Boxing

The Troubles were raging but Eastwood's Gym in Belfast was booming

Crisanto Espana's brother Ernesto persuaded Barney Eastwood to take a punt on his younger sibling at a boxing conference in Venezuela - and it paid off in spectacular fashion. Picture by Hugh Russell

THE last dregs of the Punk movement still congregate around the bandstand, mohicans of chimney red and bubble gum blue standing stark against the walls of grey and beige that surround Cornmarket.

A couple of hundred yards away, rockabillies file in and out of Caroline Music on Ann Street, King Kurt and Stray Cats LPs stowed away inside familiar yellow and red bags.

Cure heads, New Romantics, Skins, Metallers, Rude Boys, the odd Mod and plenty more roamed the streets too, a motley crew of sub-cultures co-existing beyond the historical divisions visible at every turn in late ’80s Belfast.

Yet for all the diversity and self-expression among its youth, the ongoing Troubles saw that the city remained a world away from the multi-cultural society enjoyed and celebrated today.

Security checkpoints were still in place the length of Royal Avenue while army helicopters circled the skies above. Bomb scares remained an almost daily occurrence, a reminder that the threat of paramilitary attack was ever-present.

For the natives, life went on, but to those looking from the outside in Belfast was a place of foreboding – which makes the story of Eastwood’s Gym all the more remarkable.

At a time when the sound of foreign tongues on the city’s streets was far from commonplace, the understated space above a bookies’ shop on Chapel Lane represented an exotic oasis amidst the madness outside.

Puerto Ricans, Panamanians, Frenchmen and fighters from right across South America trained alongside some of the top talent Ireland had to offer. Here was a little corner of Belfast where colour, creed and class were left at the door before you made your way up the steps.

Legendary promoter and manager Barney Eastwood already had a history of guiding Irishmen to the top, the likes of Barry McGuigan and Hugh Russell leading the charge during the early ’80s, but by the end of the decade the gym had taken on an increasingly international feel.

Olympic medallist Hugh Russell and his mother Eileen at the Ulster Hall in 1983 after Hugh – these days a respected photographer with The Irish News – won a British Bantamweight title fight 

Eastwood had always been a firm believer in bringing over the best sparring partners money could buy, paying out small fortunes for elite operators to ensure his men were equipped for battle when the time came.

The idea of signing these guys to the stable, though? That was something else altogether.

With no fan base, no following on these shores and no idea how - or even if - they would settle into their new surroundings, risk threatened to outweigh reward.

Against his better judgement, he rolled the dice.

Crisanto Espana and Victor Cordoba arrived from Venezuela and Panama respectively in 1988.

And, if they were fish out of water in the early days as the winter chill set in, it wasn’t long before both were swimming majestically upstream.

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“I WANT to be a world champion, I don’t mind in what way. I wanted to go over there because I know I will be a world champion. It didn’t matter what country I went to – United States, Europe, Ireland... I don’t care.”

Twenty-nine years since first touching down at Dublin airport, Crisanto Espana doesn’t look back with dewy eyes as though destiny delivered him to Belfast.

Back in 1988, at the age of 23, Espana knew he had to get out of Venezuela if he was to have any hope of realising his dream. Where he ended up was an irrelevance, as long as there was a pathway to the top.

The circumstances of their unlikely union still bring a smile to Eastwood’s face.

Travelling to a World Boxing Association (WBA) conference in Caracas that year, he had no intention of returning with a plus one.

But Espana’s older brother Ernesto had other ideas.

“I was the lightweight champion of the world,” he told Eastwood through a translator, “but I was a bum.

“I have a brother who can really fight.”

With only four bouts on his record over five years there was little to go on, but Ernesto Espana wasn’t about to take no for an answer.

Before Eastwood left for home, Ernesto arrived at the conference with his younger sibling, a tall, skinny looking kid, who declared: “I’m going to go with you”.

Within weeks, Crisanto Espana was climbing the steps at Chapel Lane.

“There would have always been fighters looking signed at those things, but I knew he could fight. I was there for maybe 10 days and I’d seen him in the gym, seen what he could do.”

One-time super-bantamweight contender Bernardo Checa, a former sparring partner of Barry McGuigan and Roberto Duran, stayed on as a coach after hanging up his gloves in ’87, working alongside Eddie Shaw, John Breen and Paul McCullough.

Barney Eastwood with Barry McGuigan and the late trainer, Eddie Shaw

Like Espana, he too had taken up permanent residence at Beresford House, a seafront B&B in Bangor run by Jean Anderson.

Being around a fellow Spanish speaker helped ease Espana’s transition, although it wasn’t all smooth sailing at the start.

“It took a long time,” he said, speaking from his home in Venezuela.

“The worst problem in Northern Ireland was the weather – it was too cold. But I knew I wanted to be a champion, so I was running every morning, running running running.

“I worked hard because I knew that is what I had to do but, oh my God, it was very cold. I didn’t want to get out of the bed.”

The change of climate took a toll in those early days too.

“I remember one time we were getting Crisanto ready for a fight, doing a bit of sparring, and the next thing he took a bad flu,” recalls Eastwood.

“It took him three or four months to get over it. It really knocked him for six.”

Once restored to full health though, it wasn’t long before Espana was demonstrating his supreme athleticism day in, day out.

Indeed, had circumstances been different, he could just as easily have been a long distance runner. Prior to leaving Venezuela he had finished fourth in the Caracas marathon, and admits he would occasionally run the 26 mile marathon distance on his ‘rest’ day.

That conditioning and natural aptitude for the hard yards proved the cornerstone of his success later on, but Espana was not a man short on physical gifts.

“Espana was some fighter. I mean, his arms... he could’ve picked things up off the ground without bending over,” laughs John Breen as he remembers the man dubbed ‘Claws’.

On the end of those long levers were fists that could do serious damage, packing devastating power into his wiry 5’10 frame as he gradually started to take the welterweight division by storm.

Eastwood remembers being almost frightened watching him train and revealed that, in preparation for one world title fight, Espana went through 12 sparring partners of varying weights but “all high quality”, stopping every one of them.

Another time, two unbeaten Welsh fighters were flown into Belfast to do some rounds over the weekend. Both spent their Saturday night in the Royal Victoria Hospital.

“Crisanto walked around about 11 stone; some of the guys he was sparring were maybe 12-and-a-half or 13 but he held his own, no problem,” says Eastwood.

“He was a tremendous puncher - a tall, lanky guy with very long arms. People used to say if you could get in close to him you could get him to the body, but if you did get in close he would kill you with uppercuts.

“A real good fighting man.”

And Espana wasn’t the only one to arrive from foreign shores and make an instant impression.

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Panamanian super-middleweight Victor Cordoba flourished during his time in Belfast, landing a world title. Picture by Ann McManus

“CORDOBA was the first world champion I had in the gym. I loved him. What a fighter.”

The phone still rings every couple of months, and a familiar face pops up on the screen.

“Hello John Breen...”

For all the hundreds of fighters Breen has trained throughout a storied career outside the ropes, Victor Cordoba holds a special place.

Breen will never forget the electrifying moment he first laid eyes on the new arrival from Panama, and the ensuing weeks and months of watching him go to war with men like Steve Collins, Sam Storey and Ray Close.

Former two-weight world champion Steve Collins was just one of the star names in and around Eastwood's Gym in the late 1980s

If anybody is going to make it, he thought, this guy is.

At that time, Eddie Shaw was the beating heart of Eastwood’s Gym. No matter which boxer was first to walk through the doors as dusk turned to dawn, they would always be met by Shaw setting up for the day ahead.

But when he was diagnosed with cancer, Breen was called upon.

“I remember going down to the gym to meet Barney Eastwood on a Monday morning. He told me Eddie wasn’t too well and that he needed a hand, but that the money wouldn’t be too good.

“I said ‘no problem, I’d love to help him out BJ’. If it was about money I wouldn’t have been doing it – I was just delighted to be able to work with the quality of fighters who were in that gym at the time.”

Cordoba came with a record of 10 wins, three draws (bizarrely, all with the same opponent, Felix Rivas, inside the first 18 months of his career) and one defeat. Nine of those 10 wins had ended by knockout or TKO.

And the circumstances of his arrival in Belfast were not dissimilar to Espana’s, as Eastwood explains.

“I was travelling to Panama, I’d gone there during McGuigan’s time, having a look at the world champion who McGuigan eventually fought, Eusebio Pedroza. The head of the WBA was in Panama and to get fighters rated, you almost had to go there.

“While I was there, Cordoba came over and said to me ‘I’ve only had a few fights, I’m a good prospect, I want to get out of here and do something’. He asked me a couple of times.”

As with Espana, Eastwood liked what he had seen in the gym and decided to take a punt, while Jean Armstrong was tasked with preparing another room at Beresford House.

Adapting to unfamiliar surroundings, the new boys rarely strayed too far from the gym, other than when necessity dictated.

They ate locally, picked up essentials nearby and even got their hair cut at Rab Maguire’s barbers.

This was a place where men from all walks of life dutifully lined the street awaiting a turn inside the tiny smoke-filled room – a light-deprived Aladdin’s cave of red leather, wood panelling and boxing memorabilia, and a place where gentle slagging from the hosts came free with your flat-top.

There could have been no finer introduction to life in Belfast than half an hour spent inside the renowned King Street establishment.

“I had no English, nothing. I only speak Spanish,” says Cordoba, now back home in Panama City.

“But I learn from people in the street - with John Breen, with my ex-wife, with the other fighters, when we go to the disco. We have to speak English all the time and we start to learn it.”

“Everybody got to understand what everybody was saying,” explained Dave ‘Boy’ McAuley.

The Larne man was British flyweight champion at the time but would go on to claim the IBF world belt later in his career.

Welcoming guys like Espana and Cordoba to the gym could only drive everybody else on, he felt, and the initial language barrier was soon overcome.

“I can’t speak Spanish but see if those guys were speaking Spanish, I could pick up what they were saying or get the jist of their story.

“Crisanto ended up speaking very good English, so too did Cordoba. Communication wasn’t a problem.

“We had something that no other gym in Europe had. It was, at that stage, the second or third most successful gym in the world. We trained our ass off going up there but everybody gelled.

“It just worked.”

Former two-weight world champion Steve Collins was just one of the star names in and around Eastwood's Gym in the late 1980s

No matter where you turned, fireworks were going off in the ring; raw, primal energy bouncing from the walls.

“It was brilliant. There were that many world champions, you see when the sparring started…” says McAuley, drawing breath.

“You might have been hitting the bag but you would have been watching Collins, Cordoba, Ray Close, Espana, McGuigan in his day, Hugh Russell, Paul Hodkinson, Eamonn Loughran...

“It was full of world champions, and we were bringing in world champions to spar with. There were out and out wars every day, and we learned from those guys.

“It was like being at school, only this time we listened.”

And having treaded water in Panama for the past seven years, Cordoba – entering his peak at 26 - was in his element.

“I was sparring with Ray Close, Steve Collins, really good guys. I was a very clever fighter and I had a very hard punch – people didn’t want to spar with me because it was hard.

“When I was getting ready for a fight, Barney Eastwood would send for people from America. I was too strong for the sparring, and after that those people won championships.

“Steve Collins was world champion, Ray Close fought for the title, Sam Storey fought for the championship. I was happy for them.

“John Breen was my physical/technical trainer, and when I trained with him I was very strong, I was thinking very clever.

“At that time fighting, for me, was easy.”

And any concerns about whether fight fans here would take them to their hearts quickly faded into the ether as crowds packed the Ulster Hall and the Kings Hall several times a year to cheer on all the fighters in the stable.

“The thing about Belfast people is they know who can fight, and they realised right away these guys were exceptional fighters,” says Eastwood.

“People realised they were watching special fighters that don’t come along every day.

"They were known and recognised... people treated them very well.”

The years that followed would see the gym at Chapel Lane become a powerhouse on the international stage, producing countless British belt holders and five world champions. Crisanto Espana and Victor Cordoba were among that quintet.

Both married Irish girls and started families but, as the trajectory of their lives and careers took off in different directions, neither would be here for the long haul.

IN TOMORROW’S IRISH NEWS

From world titles and unforgettable nights to tampered food in France and being ducked by Eubank and Benn - Neil Loughran traces the final chapters in the careers of Crisanto Espana and Victor Cordoba, and discovers how life after boxing took some unexpected twists...

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Boxing