'Every penny I had in my pocket, I put it on McGuigan. Every feckin' penny... I lost everything'
Selling sandwiches while Springsteen wowed Slane helped Brian Peters pursue a dream that had started inside the National Stadium, but it wasn't long before the Meath promoter was making his own mark on the fight game. In part two of a week long series about the National Stadium, he tells Neil Loughran about McGuigan, Matthew McConaughey and helping bring boxing back to the masses...
IT was from a sandwich stall inside the grounds of Slane Castle that the American dream was born. Having lived the early years of his life in Belfast, Brian Peters was raised on stories of Rinty Monaghan, Freddie Gilroy and John Caldwell.
But it was another fighting man from up north who first captured the Meath man’s imagination: Barry McGuigan.
For years Peters would travel down to the National Stadium in Dublin to watch the Irish seniors, and every time it was the ‘Clones Cyclone’ who left him mesmerised.
A non-stop ball of blazing hand speed and precise, power-packed punching, McGuigan was box office; and not a man watching could help but feed off his energy.
Peters was no different, following the journey from amateur to pro, from the stadium to the States. Yet where his early entrepreneurial spirit afforded him the opportunity of a lifetime, it would – in the end – come at a considerable cost.
“I was a huge fan of McGuigan’s, and that had all started at the National Stadium,” he says.
“Now, Bruce Springsteen was playing Slane in 1985 and myself and the brother got a stand selling sandwiches – the big choice was either ham, or ham and cheese. We were up the two nights beforehand making them and had just shy of 4,000 sandwiches.
“Honestly, I don’t even remember what the hell we were selling them for - maybe a quid or two quid each. Anyway, we had sold them out by 12 o’clock on the day of the concert; totally cleaned out.
“So I had that money. I spent half of it on a car, and the other half I used to go to Las Vegas the next year to see McGuigan fight Stevie Cruz at Caesar’s Palace...”
Standing in the shade at the back watching an undercard that contained greats like Tommy Hearns and Robert Duran, Peters struck up a conversation with a Cruz fan who had headed over to cheer on his fellow Texan.
McGuigan - the reigning WBA featherweight champion having ripped the belt from Panamanian legend Eusebio Pedroza 12 months earlier - was a huge favourite, even with the 43 degree desert heat.
Peters had no doubt and made his new acquaintance an offer before the first bell, only to find himself watching in horror as the drama unfolded.
“I bought good seats, eight or 10 rows from the front, but I couldn’t even sit down the heat was so severe. I’d say that out of the 16,000 people there, probably 16 were shouting for Cruz, and didn’t they happen to be sitting behind me?
“But this fella had a pair of crocodile skin cowboy boots and a big hat, and he was there for Cruz. I was having a bit of fun with him, so I said ‘would you have a few bob on your man, just for a bit of interest?’
“‘Sure kid, whatever you want’, he said. No matter what I suggested, that was his response: ‘Sure kid, whatever you want’. I thought I was the big fella, so every penny I had in my pocket, I put it on McGuigan. Every feckin’ penny. He pulled out this roll of hundred dollar notes, I can still see it now...
“Anyway, everybody knows what way the fight went [Cruz took a unanimous decision win after a gruelling 15 rounds]. If I’d been smart I could’ve laid it off because Cruz was 4/1 at the time, but like a thick Irishman I sat there...
“I lost everything, lost the lot.”
It’s amazing that Peters didn’t turn his back on boxing there and then following a sickening journey back across the Atlantic.
But, wounds licked, he didn’t stay away long and travelled to Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics, having followed the journeys of all the hopefuls eyeing up a spot on that Irish team.
“I would’ve gone to the seniors for probably 20 years running, it was a huge occasion. Back then there was probably more marquee names and you knew all the guys.
“I would’ve been friendly with Paul Griffin, Wayne McCullough, Kevin McBride, Paul Douglas… I was president of Crumlin boxing club at one stage with Phil Sutcliffe. I would’ve always had a great interest in the amateurs and I’d have good connections in Belfast.
“You always would’ve heard about Rinty Monaghan and Johnny Caldwell, Freddie Gilroy, all these greats. Some of them had legendary, almost mythical status, so growing up you always knew the stadium was a very special place.”
And when Peters ventured into the promotional game, that love for the atmospheric home of Irish boxing went with him.
He even brought some famous guests along to see for themselves.
“I had Matthew McConaughey in there – I had him there for the senior finals,” says Peters of the Hollywood actor, who was in Ireland at the time shooting 2002 post-apocalyptic science fantasy film Reign of Fire.
“Matthew couldn’t believe it; he thought the atmosphere was unbelievable. He was staying in the Morrison Hotel and training in a local gym, that’s where he met Jim Rock – they used to spar and we became very good friends.
“He actually ended up staying in the house with me for probably three months, and he helped work the corner for some of Jim Rock’s pro fights. Christian Bale was with us, he was in that film too, and they were both there at ringside, wearing the famous ‘Pink Panther’ t-shirt.”
It was when Bernard Dunne returned from America, however, that Peters banked on the stadium to help bring big-time boxing back to the Irish television audience.
The young Dubliner had gone 14 fights unbeaten Stateside and, even in his absence, remained a hugely popular figure in his home city.
There was still a sweat convincing RTE to come along for the ride, though, and Peters had to make another offer to seal the deal. Thankfully this time it worked out.
“Jim Betts was the first fight back for Bernard, and that was a big gamble because I gave that fight free to RTE,” he recalls.
“Knowing the stadium, I knew how the atmosphere would come across on the TV, and lucky enough Bernard was such a star that it sold out, so everything came together.
“That said, he fought a guy called Yury Voronin at the stadium next and although Bernard was winning handy enough, he got caught in the last round. I was away looking for the light switch somewhere, I can tell you! Jaysus, that woke me up.
“But we had three shows there in 2005 and, coming back from America after so many fights, the stadium was the obvious option. As far as boxing goes, I’m not sure there’s any venue in the world that beats it in terms of atmosphere.
“It’s so dark, there’s hardly any light in the place at all, you wouldn’t know whether it’s night or day, and it always had a big ring. I always liked a big ring for Bernard to show off his boxing ability, his technical skills.
“Don’t forget, coming up to a fight you’d be looking any daft little advantage you could get. Any percentage, and there’s no doubt it is intimidating for any opponent to come into that atmosphere.
“We’re very lucky to have it. I’ve been lucky enough to attend nearly every sporting event I could ever have wished to, but still some of the nights in the stadium would’ve been up there with the best of them.”
'THE CROWD THAT NIGHT CARRIED ME BACK TO MY FEET': MAGIC MEMORIES OF THE STADIUM
I HAVE plenty of great memories in the stadium, from being 14/15 coming down and beating Ross Hickey in my first Irish final when he had won the All-Irelands so many years previous.
But fighting Junior Granados in the stadium 2015, as a professional, the crowd that night carried me back to my feet in the seventh round [Conlan was dropped twice by body shots from the Mexican] and raised my performance over the final few rounds.
I’ve never felt a feeling like it… the sound felt deafening in the ring. It’s something that will live with me forever.
Outside the ropes, cornering Michael with my dad on his first Irish senior championship win, beating Ryan Burnett who was hottest prospect in Irish boxing at the time, former champion Gary Molloy, and reigning champion Chris Phelan.
Michael was the underdog going into each fight and the atmosphere on senior finals night was amazing! After winning the All-Irelands that year Mick went and qualified for the London Olympic Games and got a bronze medal there.
But it all started over the three weeks of championships at the stadium.
SENIOR finals nights were always amazing inside a packed stadium… such an atmosphere.
As a kid the first time you walk into the place it’s daunting, with the massive ring. It’s a special place for Irish boxing because so many champions have been in that ring. One of my best memories was watching Damaen Kelly beat the Cuban number one [Waldermar Font] in the World Challenge Cup.
Personally, I had so many great nights there as an amateur, winning my first Irish senior title against seven-time champion Denis Galvin, while I was also lucky enough to fight there as a pro, defending my European title. It was great to go back and see some old faces and relive some great memories.
I remember one time as well I was with the Irish team staying in a B&B across the way, probably back in 1990-92, and Meatloaf was playing in the stadium – we met him on his way out into the tour bus and he said hi. I’m a fan now, but I’d never really heard of him then… I thought he was a mad man.
MY first memories are of getting brought down by my coach Ralph [McKay] to get the feel for the place the year before competing in the Boy 1 championships - it’s hard to describe as the buzz of the place was unbelievable.
Then coming down for the All-Ireland Boy 1s kick-started everything off for me, as I’m sure it did for a lot of Irish boxers.
From winning that first Irish title to a first senior title, to representing Ireland, there have been so many good memories in the stadium through the years. It’s hard to compare each title as when you’re that age, entering the Boy 1 championships, it’s the only thing you want to do - win an Irish title.
Over the years then you want to win a senior title, and during that time you grow from a boy to a man. I’m very grateful to have been blessed with many great memories, and I hope many more to come.
THE best memory I have of the stadium is warming up for my Irish elite final earlier this year.
Tony brown was in the changing room with me and had a speaker playing music. Usually before a fight people play ‘angry’ music to get wound up - Tony had Michael Jackson, Earth, Wind and Fire, the like of that, and for my whole warm up I was dancing, having an absolutely great time.
Alongside actually winning the title, that’s my favourite memory.
IN TOMORROW’S IRISH NEWS
Eamon Carr grew up believing the National Stadium was some kind of mythical Madison Square Garden just down the road. Little did he know that destiny would see him headline there before a change of beat brought him back to the boxing world...