Loftus ‘85

AT 9.44pm on June 8, 1985, a small man in a blue and gold dressing-gown stepped out of a tunnel at Loftus Road football stadium in west London.
There were nearly 30,000 people in the ground, and they erupted when they spotted Barry McGuigan.
Walking behind the blue flag of peace with the theme from ‘Rocky’ pounding through the PA system, he inched his way towards a ring in the middle of the pitch.
Little over an hour later — at 10.55pm — McGuigan would be crowned the WBA world featherweight champion after beating the unbeatable Eusebio Pedroza.
Today is the 30th anniversary of that fight, and there has never been anything like it in Irish sport since.
Fr Brian D’Arcy was part of McGuigan’s entourage from the start, having become friendly with his late father, Pat, from the latter’s days as a showband singer.
He feels that McGuigan was exactly what a tough decade in Ireland needed.
“The ‘80s was a poor enough time. There wasn’t much money around. The population was going down, you had the Troubles in the north,’’ he said.
“But it was a time when we got together.
“Jim Aiken organised a lot of big concerts at Slane like The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen.
“People loved going to these places and it helped keep the national spirit together.
“Sport was a big thing. The Ireland soccer team was about to take off.
“But there was nothing massive at the time to unite everyone before Barry.
“U2 were on the brink, but there was nothing else in sport.”
McGuigan had mostly fought in Belfast up to then, but Fr D’Arcy feels that QPR’s home ground was an inspired choice for his world title shot.
“Loftus Road was ideal because it was compact and filled easily,’’ he said.
“There’s a Tube station 100 yards from the ground.
“All of us saved up whatever pennies we had to get there.
“It was one of those phenomenal nights — I’ll never forget it.
“On the Tube, you might as well have been on O’Connell Street in Dublin.”
It took McGuigan 12 minutes to walk from his dressing-room to the ring, such was the fervour of the crowd.
“Everybody was standing on the seats,’’ recalled Fr D’Arcy.
“They were far enough away from home not to be self conscious. There wasn’t much talk of health and safety back then.”
The crowd was full of the great and the good — legends of Irish sport like Pat Jennings, George Best, JP McManus, Dennis Taylor and Willie John McBride.
There were other more unlikely figures there too, like the celebrated artist Lucian Freud and a young Irvine Welsh (the author of Trainspotting) who’d gone to the fight with his father.
Welsh conjured up a scene from that night in his novel ‘Glue’.

“McGuigan even had the white peace flag, cause eh wisnae intae aw that tricolour or rid hand ay Ulster crap. Tae me though, it seemed like an act ay surrender before eh’d even flung a punch,’’ he wrote
“Then this auld boy came intae the ring, later oan we found out it wis McGuigan’s faither, and eh started singing Danny Boy.
“The whole crowd joined in, aw they Belfast Catholics and Protestants thegither, and ah looked ower at ma faither n it wis the first and only time ah ever saw tears in ehs eyes.”

McGuigan confirms that the fictional passage is rooted in fact.
“I had dinner with Irvine once and he told me about it,’’ he said.
“He was down in London, doing a bit of writing and in a punk rock band.
“He told me he had a fairly fractious relationship with his father.
“His Dad came down from Edinburgh and bought two tickets for the fight and brought him along.
“When my Dad was singing ‘Danny Boy’, Irvine turned around and his father was crying.
“He said he’d never seen his father crying before and it had a profound effect on him and on their relationship.”
So many stories came out of that night.
Midway through the fight, McGuigan’s corner men reached for the water bottles only to find them empty.
Jim Sheridan, the film-maker, was there to write a book on McGuigan, and he was sent off to fill the bottles.
He found that the water was leaking badly out of them at the bottom. The suspicion was that someone from the Pedroza camp had slit them with razor blades.
Pedroza was, pound for pound, one of the best around, and one of the most celebrated.
The Panamian had been WBA world featherweight champion for a remarkable seven years, with 10 successful defences on his record.
And he did his best to spook out McGuigan.
“On TV, there were 19 million people watching and I could feel the atmosphere building and building. It was really noisy,’’ said McGuigan.
“Danny Boy is such an emotional song anyway, and it was my father singing it — and 27,000 people singing it back at him.
“I heard my brother, Dermot, banging the canvas and going ‘Barry! Barry!’.
“Pedroza was giving me the death’s stare and Dermot was saying to give it back to him. It helped me keep my focus, and switch off from the song.”
In his own words, McGuigan had the ‘’ears boxed off him’’ in the first three rounds.
It wasn’t until the seventh round that he took the initiative.
Pedroza was sent to the canvas with a crushing right hand from McGuigan.
He sent the champ reeling again in the ninth and 13th rounds.
McGuigan had done enough. After 15 gruelling rounds, he was the new champion of the world.
When he was interviewed directly afterwards in the ring, an emotional McGuigan dedicated his win to Young Ali, a Nigerian boxer who went into a coma and died aftertheir fight three years earlier.
“Young Ali was always in his thoughts, and we often spoke about him,’’ recalled Fr D’Arcy.
“After Barry lost to Steve Cruz in Las Vegas, he was taken to an ambulance on a stretcher and I was beside him.
“All he kept saying to me was: ‘Keep me awake, don’t let me die like Young Ali’.
“We prayed together in his dressing-room from the early days.
“Later on, I’d sometimes say Mass for him in his hotel on the morning of fights.
“Then, we’d have a wee blessing and prayer in the dressing-room. It gave him that strength.”

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