BIG READ: Triumph and tragedy: Barry McGuigan interview
Luke G. Williams
Photos (top to bottom): Alex Burstow/Getty Images; Steve Powell / Getty Images; Stephen Pond/Getty Images; Stephen Pond/Getty Images; Cyclone/ Barry McGuigan
In the wake of Josh Taylor's sensational victory against Regis Prograis in the final of the World Boxing Super Series, Luke G. Williams spoke in-depth to Taylor's manager - the legendary Barry McGuigan - about the fight, the future and out of the ring tragedy...
There are few more emotive names in boxing than that of Barry McGuigan.
The Hall of Fame former world featherweight champion from Ireland seared his name forever into the collective consciousness of sports fans in Britain and Ireland with his legendary toppling of Eusebio Pedroza in the open and electric air of Loftus Road in 1985.
For a boxing-mad youngster raised, like myself, in the 1980s, the fight remains an emotional touchstone. Even today, if I hear a bar of ‘Danny Boy’ hummed or sung, my mind inevitably returns to that heady night and those famous images of Barry’s father Pat belting out the famous tune as a precursor to his son’s unforgettable unanimous decision triumph.
Those iconic images of Pedroza being floored, McGuigan's ceaseless punching and his hand being raised flickered from the television screen in the heart of my family home into the permanence of my memory and will never be dislodged so long as there is breath in my body.
Today Barry is 58, no longer the young fighter who so entranced two nations in the 1980s and united warring religious factions under the credo “leave the fighting to McGuigan”.
He still possesses the same clear blue eyes and boyish twinkle that first won our hearts several decades ago, and his delightful Irish brogue still drips with humanity, humour and intelligence.
Understandably, however, as he speaks by phone with Boxing Monthly, his voice at times assumes a more serious cadence, and a mournful inflection.
2019, you see, has been a year of wildly contrasting emotions for McGuigan – with the personal and the professional offering up a cruel contrast.
Personally, it has probably been the toughest 12 months of his life, as he and his close-knit family - wife Sandra and sons Shane, Jake and Blain - have had to come to terms with the unspeakably awful tragedy of losing a daughter and a sister – their beloved Danika succumbing to the malevolence of cancer aged just 33.
“We’ve had a dreadful couple of months,” McGuigan admits. “It’s the worst thing that can ever happen to a father, to lose their daughter. To lose my wee girl, my only girl… I can’t really talk about it because I get so upset. It’s dreadful. We’re all very close and we were all very badly affected by it.”
Contrastingly, on a professional managerial level, McGuigan is riding high, with the echoes of his super lightweight charge Josh Taylor’s sensational victory against Regis Prograis still reverberating around the boxing world.
“To an extent it gave us something to occupy our minds,” McGuigan admits of the fight, which he and the team surrounding Taylor, chief among them his trainer son Shane, were in the midst of preparing for when Danika passed away.
“We are so meticulous about every detail when preparing Taylor for a fight. You have to be. And that made us stop thinking about the obvious. Although every day that we wake we think about it.
“Josh had something similar with losing his girlfriend Danielle's father, his father-in-law James Murphy. Josh and James were very close and he died of sepsis at 47 years old, which was shocking. So we have all had a lot of personal sadness.”
Forged from circumstances of such personal suffering and torment, Taylor’s victory is the sort of triumph that defines careers in and out of the ring.
As a defining moment of fistic ferocity it may even for some young fans, in years to come, have left an indelible imprint approaching that which McGuigan forged against Pedroza – albeit with the caveat that it will not and can not hope to replicate the wider social and political significance that McGuigan’s triumph did. (Then again, what fight ever could?)
McGuigan’s analysis of Taylor vs Prograis is every bit as dazzling and technically astute as the Scot proved himself proved himself that heady Saturday night in the O2 against Louisiana’s marauding ‘Rougarou’.
“I am immensely proud of Josh,” McGuigan explains. “I always thought and believed he would beat Prograis. I said it in my column in The Mirror [newspaper] and that’s exactly how I played out.
“Prograis is a formidable young man, he’s a very good fighter – he’s slick, he hits very hard. He’s a relaxed fighter who likes to fight at a pace he can control, hurt his opponents and then slow them down. Once he puts the fear of God into a fighter he can do what he wants with them. But I knew he wouldn’t be able to do that with Taylor. Taylor is a different type of animal. A different type of fighter.
“Shane and Josh worked it out tactically – we all knew that at some stage during the fight Josh might have to change the way he was fighting and would end up having to break him down and close him down.
“Although Prograis is powerful, very powerful, Taylor is one of the best in-fighters I’ve ever seen. He’s very, very good on the inside. His rotational speed and power and the skills he has at short range are absolutely phenomenal.
“He’s got the ability to switch seamlessly between orthodox and southpaw, even in the middle of a combination, which is pretty remarkable – that’s how he knocked out Ohara Davies. He hit Prograis a few times like that but not as cleanly as he hit Davies.
“I knew that Taylor would win this fight from middle distance to short range, and then back out to long range. Little shifts in distance were needed but they had to be done quickly and he had to keep the tempo high.”
McGuigan pinpoints Taylor’s switch in tactics after some initial successes for Prograis in the early rounds as the key to winning the fight.
“He had to change after about three rounds, he knew then he wasn’t going to win this fight by standing off – Prograis’ head movement was good, he was catching Josh with occasionally good shots which were jerking his head and looking good to the judges.
“It was really from round four onwards that he changed the course of the fight. When tactics aren’t working how many fighters can do that? Very, very few fighters can switch tactics in the middle of the fight against a world-class opponent.
“From memory - because I didn’t write it down - I thought Josh won the first, lost the second, lost the third, shared the fourth and then he had it this way from the fifth.
“He said to himself: ‘now I’m going to take it to this guy, close his guy down, get to him quickly and get my hands up or get out; move my feet around, change position and then attack again, go at him again with a second phase, change the angle and go again.’
“When you’re fighting like that you always run the risk of getting caught with a shot when you go in but Josh’s head movement is good and he has a phenomenal chin.
“I thought Josh’s performance was very special. Through rounds five, six, seven, eight and nine it looked like he might get Prograis out of there. It looked like Prograis was going to be consumed by Taylor and his waves of attack.”
Taylor’s momentum was momentarily quelled however, McGuigan admits, by a severe cut above his right eye.
“It was a very bad head clash at the end of the ninth or maybe in the tenth,” he explains. “Prograis moves his head side to side a lot and when you’re at close range like that you run the risk of getting hit by his head. It happened a number of times around that right eye of Taylor’s. That area was swelling already from a number of head clashes earlier on when the heads clashed again badly.
“So in rounds 11 and 12 Josh fought with one eye. He knew it was close and he had to keep the momentum going. I thought he lost the 11th and won the 12th, albeit closely. And I think he won all the middle rounds.
“He dominated most of the rounds although it was a close fight – I know that sounds like something of a paradox, but he definitely deserved to win it. I had him winning by three but I’m perfectly happy to accept two. But there’s no way it was a draw. No chance it was a draw!
“I knew it would be a high quality fight. I wasn’t sure whether Prograis could take Taylor’s speed and power, but I knew Josh could handle his speed and power. That flabbergasted them [the Prograis camp]. They didn’t think he would be able to take it.
“Taylor has a phenomenal chin, he was hit by an unbelievable shot in the 11th. He stumbled back and he thought I’m not going to walk into any more of those. [Commentator] Adam Smith got very excited yelling, ‘he’s in trouble!’ and so on but he wasn’t in trouble.
“Yes, he got hit by some good shots but he was never shaken and never visibly hurt. I also thought he showed fantastic courage under pressure and under stress, not being able to see out of that right eye.
“All in all, it was a fabulous fight, really high quality and fought at a tremendous pace. If any young kid wants to examine the art of in-fighting and how to fight on the inside then they should watch that fight, particularly from round 4 onwards.”
The expert way that McGuigan has guided Taylor’s 16-fight pro career, gradually moving him up in class and ensuring he gained valuable experience against the likes of Miguel Vasquez and Viktor Postol before entering the World Boxing Super Series, as well as building his public profile via appearances on terrestrial station Channel 5, has deserved wider mention and acclaim.
Indeed, one could argue that the 24 rounds of experience Taylor accrued against Postol and then Ivan Baranchyk in the WBSS semi-finals proved crucial in giving him an edge against Prograis.
“Both Taylor and Prograis had beaten three world champions before they met,” McGuigan points out. “Prograis beat [Julius] Indongo, but he had been knocked out by Terence Crawford who had taken his soul. After that happens your chin and courage are never the same again.
“He also beat [Terry] Flanagan who’s a tough guy and he beat [Kiryl] Relikh, who was 45lbs overweight in the lead up to the fight. He wasn‘t training to fight, he was just training to get the weight off.
“Compare that to Taylor, who fought Vasquez. OK, we knew he was going to beat him but he got him out of there. He was the first person to stop him.
“Then he fought Postol, which was a tough fight. Josh didn’t have a great training camp for that fight but he showed his mettle. He was tagged and shaken in round seven but came back, dropped Postol in the tenth and finished like a champion in the championship rounds.
“Then he fought Baranchyk – a young champion who didn’t know what losing was and came over here to tear Josh’s head off. He dropped him twice and almost had him out in the seventh, dominated him and won the fight.
“Those experiences against young determined fighters was crucial. For me the people Taylor had beaten were much better than the people Prograis had beaten.”
Of course, Barry is not the only McGuigan who has been crucial to Taylor’s development – son Shane’s achievement in training the Scotsman must also not be under-estimated.
“It's hard for me to talk about Shane without sounding like I’m boasting,” McGuigan says. “But Shane is a really exceptional young trainer. One of the best in the world, no question about it.
“He has an uncanny ability to get the best out of people. It’s not just if you're aggressive or if you're a defensive fighter, or a counter-puncher or an attacking fighter. As a trainer you have to have the ability to take a fighter of any style and make them better.
“Shane has that ability. He’s a really great coach. He trained in strength and conditioning, so he understands that side of things.
"He had 29 fight as a amateur and he’s sparred loads of pros. I used to take him all over the country to spar the best guys.
“I could never be the coach that he is, because unfortunately I would teach everyone to fight my way.
"I know that I’m limited. I can still teach guys to be aggressive, move their head and be good at coming forward and get them in great condition but Shane is in a different league to me.
“He’s tactically very good, he’s bright, he’s switched on. He’s great at building confidence, he’s wonderful on the pads and builds up a great camaraderie with his guys, They trust him and believe in him. And he’s just 30 years old, it's hard to believe that. I'm very proud of him, I’m very proud of all my kids.”
Ever the sportsman, McGuigan also has some words of encouragement for the vanquished Prograis. “He can come again,” he argues. “He struggles a bit to make the weight and I think in New Orleans and Los Angeles it’s easier to boil down to the weight. The climate change in the UK I think was a struggle for Prograis. He can win a world title again.”
He also makes generous and specific mention of some of the fighters who helped Taylor prepare for the Prograis showdown.
"We got great work from the top prospect Alexis Rocha from California but also from Alfie Price, the Southern Area lightweight champ, and from Chris Kongo, a very fine prospect from Brixton. The rounds Josh sparred with these fantastic young prospects were of the highest quality."
As for Taylor, McGuigan admits it is now time for the 28-year-old to take a break, at least in the short term.
“Josh needs a rest now,” he says. “He was probably training for about six months because of the delay with the issues with the World Boxing Super Series and so on. He needs to chill out for now but once that eye repairs again he wants [WBO and WBC champion Jose] Ramirez.
“Ramirez has a fight with Viktor Postol in February so it will have to be after that. Taylor would be willing to go to America, although we would prefer a fight on the east coast to the west coast. Or maybe Ramirez will want to make some fans over here.
“Ramirez is the fight we really want. He’s a good fighter, he’s getting marginally better with each fight. He’s good at long range, but I think Taylor will know too much for him and be too quick for him and he’ll be able to read him. I think it’ll be a hard fight, a great fight, but I genuinely think Taylor can beat him.
“Taylor wants to win all the belts at 140lbs and then we can decide after that what direction he wants to take.”
With the Tartan Tornado now regarded by universal acclaim as the premier fistic talent in Britain, the boxing world awaits his and the McGuigans’ next moves with keen interest.
“I try not to denigrate the talents of the past,” McGuigan says. “All I will say is Josh has the potential to be one of the best British fighters of all time. Think about what he’s done in just 16 fights: he’s unified titles, it’s remarkable.
“I take some of the credit, Taylor takes most of the credit and Shane takes credit too for the way he has moulded Josh. When he left Sheffield [at the end of his amateur career] people said Josh was hot-headed and couldn't punch.
“We've made a mockery of that nonsense. He’s got a huge knockout percentage, he’s beaten the living daylights out of guys that are world-class fighters. He’s WBA, IBF champion and holds the Muhammad Ali trophy after 16 fights. That’s a hell of a statement.
“He’s also a really nice kid with a terrific family and I’m going to work my cotton socks off to get the very best fights for him so he can earn the best money he can and sail off into the sunset. We’ve got a very exciting couple of years ahead.”