Belfast and London had hosted the vast majority of Barry McGuigan’s glory nights, but after his historic victory over the legendary Eusebio Pedroza, the newly crowned featherweight champion of the world understandably craved the prestige and universal recognition that meaningful triumphs on US soil guaranteed.
By the 1980s, a late night under the bright lights of Las Vegas Boulevard was top of every boxer’s bucket list and the Clones Cyclone was no different. His reality, however, a smouldering summer evening under a merciless sun in a Nevada desert carpark, was more nightmarish incubus than fulfilling dream.
The Strip was suffering from heatstroke and as the interminable ring introductions began, the official diagnosis declared a fever of 43 degrees Celsius. Air conditioning units overhead and a bank of cooling misting fans would have been nice, but instead a canvas canopy was hung to trap the sun’s punishing heat which was in turn intensified by the blaze of 74 television lights surrounding the squared circle. A brisk night in the Ulster Hall or Loftus Road it was most certainly not.
Suffice it to say, by anyone’s standards, it was extremely hot. But for a pale-skinned Celt, hailing from a land in which the highest recorded temperature was a temperate 33 degrees back in 1887, extremely hot does not even come close to articulating the ring conditions that day.
The choice of foe was another cause of unwanted consternation. For the second consecutive fight, McGuigan had been anticipating toeing the line with Fernando Sosa before the Argentine’s detached retina forced a withdrawal and, ultimately, a retirement from the sport. A replacement was needed and Bob Arum swiftly found one in the shape of the unheralded Texan, Steve Cruz.
Indeed, it was Cruz’s shape that played most on McGuigan’s mind in the build-up with the American an altogether lankier and rangier proposition than the short, squat Sosa. Boxers will convince you of their adaptability and the mantra that they simply beat whoever is put in front of them is repeated ad nauseam: but in reality, uncertainty and late changes unsettle even the most self-assured athletes.
On the face of it, there was little about Cruz worth writing home about. Born Estevan Cruz Junior in Fort Worth, he was a handsome 22 year old with a 25 and 1 record. His sole loss was suffered at the gloved fists of the equally unremarkable Lenny Valdez and aside from the fact he trained alongside the most fearsome puncher in boxing at the time, welterweight Don Curry, nobody paid much attention to Stevie. Unless Curry’s power had magically transposed onto Cruz as they brushed past one another in the gym, few predicted anything other than a routine away win for McGuigan.
To most observers, in fact, the match-up was closer to a stay-busy outing for the Irishman than a genuine assault on his world title. Despite doubts over weight and niggling ankle and ear injuries, McGuigan was a heavy odds-on favourite being touted for mega fights in the near future. The great Ghanaian, Azumah Nelson, had defended his WBC title the night before and was interested in a unification bout, while Barry’s manager, Barney Eastwood, also claimed to have a contract signed by the Puerto Rican super featherweight, Wilfredo Gomez. Basically, there were much bigger fish to fry once Cruz had been hooked and gutted: McGuigan had his sights set on global boxing immortality.
In truth, though perhaps too unassuming to have recognised it at the time, his life inside and out of the ring had already secured such a status in the hearts of all in the British Isles. A Catholic born in a border town in the Republic of Ireland, Finbar “Barry” McGuigan married a Protestant from the North and contested the majority of his fights in a fraught Belfast that was buckling under the weight of a sustained period of bloody sectarian violence. Before each bout 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 that glorious night at Loftus Road, over 70,000 from either side of the divide were together on the streets to welcome their hero home. On both the Catholic Falls and the Protestant Shankill, leave the fighting to McGuigan was common parlance.
Looking back, it was probably unfair of society to expect the young man to have been a symbol of anything other than athletic excellence, but Barry dealt with the pressure and proved to be a rare uniting force in a world of demarcation. The debate on whether politics and sport should ever mix will rumble on forever, but in taking the example of McGuigan in isolation, we can see how the overt rejection of political labels can actually produce a very strong political message.
That was the key 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.
Many of those followers were visible amongst the 15,000 in situ at Caesar’s Palace and they soon became audible as Michael Buffer handed the microphone to McGuigan’s father. In appearance Pat was a carbon copy of his son although thicker, blacker facial hair coupled with sharply angled eyebrows gave his face a somewhat sterner countenance.
“’Tis you, ‘tis you must go and I must bide,” he sang as his son shadow-boxed in his corner, a hyperactive kid seeking solace in constant movement. Danny Boy is one of those Irish ballads that manages to be tragic and uplifting at the same time and I’d wager Pat’s emotion-fuelled rendition sent shivers through the crowd despite the sweltering heat. Fittingly, he ended on the line, “I love you so,” before taking his seat at ringside next to Barry’s wife, Sandra, and eldest son, Blain. There was nothing more they could do for son, husband or dad now.
The intros dragged on and every time the camera settled on the bouncing McGuigan he was swilling water and muttering under his breath. Father Brian D’Arcy, a close friend of Barry who spoke to God with the fighter before every bout, later described a boxer unhappy within himself on the morning of the contest. This was unusual for McGuigan and, according to D’Arcy, there was a sense of foreboding in the air throughout the day that their pre-fight ritual could not fully dispel.
Perhaps only D’Arcy recognised McGuigan’s private whisperings in the ring that evening. He may even have been mouthing along a few rows back: Angel of God, guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here. Ever this day be at my side, to light, to guard, to rule, and guide. Amen.
The first bell sounded and in apparent defiance of the insufferable incalescence that had referee Richard Steele mopping the sweat from his brow before a punch was thrown, McGuigan set off on the front foot. He bobbed and jabbed and probed like a perpetual motion machine stuck on the frenetic setting.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but, given the conditions, the pace of the opening salvo looked unsustainable for 15 rounds. Did McGuigan really back himself to deliver his trademark 45 minutes of relentless pressure boxing or did he simply expect to get Cruz out of there early? As it turned out, neither proved possible.
The fight swept along with the discernible ebb and flow that is a prerequisite of all classic encounters. They shared the opening two stanzas as rigid jabs dominated before McGuigan’s aggression earned him the next three. His forward march was temporarily arrested in the 6th and 7th before he reasserted authority in the 8th and again in a tight 9th round in which Cruz landed a blow so low it was closer to a knee-capping than a body shot.
Despite his present position of ascendancy, McGuigan cut a distressed figure on his stool before the 10th as the early symptoms of dehydration and heat exhaustion bubbled to the surface. “Say a prayer please,” he pleaded to his corner. “Say a prayer that we’ll be all right.” Eastwood had a different motivational technique and sent his charge back into the fray with the rallying cry, “Sandra and the kids are depending on you.”
The morality of such incentivisation is dubious at best but it appeared to be working until a short, sharp left hook put McGuigan down in the neutral corner. As the shadows on the canvas floor lengthened, the odds on a Cruz victory suddenly shortened dramatically. Though hardly fresh, the Texan was at this point the calmer and more compact of the two men and he went about his work with greater efficiency. Given the vindictive nature of the climate, energy conservation was always going to have a big say in the outcome of this one.
The 11th was hard to call, as was the 12th before Steele’s patience snapped and he deducted a point from McGuigan for persistently landing below the belt. Yet, just when momentum seemed to have swung decisively towards the Lone Star State, County Monaghan’s finest somehow wrestled back the initiative with six minutes of the gutsiest fighting you will ever see.
The long shadows had by now reached their zenith and then faded away as the burning sun nestled behind the packed western bleacher. There were three minutes to go and, on my scorecard, McGuigan was two points up and could afford to lose the final round and still win the fight. Two of the ringside judges concurred while the third had Cruz up by a point. All the Clones man needed to do was avoid two knockdowns. Simple: run Barry, run.
Such a game plan fails to take into consideration two crucial factors. Firstly, McGuigan had never run from confrontation in a boxing ring in his life. Secondly, it was all his spent body could do to rise from the corner at the chime of the penultimate bell. His autobiography attempts to describe how he felt at that moment. Tired, sapped, wrecked, out of it and hollow are just a selection of the adjectives he uses.
His Panamanian cornerman literally nibbled his ear to try and hurt or shock him back into the land of the fully-coherent but Barry’s weary body was now fighting from memory. His muscles twitched like they knew they should but the connection with his brain was as sketchy as a long distance call on a cheap mobile phone.
Thirty seconds in, his legs forsook him as he back-pedalled across the ring at pace before sidling along the ropes and slumping into the neutral corner. Cruz didn’t actually land a clean punch but McGuigan lolled forward and needed to grab his opponent around the waist to stop himself sinking to the canvas floor.
The Irishman was now in a light-headed retreat, his body bobbing listlessly like a cork on the tide. With half the round gone Cruz caught him again, a light, pitter-patter combination was all that was required to put a warrior on the seat of his pants. A delirious McGuigan stood up and wandered towards his corner, drowsily searching for a familiar face in a world that must have been spinning uncontrollably around him. Still, if he could stay upright for 70 more seconds he’d go home with his belt and never again agree to fight in Vegas before the desert stars had lit up the cool black Nevada sky.
With barely 30 seconds remaining he was felled the fatal third time. Again no punches of note connected, it was the collapse of an enervated marathon runner crossing the finishing line a split second behind the winner. Though he survived until the final bell, it is unclear from the pictures whether he fully recognised it in his semi-fugue state.
The unthinkable had happened: a 10-7 round. McGuigan was too fatigued to stand for the judges’ scorecards yet he showed his unquestioned class as a human being in immediately rising and walking to the centre of the ring to warmly and genuinely congratulate the new champion. “Sorry folks for disappointing you,” he then said to Harry Carpenter and the BBC camera in one of the rare occasions McGuigan was caught talking complete nonsense.
His grace in defeat was made all the more admirable considering the volume of what-ifs in play. He’d still be champion without the deducted point. He’d still be champion with just one less knockdown. And there were less tangible factors to nag at us all as well. He’d still be champion were it not for the heat, the weight problems, the change in opponent. The fact the WBA was debating a move to 12 round fights (which they agreed upon the following year) added yet another if-only to the sense of frustration that surrounded the premature end of a true people’s champion.
Later footage of McGuigan mouthing “I love you” to unseen well-wishers before breaking down in tears as he is stretchered into a waiting ambulance is heart-wrenching to watch. Father D’Arcy accompanied Barry to the hospital and listened to a dazed and distraught fighter begging his friend to “stay with him” and “not let him go.”
“I hope I’m not like Ali,” he repeated over and over again in reference to the tragic Nigerian who lost his life after a 1982 bout with McGuigan and who to this day is never far from the Irishman’s thoughts. He wasn’t like Ali, thankfully, but neither was he ever the same fighter again.
Two years later he returned as a super featherweight, but the comeback was short-lived. The remorseless Nevada desert had taken something from Barry McGuigan the boxer that summer’s day in 1986 and, as we all know, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. But what could never be touched was Barry McGuigan the man: and, of course, he was the guy that Sandra and the kids truly depended on.