Boxing fans looking for a book to accompany them onto the beach this summer are in luck, with Ebury Publishing having released a pair of autobiographies ahead of the sunburn season, to help tide interested parties through the interminable tedium of the airport lounge.
Boxing royalty forms the subject of the first of these in the shape of “Cyclone: My Story,” which spins the tale of Irish folk hero Barry McGuigan, from his early years as a wee scamp scurrying across his neighbour’s rooftops, through to his days as a hammer fisted world champion and beyond. Narrated in McGuigan’s own words, it serves as an engrossing introduction to the man and the fighter; however, for the specialist reader looking to uncover a little more meat between the bread, they could be left slightly wanting.
Coming in at around 260 pages and in fairly large type, “Cyclone” is a breeze to tuck into and we begin by escorting the young Barry through his formative years in the village of Clones, situated close to the Irish border throughout a period of religio-political conflict in Northern Ireland. A chance encounter with a pair of discarded boxing gloves in a derelict building leads the curious youth to a nearby boxing club in Wattlebridge, where a maiden training session leaves him instantly smitten.
McGuigan then carries us through his amateur career, from a hometown debut at the local picture house decked out in string vest and battered plimsoles, right through to the 1980 Moscow Olympics, before a well-trodden horror story involving inept officials and the subsequent disillusionment they engender sends him packing into the pros. While this opening section is enjoyable, we’re left to ponder where McGuigan’s motivation stemmed from in the first place. How did this amiable teenager, brought up in an idyllic, almost twee community akin to something from an Enid Blyton novel, develop into a violent wrecking machine between the ropes (although, McGuigan tells is so modestly, he’s almost painted as an accidental hero – a happy-go-lucky kid with a weird talent for breaking other boys in half)? It’s never quite established.
Sparring sessions with the likes of Charlie Magri and Jim Watt encourage McGuigan that he can make it as a featherweight and the fourth chapter explores his early professional career fight by fight, which loosens the reader’s grip somewhat. Recounting a string of knockovers is unlikely to be as interesting as actually watching them play out on screen. We’re instantly nipped into focus, though, when he recounts his tragic meeting with Young Ali, where his innocent observations unwittingly dial up the drama: uninterested fat cats in black ties scoff dinner as a young man is beaten to death just above them. It’s heart-rending stuff.
McGuigan is one of the most erudite and articulate analysts in the sport, a real wordsmith (the result of a pledge he makes to his father to be a “glutton for knowledge” prior to abandoning schoolwork for the lure of the ring), yet the prose here is never purple, and in fact, remains as accessible to the reader as possible, purposefully you feel. He devotes a chapter (“Leave The Fighting To McGuigan”) to the political tightrope he was forced to tread in order to attain British citizenship, and ultimately, qualify to fight for a Lonsdale belt. His ability to unite communities and later, a nation, is inspiring; however, he never delves too deeply into its significance. Community builds support, he observes, and his support steered him clear, largely, from sectarian ill-will. It is, perhaps, this innocence and sincerity which allowed him to float unhindered above the divisions which tore his people asunder.
The book then builds towards his biggest night as a prizefighter – the world featherweight championship clash with Eusebio Pedroza in London, and the chapter detailing this climactic battle rattles along rather pleasingly. Despite a handful of successful title defences afterwards, there’s a sense that McGuigan had reached the peak of his trajectory against the wily old Panamanian; his small town ambitions are quenched to a large degree with a far weightier achievement than can be imagined today, prior to the fragmentation of world boxing’s biggest prizes.
Some of the final chapters tend to meander somewhat. In between sporting awards and his views on contemporary fighters, McGuigan touches upon various highlights and hardships: his film and television work, the loss of his father Pat and brother Dermot, his relationship with budding protégé Carl Frampton and his daughter Danika’s brush with leukemia. All of this is dealt with adequately enough, yet there’s a lingering sense of missed opportunities which never quite dissipates.
For the generation raised during McGuigan’s meteoric rise, key aspects of his life were absorbed almost by osmosis. His heartbreaking closeness to the father he lost, along with his tumultuous split with the man who guided his career so expertly, Barney Eastwood, are key acts almost ingrained into our memories. And whilst McGuigan recounts the death of his father, he stops short from examining the shattering impact that the loss of his guiding light had upon his ambition.
The acrimonious divorce from Eastwood, too, is disappointingly skirted around: “I don’t want to go into all that here, it isn’t really the time or the place,” he insists. If not here, though, then where? For all that, though, McGuigan’s personality comes shining through. This most likable of sportsmen, a humble patriarch for many, he has learned to take life’s knocks as well as he has its victories, as the following excerpt illustrates:
“There have been a number of occasions in my life where something good has happened, only to be balanced out by something negative. So the night we did the deal to fight for the world title was the night I learned that my father might have cancer. The night I won the world title, my parents’ house burned down. In 1994, I received the MBE, but the same year, my brother took his own life.”
Despite a couple of missed swings, the story of the “Clones Cyclone” is well worth a read. At £18.99 it’ll take a few bob out of the holiday slush fund, yet the reader is rewarded with a meander back, to a time when that knowledgeable chap holding court at ringside had entire nations eating out of the palm of his mitt.
Hot on McGuigan’s heels comes Carl Froch, with “Cobra: My Story,” a less interesting offering ushered out onto shelves to tie in with the Nottingham man’s belated success in the twilight of his career. Despite clocking up 330 pages, the typeface is huge, with the overall result feeling less substantial than McGuigan’s effort. Written in conjunction with Daily Express writer, Niall Hickman, the book is split into 12 chapters (rounds here) with a section clagged onto the end to incorporate the Arthur Abraham rout.
Froch suffers next to McGuigan, firstly from having around seventeen years less to draw from and secondly, from having led a relatively uninteresting life. Had Froch not fallen into boxing, thanks to the steady influence of his former jailbird father, one envisions him working for a wage, nine-to-five in a suit, or perhaps pursuing his sports science qualification into some sort of coaching capacity. There’s virtually nothing of interest besides the boxing, as the young Carl wanders aimlessly between part-time work in his mother’s pub, where he encounters a selection of lairy drunk people, to collecting Kinder egg toys to line up in his bedroom. Sheesh.
“Cobra” doggedly re-enacts his biggest bouts, both amateur and pro, which becomes repetitive after a while, although Froch fans will undoubtedly find interest in their retelling. Early in the book, Froch throws a jab at fighters who cite injury as an excuse for poor performance, yet never fails to offer up a myriad of physical ailments in defence of his own. It’s quite maddening. The personality traits which have hampered his popularity, the boasting, lack of grace and general dismissal of inferior fighters is all here. He still refuses to acknowledge the single defeat hung on him by Mikkel Kessler, and boy, does he take the opportunity to gripe about it here, despite the fact there are a scarcity of good judges who would agree with him.
Perhaps it’s this refusal to accept failure, no matter how detached from reality, which has made him the success story he is today. Froch, though, always comes across better when he lets his fists do the talking. The story cuts short with the defining moment of his career still on the horizon, the overall result a light, but at times banal, read. Recommended for fans of the 12 stone world titlist only.
Also priced at £18.99, “Cobra” is littered with typos. Froch’s acknowledgments alone feature “Lenox” Lewis, Lenny “Doors” and John “O’Donnal.” We’re also given “Dagen-ham” and “upper cut” among others and informed that Jermain Taylor defeated Ronald “Winky” Wright (he didn’t, their bout was drawn). If you only have room for one of these in your suitcase, let McGuigan do the storytelling.