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The fight turned in the last seconds of the seventh round when a massive, unanswerable right from Barry McGuigan crashed home. It was then that Eusebio Pedroza, 32, the WBA featherweight champion, in this, his 20th title defense, finally lost out to the years and to the coolly marshaled aggression of the 24-year-old Irishman from Clones, County Monaghan. Pedroza went down for a mandatory 8-count from that right to the head and the flashing left hook that followed. But the exultant chant of "Easy, easy!" that thundered out of the dark from the wildly partisan crowd was patently wrong and unjust to both fighters.
In all his wanderings over the globe in defense of his title, Panama's gallant soldier of fortune had never fought back as bravely as he did on Saturday night. In the eighth, counterpunching then advancing as if that right had never landed, Pedroza looked like he still had the ring-craft to hold onto the crown he had worn since 1978. Almost until the end of the fight there was that chance. But it was that single blow, it would be plain later, that sapped him, paving the way to his first defeat in nine years.
It was the biggest fight night London had seen since Henry Cooper met Cassius Clay in 1966. The chilly June weather threatened rain, but this was by no means the only threat. Twenty-five thousand seats had been crammed into the West London soccer stadium of the Queen's Park Rangers club, and half of them were to be occupied by fans who had traveled to England from both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. The tragedy of Brussels was in the back of many minds. Police were everywhere, 2,000 ushers were drafted into service, and, even though the flags snapping over the stands identified the liquor company sponsoring the bout, drinking had been forbidden at the stadium. Though, as Barney Eastwood, McGuigan's manager, had observed, "You can confiscate the bottles and the silver flasks, but there's not much you can do about the human flasks." You could see the point of what he was saying as, all along the route to the stadium, green-hatted fans spilled out over the sidewalk, mugs in hand.
Back in McGuigan's native village of Clones, the 2,500 townspeople had mobilized in his support, HIT HIM IN THE CHIPS, BARRY, advised a poster in the butcher shop, and another one read BEEF HIM, BARRY! And a sign on the police station said CHARGE HIM, BARRY. But by fight night nearly half the population of Clones had gone off to London aboard one of the two-an-hour jumbo jet shuttles that British Airways had to lay on. As every Irishman tried to explain, this was the one issue over which Ireland was united.
In London, though, as the fight approached, there was a curious dampening in the Irish mood. Shortly before McGuigan arrived from Bangor, County Down, where he trains, a disquieting report had appeared in the London Times that the young fighter was losing his confidence. The story said that earlier in the week, McGuigan had called Eastwood at 3 a.m. complaining that he couldn't sleep.
Eastwood confirmed the report, saying that he drove over to the Bangor rooming house where his fighter was staying, and together they went for a walk. Once settled in London, the manager was inclined to laugh the matter off. "He's called me before, often," Eastwood said. Still, doubts remained in the public mind. McGuigan had worked out briefly on his first morning in London, but then went into seclusion. Eastwood pronounced him "ready." Others, however, feared that the loss-of-confidence theory was proving all too true.
McGuigan was under constant siege by the British press, even though he had negotiated a reported $65,000 exclusive contract that allowed him to talk only to reporters from the Daily Star, one of Britain's juicier tabloids. That evidently provoked another tabloid, the Daily Mirror, to write two doomsaying stories in the days before the fight. The first, on Wednesday, said that Eastwood had resigned himself to the prospect that if the fight went the full 15 rounds, his lad would lose the decision. Bad enough, but the following day the Mirror announced boldly: MCGUIGAN IS BROKE. And it quoted him as saying, "I owe my bank, my dad, my manager." It turned out the quote was accurate. However, the statement had been made three years ago.
By Thursday McGuigan had failed on two successive mornings to show up at his gym. His absences enhanced the impression that he was running scared, as did Eastwood's unsuccessful campaign to get rid of the appointed, referee, Stanley Christodoulou of South Africa, who had officiated five of Pedroza's previous defenses.
In his suite at the Grosvenor House Hotel on London's Park Lane, Pedroza was unmoved by all this hoopla. He was, after all, to have his biggest-ever payday by far—more than $1 million; McGuigan collected $100,000. "That Eastwood, he always has something to say," Pedroza said, referring to Eastwood's criticism of Christodoulou and other prefight utterances. "He wanted me to fight in Belfast. I would have wanted much more money to fight there. If they paid the money, I would fight in McGuigan's bathroom."
Questions were raised about whether Pedroza really had the stomach for yet another fight. If you wanted to make him mad, all you needed to do was suggest he was in London to take the money and run. "I am being paid to fight, not to sell the title," he said with dignity.