THE PRINCE OF PEACE : With All of Ireland Behind Him, McGuigan Tries to Win Some Converts in United States

Times Staff Writer

To a TV sensibility, it might be the Hatfields and the McCoys with a brogue. Except a small screen is not big enough to either contain or explain what is casually called "the troubles" in Ireland, a condition of violence that is by now as uncertain in its origin as it is unlikely in its conclusion.

It is better understood in pages other than these. But realize that people die, all the time, because of an ancient religious schism. It's Protestants vs. Catholics, the Irish Republic vs. Northern Ireland. It's even Belfast's Catholic Falls Road vs. the Protestant Shankill neighborhood, the terrorism of a country's prejudice enacted within a single city.

How bad is it? Promoter Bob Arum says in Belfast the police, as a matter of course, simply blow up any unattended parked car. "It's easier than looking for the bomb," Arum explains.

Yet occasionally the grimness of this life, where British soldiers need automatic rifles to enforce an uneasy and intermittent peace (and get fired upon themselves), is lifted and there is a coming together, a time when Protestants and Catholics not only endure each other but throw their arms about one another, hoisting a pint. A time when "the troubles" are all forgotten. What troubles?

"Leave the Fighting to McGuigan" is the working slogan for this little amnesty and a country unites to shout it. Barry McGuigan, a wee featherweight from the Republic who has moved to Northern Ireland, a Catholic who dared to marry a Protestant, has so blurred the lines of division when he commands his country's attention, that the partisans no longer are sure on which side to stand. So, together, for a while, they stand behind him.

When McGuigan fights in Belfast's King's Hall there forms in the grandstands a strange and rollicking union of Catholics and Protestants. Because what he does inside the ring, wearing neither Republican green nor Protestant orange, actually incites a togetherness. It is as if his blue flag of peace, which even includes a dove, has become a nation's flag.

How to emphasize this seemingly unholy alliance? Well, the pubs on fight night are suddenly non-denominational.

This is why it doesn't necessarily boggle the mind to learn that McGuigan, whose life in the ring is of such exaggerated violence that, yes, he once did kill a man there, can be put forth as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Only in boxing? Maybe only in Ireland. It's the Lord Mayor of Belfast's idea and, the more you know about McGuigan's salving of a festering wound, the better it sounds.

McGuigan, who makes his championship debut in the United States tonight when he defends his World Boxing Assn. title against Steve Cruz, was never so calculating in obtaining his unofficial appointment as goodwill ambassador. It's all a wonderful novelty, and an important one, but hardly what he had in mind when he first laced up a glove (right, just the one) as a lad of 10. Actually, he is decidedly apolitical, which is what lends him so much of his plucky charm.

"It's old rubbish," he says of "the troubles." McGuigan, a handsome lad whose manners should alone be enough to impress a nation into civility, does grow impatient when talking about his country's split. It's entirely unnecessary, to his way of thinking.

"It started in 1618 with King William, and to tell you the truth, I don't even know who King William beat," he explains. "Just old rubbish, passed on by older people. They are the ones to blame, for brainwashing the kids. 'Don't be seen with them,' they say. And on it goes."

This prejudice is somewhat exaggerated, he believes, by a press that reports shootings and bombings in gory detail. "If you read the papers, you'd think nobody gets on," he says. On the other hand, he admits, it can be very real. Speaking of his own Catholic-Protestant marriage, he says, "It's not the right thing, for sure. We've never had any problem but, for example, some do. Two weeks ago, a happily married couple, a Catholic and a Protestant, well, terrorists shot the woman dead and injured the man." To give you an idea.

That McGuigan is able to ease this tension is a curious phenomenon, especially to him. "It has surprised me," he says. "I didn't deliberately do this; it's not a gimmick. I just don't listen to Loyalists or Republicans. I want to get along with everybody. I certainly didn't set out to be a politician."

Arum, who had a nice little education when he went to Belfast to see McGuigan fight recently, analyzes the fighter's effect on a people. "He's captured the imagination of fans in Ireland and England," says the promoter for tonight's so-called Triple-Hitter at Caesars Palace. "One of the reasons, aside from his charisma, is that he gives people who want peace a rallying point. They are using him as a method to cry out for peace. It's very hard, because of the radicals, to be vocal about it. In fact, the only way you can is by coming around McGuigan. He gives them an opportunity to say let's get together. In the days before and after a fight, nobody wars on anybody."

McGuigan: "All I know, is that for my title fight (with Eusebio Pedroza), they all flew over together to London, boys who wouldn't speak to each other before, now arm in arm. Not even the Lord Mayor can do that. Yet I can do that for a couple of nights. It makes me proud."

So this little warrior really is the Prince of Peace, almost literally straddling a country's politics and religions. If he is an unwitting symbol of hope, he is nevertheless an ideal one. Born in the town of Clones in County Monaghan, in the Republic, just miles south of the Ulster border, he never did stop to consider the boundaries on his life. Beginning at age 12, when his desire to box first found an outlet, he bicycled the nine miles to the nearest gym, which just happened to be in Northern Ireland. This went on until two men were discovered near the gym, in a ditch with pitchforks in them. McGuigan's father soon found a gym on the proper side.

But McGuigan was just as blithe in picking a mate. McGuigan never did acknowledge any barrier and made friends of Catholics and Protestants. He felt the bitterness, but it was a somewhat distant one. Nevertheless, a Catholic did not marry a Protestant. Except that McGuigan sought out Sandra up the road, even though they were a poor match in the matter of faith.

"The two of us was back and fore over the hedges like grasshoppers," is how McGuigan once described their courtship in Sports Illustrated.

That union has borne two children, for whom McGuigan doubly intends to make his country safe. "You don't want your kids to grow up in a war zone," he says. "You want a future for them. And I'm optimistic about it. We are now again integrating schools, a very new thing. I opened one in the Protestant end of Belfast and in the Catholic end as well. I'm very optimistic."

All this is interesting talk from a man--he's 25--whose style inside a ring is unstudied ferocity, who has won all but one of his 30 fights and who has gone the distance just six times. But boxing is always a mess of contradictions. Not for nothing is this pacifist called the Clones Cyclone. No cutie he, boxing and dancing. He may be the Prince of Peace to his fans, but to his opponents he has been the King of Klout. If there was ever a less suitable symbol for his fighting style than a dove, let's see it.

McGuigan, however, is not compelled to reconcile his action within a ring and that outside. He's simply a born boxer; it's what he does.

McGuigan discovered as much when he was but 10. Running with a much older crowd, he discovered a derelict house in the neighborhood. And in this house, wouldn't you know, was a pair of boxing gloves. A tournament was quickly established.

"Each of us put one glove on each hand and boxed for 15 minutes," he recalls. "The house was choking with dust, I remember. I beat all but the last who was much older. He was a southpaw and had the left glove. We went 15 minutes, then called it a draw."

His progress thereafter was swift. He feels that since the age of 12, he has more or less been a professional boxer, so diligently did he train. Also, it didn't hurt that the young McGuigan, in helping in the family grocery store, was lifting 50-pound sacks of potatoes with either hand. Presumably that's where his upper body build comes from. In any event, by the age of 17, he had won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games and, a year later, nearly crashed the Olympics. But he lost a qualifying bout in a disputed decision.

However, it was apparent at least to millionaire Barney Eastwood, proprietor of some 33 betting shops in Northern Ireland, that McGuigan was better suited to professional boxing than to the amateurs.

"I could see he wasn't just a three-round fighter," Eastwood had once said of the fighter he chose to manage. "He was a 15-round man."

McGuigan began fighting professionally in 1981 and except for a loss in his third fight, quickly avenged, made a swift climb up the ladder. Unfortunately there was a price to pay. Along a stretch of 18 straight knockouts was a fighter named Young Ali. McGuigan dispatched him in the sixth round in a bout in London. Ali never regained consciousness. Ali, whose wife was pregnant at the time, remained in a coma for six months before he died.

That boxing could be so cruel a sport had never before occurred to McGuigan. He was nearly destroyed by Ali's death and, in fact, didn't put on a glove for nearly seven months. Eventually, as much driven by economic necessity as anything, he did return to boxing, although tentatively at first. He admits to freezing in the middle of his next two bouts.

Still, it was a while before he came to any prominence, as his matchmaking was cautious at first. No great names were on his ring record, not until 1985 when he fought and beat former featherweight champion Juan LaPorte. His class established, he was soon matched with Pedroza for the WBA title in London, a fight that was more or less decided in the eighth round when McGuigan knocked the long-time champion down with his left hook. McGuigan eventually won a 15-round decision and, quite literally, set Ireland aflame with pride.

That night, as huge bonfires illuminated a Clones celebration, sparks set off a fire that destroyed part of the house in which McGuigan had grown up.

McGuigan has since certified his stature as an exciting brawler--he's a pocket Joe Frazier, an Irish Ray Mancini--in tough defenses against Bernard Taylor and Danilo Cabrera, proving he can take as many punches as he can deliver.

But he has yet to certify his status as a mainstream attraction, his story and appeal so far limited to Ireland and England, where he has fought exclusively (except for an early career fight in Chicago). Arum has been surprised at the lack of attention McGuigan is commanding for this fight.

"In this country the Irish-Americans have not rallied like we thought they would," Arum said. "I guess those who have been here for generations, their Irish roots have diluted. But we figured we'd do unbelievable business in New York, but the only place we're doing great is in the Northeast."

The solution, of course, is simple. "He has to fight here," Arum says.

McGuigan, for his part, wants to fight here. He knows full well that his ticket to world-wide stardom is not in the rocking confines of 7,000-seat King's Hall. No fighter can achieve global recognition without achieving United States recognition.

"I'm as hot as I can be at home," McGuigan admits. "That's why this is such an important fight. I need to make a good impression here so they'll want me back."

It's Arum's plan to nurse McGuigan to superstar status by shuttling him back and forth, to keep his remarkable story alive in Ireland and to show his loyalty there, and to keep him rich here--the buck of the Irish--where he can continue to meet top-flight competition.

We'll see where it all goes. But, for now, the fights will go on and on, as long as he wins anyway. And with each bloody bout, McGuigan will continue to make his curious case for peace, his painfully bloodied fists odd instruments of harmony, his ring violence a strange call for calm. Somewhere they'll be hoisting a pint to Barry who, tonight anyway, did the only fighting required or wished.

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