How champ Carl Frampton is helping Belfast to save boxing
There is plenty to say about Carl Frampton. How impressive his win over challenger Chris Avalos was on Saturday night at the Odyssey Arena would be the first. How, even as the IBF World Champion, he gave away such advantages as two inches in height and an incredible five-and-a-half inches in reach, and still outboxed his opponent to a literal standstill in the fifth round. How he has managed, as other sports and cultural figures have over the decades, to pull the full weight of public opinion and support behind him.
Those achievements are already considerable.
But Frampton almost single-handedly has placed boxing firmly back on the agenda in Northern Ireland. In this, of course, he has the backing of the trail-blazing McGuigan clan. Boxing has always been a particular strength in Belfast - the city can boast a long line of world champions, gold medallists, belt-holders at most weights - and its clubs and coaches are respected worldwide in a sport well-adapted to poor urban environments.
But maybe it has also been the Cinderella sport - as soccer and rugby and, more recently, golf have become more of a focus when we think of how we want to build our reputation as a modern world city.
Surely the rise of Paddy Barnes, Olympian, has helped also in restoring the sport to its current prominence. But Frampton, as a professional, has brought the big noise back to a city which at last has an arena fit to stage world title fights.
With the often dodgy reputation the game has acquired, somehow he has arrived at just the right time for boxing itself.
All the glamour of Las Vegas and Madison Square Garden appeared in Belfast last week in preparation for the bout and didn't look out of place any more than Belfast did.
It's a mark of Frampton's impact that boxing returned to mainstream terrestrial TV for the first time in a long time. Coverage of the undercard on ITV4 was exceptional exposure for the city; the main bout switched to ITV prime time on Saturday night and a global audience tuned in for the Tigers Bay boy's spectacular first defence of his world title.
After all the pounding Queen and Van Morrison anthems, all the "Ready to Rumble?" showbiz glitz, was over, there was just Frampton, Avalos and the referee in that small ring and, strangely, the ancient gladiatorial encounter was allowed to take its own shape, in its own time.
Many will still see boxing simply as managed violence, a brutal match of machismo and cruelty, needless risk-taking, a testosterone-fuelled bookies' party. But, as we know, properly handled, it is a spectacle like no other, as far removed from the fake TV of I'm A Celebrity, Ant and Dec and endless quiz shows, as it is possible to get.
Real, skilful engagements between opponents who, for all the targeted aggression, are in the entertainment business, in the livelihood business, in a place, as it was once said, it is possible to run, but not hide. Both boxers were and remain working, doing their job, earning their living in a profession at which, winner and loser, they both excel after years of the most arduous training, learning, skilling and practice.
The margin between winner and loser on Saturday night was clearly visible as the fight progressed; but at that high level of performance the margin is actually only possible to identify by direct confrontation.
Avalos entered the ring laughing; his cornermen were relaxed and confident. All of them genuinely thought they had the measure of the Belfast boy.
But for all the razzmatazz, it's not how you enter the ring that counts, but how you leave it.
It's important to praise the referee Howard Foster in the contest. As Avalos soaked up flurries of punches from Frampton and began visibly to reel under them, Foster's attention was fixed on the young American's face and, the instant he became convinced the fighter was on the verge of not being able to defend himself in the customary manner, he stepped in and cut the contest short.
It was exemplary refereeing and important, too, in that the last thing that anyone wanted on live TV was unnecessary spectacle at the expense of safety.
It's not that Frampton represents "the best of us" in Belfast, or that, in any simplistic way, he "brings the communities together". It's really that, in fact, he is playing a big part in showing that boxing remains a valid route to celebrate for young working-class men in the wider culture and that his honesty, authenticity and sheer genius is helping Belfast to help save boxing.
- Follow me on Twitter @ GWalker9