When Carl Frampton and Scott Quigg signed the contract for their much anticipated IBF and WBA super bantamweight unification fight live on Sky Sports News, it was an indication that, as sporting events go, this is a particularly big one. That fact was brought into even sharper focus last week as the boxers and their teams embarked on an unprecedented three-day, three-city press tour to promote the fight. I was invited along as a fly on the wall of Team Frampton for every step of the way.
Day One: London
Despite the London traffic up to its usual tricks, all concerned were present and accounted for in good time for press conference number one on the banks of the River Thames. This was nominally the neutral stage of the tour, but Matchroom’s close relationship with Sky Sports meant that Team Frampton always had the feel of slight outsiders. They spoke furtively once mic’d up and looked on suspiciously as Eddie Hearn gathered his troops for a last minute huddle before show time. There is, after all, rarely genuine neutrality in boxing.
When the proceedings, refereed by Sky’s Adam Smith, began, the opening exchanges were as diplomatic as they were ever likely to get. There was disagreement over who had wanted it most over the past four years, but they all nodded in acknowledgment that this is the optimum time for the two men to meet in the ring. Allusion was made to the tortuous nature of the prolonged negotiations, but then there was never any secret that both sides were determined to drive a hard yet, in their own respective opinions, fair bargain.
The sheer size of the event was another point that could be made without fear of immediate retaliatory attack from the other side. Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn described it as “the biggest fight in the super bantamweight division, one of the biggest fights in world boxing, and a night that Britain and Ireland will never forget.” Cyclone Promotions’ Barry McGuigan concurred and talked about it being “a genuinely global event”, comparable to the great Barrera Morales battles. Massive fights like these become “part of your lives, something you share with your kids,” he said. “Sport is like a religion in that way.”
When it came to predictions, both trainers and boxers were predictably vocal and bullish on their chances in the ring come February. Quigg’s second, Joe Gallagher, described the challenge as “just another day at the office” and promised “a convincing win” for his charge. Quigg echoed his coach in stating, “I’ve got the tools to beat him and beat him convincingly.”
Frampton’s trainer, Shane McGuigan, laughed off these bold predictions and assured the assembled press and public that his man, “the more complete fighter”, will win and then “move onto bigger and better things.” Carl spoke in a similar vein, talking about bamboozling Quigg before knocking him out. It was all par for the course thus far.
As the sky darkened and the wind picked up outside the Park Plaza, temperatures steadily rose inside the hotel. While Hearn explained the 50/50 split in tickets between Quigg and Frampton fans, McGuigan retorted that, despite being in Manchester, “it’ll feel like Belfast.” Proceedings became even more heated when shared opponents and recent performances entered the conversation. “I beat the best person you’ve beat in two rounds,” boasted Quigg in reference to his recent defeat of Kiko Martinez. Frampton was quick to counter with a critique of the Bury man’s record including an assertion that he was “shitting himself” against Kiko and merely closed his eyes and landed a lucky uppercut. The Northern Irishman uncharacteristically lost his cool for a few seconds in this exchange. Aged 28, he’s seen it all before, but it’s clear that this one means a little more than usual.
But in truth it was becoming apparent that any genuine animosity emanating from Team Jackal was directed more at Quigg’s promoter and trainer than the Bury fighter himself. Particularly with Hearn filling up on his self-patented “banter juice” before each press conference.
“You’re here because we brought you here,” he snapped at Frampton at one point. “We’re going to provide you with a lot of money and Scott Quigg is going to relieve you of your belt.” Hearn used to promote Frampton, however, and a quick internet search will reveal video evidence of the Matchroom man swearing that Carl knocks out Scott every day of the week. It’s all part of a promoters spiel of course, but it is certainly a handy stick to beat him with when necessary. “Eddie, you wanted nothing to do with Scott Quigg until Carl Frampton left you,” Shane gleefully fired back, leaving the loquacious cockney for once momentarily at a loss for words.
It left the atmosphere simmering nicely as Adam Smith called a temporary ceasefire. The fighters rose and posed in a head to head and, over their shoulders, I saw outside the window a stray white plastic bag fluttering lamely, caught on some tree branches. There was no chance of anything white being waved in defeat inside, however, and the two teams parted safe in the knowledge that full hostilities would be resumed in Quigg’s home city in less than 24 hours.
Later on, back in the Battersea apartment Frampton shares with the other Cyclone boxers, we chatted about the day’s events. The brief temper loss was certainly bona fide, sparked by an equally authentic dislike for the perceived smugness and arrogance of Eddie Hearn rather than any deep-seated animosity towards his opponent. But at the same time, the articulate and sharp-minded Frampton knows exactly how this game needs to be played and he admits he now quite enjoys these big media commitments.
Frampton is a legitimate sporting superstar but, thankfully, he’s of the down-to-earth sort. Affable by nature, he comes across as a genuine guy, what you see is what you get. Having double-checked which is the safest bed for me to crash on for the night, and sourced me a clean towel for the morning, he flicks on the TV until bedtime. It’s a brand new television, purchased to replace one recently stolen by a burglar who must surely have been ignorant to the occupations of those in the property when he snuck in a few nights ago. Boxing then Alan Partridge is Carl’s choice this evening. The Jackal clearly knows a thing or two about putting cracking combinations together outside the ring as well as inside.
Day Two: Manchester
The next morning, we take a train to Manchester. I sit round the table with Carl, Barry, Shane and two other McGuigans, Blain and Jake, who run the promotion and management of Cyclone’s stable of fighters. It’s a truly family affair, with mother Sandra also heavily involved in the day to day logistics of an organisation that appears to grow exponentially every couple of months.
Tactics for the day ahead are discussed: what Team Quigg might throw at them and the best way to deflect or respond to the attacks. But, in truth, it is largely light-hearted. They would back their man to emerge on top of a verbal sparring session with just about any other boxer on the planet.
They say familiarity breeds contempt but it only took one press conference for Teams Frampton and Quigg to be sick at the sight of each other. On Tuesday the venue was the vast hollow shell of the Manchester Arena. Emptiness only exacerbates the scale of an enclosed space and the sparsity of fans in the bleachers of the 20,000 arena provided unnecessary confirmation of who the true A-side is on this bill.
Carl was quick to emphasise that fact. “I don’t know how Scott will feel standing on the ramp in Manchester as the home fighter and getting booed or receiving a worse reception than me. I’m positive I will have more fans. Scott is not a ticket seller.” Quigg, whose tickets are regularly bought from his family’s fish and chip shop in Bury, shouted back with admirable self-deprecation, “The chippy is busy at the moment!”
Unsurprisingly, much of what was said the previous day in terms of predictions and tactics was repeated, but Frampton had wisely kept plenty of his powder dry and had a few new jabs to throw his way. He questioned the Englishman’s status as WBA super champion in the wake of the recent stripping of Guillermo Rigondeaux, and spoke of his own IBF title as being real and earned the hard way.
As expected, however, he reserved his most cutting barbs for Hearn and Gallagher. “My definition of arrogance is Eddie Hearn and Joe Gallagher,” the champion began before issuing a thinly-veiled threat to the Londoner: “He’s a big man but it wouldn’t take me 30 seconds to sort him out.”
Strong words but in reality it was a very controlled performance from the Jackal. He finished up by emphasising his respect for Quigg as a boxer and a man and went as far as to plead with the Belfast public to give Scott the applause he deserves in the Northern Irish capital the following day. Hearn and Gallagher on the other hand….
Day Three: Belfast
An hour before stage three was due to start in the Europa Hotel’s Grand Ballroom, there was already more people and a more intense atmosphere than you’ll find at most professional boxing shows. It’s an old cliché that Belfast is a fight city, but when you witness the electricity in the air for a mere press conference, over three months out from the actual event, it is one worth repeating.
When Quigg, Hearn and Gallagher finally appeared, the thousand or so in attendance made sure they knew they were a long way from home. “Who are ya?” they chanted in unison as the trio reached the stage and the banter juice continued to flow every time one of the three attempted to speak.
Hearn handled the fiery reception about as well as anyone could and at one point he even played along by waving his hands to conduct the songs emanating from the world’s most hostile orchestra. But the consummate showman and best fight promoter outside the US was far from his comfort zone and must have been a little unnerved.
Frampton, who took a selfie of himself in front of the crowd when he arrived, clearly fed off the energy in the room. “I had trouble hearing you guys talk,” he joked across the table when he had the mic, “not a problem we had yesterday in Manchester.” He then offered Hearn and Gallagher the following advice: “Arrogance doesn’t go down well in this part of town.”
Hearn lapped it all up with a wide grin while his man Quigg described it as enjoyable rather than intimidating. “You aint going to faze me one bit” he claimed, “and you’ll be going home with your tail between the legs.” While he was speaking, Frampton raised a sheet of paper with “REAL CHAMPION” written on it to more roars from the audience.
More verbal blows were traded between respective fighters, trainers and promoters but in such a partisan environment, one side was on a hiding to nothing, regardless of how well they spoke. It was clear, despite their best efforts to hide it, that all sitting at the top table were taken aback at the turnout and atmosphere created for a boxing press conference on a wet Wednesday afternoon. Adam Smith actually looked moved by it all and asked Barry and Carl what their thoughts were.
McGuigan is famed for being one of the best-supported fighters the British Isles has ever produced but he was happy to concede that “this is every bit as big, if not bigger, than my day.” Frampton admitted that when he started out he never expected things to get this big. “We’ll be taking over Manchester on the 27th of February!” he concluded to an almighty roar of approval from his loyal fans.
All that was left was a final head to head between the two main men that lingered noticeably longer than on the two previous days. Perhaps the knowledge that they won’t see each other for three months caused a reluctance to part. More likely they were each staring into one another’s eyes, the windows to the soul, and searching for any hint of inner weakness that can be exploited. Whichever, all appetites have been well and truly whetted – roll on February the 27th.