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Home and roots - why we see ourselves in heroes like Carl Frampton and they see themselves in us

We admire champions, but legends like Best, Higgins and Frampton invite us to love them, writes Gail Walker

Published 02/08/2016

Daddy’s girl: Carl Frampton gets a hug from his daughter Carla
Daddy’s girl: Carl Frampton gets a hug from his daughter Carla

So this is what it is like to witness the birth of legend ... as if it hadn't already been a historic summer for Northern Ireland - what with Michael O'Neill's boys performing way beyond any reasonable expectations in France - we now have Carl Frampton carving his name in the history books.

Following his February victory over Scott Quigg in Manchester for the super-bantamweight title, Frampton has now added the WBA featherweight title to his record after his epic encounter with champion Leo Santa Cruz in the early hours of Sunday morning in Brooklyn.

Aficionados say it was a wonderful display of pugilistic craft from both fighters. All I know is that it was very, very exciting.

Two titles at different weights - no Northern Irishman has ever done that. Not Barry McGuigan. Not Rinty Monaghan.

That's real history. In the words of the old song, "No, they can't take that away from me".

But legends - and I just don't mean in the realm of the ring - are not created by the process of mere accumulation ... another win, another title, another million-selling album, another hit TV programme. Whatever. Legends are created by a process that is almost beyond explanation. The process needs a certain alchemy, a certain magic.

And at the root of that process is affection. No, more than that, love.

You can sense those emotions in the unfolding Carl Frampton story. We can admire champions, but with heroes, with legends, in some strange fashion, their story becomes our story, their glory, our glory and, yes, their failings, our failings. For, as another song says, heroes often fail ...

Not this time, though. And as the congratulations poured in, you could see that sense of identification, of recognising Frampton as one of us. Whether it was the tweeted praise from local celebrities or the vox pops with ordinary punters, you could grasp the extraordinary depth of feeling for this young man from Tigers Bay in north Belfast.

The one word that we heard over and over again was the word "proud". Carl Frampton made us feel proud. Which is strange in a way. Why should we feel proud about the skill, talent and achievement of someone most of us have never met and never will?

I suspect we feel pride because Carl comes from the same world that we come from. So many of his experiences have been our experiences, in particular that strange social and cultural choreography that comes with growing up in Northern Ireland, even decades after the Troubles.

That whole twisty business of our past - and our future. You know, how all of us have more in common with each other than with anyone else outside of here. In other words, Carl is one of us. When he steps into the ring he represents us.

Irrational? Unreasonable? Slightly mad? Yes, but that's what emotions are. We have invested something of ourselves in the fate of Carl Frampton. And that is why across Northern Ireland, as late Saturday night gave way to the early hours of Sunday, many were nervously counting down the minutes until Carl made his way to the ring.

Others were setting alarm clocks, then stealing downstairs later to cheer on "one of us" on the other side of the Atlantic. Then there were those who lay awake in the dark, fully alert, listening to this epic narrative unfold on the radio, imagining every blow.

And then there is the other half of the magic - that Carl also sees himself in us. While many's a person would be thinking of the personal glory, the rewards and a highly personal future, anyone can see that Carl senses that he needs to stay close to his roots.

Speaking after his triumph, Frampton showed himself to be a true people's champion: "I'm just a normal, working-class guy who can fight a wee bit. That's it ... I want to fight here (in the USA) and I want to fight at home. I'm a Belfast boy and I love my fans back home. I don't want for them to have to spend so much money to come here and see me all the time. I would like to fight in Belfast at least once (a year)."

And on a more personal level, he keeps his family - his wife Christine, children Carla and Rossa, his parents Craig and Flo - closer still. Even his relationship with his manager Barry McGuigan is more than just a business one. As Christine says of the journey they are on: "Sometimes it's hard, but Barry and Sandra have been through it all before, so that's been a big help for us. Carl's like another son to them and obviously he is really close with Shane, Blain and Jake."

Certainly, manager Barry McGuigan's tears were not those of the typical boxing manager. This victory meant more than contracts and TV rights. This was about feelings much more profound, much more human.

Home. Where the heart is.

The photographs of the Belfast champ in his Northern Ireland football shirt in New York's legendary Annie Moore's bar, drinking a pint and surrounded by fans didn't look like a forced PR stunt. Never mind that his face was puffy and marked from the battle a few hours before, his smile was one of genuine delight. He looked at home and at ease.

He didn't look that different from his fans. His life is their lives and vice-versa.

Home and roots. They are a huge part of a powerful alchemy that creates not champions, not sportsmen, but legends.

The only difference is that the legend can do things the people back home can only dream of doing. Just like Alex. Just like George. Just like AP. Just like Rory. Just like Van.

And now just like Carl.

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