Barry McGuigan on Fight Game: It's not just about boxing; it's about life
A new three-part television series shows the blood, sweat, and tears behind the scenes in Barry McGuigan's world of boxing. He tells Joanne Sweeney why he's still ringside
"YOU’LL remember this fight for 40 f**king years son," Barry McGuigan told Carl Frampton before he claimed the WBA featherweight world title against Leo Santa Cruz just 10 months ago.
It's one of the emotional moments in the new three-part television series, Fight Game: The McGuigans on BBC One Northern Ireland.
There were true words from the Clones Cyclone as many of us remember the night he won the same title with a stunning knockout of the then champion in a packed stadium at Loftus Road, London in 1985, where Irish voices, from north and south, roared him on to his moment of glory.
It's something that his own father Pat – who charmed the world with his emotional rendition of Danny Boy ahead of Barry's fights – may have said to him all those years ago.
As the head of the McGuigan family and a growing boxing family with Cyclone Promotions, Barry allowed Ad Hoc Films production team special access to the training camps leading up to Frampton's title win to when, agonisingly, he lost it in January to his nemesis Santa Cruz in a top-billed defence in Las Vegas.
The series, which started on Wednesday, shows the highs and lows, the literal blood, sweat and tears which goes on in the world of professional boxing, both in the ring and outside.
While Frampton's fights mainly feature in the show, other boxers that Barry manages and his son Shane trains, such as Coalisland star Conrad Cummings and Scot Josh Taylor, as well as their wives and parents, also appear.
Though he has become a consummate television and media professional – remember when he won ITV’s Hells Kitchen with Marco Pierre White in 2007? – was Barry apprehensive allowing such unprecedented access to his stable?
"Yes, I was – well, we all were, as the run-up to the training camp is very private," he told me earlier this week, before he was due to appear as a guest on Channel 4's Countdown programme.
"But we all have seen it and think it's a good representation of what things are like. It shows how we all support one another. The programme is not just about boxing; it's about life as well – our life. And that's what boxing is – it's life.
“Boxing is a brutal, brutal business, its highs and its lows, the ups and down. But it's my business: it's what I do and I love it.”
The retired boxer takes it on the chin when I mention to him about a moment in the opening episode when son Shane tells his dad to butt out from giving the Belfast boxer advice ahead of the New York fight against Santa Cruz.
"Actually Shane was in the right there and I was in the wrong," laughs Barry. "It may have looked like he was being a bit harsh on the old man but he was right to tell me as what I had told Carl was the opposite of what he had just done."
In the programme, Barry talks openly, and perhaps still reluctantly, about his elder brother Dermot who died by his own hand in 1994.
"It was very hard to talk about Dermot, of course it was," said Barry. "There's not one day that I don't think about him, not one day when he's not in my mind. I'm not over it, and I never will get over it.
"Nowadays there seems to be more mental illness, or certainly more awareness and talk about it. And I keep wondering that somehow if I had been more aware of perhaps of what Dermot was going through, I could have maybe talked him out of it."
He also opens up about his Catholic faith and how important is to him and how it has sustained him during the more difficult times.
Barry is shown fervently praying during the Frampton fight, after energetically jumping up and down, shouting support and instructions.
"I think they [the production team] over-egged that a bit," said Barry, "I do pray and I have my faith, I always have and it's important to me. As you may know, I've always kept out of the whole Protestant and Catholic thing in my career and I've always kept my faith for me."
Barry is also shown later on in the series talking with two Poor Clare nuns, giving them an update about his fighters and his life.
"I met the nuns at their convent on the Cliftonville Road, Belfast, in the 1980s. There's only two left now out of 14 and they are no longer in Belfast. They are people that I have become friends with over the years and they have been with me all the way. All I know is that when I go to visit them, I receive great solace. I really admire the commitment it takes to live a religious life and I suppose that's what boxing is all about too – commitment."
Away from the ring, Barry has also diversified into film consultancy, recently allowing Oscar-winning Irish director Lenny Abrahamson access to the McGuigans' New York training camp as he's making a film about former world boxing champ Emile Griffith.
Barry choreographed the fight scenes while Shane trained actor Johnny Harris for two years for Jawbone, which is currently cinemas. The film, which tells the story of a young boxer struggling with alcohol addiction, also stars Ray Winstone and Belfast-born actor Michael Smylie.
"It's a real gem of a story and Johnny Harris was a joy to work with, as was Daniel Day Lewis who I worked with for Jim Sheridan's film The Boxer,” adds Barry.
The passion and commitment that he, Frampton, and his son Shane show is evident in Fight Game – from Frampton's abject loneliness born of being away from his family, to Barry's wise leadership as the 'Da' of the group and Shane's razor-sharp advice.
The 56-year-old Monaghan man says at one point in the programme: “Boxing is the honesty business. It’s life in a 12-round fight. Half a second and you’re knocked out, you’re looking up at the stars and it’s over.”
It’s a tough business that he works in alongside wife Sandra and other sons Blain and Jake (his daughter Danika is an actress).
"I resisted promoting and managing for a long time but boxing is something that you can't easily walk away from. As I say on the programme, sometimes we drive each other mad, but it’s also hugely gratifying. The greatest thrill in the world is to work with your family and your children.”
:: Fight Game: The McGuigans, episodes two and three, will be aired on Wednesday May 24 and 31 on BBC One Northern Ireland at 10.40pm (Episode one is available to view via the BBC iPlayer).