Five years ago, I pulled up outside Midland boxing gym in Tiger’s Bay, slightly apprehensively. As usual, my Father was my journalistic companion for these expeditions. A small car with a babyseat in the back pulled up alongside us, Carl Frampton gave me a friendly nod and a smile. It was a drizzly Sunday, and he was making the first tentative steps in his professional career. We walked into the boxing club that was doors away from his childhood home. The furious teenage battles he engaged with in ring at Midland had shielded him from the conflict that would often flare up on the street outside. He had developed into a finely tuned fighter, but beyond that, the club had developed a character that was unfailingly polite and generous. His coach Billy McKee expected nothing less than the best in and out of the ring.
Carl ushered me into a small office at the back to chat and asked did I want a cup of tea. He apologised that he couldn’t stay long, he didn’t want to leave his girlfriend Christine and their baby girl Carla for long in the car. He was excited about starting his professional journey under Barry McGuigan, but was also already getting weary of the comparisons made between them both outside of the ring. Like Barry, Carl’s partner was from the other side of the community, growing up in nationalist Poleglass. Carl didn’t get or appreciate the fuss made of it, he loved his girlfriend and her different postcode didn’t feature high on his agenda of anxiety.
When you are speaking to someone highly intelligent, look at their eyes. They’re normally wide awake and dart around the room frenetically. Carl Frampton’s eyes rarely stayed still during our conversation. He brought a thoughtfulness to a sport that is often simplified into barbarism by those ignorant of its often subtle nature. Convention doesn’t suit Carl, he is happiest listening to the soothing soul music of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding during his workouts. In the ring, he was able to make a psychological analysis of an opponent’s character in the opening rounds, measuring their guts and skill with flicks of his left jab, and testing their stoicism with punishing body shots. His foot work was refined from lonely childhood hours in the gym and allowed him avoid undue punishment from his opponent’s gloves. His diagnosis of their frailties or strengths normally ended in a knock out victory.
After a boxing fight is over, you will know your opponent better than some of your best friends. You know their strengths and weaknesses, their breaking points and their ability to push through pain. Carl had developed hundreds of friends through his fights, none better than his amateur foe of five fights Paddy Barnes, one of Ireland’s finest Olympian boxers. They couldn’t meet at the same bus stop as children due to sectarian divides, but their friendship was forged strongly in childhood battles in the ring. As adults they met regularly for dinner, each man able to understand the sacrifice that came with making boxing their life.
Over the years, the fights got bigger and the crowds expanded. The Odyssey Arena became a fervent fight venue, and I dragged my father along. Not a natural fan of boxing, he never was fully won over by the sport, but he was transfixed by the atmosphere and Carl Frampton. He started going alone when I wasn’t in the country. “Sweet Caroline” played and thousands sang in unison awaiting the ring entrance. Opponents were dispatched, before a world title was won on a freezing night on the docks where the Titanic was launched. Battered and bruised, Carl Frampton left the makeshift arena with a belt strapped to his waist, and his young daughter and wife at his side. The sacrifice and hardship had been worth it to reach this night. His daughter slept soundly, using his entrance robe as a snuggly blanket.
In February, after a difficult night in the Texan heat, Carl Frampton will take on his biggest test in Scott Quigg’s back yard in Manchester. The years have moved on, but Carl hasn’t changed. Before I left for Sydney, he rang me to wish me well and to urge me to keep writing. He remains unaffected and pleasantly bemused at how his ability with his fists generates so much acclaim. When he enters the arena in front of 20,000 fans, a large proportion will have travelled the Irish sea to cheer their hero. I will travel from Sydney for the weekend. It’s not sensible, but if I’m going to have a quarter life crisis, it needs to be for a good purpose. When Frampton fights, he doesn’t just box to win a championship, he represents everything that is good and hopeful in Northern Ireland. A new generation that has grown up determined to move beyond the bullshit, bigotry and segregation of the past and at times present. When he fights, he fights for all of us that want a better future for our country. I will be ringside cheering for someone I consider a good friend.