Leave the fighting to McGuigan

“It was as if he’d been sculpted to be a boxer, as if an artistic Irish Druid had decided to sculpt a boxer out of stone, that was Barry McGuigan.” - Jim McDowell Sunday World Northern Editor

Finbar Patrick McGuigan was born in Clones, County Monaghan, in the heart of a problem he didn’t create. His childhood was one of bombs and bullets as the so called ‘troubles’ ravaged the island where he lived. Clones was a catholic stronghold, right on the border between the Republic of Ireland and its troubled northern neighbour and therefore became a bolt hole for many members of the Irish Republican Army. “along that border there were terrible atrocities, murder on both sides” McGuigan would later reminisce when asked about the place he came from. The conflict saw neighbours turn on neighbours, families and old friends torn apart, tragedy on all sides. They needed someone, something  around whom they could all rally. A unifier, something for which they could lay down their weapons and sit together.

Shakespeare wisely observed; Cometh the hour cometh the man. That man was a 5”6, high pitched, moustachioed, Barry McGuigan and that hour was 10pm on the 8th of June 1985.

That night Loftus road stadium, the home of football club Queen’s Park Rangers, looked as if it had been lifted up from its place in London and placed in the middle of Belfast or Dublin.

Green was the dominant colour as the thousands who had made the trip over from the Emerald Isle proudly brandished their shirts and scarves. 27,000 fans sang in unity “Barry! Barry!” Their accent audible, travelling far into the night.

The changing rooms however were scenes of focus of drive, Eusebio Pedroza in the away changing room warmed up giving no thought at all to the amassed hoard outside the door. The Panamanian was the ultimate professional, at 29 he was at his athletic peak and was firing on all cylinders. He hadn’t lost a fight for 7 years, he had made 18 successful defences of his title including wins over all time greats like Rubén Olivares and Rocky Lockridge. He was a prolific boxer puncher who had stopped 24 opponents, a significant number for a featherweight.

Barry was comparatively untested as a boxer but as a man he brought more to the ring that night Pedroza could imagine. As well as his war torn upbringing his boxing career too had caused him to brush constantly with the violence of the troubles. There were gun amnesties at his ametuer bouts, he received death threats for fighting for a british title, he was under constant political pressure to choose a side. The mental fortitude he had built in his refusal, choosing the dove of peace as his emblem, had created had built an insurmountable strength. It also had created a cult following of those sick of the violence, a silent majority who had followed him to London. A majority who’s mantra was “Leave the Fighting to McGuigan”.

As Barry’s Father Pat McGuigan sang ‘Danny Boy’, a replacement for the national anthem of either England or Ireland, a moment of unity descended on Protestant and Catholic alike, both republican and unionist were suddenly, if only for a moment, joined together, in support of their man.

No sooner had the singing stopped the fighting started and the poetry of the ocasion bled directly into the  fight. “I ran straight across the ring, took the Center and tried with the very first punch to take his head off, we needed him on the back foot” Barry reminisced. Pedroza was crafty though, staying mobile and using his imposing stature to jab and hold McGuigan off. The rounds are competitive with two men at the top of their game, Barry pursuing and Pedroza evading. A nervous but skilled challenger, a tentative but composed champion.

As the rounds ground on Barry’s formidable left hook to the body began to land. His punches were stamped out as if they were coming out of a machine, each one more perfect and regular than the last. Pedroza was clearly starting to be affected. A punch to the body has a different effect to a punch to the head, there is no discombobulation rather a painful sapping of energy, it eats away at your bodies ability to perform what the brain tells it, and despite the internal pleas of Eusebio Predroza, his body was beginning to refuse to do what it was told.

In the 7th round, Barry’s breakthrough came.

“Yes he did he’s got him with a right!” Harry Carpenter's iconic baritone announced to the world that the Clones Cyclone had struck Pedroza to the canvas. “The Champion is on the floor!” Harry yelled, barely audible over the roar of the crowd.“Right uppercut, Left Hook, then Bam! Big right hand!” Is how Barry himself described the hellacious combination that dropped Pedroza. The combination that put him in the driver's seat in the biggest fight of his life.

Pedroza rose but was groggy, Barry leaped back onto the offensive, clobbering the champion with left hooks as he bounced away desperately trying to find his legs. Pedroza was still crafty as McGuigan lunged in pursuit, moving as much as he could while Barry fired everything at him. The next rounds were more of the same, Pedroza simply surviving the next few rounds as Barry pounded his gloves into him with the regularity of someone beating a drum. The 9th, 13th and 14th he came close to stopping the champion again pushing his body to its limit to maintain his unceasing punch output.

As the final bell rang 26,999 people celebrated but Barry still looked worried, hoisted onto the shoulders but with a decided look of concern, almost in disbelief at how well he had performed. In a break from tradition as the MC was buffeted around by the hundreds in the ring he only managed to say “by unanimous decision, Barry McGuigan”, but this was more than enough. Only as this rang out did Barry dare to join in with his own celebrations, finally expressing the swell of emotion that comes with a victory of such an extraordinary magnitude.

Few victories in boxing have significance outside of the ring, but for Ireland to have a world champion, the likes of which it hadn't seen since the golden days of Dave Sullivan, Jimmy McLarnin and Jack McAuliffe, the significance was palpable. Nelson Mandela said “Sport has the power to change the world” and although Barry McGuigan didn't stop the violence in his home, he would become part of a nonsectarian wave of change that would eventually culminate in a ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. His win over Eusebio Pedroza would immortalise him in boxing, but his humanity would importalise him the folklore of Ireland, an altogether more mystic phenomen.

Ewan Breeze of SimBoxx

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