sad tale | 

Seeing Barry McGuigan there, adrift, hollow-eyed, helpless, there was no option but once again

Barry McGuigan

Barry McGuigan

Roy Curtis

EVEN for an unbending old prizefighter there are blows that upend the senses and leave him broken beyond repair.

Watching Barry McGuigan dissolve on primetime TV as he relived the loss of his daughter, Danika, was to understand some gut punches are just too brutal, some wounds beyond even the mammoth pain threshold of these stoic warriors.

Eyes moist, voice breaking, McGuigan, though in the company of a master of empathy in Tommy Tiernan, was the most alone a parent can be.

“My life will go on, but I’ll never be the same,” was his vivid, desolate, tormented and heart-wrenching verdict on Danika’s loss to cancer 30 months ago.

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Every word came unvarnished from some place of unspeakable misery.

The swashbuckling prince of the 1980s ring had never looked so vulnerable and tired, not even on that awful day beneath a burning and dehydrating 110-degree Vegas sun when Steve Cruz stole away his WBA featherweight title.

To see the granite champ alone with his misery, reimagined as fragile porcelain, was to feel careworn and ancient and nostalgic for those magical Saturday nights when we were young, and McGuigan seemed to hold the title deeds to a new Ireland in his gloved hands.

It is difficult to evoke all that wee Barry represented over a bleak, blood-stained decade.

McGuigan with his daughter Danika at a film screening in 2008. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

McGuigan with his daughter Danika at a film screening in 2008. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

He was hope in hopeless times, a unifier, an antidote against political and economic despair, a brave and thrilling counterpoint to the bombs and the funerals and the hatred tearing at the fabric of the island’s sanity.

With the dove of peace on his shorts, with his Dad, Pat McGeegan, ushering him into the ring to a haunting chorus of Danny Boy, this Clones Catholic who married a Protestant galloped across the sectarian divide.

The Ulster Hall, then, later, the King’s Hall, then, on an immortal summer night in 1995, Loftus Road, would reverberate and convulse, and for a few precious hours orange and green were indistinguishable beneath a white knight's blinding aurora.

It wasn’t just the working men and women from the Falls and Shankhill who gulped from the new-found oasis of cheer, the glint from this dazzling North Star illuminated every corner of Ireland.

In our crook of suburban Dublin, life stopped on those nights when Barry stepped into a roped cavass rectangle.

The 16-year-old me can still see my father bobbing and weaving at the transistor radio, utterly absorbed in the commentary as McGuigan and Juan Laporte – another who would know the misery of losing a child - went toe to toe in an epic February 1985 ten-rounder.

From a distance of 100 miles the convulsing King’s Hall seized the senses, the sound primal, Laporte fighting not just McGuigan but a mass movement.

It was a beautiful moment in time: A charismatic, hugely gifted athlete and a community yearning for better days.

When Barry fought the grizzled, longstanding Panamanian titleholder Eusebio Pedroza at Loftus Road, QPR’s west London home buckled under the weight of visceral Irish longing.

In many ways, it was the Giants Stadium nine years before Ray Houghton sunk Italy at the towering New Jersey cathedral, an arena colonised by McGuigan supporters, hymns and hope drenching the night sky.

Some 18.5 million tuned into BBC’s coverage, McGuigan’s status as a box-office titan and an evangelist for peace having spread beyond his home place.

Pale, moustachioed, blue shorted, he pursued the taller, magnificently sideburned Pedroza with feverish intent, propelled, it seemed, both by the wild ringside congregation and a powerful sense of destiny.

When he dropped his opponent in the seventh round with a perfect right hand, I remember my poor mother fleeing to the back garden, unable to watch the pitiless duel, reduced to offering up a rosary for Barry’s wellbeing.

He was every mother’s son.

When Pedroza’s legs again buckled in the 13th, it felt like thunder raining down on the football stadium, noise beyond noise, the music of liberation.

The 15th round unspooled to a “Here We Go” soundtrack that rose up from the core of so many wounded souls, a ceaseless emotional whirlwind.

Harry Carpenter’s commentary races across the decades.

“25,000 people singing McGuigan home to victory, Pedroza pumps his arms, trying to find something to stop this little dynamo, the Clones Cyclone, but he can’t...I’ve never heard such excitement in all my life.”

None of us had.

He cried that night as he unshackled his people from darkness and, unashamed, overwhelmed by the euphoric wave rolling across the Irish Sea, we cried with him.

Nearly four decades on, Barry cried again on Saturday primetime TV.

A grieving father’s tears.

His life would go on, but he’d never be the same. What a devastating declaration for any man to make.

Seeing him there, adrift, hollow-eyed, helpless, there was no option but to surrender to the force of the moment, and, once again, cry with our old champ.

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