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Thank you Mr Eastwood - you gave us hope in our darkest decade

The boxing promoter who died last night was a genuine A-Lister in the ’80s. Mention the name Eastwood and people assumed you were talking about Barney not Clint.

Barney Eastwood fights McGuigan's corner at the weigh-in of the Pedroza fight.
Barney Eastwood fights McGuigan's corner at the weigh-in of the Pedroza fight.
Image: PA

THE QUEUE SPILLED down the Lisburn Road and round the corner onto Balmoral Avenue. We got there just seconds after this Rod Stewart wannabe hooked up with his friends with a bag filled with cans.

“Want one, son?” he asked jokingly, drawing cackles of laughter from his audience. They were dressed in uniform: jeans by Wranglers, shirt by Levi’s, moustaches from Freddie Mercury’s back catalogue. Like us, they had £10 tickets for the balcony, which was why they were here in their droves, hours before the doors were due to open.

You can still remember the smell of cigarette smoke, the soft sun fading under the tree-lined avenue, the shuffle of shoes inching nearer to the front door. “Any youse got any spares,” a stumpy little man with a crooked nose asked.

The question went unanswered because in 1985 Belfast, anyone who had a ticket for a Barry McGuigan fight kept a firm grip of it. “They’re hard got,” my father said sternly. But that didn’t stop me asking, day after day after day. Eventually, through a man, who worked with a man, who knew a man, we got two of them: Belfast presents big-time boxing, McGuigan vs Laporte.  

You’ll never forget that phone call, the frantic arrangements; the animated tone, each word repeated for clarification. “Half. Past. Three. Yes, we’ll be there. The post office. Yes. Ten pounds. Yes. We’re on our way.”

So was McGuigan. This was the 26th fight of his professional career. More than that, it was the gateway to a world title. Juan Laporte, a former world champion, wasn’t just an opponent but a name – his boxing CV decorated with dates against the greats, Salvador Sanchez in 1980, Kostya Tszyu in 1992.

In layman’s terms, this was a de facto World Cup semi-final where the winner stayed on and the loser went home. But in pro boxing, things are never simply put. “Ain’t how hard you hit, it’s how hard you negotiate,” said Don King, the jailbird-cum-promoter. Luckily for McGuigan, the man doing his negotiation had a silver tongue and a deep pocket.

Barney Eastwood knew what had to be done. Travel either to New York, where Laporte lived, or Puerto Rico, his homeplace, and you could kiss goodbye to victory, a crack at the title and a place in history. The alternative was simple – but expensive. It required getting the chequebook out, paying Laporte a small fortune, the upshot being this World Cup semi-final was staged in Belfast.

That was why we were there, thanks to the fists of a young man from Clones and the pockets of a Tyrone bookmaker. Where do you even begin when you try to contextualise the enormity of that McGuigan/Eastwood partnership to younger generations?

You can point, say, to the popularity of Niall Horan and the business arrangement he had with Simon Cowell. But that’s music. You can mention Conor McGregor’s name but he divides a nation whereas McGuigan united one. In 1985, no sports star was bigger, either in Ireland or the UK, 19 million people tuning in to see McGuigan’s world title victory over Eusebio Pedroza.

We weren’t part of that audience, the father sacrificing half-a-week’s wages to drag his youngest son out of school, driving to Larne to catch the Stranraer ferry, before an overnight coach got us into London Victoria in time for breakfast. Fifteen hours later, we sat in the back row at Loftus Road, and watched an improbable dream turn into a glorious reality.

barry-mcguigan-action-eusebio-pedroza The knockdown: Pedroza goes down in the seventh. Source: Getty Images/INPHO

All those memories came flooding back at tea-time yesterday, news of Barney Eastwood’s death stirring thoughts of that marvellous, terrifying year, 1985, when the deeds of a boxer offered hope amid the despair of a country tearing itself apart.

It was a night of nostalgia, RTÉ restaging the innocence of Italia 90. Yet, for some of us, ’85, McGuigan and Eastwood, was bigger and better than that, not just because we were in that smoke-filled hall in Balmoral and tight little stadium at QPR, but because of everything the pair symbolised.

If someone mentioned Eastwood in 1985, you assumed they were talking about Barney rather than Clint. He was a genuine A-Lister in terms of status, inextricably linked to McGuigan’s rise, the strategist who cleverly plotted his fighter’s career path, subtly handpicking challenging but beatable opponents, heavily investing in skilled sparring partners, such as the great Scottish fighter, Ken Buchanan, to fast-track his education.

You don’t think of him as an 87-year-old man who lost his final fight yesterday evening; instead you remember his face from a Saturday evening, 35 years ago, when he crouched at ringside alongside Eddie Shaw, McGuigan’s trainer, twitching and ducking, as if he too was trying to avoid Pedroza’s punches.  

barry-mcguigan-1985 McGuigan's homecoming highlighted the extent of his popularity. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Nostalgia has that effect. It takes you back to childhood dramas, when life was altogether simpler, shaped around schoolyard pranks and sport. If you weren’t playing it, you were watching it.

And for those unforgettable nights in 1985 you were at it. And it was thanks to Mr Eastwood, the entrepreneur who made his money from the gambling industry but whose passion for boxing, sense of adventure and, no doubt, desire to make a few more quid, saw him invest his time and faith in McGuigan.

Again context is needed here. If the ‘80s were grim in Belfast, the ‘70s were worse. There weren’t any boxing shows in the city then, or much else besides. The Troubles forced Northern Ireland to play their home matches in Scottish and English cities, teams routinely refusing to travel to Ulster.

The turn of the decade saw a turn of events. Things had stabilised somewhat, Eastwood believing it was safe enough to have a crack at bringing boxing back to the city. “Nobody ever built the sort of business Eastwood controls in a town like Belfast without being wise to the ways of the streets,” Hugh McIlvanney, the great Scottish sports reporter, wrote of him. “And anyone who has tried to outwit him on a bet, at a dog track or the ringside, won’t expect him to be out of his depth among the high rollers of international boxing.”

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barney-eastwood-boxing-1521986 Before they split, McGuigan and Eastwood appeared to be the perfect double act. Source: © Billy Stickland/INPHO

The city needed boxing’s big shows and needed a hero to unite behind. They found one in McGuigan – the catholic from Monaghan who fought for a British title, who married his protestant sweetheart, who fought under the flag of peace rather than the tricolour or union jack, whose father sang Danny Boy pre-fight rather than the Irish or British anthem.

Aficionados loved his fighting style; old dears loved his manners.

He was as big a name as Roy Keane would later become, not just appearing on chat shows but hosting them. In 1985, when it felt like Northern Ireland was on the brink of absolute carnage in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, he was more than a mere symbol of hope. Had he entered politics under the banner of peace, he’d have topped the poll, which was what he did when the British public voted him sports personality of the year.

politics-douglas-hurd-and-barry-mcguigan-holiday-inn-london McGuigan's popularity drew politicians like Douglas Hurd to him. Source: PA

“I really love the boy,” Eastwood said of McGuigan. But within a year, their love had soured, Eastwood’s earlier shrewdness disappearing when he persuaded his fighter to box in 110 degree heat in a Las Vegas car-park against an unknown Texan, Steve Cruz.

McGuigan thought he was going to die in the ring that night, the Nevada medical inspector continually seeking to examine him, Eastwood constantly pushing him away. It had cost Eastwood £900,000 to get Pedroza to travel to London, but Cruz, earning €170-a-week at the Rivera Plumbing Company, was found at a much cheaper price.

He left Las Vegas with the title to return to his teenage wife. McGuigan and Eastwood left town in acrimony. “I’ve taken a lot of stick these past few days, but Barry’s a wee lad from the country who’s become a millionaire,” Eastwood said, somewhat disingenuously in the days after. “If it’s all over now, well, we’ve had a grand old time, haven’t we?”

We did. All of us. Even without Eastwood’s tutelage, McGuigan would still have been a champion but he’d have had to fight out of London or New York, depriving Irish audiences of those show-stopping nights that we’ll never forget.

We all owe him. When month after month, year after year, was filled with political deadlock and a numbing anger, it took a different kind of fighting to make people believe in a brighter tomorrow. McGuigan was a saviour as much as a sportsman. He got protestant and catholic to unite, was the flicker of light between the Troubles starting and ending.

But even boxers as great and as charismatic as McGuigan needed a moneyman to get him started. That was Barney. He put on the show, McGuigan sold it. So thank you Mr Eastwood. You gave us the time of our lives.   

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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