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Barney Eastwood: A boxing fan who brought the big-time fights back to Belfast

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Barney Eastwood with some of his boxing memorabilia including gloves worn by Muhammad Ali

Barney Eastwood with some of his boxing memorabilia including gloves worn by Muhammad Ali

Eastwood ringside with legendary trainer Eddie Shaw

Eastwood ringside with legendary trainer Eddie Shaw

Barry McGuigan celebrates victory with manager Barney Eastwood after winning the European featherweight title at the King’s Hall in Belfast

Barry McGuigan celebrates victory with manager Barney Eastwood after winning the European featherweight title at the King’s Hall in Belfast

Eastwood returning to Belfast after McGuigan won the world title

Eastwood returning to Belfast after McGuigan won the world title

Eastwood holding world champion Dave ‘Boy’ McAuley

Eastwood holding world champion Dave ‘Boy’ McAuley

Barney Eastwood with some of his boxing memorabilia including gloves worn by Muhammad Ali

He was the boxing fanatic who punched well above his weight to become one of the undisputed champions of Irish sport and a multi-millionaire business giant to boot.

Barney Eastwood who died yesterday at the age of 87 was hailed as a fearless and shrewd promoter who masterminded the ultra-successful careers of world-renowned boxers like Barry McGuigan and put Belfast back on the boxing map.

One of the warmest tributes came from McGuigan even though the two men ended up in a legal battle after a world title fight. Barry tweeted: "I'm saddened to hear of the passing of Barney Eastwood. He was a big character who really knew his boxing. We achieved great things together and shared some amazing times. My deepest sympathies to his wife Frances and his family at this difficult time RIP."

Insiders said yesterday that without Barney Eastwood, or BJ as he was known to his friends, boxing in Belfast would have been counted out long ago at the height of the troubles.

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Eastwood ringside with legendary trainer Eddie Shaw

Eastwood ringside with legendary trainer Eddie Shaw

Eastwood ringside with legendary trainer Eddie Shaw

But the ever-resourceful and optimistic Eastwood refused to lie down and brought big-time boxing back to Belfast at a time when others had been prepared to throw in the towel.

The Ulster Hall became the citadel for boxing and loyalist and republican paramilitaries who were gunning for each other on the terror-torn streets, set aside their hate-filled differences to cheer on fighters doing battle.

And there was no-one quite like Barney's protege Barry McGuigan for uniting the divided city.

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Barry McGuigan celebrates victory with manager Barney Eastwood after winning the European featherweight title at the King’s Hall in Belfast

Barry McGuigan celebrates victory with manager Barney Eastwood after winning the European featherweight title at the King’s Hall in Belfast

Barry McGuigan celebrates victory with manager Barney Eastwood after winning the European featherweight title at the King’s Hall in Belfast

Sadly it was a father and son relationship that ended in tears, not in a boxing ring but in the equally combative surroundings of Belfast High Court, as Eastwood won a bitter scrap for libel damages against his ex-fighter.

It was to become a defining moment in accounts of the life and times of Barney Eastwood, a man who wasn't used to losing.

He was a pugilist at an early age and recalled how he watched American troops fighting British military and navy personnel in a pre-war camp in the '40s near his home town of Cookstown.

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Eastwood returning to Belfast after McGuigan won the world title

Eastwood returning to Belfast after McGuigan won the world title

Eastwood returning to Belfast after McGuigan won the world title

He later donned oversized gloves himself and was more than handy with his fists.

It was the start of a love affair with boxing that never dimmed.

But as he grew up so did his sporting interests and the fading black and white pictures bear testimony to BJ's skills on the Gaelic football pitch.

He's captured, proud as punch, the Tyrone team that won the all-Ireland minor title in 1948 when they overcame the more fancied Dublin side with Eastwood's performance hailed by one writer as "splendid".

In 2010 Barney was still beaming as he and his surviving team-mates were photographed at a 'Reeling in the Years' reunion where they watched grainy images of their glory days.

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Eastwood holding world champion Dave ‘Boy’ McAuley

Eastwood holding world champion Dave ‘Boy’ McAuley

Eastwood holding world champion Dave ‘Boy’ McAuley

Barney never progressed to Tyrone's senior team but the young man who was expelled from school in Armagh aged 14, was soon showing his prowess off the pitch, buying a pub for £2,000 in Carrickfergus, a town for which Catholics from Cookstown didn't normally make a beeline.

Barney said that his first taste of running a "book" was a shady one he operated behind the bar for the convenience of gamblers in Carrick, but he later found himself on the right side of the law, opening up a legitimate bookie's office in the town.

It was the first of 54 shops in the Eastwood empire that was sold for nearly £120m to Ladbrokes in 2008.

Long before that financial bonanza, Barney Eastwood unashamedly lived the good life in the ultra-wealthy confines of North Down's gold coast where only Van Morrison was a more regular visitor to the luxurious Culloden Hotel across the road.

Barney was a free-spending art lover who collected works by renowned Irish painters like Sir John Lavery and Jack Yeats.

But while Barney may have left Tyrone behind, his old friends said he never left his native county behind him and never lost his "common touch".

The county's senior all-Ireland wins in later years might have cost him money as a bookie, but they were undoubtedly priceless for the devoted son of Tyrone.

And from his earliest days, his passion for boxing saw him do more than just talk a good fight.

He organised amateur fight nights in Carrick and in Belfast set up a gym in the Falls Road area, which was later followed by one above his bookie's shop in Castle Street.

As a life and death conflict raged outside, the complex was a haven of peace for young boxing hopefuls from both sides of the community and from countries thousands of miles away who queued up to catch the master's eye.

And there was probably no greater eye for spotting sporting talent than Barney Eastwood who cultivated world title winners at every turn.

McGuigan was the prize fighter of course but others went on to challenge him for legendary status.

Dave 'Boy' McAuley, Crisanto Espana, Eamon Loughran, Victor Cordoba and Hughie Russell are all names that still make the pulses of older boxing fans quicken more than just a little bit.

Barney also did well from his sorties into the property market but it was boxing that gave him his real buzz.

His association with Barry McGuigan even managed to create one of the sport's greatest ever punchlines as the Clones Cyclone traditionally finished his post-fight interviews with 'Thank you Mr Eastwood'.

The late Father Ted actor Dermot Morgan caught the mood by bringing out a song about the catchphrase.

After McGuigan won the featherweight world title by beating Eusebio Pedroza in 1985, he and his mentor were welcomed back to Belfast with a victory parade that drew thousands of people on to the streets.

But a year later the cry was "no thanks Mr Eastwood" as McGuigan lost his crown to Steve Cruz in the heat of Las Vegas and made accusations against his erstwhile friend in an autobiography that cost him dear.

Eastwood was awarded £450,000 in damages. Journalists who covered the case remember the moment the verdict was delivered as more dramatic than any result ever announced from the judges in any boxing ring.

Belfast Telegraph