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It's no doubt possible to spend half an hour in a Belfast pub without hearing the name Barry McGuigan, but it's not likely. No more than 10 minutes after I dropped in at the Errigle one evening in mid-December, an old fellow took a solid grip on my lapel and pulled me up close. "Listen," he said, "Barry is the greatest fighter Ireland has ever produced. I compare him with Sugar Ray."
I started to say something about Leonard, and the old fellow glared at me. " Sugar Ray Robinson," he said impatiently.
The Errigle is a fancy, newish place out on Ormeau Road in South Belfast, where men sit appreciating their Bushmills whiskey as a Muzak When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New comes heartrendingly through the overhead speakers. This particular old fellow was none other than Billy Barnes, who fought as a flyweight in the London Olympics of 1948.
"Barry is the new messiah," Barnes said with a hoarse passion. McGuigan, though, isn't the rallying point for yet another religious schism to torment Belfast, but just the reverse. "We're all one, Catholics and Protestants, when Barry gets into the ring," Barnes said. "Nothing brings the people of this town together like Barry."
Another drinker joined in. " Belfast was a ghost town at night," he said. "You got in the habit of sitting at home after dark. Belfast, let alone boxing, had been dead for 20 years. I'll not say it was Barry alone who was responsible for getting things going in the evenings, but the boy has united this city like nobody else could."
Barry (short for Finbarr) McGuigan is a native of the Republic of Ireland who now resides in Northern Ireland. His wife, Sandra, is Protestant, and he's Catholic. Ring opponents have found him a little-c catholic in the matter of dealing out punishment; his record is 23-1-0, and only three of his fights have gone the distance. He's the WBC's No. 4-ranked featherweight and the WBA's No. 7. McGuigan (pronounced mic-GIG-gan) looks a bit like Alexis Arguello, the superb featherweight champion of the late '70s, and his idol is Roberto Duran, the former lightweight great, for whom he has named one of his pair of German shepherds. (The other is Bandit.) To many observers, even those less prejudiced than Barnes, McGuigan is the most serious challenge in many years to the current Latin domination of the lower weights.
On one recent morning, though, while breakfasting austerely on tea and oatmeal in the Victorian rooming house in Bangor, half an hour's drive northeast of Belfast, which he uses as training headquarters, McGuigan, though the British and European champion, looked no threat to anyone. But one best not be deceived by his soft, polite voice and natural courtesy. His eyes can take fire instantly, and there's a near-palpable impression of physical strength that belies his 126 pounds. His hands seem to be the size of a light heavyweight's, and his reach is 70 inches, which wouldn't be bad for a welterweight. One senses a blatant physical self-pride in McGuigan, a quality that's rare in a European boxer. It reminds one of Hector Camacho.
He'll need every bit of his strength, size and pride in his toughest fight so far, against former WBC featherweight champion Juan LaPorte of Puerto Rico on Feb. 23 in Belfast. Assuming that McGuigan wins, he and Barney Eastwood, his manager, want a shot at a world title—either the WBC championship held by Azumah Nelson or the WBA title of Eusebio Pedroza.
McGuigan's quest for a professional crown began in 1978, when, at 17, he won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, B.C. and immediately came under pressure from London's Mickey Duff to turn pro. "I have managed a few Irish fighters in my time," says Duff, England's most successful boxing promoter, "but they all approached me. Barry is the first fighter I've ever approached, and now, after his progress and showing, I feel sick at [having failed to sign] him."
Another fellow impressed by McGuigan was Eastwood, a Belfast millionaire who runs 33 betting shops all over Northern Ireland. "I used to promote in the early '60s," says Eastwood, an urbane man of 52 who lives in a baronial estate in Holywood, County Down. "But I'd been out of the game a long time when I saw Barry on the telly, and I took a great shine to him. He wasn't doing all that great in the amateur ranks, but that didn't worry me. I could see he wasn't just a three-round fighter. He was a 15-round man. After three rounds he wasn't even breathing hard. People thought I'd gone away in the head because the sport had been dead in Belfast for so long. But in Belfast, if you can fight, they'll support you."