The Jackal is gone but I hope we haven't seen the best of Carl Frampton yet

Andy Watters

Andy Watters

Andy is a sports reporter at The Irish News. His particular areas of expertise are Gaelic Football and professional boxing but he has an affinity for many other sports. Andy has been nominated three times for the Society of Editors Sports Journalist of the Year award and was commended for his inventiveness as a sub-editor in the IPR awards.

Man of the people. Carl Frampton meets his fans before his fight at Windsor Park. Picture by Hugh Russell.
Man of the people. Carl Frampton meets his fans before his fight at Windsor Park. Picture by Hugh Russell.

CARL Frampton was warming up for his last stand in Dubai last Saturday night while rocks and petrol bombs were flying on the streets of his home city.

Angry young loyalist lads were burning cars, attacking the cops and destroying their own communities and some probably called it a night at 10pm and scurried off home to catch The Jackal in action against Jamel Herring.

Unfortunately they’d have seen him well beaten. Frampton looked well past his best but even if he had been in his absolute prime he’d have struggled against the American who produced the best of his career to back up the physical advantages he enjoyed.

The carnage in Belfast and elsewhere has been distressing to watch but we’ve seen it before. When he was a youngster, Frampton saw riots breaking out around the interface between his home in Tigers Bay at the nationalist New Lodge.

“To be honest, it was an adrenaline rush when I was a kid, it was exciting; it didn’t frighten me, it’s just the way it was,” he said.

But division, whether it’s sectarian or physical, and the whole ‘them ’uns’ thing did not define him.

Boxing was key in that, it was his integrated education.

The young lad from ‘T Bay’ started out with the late Billy McKee at Midland/White City ABC and went on to train with Gerry Storey at the Holy Family ABC in the New Lodge and wore the green vest of Ireland when he represented the country at international competitions.

As an amateur he lost to Ryan Lindberg in the Ulster seniors and David Oliver Joyce in the Irish seniors and the stellar career he went on to have as a professional would have been impossible to predict.

In the early days of his march through the super-bantamweight ranks, Barry McGuigan was at his side and McGuigan, who had also been a peacemaker and a unifier in his own boxing days, played a massive role in Frampton’s success.

For a while the combination of the golden King’s Hall era of the 1980s, when McGuigan won his world title, and the bright new boxing dawn at the Odyssey Arena worked absolutely perfectly.

Punters from both sides of the community flocked to roar Frampton on and a special cheer (maybe the loudest of all) was reserved for McGuigan when he clenched his fists in the ring and whipped the crowd up just before the action started.

You know what they say about meeting your heroes? It rang true for me in McGuigan’s case. His relationship with The Irish News was often strained but still, having grown up idolising the man, the disagreement I had with him over something I had written (a quote from another trainer that he didn’t agree with) remains one of the more memorable moments of my career.

“I’m really pissed off Andy,” he said and he was.

I fought my corner as best I could but inside I was thinking: ‘Oh my God, I’m actually having an argument with Barry McGuigan here!’

Meanwhile, Frampton was always a pleasure to deal with.

I can’t say I know him well outside of boxing but I’ve been lucky to cover all his fights since Jeremy Parodi in 2013 and, through the good times and the bad, I haven’t noticed any change in him.

He kept his feet on the ground, stayed true to his working class roots and refused to allow himself to get caught up in the celebrity lifestyle. And so much of that is down to his upbringing.

I can’t remember an occasion when I asked for an interview before a fight and he didn’t respond with: “No worries mate”. He was courteous and always generous with his time and other journalists would say the same. Selling his fights obviously played a part in his media relations but I believe that the real driving force was common courtesy.

There are so many highlights to choose from in his career.

The Kiko Martinez European title fight was a statement of intent and beating the Spaniard again, this time for the world title, was a masterclass from him and, it must be said, a masterful piece of match-making by the McGuigans.

Then he went on to beat Scott Quigg and landed a fight with three-weight world champion Leo Santa Cruz in Brooklyn.

I must confess that I’d never been to New York before (I’d never been to the USA before for that matter) but inside 10 minutes of arriving at my hotel, I was in a taxi (humming the theme tune from Taxi) driving across the Brooklyn Bridge.

The cab dropped me off in Little Italy where Frampton was training at an amazing spit-and-sawdust gym three floors down under the Manhattan streets.

It was pinch-yourself stuff and when I met him in the gym I was still high on the experience and blurted out: “This is some buzz isn’t it?”

The buzz went up a few notches a couple of nights later when he beat Leo Santa Cruz at the Barclays Center. It was a stunning win, a perfect performance and the peak of his career.

Losing the rematch in Las Vegas was a crushing disappointment and, if Frampton has any regrets, missing out on a trilogy fight with Santa Cruz must certainly be near the top of the list.

After Vegas the relationship with the McGuigans unravelled and new coach Jamie Moore could not quite rekindle the glory days although they came very close.

Still, Frampton achieved so much in his career - as much any Irish boxer ever has and, while it’s sad to see him go I think the time is right. There will be no comeback.

He won two world title belts in the super-bantam division and another at featherweight and although he didn’t get the fairytale ending he wanted, he walks away fit and healthy at 34 with his place in history secured.

Will that be his legacy? Something tells me there could be more to come.

He’s not a superman who can cure all of society’s ills but through his life and in his sporting career he has shown that there can be another way.

As a youngster, he watched on as lads on the streets threw the petrol bombs and the rocks that build walls between communities ever-higher but he found a way to break them down and set an example for others to follow.

His wife Christine, Catholic-raised in west Belfast, did the same and Carl is now an ambassador for the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education who was just as proud to wear an Antrim GAA jersey as he was to accept his MBE.

He's a man who cannot be claimed by either side who has shown that there is a middle ground we can all share. The Jackal is no more, but I hope we haven’t seen the best of him yet. Viva Frampton!