Barry McGuigan dons kid gloves
Dare to question the wisdom of boxing to Barry McGuigan and the Clones Cyclone comes out fighting.
The sport has been the salvation of many young men who might otherwise have channelled their energy and aggression the wrong way, the former champion believes. And, in his book, the many coaches and trainers who guided those young lives are nothing less then heroes.
Like boxing coach Gerry Storey who kept the Holy Family gym in Belfast's New Lodge running throughout the darkest days of the Troubles. For over 40 years, his fame for keeping kids off the streets and out of trouble has been legendary.
“In his 70s now, Gerry's got the MBE in the New Year’s honours, which is fantastic and not before time — he should have got a knighthood,” says Barry.
“As Ernest Hemingway put it, ‘boxing is the most honest conversation two people can have with one another’.
“Boxing is a tough, tough business. It's violent, yet controlled; risky, yet controlled. It's a very disciplined sport. It's about hard work and respect for yourself, your opponent and your coach, an older, more experienced man, a role model — something that, sadly, many lads today don't have in their lives.
“It's no exaggeration to say that boxing has saved hundreds of lives by getting kids who were on the cusp of criminality or maybe even getting involved in a terrorist organisation and turning them around.”
Coming to fame and launched on an international stage against a background of the Troubles, the young Barry was determined to be non-political, to alienate no one and have the broadest range of supporters share in his success.
“When I turned professional I was determined to carry that mantle on,” he explains. “I wanted to be non-political and appeal to people and not get involved with any slogans, colours or flags. Then, by serendipity, when we were in London I came across the UN Peace flag and thought, ‘that's what we'll do, I'll cut my shorts out of the colours of the Peace flag’.
“Even my dad singing Danny Boy was as a way of uniting people. It was very important to me that I didn't alienate anybody, that people watching didn't feel threatened in any way. In those days, during the Troubles, people felt threatened everywhere they went, they felt threatened 24 hours a day. They didn't need to feel threatened watching a boxing bout.”
His 26-year marriage to wife Sandra is one of the most enduring in the celebrity sporting world. And never a cross word? “Ah, there have been lots of cross words — that's all part of it! I was going to say it's just normal family life but there are so many single families nowadays, so much divorce, our situation — husband, wife, long marriage, four kids — isn't really the norm any more.”
Theirs was a mixed marriage — he a Catholic from the South, she a Protestant from the North — which, in the late Seventies and early Eighties “wasn't easy”.
“It was a big deal back then. But we were madly in love and our families were very close and supportive so we didn't let anything stand in our way,” he says.
Barry is one of eight brothers and sisters and Sandra one of five siblings. Family and their own four, grown-up children is at the heart of their lives.
The eldest, Blain (25) is a politics graduate and involved in music; Danika (22) is an actress; Jake (21) studies business in London; and the youngest, 19-year-old Shane, is a boxer — a path Barry wasn't keen on for any of his three sons.
“No father likes to see his son being hit and I'm no different from any other parent,” says Barry, who retired in 1989, aged 29, four years after his spectacular win against Eusebio Pedroza to take the WBA featherweight title.
And, although the proud father doesn't say so, there's the whole issue of the shadow cast by his own towering success in the sport and the media pressure that inevitably puts on the youngster.
“I said to Shane at the beginning ‘I'd rather you did something else'. But he said, ‘it's my decision and you can help me or not’. So, I embraced his decision and I help train him. He's a member of Aylesham Amateur Club and also a member of Clones.”
Already showing great promise in the ring, is the Clones Cyclone's son a chip off the old block? “Well, he's bigger than me, better looking, slightly less intense than me, perhaps. But, no, he's very like me in every way and, naturally, I'm very proud of him — as I am of all my kids. It's wonderful seeing them change and grow over the years,” he says.
Sandra's ‘love-hate' relationship with boxing doesn't stretch to watching her youngest boy in the ring. But then, Barry recalls: “My own mother was just the same. She only ever saw me fight once and that was enough for her. When everyone else was watching me on TV she would go off and potter in her grocery shop. She never wanted to see me get hurt.
“Family is very important to Sandra and me — it's the most important thing. Everything else pales in comparison. It's nice to have a good job, pleasant surroundings and everything else but, ultimately, it's family that matters.”
That truth was cruelly brought home to the McGuigans when Danika, their only daughter, was diagnosed with a form of childhood leukaemia, aged just 11. Treatment lasted two anxious, stressful years but was ultimately successful.
“She's 100% well now, thank God. She was one of the lucky ones and got through it. It's one of those things that can make or break a family. Thankfully we pulled together,” he says.
“I read somewhere that something like 65% of families with children diagnosed with cancer break up, because of the stress or because one half of the couple copes while the other goes under.”
He still speaks with something approaching awe of the support Danika and the family got from her CLIC cancer charity nurses.
“After six weeks, treatment stops and you go home. You panic. What happens if something goes wrong? What if she gets a fever, an infection? Then you hear, ‘don't worry, you've got these CLIC nurses coming to see you’. It's just amazing, the support, the reassurance.”
For the past decade or more he has given his unstinting support for fundraising and profile to the charity, now CLIC Sergeant, alongside the likes of Eddie Jordan and Gary Lineker.
Now 47, he groans at the thought of the ‘Big-50' looming, but plans to hit the spot running: “I want to be busy, active, committed and positive — and give as much back as I can — ’til the day I die.”
In a career spanning 32 wins, with 28 spectacular KOs, he's never forgotten his three losses. To this day, he can dissect with forensic detail those few defeats, round by painful round.
The first was against Peter Eubank (Chris Eubank's brother) in Brighton, early in his career.
“I thought I had won the fight clearly but the decision went against me,” he recalls.
It wasn't the worst that could have happened, though. “What's worse is if you don't perform well and yet you win. If you perform well and lose — that's still a win, in my book.”
But, he says with still perceptible relish, he was “avenged” against Eubank about four months later in Belfast's Ulster Hall. “I had him down in the sixth. He was in trouble. He came back in the seventh but I stopped him in the eighth.”
The will to win runs deep in professional fighters and there's no denying the aggression in the sport.
“Every human being has aggression, in different doses,” Barry explains. “It's a natural human condition. That's the great thing about boxing — it teaches you to channel and control that energy. You have to have controlled aggression in what is, after all, the most provocative game in the world.
“I was good at reining in my emotion and releasing it in a controlled way. You learn tactical ways of releasing that aggression in order to win.”
Based in Kent for the past 21 years, Barry McGuigan is back in Northern Ireland maybe 10 times a year and hopes to retire to Ireland one day.
England's fine, he says, “but I don't want to get old there. I think we are more compassionate in Ireland, both north and south of the border, more family-orientated”.
One of those frequent visits saw him take a foodie tour of Ulster with UTV for the appetising new series The Fabulous Food Adventure.
Alongside fellow celebrity Paul Young and top local chefs Simon McCance and Michael Deane, he got a new taste for the hidden delights of the six counties.
The Thursday night six-parter lifts the lid on the wealth and quality of foods grown and reared on our own doorstep, with Barry and crew sampling the likes of duck eggs, real soda farls, Sperrin lamb and organic chicken on their travels.
The man who won Hell's Kitchen through keeping his cool when the heat is on got up to his elbows making soda farls — and loved every minute.
“It was a great experience, travelling around the country in a vintage Rolls Royce sampling all this wonderful local produce and meeting the people behind it. There's a lot we take for granted.”
The Fabulous Food Adventure (Thursdays at 7.30pm) takes UTV viewers on a mouth-watering journey |to six specific Ulster food-producing regions, where celebrities source local produce that is then prepared by top chefs including Nick Price, Anthony Worrall Thompson, Paul Rankin and Michael Deane