Carl Frampton is a Celebrity, but Barry McGuigan was an Uber-Celebrity

FRAMPTON AND THE McGUIGANS — Carl Frampton, who defends his WBA featherweight title against former champion Leo Santa Cruz at the MGM Grand Garden on Saturday, has achieved a singular distinction that eluded his manager Barry McGuigan. Frampton, from Belfast, Northern Ireland, is the first fighter from Ireland to achieve top billing on a major fight card staged on the Las Vegas Strip.

Perhaps this is splitting hairs. Some would argue that McGuigan (pictured with Carl Frampton and the famous Belfast golfer Rory McElroy) was the star of the June 23, 1986 “Triple Hitter” in the outdoor arena at Caesars Palace where he risked his WBA featherweight title against Stevie Cruz. But if one goes by the bout sheet, McGuigan-Cruz played third fiddle to Roberto Duran’s 10-round match with Robbie Sims and Thomas Hearns’ 154-pound title defense against Mark Medal. Those bouts came later in the program, no small matter in hindsight as the placement factors into a multiplicity of “what ifs?”

McGuigan lost his title that night in one of the bigger upsets in the annals of pugilism. The fight was named The Ring magazine Fight of the Year. We’ll return to it momentarily.

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Carl Frampton may someday rank higher than Barry McGuigan on the list of great fighters from Ireland. Having won titles in two weight classes, perhaps he’s already there. But he has scant chance of ever leapfrogging his mentor on a popularity index. Yes, Frampton has legions of adoring fans. On Friday, August 12, when he was feted at Belfast’s City Hall in recognition of his victory over Leo Santa Cruz in their first meeting, those seated farthest from the podium needed binoculars. “I never expected the turnout,” said the humble, well-spoken Frampton. “You can’t even see how far back it goes. I’m very grateful.” But that crowd paled in comparison to the crowds that Barry McGuigan drew at victory parades in Belfast and Dublin after he took the featherweight title from Eusebio Pedroza.

McGuigan and Pedroza clashed on June 8, 1985, before a sellout crowd at a 27,000-seat soccer stadium in London. Heading into the match, Pedroza, a Panamanian, seemingly had an iron-clad grip on the title. He would be making his 20th defense.

The McGuigan-Pedroza match, said Associated Press writer Andrew Warshaw, was the biggest boxing match in the British Isles since Henry Cooper fought Muhammad Ali in 1966. British Airways added three jumbo jets to their regular Belfast-to-London run to meet the demand.

After 15 rounds, McGuigan emerged victorious, winning a unanimous decision. When the verdict was announced, all of Ireland erupted with joy: “From Dublin to Belfast, thousands of fans took to the streets, chanting, singing, carrying banners and parading to the sound of honking car horns,” said Warshaw.

Finbar Patrick “Barry” McGuigan came to prominence at a time when “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland were particularly acute. The bad blood between the mostly Protestant loyalists, who considered themselves as British, and the mostly Catholic nationalists, who identified with the Republic of Ireland, was near the boiling point. McGuigan, from the little town of Clones, near the border of Northern Ireland, a Catholic married to a Protestant, was embraced by both factions, which came together as one whenever he was fighting. “Leave the fighting to McGuigan” became a popular saying on both sides of the great divide.

No boxing promoter appreciated the value of a good storyline more than Bob Arum. It was almost inevitable that Arum would induce McGuigan’s manager Barney Eastwood to bring McGuigan to the United States. By then, McGuigan had solidified his hold on his title with victories over the previously undefeated Bernard Taylor (RTD 8) and Danilo Cabrera (TKO 14).

Arum matched McGuigan against Fernando Sosa, a fighter from Argentina whose 43-3-3 record camouflaged the fact that he was a light puncher. But Sosa was forced to withdraw because of eye problems. Stevie Cruz, a 22-year-old plumber’s helper from Fort Worth, Texas, filled the breach.

McGuigan has fond memories of the frantic 6-day, 9-city junket that preceded the fight. On the stopover in New York, he visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral where he left with a souvenir, a boxing glove signed by Cardinal O’Connor. But he doesn’t have fond memories of the fight. Actually he has no memories at all of the last few rounds when he was fighting on instinct.

McGuigan finished his training in Palm Springs, California, to acclimate himself to the desert heat. But how does one get acclimated to 109 degrees, the temperature at ringside when he entered the ring shortly after 6 pm? Yes, it was hot in there for Stevie Cruz too, but the Irishman was the one who wilted.

McGuigan fared well through the first nine-and-a-half rounds. In Round 10, he was floored by a counter right hand. Clearly fatigued, he lost the next round but got a second wind, winning round 12 until having a point deducted for low blows, and winning round 13 as well. But by then he was completely out of gas.

McGuigan fought the final round on spaghetti legs. In the final minute, Cruz floored him twice with punches that were not particularly hard, the second knockdown coming with 32 seconds remaining. Many ringsiders (including this reporter) implored referee Richard Steele to stop the fight. It was as if a man was dying of heat stroke right before our eyes. But Steele let it continue and it went the full 15.

In the final tally, Cruz won a unanimous decision, prevailing by one point on two of the scorecards and by four points on the other. But McGuigan, who would spend the night in the hospital, delivered a memorable performance. “He gave as valiant a battle as boxing has ever known,” said LA Times reporter Richard Hoffer.

What if?

What if Fernando Sosa hadn’t been forced to withdraw?

What if the bout had been pushed back to later in the evening when the heat wasn’t so intense? (The starting time was a concession to British television where it aired at 2 o’clock in the morning.)

What if Richard Steele hadn’t deducted a point for low blows?  If not for that controversial call, McGuigan would have theoretically retained his title on a majority draw.

What if the WBA had been quicker to follow the lead of the WBC in reducing championship fights from 15 to 12 rounds?

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Barry McGuigan and Barney Eastwood had a falling out after this fight. Inactive for 22 months, Barry returned to the ring in 1988 and had four more bouts before calling it quits, finishing his Hall of Fame career with a record of 32-3. Today his primary home is in historic Canterbury, England. He looks physically fit, lives comfortably, and bears no scars of his hard profession. For the past 15 years he has been writing a weekly boxing column for the Daily Mirror.

McGuigan is enormously proud of his three sons, each of whom is involved in the career of Carl Frampton. The older boys, Blain and Jake, are Frampton’s promoters of record. Shane McGuigan trains him.

Although their styles of fighting are different, Barry McGuigan sees a lot of himself in Carl Frampton who holds the same version of the featherweight title that he once held.  But can the classy Frampton, a Protestant married to a Catholic, ever be as big in the British Isles as Barry was in his heyday?

It’s not a fair comparison, McGuigan told us. “When I was fighting,” he said, “most homes in Ireland had only one TV and there were far fewer TV channels. The entire family gathered in front of the TV when I was fighting. Nowadays, many homes have three or more TVs and each may be tuned to a different channel.”

That’s an interesting take from an interesting man, a man that has always been a credit to his sport.

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