By Jonathan Drennan
European super bantamweight title contender Carl Frampton hasn’t experienced the joy of a relaxing Sunday in months, and being at his home in Belfast, a city that observes the Sabbath like few others, his relief is palpable. Holding his baby daughter Carla with one hand, and writing a congratulations card for his trainer’s new granddaughter in the other, he looks forward to seeing a friend he hasn’t seen in a long time.
Paddy Barnes, Ireland’s light flyweight Olympic bronze medallist strides confidently into Frampton’s home gym in loyalist Tiger’s Bay and greets his old friend warmly. The talk immediately turns to who is currently the better singer. The two men fought four times as amateurs in fierce battles with Frampton winning three and Barnes winning one, but on the microphone, Frampton believes there’s only one contender. “Paddy finds it difficult enough to talk, let alone sing, I’m not saying I’d win X Factor, but I’m telling you I’d at least get into the judges houses.” Barnes and Frampton both laugh loudly. Their ability to laugh at themselves and each other has made their friendship into what it is today, one built on mutual respect and trust.
Gerry Storey (75) trains both men and believes that their close friendship forged through boxing and smashing through political lines is a fine example of what the sport has done in Northern Ireland. “Paddy and Carl have had a special friendship that has gone back for years since they were kids, they always got on brilliantly. Carl is a protestant from a loyalist area, Paddy is a catholic from a nationalist area, but it never came into it. They toured the world together, they fought together and now they’re a symbol of all that’s good in this city.”
Paddy and Carl both sit down in the cramped office of Midland amateur boxing club to talk about their journeys that have seen them both circumnavigate the world several times over. An estimation of how far the journey has taken them is that the gable end of the gym in Tiger’s Bay now has a huge mural of Frampton in his Irish boxing vest replacing a paramilitary painting. Barnes also can barely walk through Belfast without being recognised by fans.
Frampton talks about the relative price of fame for the two friends. “We both get recognised quite a bit now, I suppose I like it, it’s better than not getting recognised isn’t it? I’d say Paddy gets recognised a bit more though because he’s a funny character when they see him on the TV and people love him because he says things he really shouldn’t.”
Barnes is certainly a character. Frampton’s upcoming opponent for the European title Kiko Martinez will almost certainly remember him from their last encounter. Shortly after defeating Bernard Dunne so brutally in 2007, Martinez arrived in Belfast to publicise his ill-fated fight with Wayne McCullough. “I stood outside the King’s Hall with three friends for his weigh in against McCullough and I shouted down to him ‘Kiko I’ll fight ye’ and he looked at his interpreter and told him to tell us he’d fight the three of us right there. We hopped in the car sharpish and drove off.”
Frampton and Barnes fought each other at the start of their boxing careers as children. Frampton was always the stronger of the two even then, while Barnes was the more aggressive and quicker. Frampton remembers their fights as wars. “I remember one of the fights in the County Antrim championships when we were kids, he used to have a different style, he was very aggressive, he used to bully you and in the first thirty seconds he came out swarming, throwing hundreds of punches to the point where he pushed me through the ropes. I still got up and beat him though.”
Barnes lost his first 12 amateur fights, but never thought of throwing in the towel on something he loved. “My losses get talked about a lot, but I never thought about quitting, I loved being able to box with my cousins in the gym, so I would have been doing it anyway, and they were close decisions. When I was 16 Carl and I both went to the four nations in Wales representing Ireland and that was it, I thought I’d won the Olympics at that stage, I just wanted to push on even further.”
Both men grew up in tough working class areas of Belfast surrounded by temptation, but boxing gave them a focus that kept them out trouble and focused on creating a better life for themselves. Frampton says, “People have this image of boxers as gangsters or villains. Can I ask you how many bad boys or gangsters get up at 6am to do runs, or starve themselves to death? It’s as disciplined a life as you can lead.” Barnes agrees, “I’ve been lucky with my boxing and this is one thing I wouldn’t like about Carl’s pro life as it’s a bit more lonely, you have the chance to make hundreds of friends in this game and some of the best people around.”
A constant theme of conversation between Barnes and Frampton is contrasting their current careers and swapping gossip from the professional and amateur games. Barnes has the world championships to prepare for in four and a half weeks in Azerbaijan and is lamented the fact that he is missing his friend’s biggest pro fight against Martinez in Belfast.
“I’ll be stuck in Azerbajian focussed on doing my best there, but I’ll be thinking about how Carl is doing as well. I’m incredibly confident he can beat Martinez, his style is made for Carl. He’s more skilled and smarter than Kiko and although it will be tough for him, I’ve no doubt he’ll do the business. I always want him to do well and this is a chance for him to show everyone how good he can be.”
Frampton has watched Martinez only three times, and hasn’t rung up Bernard Dunne for advice. But he knows enough about Martinez to know that the squat Spaniard with the Mike Tyson stance can ruin his promising career with one punch. “It’s the most difficult fight I’ve had yet, but he’s not going to surprise me. He won’t be boxing on the back foot, he’s going to come at me aggressively every round, but I really believe he’s custom built for me. I’m sparring better than ever before and feel fitter than ever for this fight.”
Frampton is currently living a monastic existence in his manager Barry McGuigan’s home in Kent where he trains full time in the six weeks leading up to fights. He is filled with admiration for McGuigan, but finds the time away from his baby increasingly difficult. “I am more focussed, people were talking about it, saying would it hinder my boxing, but it doesn’t, it just spurs me on. When times get tough in training which they do increasingly, I think of her, I want to have a good life for me and my partner and be able provide a good one for my child so I have to keep all that in mind when I fight.”
Barnes is also only too aware of the difficult nature of boxing that hits you hardest outside of the ropes. “I spend Tuesday to Friday in Dublin for training before snatching at time in Belfast, I hate living in Dublin, being away from everyone, but you do what you have to do, and my main focus at the moment is to push on and to do well at the World Championships and then we’ll see where that where that leads me.”
The recent fierce and wretched rioting in Belfast this summer reminded everyone that underneath a confident future, there is an ugly undercurrent of intolerance that bubbles over the surface with alarming frequency. Both Barnes and Frampton grew up near to interface zones and realise that boxing helped them escape a life of ignorance.
Frampton says, “I was watching this documentary the other night and there was a guy who fought for Gerry in the Troubles, and he said something that stuck in my head, if you can fight well, it doesn’t matter what side of the community you’re from, the people of Belfast will come out and support you and I’ve never come across sectarianism in this game.” Paddy nods silently and says, “it’s simple, in boxing it’s just not an issue, without boxing I wouldn’t have known Carl and lots of other friends like him, so I’m delighted I had it growing up.”
The interview over, Frampton straps his baby seat into his car ready for a rare trip to see his grandfather before going back to England. Barnes almost shyly wishes him luck for his fight against Martinez. Both men are confident that greater things await both of them. For Frampton it could be a world championship belt, for Barnes it could be a gold medal in the 2012 Olympics in London. Their trainer Gerry Storey has a saying he is fond of repeating, “sport can change the world”, with two of his most famous protégées about to face the biggest fights of their careers, he could be right.