IBF Super-Bantamweight champion Carl Frampton is a boxer in a gilded cage. He is counting the days before he climbs into the ring to challenge the WBA title holder Scott Quigg in Manchester on February 28th. The date creeps closer, but his training camp resembles a tortuous waiting room.
Before a fight, for two months, he lives in London in an apartment with other fighters and his trainer Shane McGuigan. Separated from those he loves, he misses his wife Christine and family badly. McGuigan’s gym is situated near the beautiful King’s Road, but Frampton is immune to the city’s charms.
“I walk around here in London and nobody knows me. This is good thing in terms of work. I can fully focus on the job at hand, which is beating Scott Quigg. But it gets difficult, of course it does. I am living in this beautiful area, but I don’t even think about it in truth. I miss my two kids and Christine badly, but this is temporary, and I know it’s going to be worth the battle in the end.”
In Northern Ireland, Frampton (29) enjoys considerable fame. He is approached regularly and tries to speak to as many well wishers as he can. It gets difficult when he’s trying to feed his small children in Belfast, but he never complains. The public cherish him for his everyman personality as much as his exploits in the ring.
Seven years ago, life was considerably different. Frampton had recently signed with his manager and mentor Barry McGuigan and he was only known to the most dedicated of Belfast boxing aficionados.
He started his professional journey in the old ballroom of the Olympia in Liverpool against an unheralded Hungarian Sandor Szinavel who finished his career with three losses.
In the early years, Frampton trained at home in Belfast; it was a lonely existence for a young man who craved normalcy with his childhood friends. He woke up in the dark and ran the damp streets of Tiger’s Bay alone.
He had a young baby girl to support with his then-girlfriend Christine, and he had no idea how far his fists could take him in the paid ranks. There was a palpable fear, that everything he had worked for from seven years old could be ended with a lucky punch. Frampton happened to be supremely gifted at boxing, but he would have rather played football for his beloved Crusaders in North Belfast.
Tiger’s Bay is a loyalist area perched on an interface area where riots can flare up in an instant between rival factions. The teenage battles Frampton engaged with in ring at Midland ABC had shielded him from the conflict that would often take place outside.
In an area covered with British flags, he was proud to represent Ireland as an amateur. He had already 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 demanded excellence in his character as much as his boxing.
Barry McGuigan had noticed Frampton’s talent as an amateur and was convinced he would be a world champion. Frampton started his career 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 Christine and her different postcode didn’t feature high on his agenda of anxiety.
Today as then, he is reluctant symbol of peacetime Northern Ireland. Over coffee on the King’s Road near his training camp in London he remains a modest man.
“Listen, it’s flattering when people say you’re representing a new Northern Ireland, one we want our kids to grow up in with peace. But equally, I’m just a fella from Tiger’s Bay. I’m a boxer, I’m a family man and I just want to try to live in the right way. We all saw things we shouldn’t have seen, none of us want to go back there.”
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 stay still. He reads widely and is unfailingly curious in the world around him.
He has brought thoughtfulness to a sport that is often simplified into barbarism by those ignorant of its subtle nature. Convention doesn’t suit Carl; he is happiest listening to the soothing soul music of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding during his intense workouts with Shane.
"I suppose I'm not really that normal mate, I have always loved this kind of music. One of my favourites of all time when I am running is My Way by Sinatra. Those songs can carry you somewhere else, I'm not doing my roadwork, I'm not pounding a heavy bag, I'm travelling somewhere bigger and better in my mind."
In the ring, Carl is 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 footwork was refined from a childhood spent in the gym and finessed with his skilled trainer Shane McGuigan that has helped him avoid undue punishment. His diagnosis of the frailties or strengths of his opponents normally ends in a knock out victory.
Fighting Scott Quigg will represent the zenith of his decorated boxing career. He holds no personal animosity towards the Bury fighter, preferring to approach the fight without emotion, instead focusing on forensic detail and preparation. Feelings cannot come into it.
“As soon as you enter the ring filled with anger, you’ve lost. Boxing is a game that relies on concentration and analysis. I am constantly reacting and adapting. Every part of my brain is channelled on the task at hand, I have full respect for Scott, and I know I have to be at my best.”
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 has made hundreds of friends through his fights, none better than his amateur foe of four 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 meet regularly for dinner, each man able to understand the sacrifice that comes with making boxing their life.
Over the years, the fights and the crowds have got bigger. The Odyssey arena became a fervent fight venue. Those who had little previous interest in boxing, suddenly wouldn’t miss a Frampton fight. Lawyers, teachers and civil servants joined dock workers on both sides of the community to see the Jackal fight in Belfast.
The traditional patrons of the Grand Opera House and the Lyric Theatre in Belfast were now belting out Sweet Caroline as thousands sang in unison awaiting Frampton's ring entrance. The atmosphere Frampton generated replicated everything McGuigan had created all those years before.
Sacrifice and hardship
Opponents were dispatched, before an IBF 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 young daughter slept soundly, using his entrance robe as a snuggly blanket.
In his last fight, on a spongy ring in humid El Paso, Frampton was dropped twice. Immediately he looked to Shane McGuigan, his expression was one of surprise and embarrassment. For the first time in his career, he was careless against his deceptively skinny Mexican opponent Alejandro Gonzalez.
He had enjoyed time by the pool before the fight and had watched Gonzalez shuffle nervously around the hotel; he thought it would be an easy night in the ring. He climbed off the floor to comprehensively win on points, but was annoyed that his debutant ball in America was tarnished. The fear of losing everything from early in his career returned, the strongest motivator he needed.
Frampton will box in front of familiar faces in Manchester in February. The fight will be shown on Showtime in America, helping to propel his star yet further. Frampton remains unaffected and pleasantly bemused at how his ability with his fists generates so much acclaim.
When he enters the Manchester arena in front of 20,000 fans, a large proportion will have travelled across the Irish Sea from both sides of the Border to support their hero.
“You look back, and I can’t quite believe how big things have got. In my career, I always believed I could be a world champion, but couldn’t have imagined the amount of support I would get from everywhere. When you’re in the ring, you just hear this wall of noise, it’s hard to describe. When I’m old, I’ll look back on these nights and smile. They’re special times.”
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 nonsense, bigotry and segregation of the past and at times present. Frampton will enter the ring with the hopes of a small windswept nation on his shoulders, and will not entertain failure.