To be at Loftus Road on Saturday night, June 8, 1985, was something special.
The approaches to Queen’s Park Rangers’ stadium, where Barry McGuigan challenged the Panamanian Eusebio Pedroza for the WBA featherweight championship, resembled the King’s Hall on a big fight night. Irish accents were everywhere, green was the dominant colour — even Ireland’s Saturday Night, with its special preview of the contest, was on sale at street corners and the entrances to the famous London football ground.
The only ingredient missing was the King’s Hall roof which accentuates the roar of the crowd and the chants of “Barree...Barree.”
Yet 27,000 fans certainly made themselves heard. For Pedroza didn’t appear to have a supporter in the stadium.
Expectancy gripped Loftus Road, everyone felt they could be part of an historic occasion. McGuigan caught the atmosphere in his book The Untold Story: “As my father Pat sang Danny Boy during the preliminaries I was oblivious to it all. I just hummed the whole way through it. I felt emotional. I had to concentrate on Pedroza.”
More surprises were in store, however, for the Clones Cyclone. His multi-millionaire manager and mentor Barney Eastwood had been fascinated when Sean O’Grady fought in the United States and the promoters dressed a dwarf to dance around the ring like a leprechaun. Why not repeat the act at Loftus Road?
Barney thought Pedroza might be suspicious if that happened again. He hired a dwarf from a local circus dressed in green garb and wearing a bowler hat to perform cartwheels and throw green dust at the Pedroza corner pretending to cast an Emerald Isle spell on them from ‘The Little People!’
“While my father sang, Pedroza stared at me,” said McGuigan.
“By that time my eye pupils were staring at him, too, like a terrier that’s got hold of a fox.”
Plans for a laser show to illuminate the sky with “Good Luck Barry” signs had to be abandoned when someone pulled the electrical switch. The Eastwood Organisation, who had paid £1m to stage the fight, reckoned it was sabotage.
McGuigan, took the title on a unanimous points decision over 15 fascinating rounds. McGuigan came close to a knock-out in the seventh round when he caught the Panamanian with a right to the jaw followed by a left hook, and he went down for a four count; in the ninth Pedroza was sent reeling again but refused to succumb. At the end of the 14th round Paddy Byrne, his cuts man, told him: “You have three minutes to beat the best featherweight champion this century. In three minutes you will be champion of the world.”
There was no doubt who was the winner — no ifs or buts. Pedroza had successfully defended his title 19 times but lost this one as Ireland had its first world champion in 35 years.
McGuigan had produced a devastating performance which added his name to the litany of the greats — Turpin, Conteh, Buchanan and the rest.
As McGuigan was interviewed by BBC TV commentator, the late Harry Carpenter, he revealed to worldwide viewers he was dedicating the fight to Young Ali, a Nigerian whom he knocked out in the fourth round during a contest at the World Sporting Club, London in June 1982; Ali collapsed in a coma, never regained consciousness, was eventually flown back to Lagos where he died the following December. McGuigan was shattered.
“It was as though six months had passed and the world had stopped for me” he wrote in The Untold Story. “I kept in touch with his family throughout. I never thought something like this could happen. I had always thought boxing was just a sport, just a game.”
Denis O’Hara, acclaimed Northern Ireland sports journalist and lifetime colleague, one of the chosen few invited into McGuigan’s dressing room at the finish, recalls in his excellent recently published book on Eastwood: “Barry and his boss stared at each other in mutual admiration. ‘Son,’ says BJ, ‘we’ve done it, we’ve done it. You are some kid. What a performance.’ Who would have thought a wee man from Clones is king of the world. Both embraced — it was akin to a proud father-successful son scene.”
McGuigan was given a hero’s welcome on his return to Belfast, Dublin and Clones and, en route from Loftus Road to his West End hotel, crowds banged on the side of the van. Phil Coulter, renowned songwriter, musician and entrepreneur, sat beside the new champion. His advice to him was: “Enjoy it all. Take it all in now and hang on to it, believe me it won’t last.”
How spot on was that prediction. That wonderful combination of super fighter and wealthy, shrewd promoter, envy of world boxing, unfortunately ended in acrimony. Another tragedy of the fight game.