Carl Frampton portrait for FS magazine photoshoot ()Carl Frampton portrait for FS magazine photoshoot () © Copyright

Day of the Jackal

Carl ‘the jackal’ Frampton MBE is a new-school boxer in an old-school world. He’s a progressive presence in a sport rooted in tradition and a symbol of everything good about modern day Northern Ireland.

Frampton, 29, is a two-weight world champion at super bantamweight and featherweight, and has a long and fruitful career ahead of him. Back home, he is a bona fide hero. When the 16-strong shortlist for BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2016 ignored him, there was a national uproar. Government ministers wrote to the BBC, questions were tabled in Parliament and the Belfast Telegraph mocked the “elitist, flag-waving beauty contest” of SPOTY.

His fervent supporters will travel anywhere he does. One fan sold his wife’s car so he could travel to Las Vegas for the next world title fight; 4,000 others will join him. Frampton’s conscious political and religious neutrality mark him out as a symbol of unity in a land that still bears the scars of a 20-year conflict fought on sectarian grounds.

Carl Frampton pad work with Shane McGuigan for FS magazine photoshoot ()

 

We dropped in on Frampton to watch his training session with coach Shane McGuigan, at George Groves’ gym in Hammersmith. He had just entered into a gruelling 12-week camp ahead of his rematch against Leo Santa Cruz at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on 28 January. He beat the aggressive American for his WBA world featherweight championship in an exciting 12 rounds of furious brilliance, last July, earning him his third world title in two weight classes.

The atmosphere is relaxed to start with, before it ratchets up in the second half of the session. The rhythmic pad work soon explodes in intensity, as Shane’s gentle instructions are answered with the sharp thwack of Carl’s gloves hitting the pads. Shane doesn’t need to shout or gee his man up, even as the ferocity of the combinations increases.

What’s special about the relationship is what goes unsaid; tiny adjustments and calibrations are made between trainer and fighter constantly, the pair’s communication telepathic.

These sessions are cool, calm and methodical – a model of process – and it’s only with the entrance of Shane’s dad, Irish boxing legend Barry McGuigan, that a sense of fun bounds into the gym.

Carl Frampton hand wraps for FS magazine photoshoot ()

 

“That left hook puts the shite up me!” says Barry excitedly, turning to us as he stands on the apron of the ring. Barry weaves his body, slipping his head, as Frampton rattles off quick-fire combinations. He chips in with words of encouragement as his son and protégé rehearse their complex fistic dance, but never overrules or overbears – this is       strictly Carl and Shane’s dance.

“You see how they move like this together,” Barry says, turning his head again, but keeping one eye on the action, “Carl will replicate all of this in the ring. These instructions Shane gives him will be taken on board and used. It’s not often you see a boxer do that.”

It’s fair to say Frampton is one of the most intelligent boxers from these shores. The precision with which he measures both his fists and words is a mark of someone who understands his craft completely. Rarely too, do you see a combination of technical genius powered by such a massive heart.

Nothing is left to chance. His training is organised meticulously, with Shane micro-managing all aspects of it, from pad work and sparring, to strength and conditioning and nutrition. Frampton’s devotion is unquestionable, too; he will spend the full 12 weeks in camp living with Shane in his Battersea home, leaving his wife Christine and two young children Carla and Rossa back in Belfast.

The big things and the small things are all coming together for Frampton and it appears to be a recipe for success. We sit down with him after his session to find out what makes him tick.

Carl Frampton portrait for FS magazine photoshoot ()

 

Was there a particular point when you knew you had what it takes to become a world champion?

Yeah, maybe after the first fight with Kiko Martinez [in 2013 for the EBU European super-bantamweight championship]. It was a tough, hard fight that, and I had to grit it out. He busted my eardrum. After four rounds, my team told me he’s come hard for the last four, and he’s starting to slow down. I knocked him out in the ninth round, and he hadn’t been knocked out before.

What can you take from your world-title winning rematch against Martinez, and apply to your upcoming rematch with Santa Cruz?

There’s no doubt that this Santa Cruz fight is going to be difficult, but I know can come back better. I was better than Kiko the second time around, and I’ll be better than Santa Cruz in the rematch. I think applying what I’ve learned will be the difference. I think if I use my brain a bit more and fight to my strength, I can win it more comfortably.

Carl Frampton fights Leo Santa Cruz (Getty)

 

As a two-weight world champion, are you conscious about being in big, exciting fights?

I obviously care about being in exciting fights and getting recognition. You see those fighters who aren’t exciting fighters, and the TV networks switch off. They may be brilliant technically, but their fighting style isn’t for the average Joe who wants to see blood and guts.

Winning is the most important thing, but you need to be exciting, too. If you’re not, you’re not going to be backed by the TV networks, then you’re not going to get the paydays. At the end of the day it’s a business and while world titles and legacy are very important, the financial rewards for being in those fights matter, too.

Did the extra needle between you and Scott Quigg help to sell that fight to the British public?

Yeah, there was a little of needle involved, but I’m not really that guy. If someone wants to give me stick, don’t worry, I’ll give it back, but that’s not really me. I’d rather just take the piss out of him. Joe Gallagher and Quigg are just balloons – they’re a bit simple. I don’t like Eddie Hearn, either, but the needle with him and the camps did help sell the fight.

But I don’t need to do that with the Santa Cruz rematch, as everyone saw how good the first fight was. They’ll want to see that again. No need for any needle; he’s a respectful guy and is nice enough. When he came over, our press shots together looked like a family photo, or two men who had just got married with our adopted children the day before the fight – we were all smiles. It’s the strangest thing, but that’s what it’s like, and we went out and had a proper fight.

Carl Frampton celebrates with belts ()

 

FRAMPTON TOOK UP boxing when he was seven, encouraged by his dad Craig to go and let off some steam. He went on to became one of the top Irish amateurs of the 2000s. In 2009 he turned pro and two years later left renowned Irish coach Gerry Storey and replaced him with his manager’s son: Shane McGuigan. A virtually unknown quantity, McGuigan was unproven and untested, but Frampton had faith. His faith was well judged; they are now one of the youngest – and most successful – trainer-fighter partnerships in UK fight history. McGuigan was only 22 when they joined forces, Frampton 24, and by 2013 he was the Commonwealth, IBF inter-continental and EBU European super bantamweight champion.

In 2014, the fruits of their labour culminated in a world title shot against once-beaten foe Kiko Martinez for his IBF super bantamweight world title. The 16,000 in attendance in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter were treated to a virtuoso performance, a sound thrashing on all cards over 12-rounds. He had managed to win a world title in just 19 fights, stamped his mark on the international boxing scene and earned the adoration of the paying public, both sides of the border.

Around the time Frampton was born, people were being killed on the streets of Belfast. More than 3,500 people lost their lives in the Troubles, and though there has been relative peace since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the sectarian divide has not entirely healed.

Carl Frampton pad work with Shane McGuigan for FS magazine photoshoot ()

 

Frampton grew up as a Protestant in Tiger’s Bay in Belfast, then a unionist stronghold. He would regularly mix with Catholic kids when he boxed, he married a Catholic girl and he fights under a neutral banner. No Union flag, no Tricolour. He does not choose sides, apart from the emerald green of the Northern Ireland national football team that spent last summer charming Europe in France.

The parallels between Frampton and Barry McGuigan are unavoidable. McGuigan, a Catholic, married a Protestant and made his name in Belfast and London during the 1980s. When he fought banners read “leave the fighting to Barry” as two divided communities united to cheer him on.

Some of the things that tore the country apart are becoming less relevant now. Over half of 18-34 year-olds in Northern Ireland identify as neither nationalist nor unionist. Yet national and religious identities are still a big deal. Navigating this complex scene and maintaining neutrality is not an easy task. Frampton appears as intelligent on these matters as he does in the ring.

Do you embrace the celebrity that comes with your success?

I don’t like that word, ‘celebrity’. I get noticed obviously in Belfast, which is OK I guess. You walk down the street and people want to say hi and shake  your hand and stuff; it’s not like I’m getting followed about or anything! It’s cool. People wish me well and I’m very grateful for that support. It’s better than going unnoticed, isn’t it?

I’m very appreciative of the support -I get from the fans back home. We brought loads over to New York [for the first Santa Cruz fight], but wait till you see who we’re taking to Vegas, it’s going to be even better. Thousands have signed up for tickets, even though they haven’t gone on sale yet. More will make their own way out. I believe I’m the most supported fighter there is in the UK at the moment, and I’m very appreciative of it.

Carl Frampton Northern Ireland portrait for FS magazine ()

 

Do you feel like your work in the ring bridges gaps between communities?

You’ve got to be careful what you say obviously, and you don’t want to piss people off, especially considering where I’m from. I don’t pretend to be anything I’m not; I’m just taking it in my stride and being myself, and people like that.

There are certain people back home who will ram it down your throat what they believe; what their religious beliefs or political stances are. There are sportsmen who do it, too. I don’t believe we should do that. Sport isn’t a place for religion or politics. I’m a neutral, and I think that’s why people of all kinds support me and appreciate what I’m doing. I don’t think you need to ram anything down your throat.

The parallels between your career and Barry’s are very close. Can you relate to his experiences at all?

It’s much different than it was in Barry’s day. Belfast is a different place, and there are a lot of good people there. There are obviously the few who would like to bring it back to what it was, but it will never go back like that. Slowly that kind of stuff has been diluted out of the community. It’s nice to be seen as that person who represents both sides of the community and represents progress.

Northern Ireland is a progressive place. There’s still a bit of tension between communities, but even that is getting better all the time. Even when I was a kid, I grew up at the back end of The Troubles. I’ve seen things that kids shouldn’t see, and I’ve experienced it.

I remember listening to the news and hearing about the bombings or bomb scares; people being shot or punishment shootings – it was happening every other night. If you hear it now in the news, it’s a surprise. When it was happening then, it wasn’t, as it was happening so often. It just shows you how much has changed.

Carl Frampton back tattoo portrait for FS magazine ()

 

Do you think boxing possibly saved you from taking a different path?

It probably has, looking back now and thinking about it in retrospect – it wasn’t like I went to boxing to get away from it, but yeah, it’s definitely helped keep me away from trouble.

SHANE MCGUIGAN represents a new breed of boxing trainer. He incorporates new-school methodology of strength and conditioning techniques he picked up in the States under the tutelage of famed S&C coach Charles Polloquin; he fully manages each of his boxer’s nutrition, and faces strategy with a fresh clear-eyed way of thinking that hasn’t got caught up in tropes or tradition. But it’s the natural trust and understanding between the two that has made this relationship so successful.

Your relationship with the McGuigan family is clearly very close. How did it come about?

It kind of came about accidentally. I was training back home in Belfast, and I would come over here and finish my camps. Barry was away one day and I was in his house down in Kent, and needed to do some pad work so I asked Shane to take me on them. We just had this connection. He was a good pad man and he seemed to know the game well.

Around that time, I was scheduled to fight a guy called Robbie Turley. I was having a hard time on the night when I shouldn’t have been – it was my first fight on Sky TV and I was trying to impress – and I found myself looking around to see what Shane was saying rather than looking to my own corner. That’s when I knew I needed to train with Shane.

Carl Frampton portrait for FS magazine ()

 

It breaks away from boxing’s usual narrative of old coach taking in young kid off the street, doesn’t it?

Yeah, you always see that story, don’t you? The old man takes the young kid off the streets or whatever. Shane’s a public schoolboy! [Laughs.] It’s a different set-up, but we have a trust in one another. Trust is the most important thing.

If you’re having a hard time in sparring or even in a fight, and you can go back to your corner and act on their advice, that’s so important. Not many people have that. There’s only a certain amount of fighters that will try and carry out what their corner is saying instead of going out there and doing what they feel like. Andre Ward and Virgil Hunter are great examples of that team ethic working in the ring.

Why do you two work so well together, do you think?

I don’t know, really. He’s only stood over there, ask him! It’s a bit awkward isn’t it? We’re a similar age and personality, I guess. We’re serious when we need to be, but we can also take the piss and have a laugh as well. I’m with him all the time in camp, too. I think for most people that would be hard, but we know when to switch off and have a laugh. We’re mates, ya know?

What does the future hold for you? Do you still want to carry on fighting into your 30s?

There’s no definite limit for me. If I’m still boxing by the time I’m 34, I’ll be disappointed. I’m approaching 30 and I’ve got a wife and two young kids back at home, and I would love to be able to retire and not have to work a day in my life and spend all my time with them.

It’s a hard game, you know, and I don’t want to be doing it forever. You’re running your body into the ground constantly, day in, day out, so I’d like to get to 33, have a few more big fights and a few more big paydays. From here to the end of my career, I just want to be in big fights, that’s it. I want the biggest names, the biggest titles and with that comes
the bigger purses.

If you retired tomorrow, though, would you be content with what you’ve already achieved?

I’ve created a bit of a legacy for myself now, which I’m happy with. I’m the only Northern Irish boxer to have two world titles at two different weights, and I’m one of only two Irishmen – Steve Collins being the other – to win two titles at two different weights. If I win a third at super-featherweight in the future and call it a day, I’ll stand alone in the record books, and I could retire a very, very happy man.

Photos: John Enoch

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