Belfast has changed dramatically over the past 30 years but one thing remains the same: the city loves a fighter. When Carl “The Jackal” Frampton steps into the ring tomorrow night against France’s Jeremy Parodi, the noise generated is likely to threaten the integrity of the Odyssey Arena’s roof. There is a momentum building behind Frampton now, a belief that he is very special, a feeling that this Belfast Boy could go all the way.
Now 16-0, he is making his first defence of a European super-bantamweight title that he claimed so devastatingly from Kiko Martinez in February of this year. The Spaniard, now the IBF world champion, is a highly regarded, ferocious punching, hard as nails fighter who had never been stopped in 30 previous bouts. Frampton was tested by Martinez’s aggressive come-forward style in the fight but he maintained control with disciplined back-foot counter punching before standing his ground in rounds eight and nine and eventually landing a crisp short right on the Spaniard’s chin to end the contest. If there had been any lingering doubts about Frampton’s pedigree, that performance dispelled them. The Jackal is the real deal.
Parallels are inevitably being drawn between the 26 year old Frampton and his 52 year old manager, the iconic Barry McGuigan. Parallels not so much in terms of fighting styles, the Clones Cyclone was a much more frenetic and relentless boxer than the slick and calm Frampton, but in respect of their impact outside the ring.
McGuigan’s story is well known. A Catholic born in the Republic of Ireland, he married a Protestant from the North and contested the majority of his fights in Belfast. Before each contest his father would sing Danny Boy in the ring and McGuigan’s shorts were emblazoned with a white dove of peace rather than the traditional tribal colours of Republican and Loyalist Northern Ireland.
Though less than a generation ago, Belfast in the 1980s was a different world from today. In the time between McGuigan’s first and last fights in Ulster, 434 people were killed as a direct result of the Troubles. Yet when he returned from his glorious night at Loftus Road, where he took the super-featherweight title from the legendary Eusebio Pedroza, over 70,000 from both sides of the divide were together on the streets to welcome home their hero. On both the Catholic Falls and the Protestant Shankill, “leave the fighting to McGuigan” was common parlance.
Born in 1987, Frampton is fortunate enough not to have been around for the darkest days of the Northern Irish conflict. Nevertheless, growing up in the staunchly Loyalist working class estate of Tiger’s Bay, at the interface with the Republican New Lodge area, he will have seen his fair share of the violent tragedy that sectarianism breeds.
Boxing kept him out of the worst of it, however, and ensured he did not have his mind manipulated by those intent on keeping Belfast in the dark ages. In an interview with Donald McRae last year, Frampton, who is engaged to a Catholic, states he is as comfortable walking the streets of the Catholic parts of the city as he is his own turf. It is clear that Carl has been blessed with the same gift as Barry: an ability to unite.
There is an argument that, even in today’s relatively peaceful Northern Ireland, it is unfair to expect a boxer to be a symbol of anything other than athletic excellence. And the debate on whether circumstances exist under which politics and sport should ever mix is one that will rumble on forever. In taking the example of McGuigan in isolation however, we can see how the overt rejection of political labels can actually produce a very strong political message.
That is the difference between Barry and others who simply wanted to stay out of it altogether. He may not have had the genius of a George Best or an Alex Higgins, but in terms of uniting the people, McGuigan did more than both of them put together. Happily it appears that Frampton is learning more about life from his manager than just how to throw a devastating body punch.
Symbols are of great importance in Northern Ireland. Just look at the ongoing protests in relation to the flying of the Union Jack flag over the City Hall for evidence of the impact they can have. The problem is that most symbols tend to divide communities. No pressure should be put on Carl Frampton. He will concentrate on his boxing and, under the guidance of Barry’s son Shane, naturally grow and develop and improve and, in all likelihood, be a world champion next year. He doesn’t need to change anything. He doesn’t need to be a spokesman of any kind. He just needs to continue doing what he is doing. And if in a few years’ time, after having defeated Guillermo Rigondeaux in a 12 round classic, he returns home to Belfast and is greeted on Royal Avenue by 70,000 Catholics and Protestants singing his name, that will be all the symbolism that is needed.