion and lifted the World featherweight crown and now Frampton aims to do the same with the Clones Cyclone having guided him to this momentous point.
Not since then has the country had a fighter with such passionate support behind him, but, for all the adulation and hyperbole, he remains grounded and self-assured, ready to rule the world.
A life so far ...
- Name: Carl Frampton
- Weight: Super-bantamweight
- Born: February 21, 1987
- Alias: The Jackal
- Titles: Celtic, Commonwealth, European and IBF inter-continental champion
- Record: 18 wins, no defeats, 13 knockouts
- He says: "To join the greats of Northern Ireland sport by becoming world champion would just be amazing."
- They say: "He's a really special guy, he can knock you out with either hand, he can box and he's a great guy. He deserves everything he gets because he works so hard." (Manager and former world champion Barry McGuigan)