Thirty years ago the cry of ‘Leave the fighting to Barry McGuigan’ could be heard echoing across both sides of Northern Ireland’s troubled sectarian divide on “fight night” – and this Saturday another brilliant young boxer will unite Belfast in just the same uplifting manner.
Step forward Carl Frampton, the current jewel in Ulster’s sporting crown.
Fighting champion Kiko Martinez for the IBF super-bantamweight belt inside a 16,000 capacity arena specifically built for this contest (on the exact spot where the Titanic was once launched) the scene is beautifully set for the undefeated 27-year-old to send his boxing-mad nation into dreamland.
Not since his legendary manager and mentor – the aforementioned Barry – won the WBA world featherweight crown in 1985 in front of 20 million TV viewers, has Irish boxing been as electrified in anticipation of a bout
And standing shoulder to shoulder, loyalists, republicans, men, women and children on both sides of the border, will unite to scream their man onto glory in what will be his 19th professional contest.
While Frampton’s associations with the much-loved McGuigan family certainly haven’t harmed his popularity (his trainer is also Barry’s son, Shane), the public’s admiration for the fighter is entirely self-earned.
Brave, skillful and entertaining in the ring he’s the kind of intelligent boxer any fight fan would pay good money to see. In his private life, Frampton is regarded as a modest, intelligent and approachable family man.
Not many people can walk down any road in Belfast and have their hand shaken just as affectionately wherever they tread, but he can.
Brought up as a Protestant in the staunchly loyalist territory of Tiger’s Bay in north Belfast, and married to Christine, a Catholic who was raised in Poleglass, a republican stronghold in the west of the city, his disinterest in sectarianism has always shone through.
Now he can proudly say that boxing breaks down barriers in Belfast, bringing both sides of the religious divide together whenever he fights.
In fact a mural depicting his image on the outside of Midland Boxing Club in the heart of Tiger’s Bay remains unblemished in a city smeared with graffiti, abuse and political slogans. A sure-fire sign of the regard in which he’s held.
As for the fight itself, Frampton is an odds-on favourite to become world champion.
Roared on by a capacity crowd that will be baying for blood, the home favourite will also be buoyed by the fact he knocked the Spaniard out in a bloody European title contest last February.
Now champion but fuelled by the anger of that loss, Martinez, an aggressive hard-hitting front foot fighter seeks revenge.
He’ll come at Frampton hard, but the Northern Irishman has pledged to stay cool and stick to his game plan. Known as a calm, smart fighter, in spite of the raucous atmosphere he’s likely to maintain his composure.
Happy to fight on the back foot, or take the fight to his opponent, Frampton is the more polished technician and as someone who’s capable of landing knockout blows with either hand, he also has a touch more unpredictability up his sleeve than the title-holder.
Whether it’s a tactical affair or something more rough and ready, it’s hard to see McGuigan’s protégé not grabbing this golden opportunity.
Belfast believes in him, and so do I. In that famous old dock, I’m expecting the Spanish champion to be sunk.
It’s a must-see fight.