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Boxer Carl Frampton on Barry McGuigan: ‘There was genuine love...Money got in the way’

Belfast sporting star talks about his autobiography, social class, sectarianism and his soured relationship with his former manager

A moody September lunchtime in Lisburn and the former world champion in two weight divisions nods at the chorus of “Well, Carl” from the other tables as he walks swiftly through the hotel foyer. In Belfast and its environs, this slender figure remains an icon and a local boy. He occupies both spaces with ease. Two years retired, Carl Frampton is still a wiry and athletic 5′5″ and, in fitted navy and charcoal, still looks like a boxer. He orders coffee black. Years of dietary restrictions leave him unable to get used to whole milk again. He offers a wry laugh when the bar staff inquire whether we want to pay upfront for the bevvies. “Think that’s the system they have in here,” he explains before offering a wickedly timed: “Or else they don’t trust you.”

Frampton has this quick, light wit that is most often directed at himself. He’s never gone in for the braggadocio that is part of boxing lore. But the subject of trust will dominate our conversation over the next hour. It’s unavoidable. His eponymous autobiography, published this weekend, is a vivid and clearly presented account of his ascension from the staunchly working class and loyalist rooftops of Tiger’s Bay to the fearless boxing purist who transcended creed and background. But it is also an incendiary and often saddening account of the disintegration of his relationship with another Irish boxing hero, Barry McGuigan. The 1980s world champion became Frampton’s manager after he turned professional. What began as an intensely close friendship with the McGuigan family ended up in a court hearing in which Frampton claimed for earnings withheld. Barry McGuigan denied the allegations made against him by Frampton, and issued a counter-claim. The case was settled without judgement, with both men continuing to dispute each other’s accounts. Frampton took part in a recent podcast interview in which, when asked about the McGuigan family, he replied, “I despise them. All of them. Hate them.” He winces at that mention now and feels it was too much. “I didn’t like that. I just feel I went over the top.”

“Hate” is a heavy, heavy word in Belfast. But a once-warm relationship is now over.

“Yeah. We had a genuine connection. I have spoken of Barry – and you feel like you are being almost disrespectful to your own dad – as a father figure. Barry was … like, I loved these people and thought they had my best interests. It doesn’t eat me up, although it did for a while. I do like to talk about it. I was like a f**ken child ... Maybe hoping that I was wrong. Deep down, I probably knew. And yeah, I didn’t have the balls to confront them.”


‘I have a dodgy knee that wouldn’t allow me to run more than four miles. Dodgy hips and groins. You are falling apart’

There is so much to like about Frampton’s story and his upbringing reads like a how-to guide in the avoidance of sectarianism and suspicion that continues to stalk parts of Belfast. His father served as a British soldier but nonetheless remained balanced in his outlook and came to know people from both sides when he worked as union representative in the leisure industry. “That tends to be working class, so he’d have been chatting with former IRA men, with loyalists. If you were a decent person, he would be nice to you. I think there is a bit of a view that everybody in Tiger’s Bay, the Shankhill, White City are full of bitterness and hatred. And that is not the case.”

Frampton occasionally rioted as a kid but for the thrill of it rather any deeply felt antipathy. In Tiger’s Bay he found it impossible not to absorb a message that the nationalist community “hated us more than we hated them”. He lived on an “interface”, his street nudging up against the Catholic New Lodge community. But after he showed promise as a boxer at the age of seven, he was mixing with Catholics in the Holy Family and other boxing clubs. Even through the worst of the Troubles, boxing, somewhat miraculously, seemed to float above the violence and paranoia. Both communities understood fight night. Still, one of the few times when Frampton was ever scared was on his first walk to the club on the New Lodge. He was convinced that republican bogey men were in the shadows, and they would just “know” that he was a Tiger’s Bay kid.

“That was a genuine thought. Billy McKee [his first trainer] would drive us when we were sparring, and you would park outside the front door. This is a 500-yard walk, but he wasn’t around this time so Joe Farrell, the other coach, said we’ll walk it. I thought he was f**ken mental for even suggesting it. It was night, about half-six in the evening. It must have been winter. And I was properly frightened. I talk to my kids about it now. It was an irrational fear. I drive up now to Duncairn Gardens and there is a junction at North Queen Street. It’s the separating road between Tiger’s Bay and New Lodge. If you walk through it, you cut 10 minutes off your journey. But we never did that! And now I sit at the red lights and see this flow of people walking through. And my kids don’t understand it.”

‘And when you are going out with a girl you won’t want to act like you’re skint’

His mother, Flo, was and remains a Belfast torrent of curiosity and lively opinion, too interested in all people to care a hoot about their background. Long after their son had made life comfortable, she continued to work in one of the city’s supermarket checkouts because she missed the craic when she stopped. The Framptons were hard-working and not given to shows of emotion. There’s a brilliant passage in the book when Frampton, caped and walking through the crowd toward the custom-built ring on the Titanic slipway, is distracted by the sudden appearance of Flo in his path, arms spread for a hug:

‘All five foot nothing of her, stood in my way, seconds before the biggest moment in my career so far. I’m thinking, agh, what the f**k are you doing? We’re on live television in 90 countries worldwide and in front of 16,000 here in the arena and you suddenly want a hug for the first time ever. What could I do?’

When Frampton was 18, he met Christine Dorrian, a Poleglass girl – and therefore a Catholic – who was about to head to Jordanstown (Ulster University) to study criminology. Like many a relationship in Northern Ireland, it began on the dancefloor of Kelly’s Nightclub in Portrush.

“I wasn’t very good with getting the girls anyway. We were talking to each other on Bebo. I was always embarrassed telling people that. I was there for a night with my mates. Genuinely – she is very good-looking, she is funny, she is friends with a lot of people, and I was surprised she had an interest in me. So, when that happened, I was like, get the hooks in now and don’t let her go!”

They made a go of it, lightly skirting over localised sectarian judgment, but Frampton was a bundle of jitters on his early visits to Poleglass. He details a night when stones were pinging off the window in the Dorrians’ house, when he stood at the top of the stairs armed – a can of hairspray was all he could find – to face the intruders he was certain were coming for him. It turned out to be Mrs Dorrian, who’d forgotten her front door keys after a night out. This was 2005. At 18, Frampton had a curious but genuine localised fame. He was rated as a boxer. That gave him a pass. It also left him stony broke. The couple lived for quite a while on Christine’s student loans while Frampton was still amateur.

“Look, my mum and dad always helped me too. But a lot of times you didn’t like to ask. And when you are going out with a girl you won’t want to act like you’re skint. I think she knew fairly quickly that I was. And it didn’t matter to her.”

What Frampton was attempting – to ascend the heights in boxing – was an unknowable world to her. “And to me as well,” he says.

“We were only going out a few years when I turned professional. You are not making much at the start. But look, I am not stupid. If it hadn’t worked out for me, I’d be on a building site or PT-ing [working as a personal trainer] or doing whatever to make ends meet. I think she knew I wasn’t going to be chasing a dream into my 30s. But she was really happy to support me through that time. And I’m always grateful for that.”

Christine narrowly missed out on a first in her degree. Years later, Frampton would tease her that he himself has just a few GCSEs – and an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University Belfast. He was given the honorary scroll in 2019 and repurposed the robe so he could wear it as a gown for one of his later fights, in Vegas against Tyler McCreary. Now, the couple have three children. Carla, the eldest, is in secondary school, Rossa is eight and Mila was born in January. Carla is blissfully clueless about sectarianism. Recently, she’s started going to “a wee disco” where the obligatory fashion is GAA shirts.

“Carla is just a really sweet kid. I mess around with her saying, ‘you’ve gone full rebel now’. I don’t know if the grandparents have seen it. I wouldn’t be bringing her over wearing it. But they wouldn’t care. They wouldn’t give a fiddlers, to be honest.”

After being controversially overlooked for selection to the 2008 Ireland Olympic team, Frampton turned professional a year later. By 2014, he was fighting Kiko Martinez for the International Boxing Federation (IBF) super-bantamweight title in that Titanic Quarter outdoor venue dreamed up, improbably, by then first minister Peter Robinson. By then, Frampton was simply too big a star for the Odyssey Arena. The partnership with McGuigan appeared, in every sense, perfect. It’s impossible to overstate how significant McGuigan was in Ireland in the mid-1980s. The Monaghan man was and is revered as a boxer on both sides of the Border. His grandfather had been a member of the old IRA who moved to Clones and never spoke about his experiences. McGuigan’s first fight for Ireland took place against East Germany in a working men’s club on the Shankill. Afterwards, his father Pat sang songs. He married Sandra Mealiff, who grew up across the road in a Protestant family. When McGuigan fought Eusebio Pedroza for the World Boxing Association (WBA) featherweight title in 1985, a staggering 17 million watched the fight live on television. This was before the Jack Charlton revolution, before Stephen Roche and when the violence had pitched all of the North into a cycle of despair. McGuigan was a flash of joy during a black time. As a manager and promoter, he was articulate, steeped in lore and was, Frampton acknowledges, excellent at getting his story out there.

“In fairness to Barry, [he was] bigging me up everywhere he went. I got this confidence from his confidence. I felt I was never out of the press – Barry’s new protegé. He promoted me very, very well especially at the start.”

Two years after the Kiko fight, he fought Leo Santa Cruz for the WBA featherweight title in Brooklyn. He was a rank outsider but emerged as winner after a bout quickly anointed a classic. Frampton was awarded as the Ring magazine’s fighter of the year – a serious accolade. It was the pinnacle of his fighting life.

But, he says now, the strain in the relationship with the McGuigan family had begun to show. It was an intense set-up from the beginning, with Frampton spending a lot of training time living with the family in what he describes in the book as ’their Kent mansion’. As Frampton’s career escalated, the family took on various roles; son Shane was trainer, another son, Blain, acted as promoter. When Frampton hired an accountant in 2013, he claims that Sandra organised a meeting with the McGuigans’ accountant.

At the time, Frampton says he said: “Okay, I will go with your guy.”

But when he and Christine married the same year, Shane and another son, Jake McGuigan, served as groomsmen at the wedding. His belief is that the lines became blurred, and he was simply too trusting, so much so that when he fought Santa Cruz in a rematch in Las Vegas in 2017, he says he wasn’t fully aware of what the full purse was.

It was Christine, he says, who first felt that things were amiss, sitting in the Midland Hotel before a fight in Manchester against Scott Quigg in February 2016.

In Frampton’s telling, while having lunch, Christine heard people in the entourage repeatedly saying “stick it on the account”.

”And she just clicked. You looked around and everyone is saying, stick it on the account. And she’s thinking: what’s the account?”

“I should have listened to Christine on this because she had my back as she always does. I should have been more on her side in that whole thing, and I wasn’t and that is something that annoys me still.”

The book outlines how, at the court hearing, held in the Covid winter of 2020, Frampton’s legal team went through the discretionary spending in excruciating detail – designer shops in Manhattan, beauty salons in Vegas – always with the stony question, “That’s not a fight expense, is it?”

Frampton says he became aware of the figures only in the run-up to the legal proceedings. “Shoe shops and bikini stores. And all this madness.” In court, Barry McGuigan said he did not accept that there was “an inflated list of expenses” and denied ever promising a 30 per cent profit cut or concealing money from the fighter.

McGuigan repeatedly stressed how Frampton was among the best-paid ever in his division, and argued the point that in the history of the super-bantamweight category, “there has rarely been anybody that has earned more money than Carl Frampton” who, he said, was treated “like he was one of my boys”. The case was ultimately settled without any findings, as resolution was reached on all areas of dispute without the need for any judicial determination.

Apart from those weeks in court, Frampton has only bumped into the McGuigans a few times. But they both still move in fight circles. Frampton predicts they will just blank each other from now on, like strangers. Given the unforgettable nights they concocted for boxing fans, it’s a terribly bleak turn. The Irish Times put Frampton’s claims in this piece to Barry McGuigan and he said: “I don’t accept any of those statements as true.”

Frampton is aware that many Irish people will hear the details of the relationship for the first time on Friday night’s Late Late Show. Coincidentally, the back-page book blurb is reserved not for a former boxing god but for Patrick Kielty, who praises Frampton as “arguably the greatest Irish boxer of all time”. Frampton knows that his portrayal of the senior man might upset people on both sides of the Border who recall McGuigan’s hey-day with enormous fondness. But he’s not worried about how he comes across.

“Not really. If there is anything that is untruthful, then Barry will sue me. It is all factual stuff. There are things that I had said that the lawyers said had to come out of the book. They are being uber safe but there is still enough to expose what happened. I understand he is a cult hero and seen as a man of the people. But I know him. I know him better than anyone in the audience. I know him better than the majority of people on the island of Ireland because I spent so much time with him. There may be a backlash. I don’t really care.”

When you spend time listening to Frampton, though, it is difficult to believe that that is fully true. Talk turns to a fabulous Guardian piece from 2014 for which Frampton and McGuigan spent a day showing writer Donald McRae around Belfast. It’s a jubilant story, lit with hope. Everything is ahead of them and it’s clear that boxer and manager are feeding off the bright voltage of what they are achieving. Even now, after the bitter court case – it ended in a no-judgment settlement with which Frampton described himself “very happy” – it is impossible to read that piece without being convinced that real affection and closeness once existed between the two men.

“Naw, I think so,” Frampton allows. “I do think so. Especially Barry. I don’t think it was this big conspiracy. It just evolved. I think there was genuine… more than affection, like genuine love. I loved these people. I think there was… I dunno. I don’t know what happened. Well, I do know what happened. Money got in the way. And I think they saw I could make them a lot of money.”

‘I understand he is a cult hero and seen as a man of the people. But I know him’

Frampton came within one fight of becoming a three-weight world champion in April 2021 but his bid, against Jamel Herring, was stopped. Christine told him she could no longer sit at ringside after the physical battering he took against Josh Warrington three years earlier. Physically, Frampton still looks in terrific shape, but he laughs as he chronicles the swift deterioration of a fighter’s body in his 30s.

“The metabolism slows down a bit. The weight comes off slower. I’d a couple of operations on the hands,” he says, making a fist and showing the contours.

“I have a dodgy knee that wouldn’t allow me to run more than four miles. Dodgy hips and groins. You are falling apart. I have an issue with my neck – chiropractors described it as like constant whiplash from sparring and getting your head knocked back, over and over. That’s all part and parcel of the game.”

His final years were spent in the stable of MTK, the controversial promotions company linked with Daniel Kinahan that ceased operating last year. Frampton says he met Kinahan; “just around the hotel” before his final fight in Dubai but that his business dealings were with other people. Jarringly, he declares in the book that moving to MTK was the best decision of his career.

“I’ll tell you why I said that. People forget, I wasn’t paid by MTK. They were my agent or manager. And they did deals with Top Rank and Frank Warren. And the promoters paid me. And going from a hundred and forty grand to fight Kiko Martinez in a world title fight in a purpose-built arena paid for by the government in front of 16,000 to being a challenger in the Josh Warrington fight and getting £1.5 million sterling … you know?”

He exits boxing in financially and physically better shape than many talented fighters. At 36, Frampton is still young and, while he is a sought-after pundit, he comes alive when talking about the importance of integrated education in Belfast and across the North. There is no question but that he has a contribution to make towards integration in his homeland, even if his friendship with McGuigan is irreversibly sundered.

But there’s a moment, when he is talking about life after boxing, when all the vitriol and anger of the past few years slip away, and as he recalls a conversation with his former mentor, some shard from their best days together slips through.

“I haven’t put any gloves on. I haven’t even hit a bag. That was always something Barry always said. He had purposely not hit a bag after he retired – in case he got the urge to come back. It is not even that reason for me. It’s… I have done enough of it. I think the punditry thing has made it easier. I am just satisfied with what I have done in boxing. I don’t miss it at all. Happy.”

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times