Belfast boxing booming
Ahead of Friday's big show at the Belfast Waterfront, Jamie Roberts examines Belfast's booming boxing scene...
Although the swarm of Belfast boxing fans left Las Vegas deflated after their hero Carl Frampton relinquished his titles in January, it is still clear to see that the pugilistic future is bright for their booming city.
The Northern Ireland capital and its natives can expect big things from their stable of home-grown fighters in the coming months and years, and the Jackal’s name is just the top of the tree of exciting fighting talent that is emerging from a region that has previously boasted the likes of Wayne McCullough.
In a city which was torn apart by a religious divide for decades, boxing has traditionally been seen as having no borders. Barry McGuigan – who Daniel Day-Lewis's film, ‘The Boxer’, is loosely based on – is commonly credited with having helped bring diverse communities together.
After the Clones Cyclone of Catholic descent married a Protestant, he became a UK citizen during the height of the Troubles - an era in which religious conflict spread across the city, killing thousands and destroying the lives of many more - so that he could fight for the British title. In a future world title bout in London, fans from England, Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland of both religions vowed to "leave the fighting to McGuigan".
McGuigan has previously been quoted as saying to the Express and Star: “I wore the flag of peace and our anthem was ‘Danny Boy’. Segregation and separatism are nasty things. I wanted to bring people together through boxing.”
Although he admitted there was a ‘red flag’ on him during those times, Belfast has now moved clear of such divides in many areas and the city's boxing future is looking extremely bright.
Frampton, who is signed to McGuigan’s stable at Cyclone Promotions and, like McGuigan, married a partner who is not of the same religious background as himself, has already brought world title fights to the city, and the residents of Northern Ireland's capital can expect to have more future world champions to cheer in the coming months and years.
Currently, Ryan Burnett is progressing well with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom team while, in the aftermath of the Rio Olympics controversy in 2016, there is much anticipation surrounding Michael Conlan as he prepares to make his professional debut for Top Rank Boxing at Madison Square Garden on St Patrick’s Day.
Following suit in turning pro post-Rio was three-time Olympian Paddy Barnes, who is pleased not to have witnessed the serious trouble of Belfast’s past. The popular bantamweight from Cliftonville, North Belfast, told me: “Thankfully I’m not old enough to have lived through the serious trouble that went on here.
“Boxing is a sport that brings people and communities together from all backgrounds. Things like this can only be achieved through sport, not politics.
“I am with Holy Family Club in the Newlodge area of North Belfast. It’s a Catholic area, but it’s almost 50/50 with Protestants training there which is a great thing.”
Barnes won his first professional bout in bizarre fashion and aims to continue climbing the ranks and become world champion. He said: “My first fight didn’t teach me much. The fella was a typical journeyman who got carried away, literally.
“I’m extremely proud to have represented Ireland at the highest level. It is a huge honour. Now, my goals are to be world champion."
The 29-year-old knows that the support he receives from the Belfast public is a great advantage to help him fulfill his goals, adding: “The fans here are very knowledgeable about the sport and know great boxers when they see them.
“Where I come from, boxing is alongside football as people’s favourite sport. To succeed, you need to build a fan base and the people here really get behind their own.”.
Barnes’s stablemate at MTK (formerly MGM), Marco McCullough, 27, is another vying to be the pride of Belfast. After being defeated by Isaac Lowe in his efforts to become Commonwealth featherweight champion on the undercard of the Frampton vs Scott Quigg fight last year, the Shankill Road fighter initially took a step back from boxing.
Now, though, he is back and aiming for glory. After leaving Cyclone Promotions, he has joined up with Barnes and Jamie Conlan at MTK and is determined to push on.
Currently featherweight Celtic, Irish, WBO European and Intercontinental champion, McCullough believes Belfast is well and truly on the map boxing-wise and is happy that religion has never got in the way of the sport he loves, telling me: “Since I’ve been boxing, religion was never brought into the gyms. You went sparring in different gyms and fought against other religions and that was that.
"My uncle coaches in a local gym so I went round and fell in love with the sport. Living in Belfast, things could have been a lot different growing up without boxing. It kept me off the streets and stopped me from mixing with the wrong crowd of friends.
"The area was starved of big fights for a while, but now there’s Carl, Jamie and Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes. It’s created a big hype here and it’s great to be a part of. The fans don’t understand how important they really are.”
McCullough admits that being in camp alongside Barnes "makes training easier", something that Barnes echoes. The former Olympian said: “It’s great training alongside boxers from your home city as it comforts you.”
Mark O’Hara, a boxing coach at Holy Trinity Boxing Club in the city, believes that Barnes deserves some of the credit for the big boxing boom in the city’s amateur ranks over the recent years. The 25-year-old told me: “Paddy really reignited the trend of success. He was Irish boxing’s first Olympic qualifier for Beijing and soon after that Michael Conlan burst onto the scene and both lads proved they could mix it successfully at world level.
“That, coupled with the High Performance Unit’s success, the winning mentality just keeps breeding, but this is also thanks to the on-going commitments of those completely voluntary boxing clubs clustered in Belfast and the governing bodies. Boxing seems to be in Belfast’s culture and a great boxer will always be adored by the people.”
O’Hara points out the influence professional boxers have on the community and added: “People like Carl [Frampton] are a real opportunity to shine a positive light on Belfast. He is a source of inspiration to the kids and perhaps there is a youngster, maybe even a few, in Belfast watching his fights who will go on to even greater things than Carl.”
It’s not just the lighter divisions which are ready to erupt in Belfast either. Steven Ward is ready to make his mark on the light heavyweight division and has ambitions to see his name in lights.
The 26-year-old from Newtownabbey knows his family roots in Belfast are what have made him what he is today and told me: “My granddad, Gordon, was a boxer and I loved it when he told me boxing stories. He hung an old bag in our garage and from then, that was it.
"I used to love watching Neil Sinclair and big Stephen Kirk as I loved watching them knock people out, but it was the way they carried themselves that impressed me. Complete gentlemen, the both of them."
Currently living in Finaghy, Ward continued: “As a kid I was a bit of a messer, but boxing taught me to focus on something, to have respect and dedication. As people know with Belfast, it has a history with religious divide and boxing allowed me to cross those borders.
“I love Belfast and am proud to be from there. The people make it so special. You can be at the bus stop and talk to some random person and have a full conversation. People have time for each other and help each other out.”
Belfast Boxers Group agree that religion should never be brought into discussion when talking about boxing in the community, stating: “We are all one in boxing. Even during the Troubles, there was no peace line. You could go to any club to fight like anywhere else in the world. Boxing is open to anyone.”
You can watch McCullough, Ward, Barnes and many more in action on BoxNation on 10 March as they compete on an action-packed card at Belfast Waterfront.