A Boxing Memory: Pedroza vs McGuigan

A Boxing Memory: Pedroza vs McGuigan

In many ways, 1985 was a year of trouble. The Thatcher led Tory government gripped Britain, cities lay in ruins, jobs a luxury few had. The bitterly fought miners strike came to an end in the early months. The workers either starved into submission or a hollow victory claimed over a government intent on making a political statement at the expense of the people it was supposed to help and support. In many ways, those workers fighting for their cause deserved better. Innocent pawns in a political game that ran deeper than what we saw on the surface.

The country was very much on its knees. Live Aid in the same year highlighted poverty and starvation in Africa, but there were problems a little closer to home that even Bob Geldof couldn’t solve. The troubles of Northern Ireland split communities, a country of division, residents living a life of fear in a time of guns, bombs and extreme hostility.

But there was hope in the slight frame of Barry McGuigan, a rising featherweight from Clones who somehow could unite where politicians failed.

McGuigan had the rare and much-needed ability to bring families who were at war together, a temporary ceasefire in a time of strife, a fighter who could bring peace with his fists. McGuigan was a beacon of peace and hope. He deliberately stayed neutral wearing the United Nations Flag of Peace on his shorts. But even that neutral stance couldn’t save him from being put on the red list, a potential target for kidnapping. He was assigned security and a gun, thankfully, it wasn’t needed.

Appearances at the 1978 Commonwealth Games where he won the Gold medal as a teenager and reaching the last 16 at the 1980 Moscow Olympics showed his potential. For McGuigan, three rounds weren’t enough, the queue to sign him as a professional was a long one. After Barney Eastwood, secured his signature on a professional contract, one of the safest bets the bookmaker would place, McGuigan, started his road to glory in 1981.

One early disputed blemish was quickly reversed, McGuigan had the look of a special talent, seemingly destined for the very top of his sport. Long arms, big hands with a punch to match, with dedication and drive to match his physical gifts.

The ‘Clones Cyclone’ had to endure personal trauma when a 1982 fight with Young Ali ended in tragedy. McGuigan questioned the sport and should he fight on. The pain, guilt even, of that fight will never go away.

McGuigan moved through the levels with relative ease, only a rough night against the tough Zambian Charm Chiteule where he flirted with disqualification for repeated low blows, showed any glimpses of fragility. The crimson mask of Vernon Penprase in 1983, a fight in which McGuigan claimed the British title, showed even that early in his career that he had already outgrown the domestic scene.

The McGuigan fight nights in the King’s Hall in Belfast were a cauldron of sound, as much a part of the McGuigan story as the fights themselves. 7,000 passionate fans putting the troubles outside to one side, the emotions of those nights have probably never ever been replicated.

By 1985 McGuigan had claimed the British and European featherweight titles but he faced his moment of truth against the former WBC champion Juan LaPorte.

The Puerto Rican was still near his peak and posed a significant test to the world title hopeful. McGuigan was as near to perfection as you could be. LaPorte was by far his toughest opponent to date, but he looked bewildered at times by the little buzzsaw in front of him.

But the former world champion still carried imminent danger in his right hand, and it landed on his opponent’s chin flush in the 9th round. McGuigan was momentarily stunned, but he survived and carried on as if nothing had happened. Another test passed, Harry Gibbs scored it 99-97, that fight removed any doubt about his validity to be considered a viable world title contender. McGuigan was simply brilliant that night, maybe his best ever night.

Once Farid Gallouze, an out of depth French challenger for his European title was predictably dispatched a month after the win over LaPorte, attentions were turned to securing the signature of the long-reigning WBA champion Eusebio Pedroza. The negotiations went long into the night before the paperwork was finally agreed.

The Panamanian was considered to be ever so slightly on the slide, but at 29 he was hardly an old fighter. Pedroza was making his 20th defence of the title he won in 1978, and despite being the slight underdog, the champion could not be overlooked.

7,000 fans morphed into over 20,000 at Loftus Road, the old football ground rocking with the voices of the Irish faithful who had made the pilgrimage over to see the coronation of their hero on that cool June evening in 1985.

The first challenge for McGuigan was getting into the ring, it took longer than it should. Pedroza entered in relative obscurity.

McGuigan’s father gave us a powerful rendition of Danny Boy, a few moments of hush from the crowd, a voice and song full of national pride. It had a meaning far beyond those ropes. McGuigan took a deep breath, realising the following hour could define and change his life. The magnitude of the occasion possibly hitting home for the first time. McGuigan had tried to distance himself from the euphoria of the build-up, refusing to read the endless print leading up to the fight. As his father sung, McGuigan hummed, trying to keep the emotions in check, surely an impossible task.

Pedroza was still a formidable fighter, the long jab and movement causing problems, McGuigan marched forward in the opening round, fleeting success only, but the chase for glory had begun.

McGuigan got closer in the 2nd round, the first early signs that Pedroza’s grip on the world title was loosening. The champion had a reputation for the odd dirty tactic, a low blow in the 3rd round added substance to that, but the jab and the patented bolo punch kept the challenger at bay, if only temporarily. McGuigan was a hard man to keep off for 15 rounds.

McGuigan continued to apply the pressure, bobbing and weaving into range, the left hook ripping in doing damage to head and body. The 4th round, two good men going to work, a forgotten gem of a round.

In the 5th, Pedroza tried to change the narrative of the fight, trying to push McGuigan back. A little sign that suggested Pedroza might somehow prevail. After six close rounds, at best the challenger was even on the cards.

The noise dimmed in the 7th, Pedroza started well, McGuigan missing, the crowd sensed their evening might not end how they had hoped. But suddenly out of nowhere, McGuigan threw a right hand and Pedroza was on the floor. The champion survived and came back strongly in the 8th. McGuigan might take his title but he couldn’t take away the fighting heart and pride from the man in front of him.

But in the 9th, it became a battle for survival, and survive he did. McGuigan threatened on numerous occasions to finish his man, but the old champion had one last act of defiance. The end was close in the 9th and the 13th, but Pedroza wouldn’t go, the epic fight had another miracle. The instincts to win changed to staying the course, the now inevitable crowning of a new champion would be delayed.

Pedroza lasted the full 15 rounds, the very least he deserved, resilience beyond the call of duty, an incredible display against the marauding challenger he had the misfortune of having to face on a night where his time ran out. The unanimous decision was a mere formality in a fight that was anything but. The scores of 148-138, 149-139 and 147-140 hiding the closeness and intensity from the opening half of this thoroughly gripping fight.

McGuigan had been thinking of Young Ali all week, even in victory, his greatest moment, Ali was in his thoughts. The fight was dedicated to Ali, a genuinely touching moment on a night of high emotion. A sombre reminder of the dangers of the sport. As one writer perfectly summed it up: ‘It was important to remember the shadows that came before the sudden sunshine.’

Pedroza went out on his shield, the old brave warrior playing his part on an unforgettable occasion. The early problems he caused McGuigan long forgotten, but until that right hand connected in the 7th, Pedroza was more than in the fight. Make no mistake it changed the course of the fight. Pedroza fought on but never again reaching the heights of his championship reign, fighting five more times losing two of those fights, the last of which was in 1992 in a gymnasium in Detroit. A sad end to a career of a great champion.

Pedroza died in 2019 aged just 62 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

McGuigan looked set for a long reign himself, but it ended far sooner than it should have. Two defences followed the Pedroza win before a trip to the desert in 1986 ended in defeat and bitter acrimony that ended up in the courts. Eastwood and McGuigan eventually went their separate ways, the wounds never healed. They never spoke again.

McGuigan fight nights stopped a nation, a reported 19 million UK viewers tuned in, the fight was shown live on the BBC, prime time Saturday viewing and free of charge can do that. The celebrations were long, probably never remembered. McGuigan returned home a champion, thousands turned out in the streets to welcome him back. The partying was long and hard.

In the bleakest of times, McGuigan offered hope, a release from the horrors of those times. The importance and significance of those McGuigan nights should never be forgotten. Bono once wrote about McGuigan: “At a dark hour in Ireland Barry McGuigan’s spirit shone a light towards peace.”

The Pedroza fight was probably McGuigan at his peak. The two title defences over Bernard Taylor and Danilo Cabrera masked problems simmering below the surface. In any other situation, McGuigan would almost certainly have beaten Steve Cruz in 1986. McGuigan was defeated by the simmering Las Vegas heat as much as he was by his unheralded opponent.

When McGuigan returned as a super-featherweight in 1988, Eastwood was gone, Frank Warren now at the helm trying to guide McGuigan back to the top. But McGuigan was now merely a good fighter, not a great one. Fine margins of erosion that make a pivotal difference in a sport of split second precision.

After three wins, where he was chasing shadows as much as fighting ring rust McGuigan lost on a cut to Jim McDonnell in Manchester 1989. McGuigan was only 28, but he made no excuses, even when he had one, he knew the fire had gone out. McGuigan said he came back for more world titles, but it was closure he needed. McDonnell gave him that.

Legacy fights with Wilfredo Gomez and Azumah Nelson were lost in conversations that never concluded. But McGuigan gave us many special moments, the night with Pedroza, would never be surpassed. How could it be?

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