(Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness with Carl Frampton and Barry McGuigan at Parliament Buildings Monday; Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye)
It is quite something when a fight crowd becomes a draw in itself. Sixteen thousand fans congregated in a Belfast shipyard on Saturday evening, there in support of Tiger’s Bay junior featherweight Carl Frampton, who joined compatriots Wayne McCullough, Dave “Boy” McAuley and Rinty Monaghan in securing his first world title thanks to a thunderous win over the brutish Spaniard, Kiko Martínez. In doing so, they created an impression that few born outside the “land of saints and scholars” will forget in a hurry.
Attending a Frampton fight has become something of a bucket list entry for boxing fans; a sort of happening — like the Hacienda during the “Madchester” era (just without the recreational drugs). Images of previous fight nights, beamed from inside Belfast’s Odyssey Arena (a rather solemn figure this weekend, having been deemed too wee to play host, and thus forced to house the Belfast Tattoo instead) helped convey a special atmosphere too tempting to ignore for those within reach.
Part of the appeal, for those who were privy to the stories but too young to have experienced it first hand, undoubtedly lies in the desire to rekindle the magic of those legendary nights in the 1980s, when Frampton’s mentor, Barry McGuigan, took the roof off the King’s Hall on the Lisburn Road. Famously a uniting force during “the Troubles,” McGuigan compelled the country to put aside its divisions and back something they were in accordance with: the thirst for an Irish fighting hero.
It is an impossible ask, of course. McGuigan captured the zeitgeist: a suppressed yearning for hope amid a shattering, intractable, decades-long conflict; he risked his life in lifting his people. The great man still holds a distinct reverence; you feel compelled to go over and shake his hand and pat him on the back, if only you could summon the courage to approach him. And his countrymen still love him — a genuine, heartfelt affection. As he perched upon the ring apron with Frampton, bruised and battered after another torrid night with Martínez, he exhibited the magnanimity that was once lampooned (who can forget Dermot Morgan’s comedy single “Thank You Very, Very Much Mr. Eastwood?”) in claiming “this kid’s better than I ever was.” Within a split-second, as long as it would have taken the “Clones Cyclone” to deliver a gut punch once, a ringsider hollered back: “No he isn’t!” And while that is a question that can only possibly be pondered once the dust settles on “The Jackal’s” career, he is fast becoming a ticket-seller of comparable heft.
Meandering around this little gem of a city on Saturday, it was difficult to get a read on Frampton’s popularity. While a life-sized cardboard cut-out adorned the window of the tourist information centre and billboards on the outskirts of the city centre trumpeted the fight, there wasn’t an obvious sense that anything out of the ordinary was ready to go down once the sun set. Until suddenly…they arrived in their droves, funnelling en masse from the bus terminus situated across from The Crown on Great Victoria Street. They thronged across town, down to the bridges that straddle the River Lagan. Stout sales must have nosedived between the hours of seven and 12 as the city shut up shop with a sign saying: “Closed, gone to the fight.”
As the undercard unfurled amid freezing conditions thanks to a punishing breeze blowing in from Belfast Lough, most sought solace in the bars dotted outside the temporary venue, whose four corners opened to reveal different facets of the capital, representing its past and present. Titanic Belfast, the shimmering museum to the infamous ocean liner, could be seen opposite the Titanic Studios, the set of hit TV series “Game of Thrones.” Adjacent to both were landmarks from Belfast’s past: Samson and Goliath, the iconic cranes of Harland and Woolf and Cave Hill, the craggy mount overlooking the city that, it is claimed, inspired Jonathan Swift to write “Gulliver’s Travels.” As young hopefuls such as Jamie Conlan and Conrad Cummings toiled before a half-empty arena, it was looking dubious whether there’d be an atmosphere to speak of at all.
Marco McCullough, a popular featherweight from the Shankill Road who boxes under John Breen, slowly began tempering Ulster’s collective hangover. By the time he’d put paid to Russian Dmitry Kirillov, the bars had drained, the seats were filled and a party was in full swing. Sing-a-long music pumped over the airwaves, karaoke fodder such as “American Pie” and “Sweet Caroline” (a familiar mix tape employed across the U.K. to pacify an impatient, inebriated audience) was taken up with gusto. There were kids, some as young as seven or eight, bouncing alongside mothers, granddads and merry uncles, whipping up the sort of convivial atmosphere that is alien to most boxing crowds.
In Paris, there is an annual summer beach festival along the Seine — part of a city-wide initiative to innovate within its public spaces — which involves a mass participation dance party. It is impossible to watch this free-for-all unfold without smiling. The atmosphere on Saturday was along a similar line. It was a joy to behold; worries, woes, history and the daily grind could be forgotten for as long as it lasted.
And it wasn’t only crackpots or those who’d overindulged on Bushmills. Everyone got involved. It wasn’t even the usual boxing demographic: this was a cross-section of society; entire families arrived, three generations in some cases. What a lift they provided.
Boxing, of course, is rarely a jolly watch. As Frampton and Martínez battled late into the night, meting out the sort of punishment that would cow many of their peers, a tension hung thick in the air. The local reporter to my right would slug back a glorious smelling hip flask at the end of each round before frantically putting pen to paper. He wrote nothing. Frampton was brilliant: boxing, suckering, pivoting, crafting angles and scoring with dynamite counter punches. Martínez, a gallant, hardy man, was stoic, driven, free-swinging and dangerous — always dangerous.
Once the decision had been announced, Frampton cradled his daughter Carla, a mere dot who’d remained asleep throughout, and carried her jubilantly around the ring. She hadn’t seen her Daddy achieve his dream but that wouldn’t matter. She’ll hear the stories and see the pictures forever. And of course there’ll be even bigger nights ahead.
While the masterful Cuban, Guillermo Rigondeaux, remains the true boss of this division, Frampton is its star. Charismatic, honest, charming and a special boxer – a potentially great one even – he represents the amelioration of a modern Ulster. Visceral nights lie ahead of him involving the likes of Mexico’s Leo Santa Cruz and England’s Scott Quigg.
On a Sunday morning bus ride along the Antrim Road, two older gentlemen (residents of this area since the 60s by all accounts, who looked as though they could have thrown a punch or two themselves in their time), could be overheard discussing Frampton with a sense of pride dampened only slightly by the disorientating machinations of contemporary boxing. One spoke openly about his alcohol dependency – he had trouble sleeping, was gruff, unkempt and smelt ungodly. Handsome once, all of his friends had moved away. The other led the conversation (or tried to). He may have been a pastor, had recently survived major surgery and was en route to Bangor, to go fishing. He was lucky, he admitted.
The sight of a dentist’s named ‘Cavity Corner’ flashed by, and a boxing equipment store with a painting of the obscure Puerto Rican fighter Kermit Cintron above the door – scenes that nipped my attention away temporarily (Kermit Cintron, seriously?), however, the conversation took in Freddie Gilroy, Muhammad Ali and McGuigan. It was startling to hear such discerning voices. How times have changed.
The previous morning, I’d lolled into the Cathedral Quarter, a trendy district close to St. Anne’s Cathedral. A former trade and warehousing district known as the Half Bap area, it hosted a group of Italian tourists who were reclining outside The Duke of York, sipping halves of Guinness cheerily in the sunshine. Alongside the cobbles and hanging baskets of Commercial Court stands a mural that depicts famous Irish folk, past and present. Picking over it alongside a couple of passing locals, I was chided for not recognising guitarist Rory Gallagher (but got to Martin O’Neill first) while they pointed giddily on spotting Alex “Hurricane” Higgins, who loitered outside a pub doorway. “I played snooker with him at the YMCA,” one of the men said proudly.
McGuigan is there, nestled alongside Gloria Hunniford and Sinead O’Connor (imagine). It can’t be long before Frampton, kin in all but name, joins him. Maybe they should extend it to include the supporters who cheered them on to famous victories? They’re as intricate a part of Belfast’s sporting history as anyone.