When Barry McGuigan won his world featherweight title on a frenzied night in west London in June 1985, an estimated 18 million people tuned in to BBC1’s coverage. Harry Carpenter hailed it as “just about the greatest fighting performance I’ve ever seen from a British boxer”.
McGuigan was anointed a national hero. Boxing was very much in its pomp. Fast-forward to 2014 and the richest fight every staged in this country. The rematch between Carl Froch and George Groves may have grossed around £22 million, but only 900,000 people paid Sky to watch it.
Today, you’d back more people to pick McGuigan out of a line-up than those two modern-day warriors. This disconnect between fortune and fame is one of the reasons McGuigan has persuaded ITV back into the boxing ring. On Saturday night the channel will show live coverage of McGuigan’s exciting young protégé Carl Frampton taking on American Chris Avalos in an attempt to retain his world super bantamweight title in Belfast.
It’s the first world title fight to be shown on ITV for five years. McGuigan agrees that boxing’s absence from the two main channels has hurt the sport. “Of course it damages the sport because the casual fan isn’t watching. Getting back on terrestrial TV will do boxing a really big favour. People like me, Chris Eubank, Nigel Benn and Frank Bruno all became household names because of free-to-air TV and we need to rediscover a bit of that.
“I hounded ITV to put this on and while it’s just a one-off at the moment I hope that the reaction to this fight will persuade them to come back for more.” McGuigan makes it clear that he’s not having a pop at Sky. “It would be dumb of me to say that Sky haven’t done a phenomenal job – they have. But we know with this we’ll be going to millions of viewers rather than hundreds of thousands.”
And he had this warning for the main channels: “Unless terrestrial TV fights back they are going to lose everything. The BBC will be down to just athletics.” McGuigan turns 54 on the day of the Frampton fight. But the years haven’t diminished his passion for the sport, nor have the blows he took during a 35-fight professional career blunted his lucidity. He’s thoughtful and engaging company.
He manages four boxers and looks after them like his own sons – in fact, world champion Frampton is coached by his son Shane. But that emotional attachment has its price. McGuigan admits to being nervous ahead of fights, his thoughts drifting, perhaps, to the Nigerian boxer Young Ali, who he knocked out in 1982 and who died after five months in a coma.
When he won his world title at Loftus Road in 1985 he tearfully dedicated the victory to Ali. “It’s impossible not to feel guilty. I think of him every day of my life,” he said later. “Every day I wonder about his wife, and the child that she was pregnant with when Ali died. For a long time I felt so sad I couldn’t think about boxing again. But my own wife was pregnant and I had to snap out of it. I had to go on.”
In the 28-year-old Belfast-born Frampton he has a boxer cast very much in his own mould. Both share a near-identical fighting weight – just under nine stone – both are in what McGuigan describes as “mixed marriages”, and both see their sport as a way of banishing sectarianism from Northern Ireland. He’s a Protestant and his wife is a Catholic and I am a Catholic married to a Protestant,” says McGuigan. “He has exactly the same philosophy as me. We bring the people together. We don’t have any anthems; we don’t even do the Danny Boy thing any more.
The vast majority of people want to get along. We want to show everyone that there doesn’t have to be division. “He’s a Protestant guy from a Loyalist area and he could easily have been sucked into sectarianism, but he wasn’t because he went to a boxing club and found a purpose in life. He’s very much a promotor of peace and unity. He’s as cherished in the Fall’s Road as he is in the Shankill Road.”
McGuigan believes the audience at home are in for a treat on Saturday night. “ITV has got a kid who absolutely fizzes. He is an exceptional talent. He is intelligent, smart and has a fantastic personality. Viewers will love him.”
Live Boxing is on Saturday 28th February at 10.50pm on ITV