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Carl Frampton a working-class hero who's transcended sectarian barriers

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 01/08/2016

Carl’s manager Barry McGuigan throws his arms in the air to celebrate the victory
Carl’s manager Barry McGuigan throws his arms in the air to celebrate the victory

It's become commonplace in this nannyish age of health and safety to deplore the sight of two grown men knocking lumps out of each other in the boxing ring, rather than marvelling at the skill on display.

I should know. I'm one of the people normally doing the tutting.

So the fact that even I was cheering on Carl Frampton on Saturday night in his bout against Santa Cruz surely points to the fact that his achievement was about so much more than boxing.

The sight of the 29-year-old's bruised face the next day did give me some qualms, but not as much as the pleasure of him holding up the belt. Having become the first Northern Irish boxer to win a world title at two different weights, Frampton now has a good claim to be the best ever.

Boxing is sport at its most symbolically raw. It's two opponents squaring up to one another, absolutely alone, with no one to help them, and may the best man win. The best man did on Saturday night, and the fact that he was not only a Belfast fighter, but one from a working-class community in the north of the city, only makes it more significant.

Boxing is one of the few truly working-class sports left. Football has become gentrified, and rugby always was. Hurling and Gaelic football have deep roots in the community, but there's still a way to go before they'll have cross-community appeal. Everyone loves Rory McIlroy, but golf will never shake its image as a game for the privileged few rather than the skint many. Boxing is different.

When a local fighter breaks into the big time, he's always someone that the crowd back home can recognise as one of their own.

They may not be able to afford the overpriced tickets to go sit ringside with the celebrities in evening dress, but they have a connection to those men inside the ropes that the well-to-do in the expensive seats never will, and the boxers feel it. Frampton certainly does. He wears his humble background on his sleeve as a badge of honour.

"I'm just a normal, working-class guy who can fight a wee bit," is how he puts it. "That's it." Of course that isn't all there is to it; but when he says it, he means it, and it's this integrity and lack of pomposity that makes him such a worthy hero to carry the aspirations of the close-knit Protestant community in Tiger's Bay from which he comes.

This is a place which, like so many others in the same boat, has had little enough to celebrate in recent times. Scarred by poverty, unemployment and poor housing, never mind the legacy of the Troubles, the local boy's victory is one of the genuinely positive things the area has had to salute in a long while. The loyalist working-class hasn't had many heroes - George Best and Van Morrison are probably the best known - and most who did make it big ended up going away.

Carl’s manager Barry McGuigan throws his arms in the air to celebrate the victory
Carl’s manager Barry McGuigan throws his arms in the air to celebrate the victory

Of course, Frampton's win doesn't mean that their problems suddenly vanish, but it's a timely reminder that nothing is impossible, and it's all the more encouraging that the task of representing that mood of hope should have fallen on this particular fighter's shoulders.

Too much is probably made of the fact that his wife Christine hails from Poleglass in nationalist west Belfast, and that they opted for a humanist wedding when they got hitched three years ago. Far more important than the respective religions in which they were brought up is the fact that they don't have any airs and graces, and don't take themselves too seriously, and have resisted - at least so far - the lure of London or America, preferring to stay put close to home instead.

Even so, mixed marriages are still an important symbol of where Northern Ireland needs to be heading if it's ever to overcome its toxic history. Their story shows again that it's possible to forge a positive, forward-thinking identity which isn't defined by religion or politics.

We've seen this before with Barry McGuigan - now Frampton's mentor and manager, who sees his protege as practically his son - but coming at this moment in Northern Ireland's story makes it all the sweeter. There's still plenty of pessimism and rancour around. Economic times are hard. Carl and Christine have never been more needed as they are right now. Success may go to their heads, and they may both end up in Beverly Hills with their own reality TV show, but for now what you see is what you get, and what you get is the real deal.

Their success is also a moment that everyone in or from Northern Ireland can share equally. Sadly, there's still a residual sourness which stopped some at home from taking pleasure in Northern Ireland's success at the Euros. More fool them for that. They were the ones missing out.

With boxing, there are no such barriers. Perhaps that's because the boxing fraternity in Northern Ireland worked so hard to stay non-sectarian during the Troubles. Boxing clubs were places where politics was supposed to be checked in at the door. They couldn't escape the shadow of those awful days any more than the rest of society, but they did their best. In the process, they produced some of this benighted place's best people, and in Carl Frampton they may just have found one of the best of the lot.

Belfast Telegraph

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