Reared in a UDA stronghold Carl Frampton is, by some distance, Ireland’s best chance of a world title next year. Sportswriter of the Year Ewan MacKenna spent the day with him in Tiger’s Bay, the Belfast enclave he is changing with every punch.
TUCKED tight under a woolly hat, Carl Frampton’s mind is all over the place as the weather’s icy fingers claw at the morning air. First off, he can’t find where to validate his parking ticket and when he finally does, he loses it on the way to the car. Inside, his two-year-old daughter’s toy guitar is making an almighty racket in the back seat and he doesn’t know how to stop it. Later he’s to celebrate his fiancée’s birthday and between then and now there’s some sparring to get through. These short trips home to Belfast from his training base across the water are taking their toll, but he doesn’t flinch when he says it’s so close to all paying off.
Finally, as he turns the key in the ignition, he pulls himself together, apologises for “my head being up my arse today”, and asks where you’d like to go to talk.
“Tiger’s Bay,” you say.
“Really?” he replies.
“Well I want to see where you grew up,” you tell him. “It’s safe, right?”
“Yeah, you’ll be fine,” he assures both you and himself.
For 20 minutes, as we make our way along the tentacles of inner-city traffic, he talks about his catholic wife-to-be Christine, about how boxing has always been a uniting factor in a city of jagged and rusty edges scraping off one another, about how Paddy Barnes will be his best man next October and about how he loved representing Ireland in his amateur days and would never have wanted to box for Britain. Then he pauses. “This is it,” he says. “Tiger’s Bay.”
All around you is the infamous UDA stronghold. Yet this is what created not just Ireland’s best chance of a professional world title by some distance, but, at 25, a mature voice of reason in surroundings scarred and slashed at by ignorance and circumstance. You look outside at the Union Jacks pasted onto living room windows and flowing from lamp posts and at the numerous spray-painted silhouettes of Queen Elizabeth’s head on the red-brick walls. It’s an estate every bit as unwelcoming as you’d been warned and while you can understand how somewhere like this produced a genuinely world-class fighter, you are struggling to see how it created this man.
“That’s my house,” he says as he points at a block of a terraced structure. “It’s not bad, is it? People always give out about here but it’s fine. At least it’s fine now.” Such things are all relative.
The early steps in Frampton’s journey involved pacing through a minefield. This was one of the notorious interface areas. From his front window he could see the nationalist New Lodge across the road, and while it was the quickest way to the city centre, he never dared to go through it. As a kid, riots would break out as quick as a game of football and while there was the fear, there was the thrill too, and knowing his parents would try and drag him inside upon its eruption, he learned to hide amongst the trouble. It all seemed a bit of fun until a Sunday in 2001 when a 16-year-old friend, Glen Branagh, held onto a pipe bomb too long and blew himself apart.
Just like it scattered his young body, it scattered opinions too and as Branagh was a member of the UDA’s youth wing, local loyalists maintained it was thrown by republican rioters and he died to protect his own.
But as a corpse because a martyr, Frampton hid away in the Midland Boxing Club, just minutes from his home. The one-ring gym is where he always hid away, punching past the stereotypes. “It’s been good to me but I also think it’s a sport that even at the height of the Troubles was good to the city. In my opinion here it’s the sport that brings people together. I believe in God, but I think if you live your life like a good person that’s enough. I realised pretty quickly, maybe through boxing, that all the religious tit-for-tat and the divide, it’s so stupid.”
What do you make of the flags around here then, you ask.
“They are all about territory. People want to have a voice, an opinion. Each to their own but it doesn’t interest me. I’m proud of where I come from, to be from Tiger’s Bay, I’d never deny that. I know where I am from but that’s enough for me. ”
He didn’t realise it at the time, but admits much of his attitude to his surroundings was down to his first coach Billy McKee. That’s the effect of boxing both here and in neighbouring estates where the colours change but not the anger. His granddad told him once of an amateur international between Ireland and West Germany in The Loyalist Club on the Shankill. A team, including Barry McGuigan, wore green vests with shamrocks, watched by unionist paramilitaries flooring pints, yet the world’s co-existed gracefully with respect rather than rage for a few hours.
“Eventually, Billy used to always drive me over into the New Lodge,” recalls Frampton. “He was close friends with Gerry Storey so we used to do a lot of sparring in the Holy Family. But there’s another boy who used to run the club, Josey Farrell, he’s dead now. He never drove. He said we’d go over sparring and I thought, ‘Grand, we’ll get a lift’. But he says we’ll dander in. That was a bit of a shock, I was about 15 and I didn’t know what to expect. You have this impression people will be out to attack you. It’s stupid really but that’s what you think growing up. You are a bit brainwashed. That them-and-us mentality is easy to pick up when you are surrounded by it. Growing up you’re like a sponge.”
It’s obvious now though that he soaked up the right advice and inside the ring it was the same. Shy on the streets, Frampton was finding pleasure in bullying opponents about the canvas before he was 10 and by his early teens he was representing Ireland. By 2005 he was a national flyweight champion. By 2009 he was a national featherweight champion, his punching power obvious in both hands as he dismantled David Oliver Joyce. In between there was the EU Amateur Championship in Dublin and there’s something wonderfully circular and complete in that.
Just as his granddad had watched McGuigan in a drinking den on the Shankill, McGuigan watched Frampton on the South Circular Road. The Monaghan man was wary of getting into promotion and knew it would take something special to convince him. But in front of him he saw someone made, not just to play the pro game, but to win at it. “I always wanted to be pro, and at the time there were a few things happening to me and there were a few injustices. I was amateur champion, I was ranked number one in the four nations and I was getting peanuts. I was getting expenses that just did me for driving to Dublin, and I’d be lucky if there was a few quid left over. I was beating guys who were on €20,000 a year, tax free. I was getting sick of it.
“I was living off Christine’s student loan. It was embarrassing for me. It came to the point where I was getting money off my mom and dad and she still had to take me out and treat me. I remember getting a black taxi and it was £1.80. I put my hand in my pocket and I only had £1.60 and had to ask her for a loan of 20p. I always wanted to go pro and felt I was suited and thought why wait. People ask do I regret missing an Olympics, but I don’t. Although I regret not telling Billy Walsh before I signed to go pro, I feel like I went behind his back. That still bothers me.”
McGuigan was the obvious choice to take him into the ruthless professional world for more reasons than Frampton knew back in 2009. He was sensible with Frampton’s money and with his talent but he knew how to be sensible with his apprentice’s mind as well. After all, he himself had straddled communities through his art and through his marriage of a girl from the other side. “He knew how it should be approached, and how to reach out to both sides. Boxing is mainly a nationalist sport here. That wasn’t a ploy though, it wasn’t anything fake, but we understood that’s what we had to do.”
They agreed on strategy as well. If Frampton doesn’t come across like someone you expect from this part of the city, initially he didn’t come across like a highly-rated fighter either. David Kelly of the Belfast Telegraph still chuckles about how his voice quivered during his first press conference. But he was about actions, not words, and both boxer and promoter soon realised there was no point in padding out a record. Other Irish fighters in recent times have peeped shyly past brash words of managers at the big time. But at 15-0 and after beating Steve Molitor in six rounds in October, Frampton is already staring straight at a probable world title fight come summer, should he beat Kiko Martinez in February.
You ask about the biggest win of his career at the Odyssey and he talks as if it were just part of a daily routine. Then you ask about the trouble that surrounded it. Depending on who you mention it to, some say on a mixed bill republicans were cheering for Canadian Molitor while others say a Tiger’s Bay section started to sing loyalist songs. Either way, despite his achievements, a few lines in newspapers were taken from highly-impressive victory that went out across America on ESPN, and saved for a background he can never truly escape.
“There are guys always that will try and start things off but if you talk to these people, you wouldn’t get a proper conversation. They are a little bit inbred, warped, narrow minded. A lot of it is drink. A lot more of it is boredom. People just wanting trouble, they are stupid. We are in a good situation, it’s a lot better than when I was growing up and there’s a chance of people living in peace so why try take that away? I was at a fight there recently in the Ulster Hall, an Irish title fight, Lee Murtagh against Willie Thompson. Murtagh’s from Leeds and the bill was split and he comes out waving a tricolour. It might have been someone waving a Union Jack and I’d have thought the same. Is there any need to be doing that? It riled people. The crowd got very, very aggressive.
“It was the first time I experienced sectarian abuse myself. It was only a handful of people but I was sitting there with the missus and these lads were riled up and started roaring abuse at me. ‘Frampton you dickhead, you’re a wanker.’ I went over and asked what the problem was. They went quiet but as soon as I turned my back I was getting the fingers. We just got up and left. It’s a shame. That’s why me and Barry made it clear there is no anthem, and if it comes to a point where there has to be, it might be a little cheesy after Barry, but it’d be ‘Danny Boy’. I know what my nationality is but I don’t want to shove it down peoples’ throats. I’ve a very young daughter and I hope when she is a teenager all this is nearly wiped out so why not try and help that?”
Before you leave there’s another mural you want to take a look at. But this one isn’t about political symbolism, rather it’s Frampton with his fists clenched. “For the first sort of month, I was mortified, but it’s nice they think so highly of me,” he says. But looking up at the painting, you realise his importance transcends boxing. Not only is he not a product of his environment, but slowly his environment is becoming a product of him.
23 December, 2012