Our Sporting Lives and Times: Billy McKee, Carl Frampton's first coach, is sure Jackal will win next weekend's Christmas cracker
'Windsor Park was fantastic for Carl and when he dedicated the fight to me, that was very special'
Just three weeks before one of the biggest nights of his career Carl Frampton enjoyed a fireside chat with the man for whom he admits his ring success would never have been possible. At 80 years of age Billy McKee has decided it is time to leave the sport which has given him great memories and personal satisfaction for how it has changed so many lives.
Frampton and McKee gelled from the moment a skinny little seven-year-old walked through the doors of the Midland Boxing Club in Tigers Bay at the behest of his mother Flo. Next Saturday night the veteran coach is expecting the perfect Christmas present when Frampton seeks to wrench the IBF World featherweight title away from champion Josh Warrington in the Manchester Arena.
Their relationship goes beyond boxing as a deep friendship developed over the 17 years the Jackal was in the club and McKee remains a mentor and confidant to the 31-year-old, who won Irish and Ulster senior titles as well as EU silver and multi nations gold before turning professional.
"I talk to him like he's one of my sons, he knows that I'm always here for him," said McKee, who knew from the start there was something special about the former world champion.
"I remember his first spar... afterwards I turned to a guy, who just recently reminded me of it, and said 'we have something to work with here for the next few years'. Carl was a bit like myself when he was young, everybody looked like a giant. He was tiny but the one thing that stood out in the spar was that he never took a step back.
"It didn't matter who he would spar... a lot of kids when you tell them who they're sparring or boxing they'll ask you 'What age is he? How many fights has he?' That is natural apprehension but Carl never asked me or anyone in the club who am I fighting or anything about them.
"He was an exception.
"The problem was he always wanted to fight and not box. The hardest thing was to get him to box because he's a better boxer than he is a fighter. He always had great reflexes and footwork. A coach can do certain things but some things are natural. He always wanted to go to war and he lost contests because he didn't listen to instruction.
"But he was always a good trainer. When he got a bit older he did a couple of things, he would have sneaked into The Alex for a drink but I knew. The guys from the area would have let me know. You can't expect boys to be saints but you need to know what's going on.
"He was a very quiet kid and wouldn't have said too much and he was a good kid - he didn't bring any trouble to the door of Flo and Craig. The tough part was that he loved to eat so making light-flyweight and flyweight wasn't easy but he never missed the weight as an amateur."
While Frampton naturally stands out as the club's star pupil, McKee insists that since co-founding Midland in 1974 along with brothers Ken and Norman Rafferty, among others, it is the character-building impact of being a member of Midland on the lives of many lads in a tough neighbourhood that gives him great satisfaction.
"The Troubles were very bad at the time, there was rioting every night and some of the older folk came to me and a few other guys and said the area needed a club set up so we rented the rooms for £4.50 a week. We had a wee football club going but it faded away because we had no money. So the boxing took over and we all mucked in to keep it going and do the coaching," added McKee.
"That's why sometimes I feel embarrassed when people always just mention my name when they talk about Midland because there have been a lot of people who have kept it going.
"We had no money, no funding so it was all about making do - in fact there was a house just across from the club that we would rent out for showers and toilets.
"The great thing about boxing is the discipline that it brings to working-class lads who could easily go down the wrong path. To the best of my knowledge of all the boys who have boxed at this club not one of them have got into trouble with the police. The biggest achievement you can have is getting kids off the street, getting them into a job and keeping them out of trouble. What's the point of having a world champion if the rest of the boys are doing drugs or whatever.
"I think of a couple of guys like John Dallas who has his own business and Mitch Wells who has gone to university... am I proud of Carl Frampton? Yes. Am I proud of John Dallas? Yes. It's the same pride.
"Generally, there's very few boxers who get into trouble. Most of the lads who box, ordinary guys learn from the discipline they get. There's more discipline in boxing than any other sport and everyone in our club is treated equally. When you're boxing you have a self-confidence that you don't have to prove yourself with your mouth. You know if it comes to it you can fight."
While many sports suffered during the Troubles, McKee - as with so many coaches - found their clubs could enter areas and feel no threat.
"I can only speak for my own club. There is UDA and UVF in this area and we have never had any trouble from them. We've never had graffiti on the club or windows broken. That says a lot. We have run a lot of shows and never had an issue.
"During the Troubles you could go into areas that maybe some would have been afraid of going into but we would never have had second thoughts going to Crossmaglen or Londonderry. I suppose that's the respect that boxing clubs have - it doesn't matter who's hitting you a dig in the chin!"
Growing up in York Street, part of Sailor Town as it was known, McKee says he had a natural hero in the shape of former world flyweight champion Rinty Monaghan who would walk past his window every day on his way to training. Despite having 16 amateur bouts, he felt boxing was not for him, particularly after heading to sea as a cabin boy at the tender age of 16. Three years later he was married to Eileen, who has supported him throughout his years as the head man at Midland.
"I was away for long periods on the ships, travelling to places like New York and Sydney, so Eileen had to look after the house and the children. That was tough but that applies to a lot of jobs and you have to earn a living - but sure even when you're at home the person at home in charge is the wife so what difference does it make. I would give Eileen 9.9 out of 10... I couldn't make her perfect!" quipped McKee.
With the Warrington fight just a week away, the conversation quickly returns to Frampton. While he had some great moments with the Jackal, there were frustrations and none more so than when his protege was denied the opportunity of boxing at the 2008 Olympics.
"As a coach the most hurtful moment for me. David Oliver Joyce was at his weight and the Irish champion. Carl was the number two and there was nothing between them. David Oliver had failed at two Olympic qualifiers. There was one left and that was to be Carl's opportunity. But, they ordered a box-off for the end of the month.
"Carl had an injury but it would have been fine but then it was ordered for a week's time and they knew he wouldn't be ready. They knew he had a medical issue and still asked him to box. I said no and his chance to box at the Games was taken away."
Frampton would go on to defeat Joyce in the Irish final before turning professional, going on to win world titles at super-bantamweight and featherweight as well as enjoying the ultimate stage of boxing at Windsor Park and after turning back the challenge of Australian Luke Jackson there was one man he had in mind as the celebrations ensued.
"This fight is dedicated to my first coach Billy McKee," said Frampton from the ring.
Some detected a misting of the eyes as McKee sat at ringside. "I was fortunate to coach him and how many guys have been champions and forgotten their coaches, who have not recognised them," McKee said.
"Windsor Park was fantastic for him and when he dedicated the fight to me that was special. I wasn't expecting it. Just the lad recognising the fact of what the club did for him means a lot.
"The most important thing is that he is a great ambassador for Northern Ireland. Very few people in Northern Ireland could say anything against him."