This Saturday former world boxing champions BARRY McGUIGAN and JOHN CONTEH will entertain fans at Lancaster and Morecambe College with tales of their storied careers. GREG LAMBERT speaks to both fight legends ahead of ‘A Night to Remember’.
The year 1985 was a golden one for British sport.
Europe’s golfers won the Ryder Cup for the first time, England’s cricketers regained the Ashes, runner Steve Cram broke three world records in 19 days and Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis in the famous ‘black ball finish’ to lift the World Snooker crown.
But the winner of that year’s BBC Sports Personality trophy was a young Irishman who not only achieved heights in his sporting field but united his country during the most troubled time in its history.
When Barry McGuigan became WBA Featherweight Champion of the world on June 8 1985 he brought hundreds of millions of people together.
Then aged 24, the popular little man fought the fight of his life, driving forward relentlessly for 15 rounds to eventually break the resistance of Panama’s Eusebio Pedroza, a proud champion for the previous seven years.
‘The Clones Cyclone’ was roared on by a crowd of 27,000 watching live at Loftus Road football ground, an audience of 18m on BBC1 on prime time Saturday night TV, and another 200m people tuning in on the ABC network in America.
“It’s incredible when you think about it,” says Barry, reflecting on that sensational event 30 years ago.
“It’s not the sort of thing you can forget easily. It had so much impact on my life.
“With the politics and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, it was a shocking time. It was a great release for people to go along to my fight.
“Bringing people together was really important to me. I knew I was Irish, but I didn’t need to beat my chest about it. I just wanted to say that we can all enjoy ourselves, that people could go to my event and not feel threatened. The people got it. Those around the world got it too.”
Since retiring from boxing in 1989, the articulate McGuigan has maintained his immense popularity, first as a TV fight pundit, and today as manager of the reigning IBF World Super Bantamweight Champion Carl Frampton.
Barry’s love of the fight game has also passed on to his three sons.
Trainer Shane, and promoters Jake and Blain work with their manager dad to guide the career of Frampton, hoping to make him a household name just like the elder McGuigan.
Recently a Frampton title defence aired on ITV1 on a Saturday night. McGuigan hopes this is the start of a regular comeback for boxing to millions of homes.
“(Digital fight channel) BoxNation and Sky TV have done a tremendous job but I believe there is a space on terrestrial TV for world championship boxing.
“ITV got great ratings and are very impressed.”
As McGuigan continues to work behind-the-scenes to put together a British super fight between Frampton and Bury’s Scott Quigg, the WBA champion, thoughts turn to Morecambe’s own world champion-in-waiting, Tyson Fury.
“Tyson lives in Morecambe, does he? I didn’t know that.
“I’ve always thought the kid had lots of potential. We almost came to a deal when he was first starting out and he’s continued to improve.
“Tyson’s biggest issue is getting himself into the right state of mind to fight. But there’s always a chance if he fights Wladimir Klitschko. Klitschko has been on the floor, so although he has tremendous defences and is very tall, with great boxing skills, there’s always a hope.”
This Saturday night, Barry will make his first ever visit to Morecambe, and he can’t wait to work with John Conteh.
“John was one of my heroes and I admired him as a child. He never quite reached his potential for a number of reasons but he is a wonderful man. I’m really looking forward to it.”
John Conteh is in the midst of re-reading his autobiography from 1982. It’s making him angry because he’s not that person any more.
“Back then I’d just come out of a clinic for alcoholism into writing an autobiography,” he says. “80% of it is crap. But it’s all out of my mouth.”
At the time of writing the book, John’s life had hit rock bottom. Having come from poverty growing up in Liverpool to the heights of the World Light Heavyweight boxing title, Conteh was gripped by the demon drink.
“I came from hunger, wanting to get money, and boxing was the vehicle,” he says. “But while the driven self will make you the champion, it will also bring you down. If you don’t deal with the dark side of the human condition, no matter how much money you’ve got, you’re not going to keep it.
“The real opponent, is yourself.”
But John has now been alcohol-free for 26 years. He plays golf regularly off a handicap of 12, and has become one of the most sought-after speakers on the after-dinner circuit. The affable Scouser will tell tales on Saturday night of growing up in Kirkby, training to become a boxer, competing at junior and schoolboy level then in the Commonwealth Games, turning pro in 1971 and how he won the world title from the teak-tough Jorge Ahumada at Wembley Arena in 1974. He will talk about how his trainer George Francis pushed him so hard, he would force him to run for 10 miles carrying heavy weights then make him jump in a freezing cold pond.
And he will talk with fondness about Muhammad Ali, the greatest fighter of all-time who gave him the advice that made him world champion, by telling him to drop down from heavyweight to the light heavyweight division which better suited his physical frame and smooth boxing skills.
Conteh, who held the WBC Light Heavyweight belt from 1974 until 1977 when he was stripped of the title, is regarded as one of the most stylish British boxers of all-time.
But nowadays, he admits he doesn’t follow the modern game all that closely.Still, he has watched Morecambe’s own Tyson Fury and has high praise for him. “Tyson Fury has done great. He’s fulfilling his potential. He’s got a great manager and promoter, and he’s got a great chance of winning a version of the world heavyweight title.”
While Conteh once mixed with hard men like Matthew Saad Muhammad and Mate Parlov, today’s best light heavyweights are Russian Sergey Kovalev and Adonis Stevenson from Canada.So how would John’s ramrod left jab have coped with these hard punching champions?
“I never think about it, personally, whether I could have beaten anyone from another era. You prepare to fight the guy in front of you.”
But then, tellingly, Conteh says: “I think a great boxer will always beat a great fighter.”
And there is no doubt that in his prime of the mid-70s, John Conteh was a great, great boxer.
Barry and John will give after-dinner speeches and take part in a Q&A on the event called ‘A Night to Remember’. It also includes a three-course meal, music from Dan Doherty and Natasha Bates, and comedy from Jed Stone, plus opportunities for photos and signed memorabilia. Contact Frank Harrington for tickets, priced £45, on 07789261768.