sundaylife

| 7°C Belfast

Barney Eastwood: Knight of the boxing realm

Close

Barney Eastwood

Barney Eastwood

Barney Eastwood

Bernard Joseph Eastwood knew all about odds so when it came to building a boxing empire in the middle of a civil war he knew they were not in his favour.

The late great coach Brendan Ingle - with whom BJ worked during his management of former world title challenger Herol Graham - was in no doubt of the impact the man from Tyrone had on sport in Northern Ireland. "For what Barney did for boxing during the Troubles he should have been knighted," he told me a few years ago.

Those sentiments are hard to argue with when you reflect on a time when the multi-millionaire bookmaker, who passed away last Monday aged 87, decided at the start of the 1980s that he would give his life-long passion for boxing the oxygen it needed to once again thrive on the country's sporting landscape.

When Belfast was rightly described as a ghost town and regular evenings at the Ulster Hall for boxing seemed a pipedream such was the fear and loathing around the city, BJ - with more ingrained defiance than one of his German Shepherds with a T-bone steak - decided to, most notably, launch the professional careers of Barry McGuigan and Hugh Russell.

Close

John Breen with the Barney Eastwood and his gym of champions in the 1990s

John Breen with the Barney Eastwood and his gym of champions in the 1990s

John Breen with the Barney Eastwood and his gym of champions in the 1990s

The rise of McGuigan captured not only those on these islands but the boxing world. Putting it into context, this was a time when there were only two major world titles up for grabs - today there are four. The plethora of belts to gain a world ranking were not even a twinkling in the eye of today's major governing bodies.

It was to be the traditional route of British, Commonwealth and EBU European titles to make your way up the world ladder before seeking to make the right move at the right time. With only two World title options that was never going to be easy.

Allied to the narrow road to the top, were the world's leading promoters - the big beasts of Don King, Bob Arum and the Duva family stood out as having their fingers in whatever tasty pie was available in the 1980s.

Close

Eastwood ringside with legendary trainer Eddie Shaw

Eastwood ringside with legendary trainer Eddie Shaw

Eastwood ringside with legendary trainer Eddie Shaw

BJ craved a world champion as much as McGuigan - and any of his future title winners who desired to be at the top of the sport. As son Brian said: "When you signed with BJ you were buying into a dream. He was more than just a manager, it was his dream as much as your dream."

That meant he had to make the kind of contacts on the world scene that could open the right doors. This was unknown terrain but BJ's shrewd business brain, charm and financial clout meant he was able to make good relationships with those who truly wielded power among the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association. Travelling to Puerto Rico, Panama and the States, BJ proved to those who needed to know that he was the equal of any in the business.

Having given tickets away and lost money on numerous shows in order to draw a crowd to the Ulster Hall in the early days of McGuigan when many feared heading into the city centre, he moved the Clones Cyclone to the King's Hall and clicked up the drive towards a showdown with WBA featherweight champion Eusebio Pedroza.

Sell-out crowds witnessed great scraps with Charm Chiteule and Juan LaPorte paved the way to legend Pedroza who had banked 19 title defences. WBC champion Azumah Nelson was the only other option but having travelled to watch three of Pedroza's title defences, BJ knew the moment had come for the Clones Cyclone to strike. With the fight to be held outdoors, he even built a ring in the back garden of his home in Cultra so McGuigan could spar in the open air.

Their relationship may have acrimoniously broken down a year later but on June 8, 1985 at Loftus Road, home of Queen's Park Rangers, Eastwood and McGuigan soared to the top of the boxing world.

Close

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

Around 20 millions viewers in the UK tuned in, with many more adding to the global audience. In today's world it would have been a pay-per-view dream for Sky or BT Sport.

There is no doubt that the fall-out stung BJ, as did the suggestion in some quarters that he couldn't repeat the feat he had pulled off with McGuigan. Five more world champions later in the space of a decade along with European, Commonwealth and British champions left many with egg on their face.

No expense was spared on making sure every fighter had the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Fighter, turned manager, Jamie Conlan recently said: "When you look at what Barney Eastwood did with the sparring and the coaching he brought to Belfast, he was way ahead of his time."

One great masterstroke followed another. British manager Mickey Duff, one of the most powerful men in the sport, was looking for an easy voluntary defence for IBF World flyweight champion Duke McKenzie.

BJ not only convinced him that McAuley was on the slide but also that he would need well paid for his pension plan. Three times Duff put down the phone and three times he came back to sign the deal. McAuley went to London in 1989 and thoroughly outboxed McKenzie who would go on to win titles at super-fly and bantamweight.

Close

Dave Boy and Barney Eastwood having a laugh

Dave Boy and Barney Eastwood having a laugh

Dave Boy and Barney Eastwood having a laugh

"I wouldn't be where I am today without BJ Eastwood," McAuley would often state and their deep friendship remained as the Larne man made five more defences with the two men splitting the profits.

Crucially for every fighter who was part of the camp, led firstly by Eddie Shaw and Paul McCullagh followed by Bernardo Checa and John Breen, the best sparring partners available were flown in from every corner of the globe.

Former champions and future kingpins made their way to the Castle Street gym in Belfast. It was frankly surreal as a young, green, reporter to walk in every day and witness world class sparring. Even today it is not repeated in the UK and Irish gyms and this was happening 30 years ago.

Following in the footsteps of McAuley to world title status were Liverpool's WBC featherweight champion Paul Hodkinson, Panama's WBA super-middleweight king Victor Cordoba and WBA welterweight title holder Crisanto Espana from Venezuela. Add to that Commonwealth champion Noel Magee, British champion Sam Storey and European champions Crawford Ashley and Ray Close.

A little gym in Belfast was on a par with any in the world and the man behind it all was living his dream.

Cordoba would head back to Panama and Espana lost his world title in controversial circumstances to Ghana's Ike Quartey in Paris. That loss seemed to hurt BJ the most as Espana had mysteriously suffered from food poisoning on the day of the fight.

Belfast man Close would be the last man of the great Eastwood era to challenge for a world title, drawing with Chris Eubank before losing a split decision in the King's Hall in 1994.

It somehow seems appropriate that just as the final bell has tolled for that great venue, so it has also chimed for the man who gave every Irish sports fan memories to cherish and allowed local boxers to realise their life-time ambitions.

He may not have been knighted but BJ Eastwood will always be remembered as the King of Irish boxing.

Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.

Already have an account?

Belfast Telegraph