Jul 29, 2016
A Whuppin’ Tree Grows in Brooklyn: A Preview of Saturday’s Title Fight at Barclays Center
For years now, I’ve associated the word “interface” with wrong-headed bros who abuse the English language in the name of fiber-optic-fast progress. It was a term that denoted a meeting of some kind, but one drained of the intimacy “chats,” “huddles” and even “power breakfasts” once provided.
Then I met world champion boxer Carl Frampton last week.
A 122-pound technician from Belfast, Northern Ireland, he had taken the time to chew the fat with me on an incongruously-placed couch in the Westchester gym he had made his base for three weeks, in advance of Saturday night’s title fight in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
I wanted to get down Carl’s biographical details as a matter of procedure–so I could go on and ask what I considered more interesting questions (for instance, he’s 29 years old and plans to fight at latest till he’s 33–what’s he going to do with the rest of his life?). But nearly the first fact I gathered about his upbringing called that strategy into question.
“I’m from a working class, Protestant, loyalist community called Tiger’s Bay,” he said, “which was on an interface with the Catholic community.”
I had no idea what “interface” meant in this context, but I would soon find out: It was a fraught borderline between Protestant and Catholic areas during the long period of instability and terrorism known as the Troubles.
“Interface” here denoted 30-foot-high fences installed to protect kids from gasoline-fueled pipe bombs, one of which actually killed Carl’s friend Glen Branagh when Carl was just 14. “I’ve seen ratting, I’ve seen fighting, I’ve seen people shooting each other, I’ve seen people blew up,” Carl said in his quiet, rhythmic, unassuming voice. Another friend was shot in the stomach when a mad terrorist fired into a crowd during a local holiday.
Frampton soon left the subject, as did I–these are better times, thankfully, in his homeland, and I was focused on his in-ring work. Though undefeated and very solid defensively, Frampton faces a more-highly rated and also-undefeated steamroller Saturday–Leo Santa Cruz of Los Angeles by way of Michoacán de Ocampo, Mexico.
Moreover, Frampton is trained by a lad younger than he by two years–the 27-year-old heartthrob Shane McGuigan, whom a rival coach has dubbed “the One Direction of trainers.” And he is managed by Shane’s father, Barry McGuigan, a Hall of Fame featherweight in his own right, whose title win pulled in 20 million viewers in 1985 on the BBC (even now, the population of Ireland plus the UK is only 70 million).
Frampton is married with two lovely kids–a five-year-old girl named Carla and a 1.5-year-old boy named Rossa, the latter of whom Frampton fears may have forgotten his daddy after three weeks of absence. If Frampton’s social media accounts, which show him helping out with Carla’s homework, are any indication, he’s a hell of a dad. His wife, Christine, will fly into New York with the little ones for the match itself, after which they will holiday here for a week. Carl, a self-proclaimed foodie, most looks forward to trying the city’s restaurants.
Also, to drum up publicity (among whom I don’t know), the day on which I interviewed Carl, he was handed an official proclamation from Westchester County legislators (and a golden apple pin from one in particular). This document named Saturday, officially, as “Carl ‘The Jackal’ Frampton Day” throughout the county. So from the Clintonian basement servers of Chappaqua to the blacktop of Yonkers basketball courts, just know, all ye’ suburbanites: Saturday is Frampton Day, no “Come Alive” jokes required.
There have been many more small moments of humor and humanity preceding this clash. Boxing has a way of unfurling them on its never-ending-circus tour: Boxing PR doyenne Kelly Swanson sneaking a peak at Page Six before a press conference, Leo’s father’s wearing a sponsored cowboy hat–the whole family having been paid to advertise “Los Altos Hats,” Leo’s brother trying to reach my outstretched hand with an uppercut to no avail (I really never gave him a chance–they could kick my ass, but at least I’m tall).
And yet, I want to return to “interface” all the same–because unlike the rest of this preview, it presents instead a glimpse of the worst of times–the uglier, darker side of human nature (those who’d argue blood-sport belongs in the same category–I got nothin’ for ya now, that’s a discussion for another hour).
When Leo Santa Cruz and his family flew into New York earlier this week, they were presented to the public at the Mexican consulate in New York—specifically to assert the plain fact that Mexican-Americans contribute to our society.
Not insignificantly, Leo and Carl were both subsequently whisked to the outdoor observation deck of the Empire State Building for striking staredown photos, the majority of which seem to show a mutual congeniality.
One of my favorite Golden Age-of-film Stars, Glenn Ford, had his first scene on the Empire State Building deck (or a set made to resemble it)—and it’s no coincidence that so many flicks have set major moments there since. For a long time, it was as symbolically high as we could get as people—a steel structure built by brave and broke guys who swung carelessly above the city, eating lunch-pail grub, together.
I would argue “interface”—Carl Frampton’s beginning in Tiger’s Bay—represents us at our lowest. This boxer comes from a place where they actually did build a fence—which seemed to stoke further animosity. Where a kid could be shot in the stomach and another taken out by a pipe bomb for no reason other than differing self-identifications. (For fuck’s sake, they looked the same, sounded the same, and, oh yeah, shared all the same DNA).
I’m not saying we’re anywhere near there as a country, and yet, in this summer of walls and rampant, inhumane shootings, it feels too often as if we’re close. Which doesn’t mean it’s time to wail or rant—doesn’t call for demagoguery of any kind, which we’ve received painfully too much of already (thank heavens for John Oliver and Samantha Bee).
Instead, we might do ourselves the favor of looking at these fighters’ histories and, as the adage has it, learning from them. Let’s interface.
What happens once they enter the ring? Santa Cruz is gonna damage the Northern Irish boy, methinks.
I had a chance to powwow with interviewers from Televisa, the network that will be broadcasting the match in Mexico, and they said that after Canelo, Santa Cruz is the most popular pug in a land that evaluates them well. He’s 32-0-1 (the draw came ages ago), and he has won belts at 118, 122 and now 126 pounds (one of his brothers actually carried a chrome suitcase containing his latest title strap into the Mexican consulate; the package might’ve been glitzier and more striking than its contents).
Both men have faced quality opposition (both have faced one dude named Kiko Martinez, whom at this point, honestly, I just pity—he’s been on the wrong end of demolitions). Yet Santa Cruz has seemed more solid in his wins, including the decision over Abner Mares, a muscular puncher who has never shied away from aiming for the crotch.
On the other hand, Frampton is coming off a bout in which he defeated 122-pound UK star Scott Quigg, but in an ugly affair in which Frampton never showed the ability to blitz someone a class below him.
Also, Frampton’s trainer, the aforementioned matinee-idol McGuigan, seems overconfident. That opinion led to an argument in which Shane told me, “You don’t know your boxing” after I said two of his charges, David Haye and George Groves, simply lacked the natural ability to reach the top of their divisions (through no fault of the trainer’s). When I mentioned this to Shane’s Hall-of-Famer father, Barry agreed that I didn’t know anything about boxing.
I love the McGuigans for fiercely defending their lads in the best Irish tradition and maligning me in the process—not at the time, but in retrospect, I do. But with both I detected a legitimate belief that top UK fighters automatically have what it takes to conquer the world stage. Some do: Anthony Joshua, the heavyweight Olympian, for one; James DeGale at 168 for another; and GGG’s next opponent, Kell Brook, perhaps, as a third. But time and again we’ve seen British and Irish champs underestimate the jump between top-flight status on their native isles and that level internationally.
But it’s boxing. The only sure thing is Brooklyn’s victory in hosting the tilt; it arouses within me emotional bits of patriotism adjacent to those New Yorkers felt 15 years ago, when as a disciplined underdog, Bernard Hopkins dissected Tito Trinidad in a packed Madison Square Garden days after 9/11.
Matches of that emotional fervor increasingly take place now across the East River, on a plot of land that was seized unfairly from previous residents but nevertheless has been warmly received by a cobwebbed sport’s revivified crowd, which hath emerged from an urban cornfield like 21st-century Shoeless Joe Jacksons.
Take it from the Northern Irish kid, who estimated about 1,500 compatriots would be flying into New York with tickets: “The new Barclays Center really looks the part. We were in it one of the first days we got here. It looks fantastic.”
A month ago, nearly 13,000 people amassed inside to watch a legitimate welterweight championship that was eked out tensely in the final rounds. The photos don’t lie. The place was more abuzz than my teen self on deceptively-sweet bottles of Smirnoff Ice. Outside of SoCal and Vegas, you just don’t get this anymore: An arena hosting one big match after another, mere weeks apart.
Even the retired fighters are noticing. A neck-scarf-wearing Sergio Martínez, former lineal middleweight champ of the world, roamed the halls outside the dressing rooms last month. I told him the sport missed him. He didn’t say he felt the same, but he looked intrigued. Meanwhile, feet away, Showtime’s crew scarfed Patsy’s Pizza, and commentator/fighter Paulie Malignaggi answered a million questions from the press when he should’ve been munching after the telecast, too.
But that’s the role Paulie has assumed in the new Brooklyn scene as a native son, an active boxer and unusually-eloquent pundit: To be the guide reporters can reliably turn to for incisive feedback with a Brooklyn flair. Every fight scene needs its observers, forestry, guides to bear witness to falling trees. That’s the beautiful takeaway from the Oscar-winning 1997 documentary “When We Were Kings,” which featured luminaries like Plimpton and Mailer discussing Ali’s KO of Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle.
Those guys are gone, and in a very changed culture, they ain’t returning. But Paulie’s as articulate and giving as you could expect a guy to be, and he’s fighting on the undercard Saturday night in what fans hope is his last match. He’s managed to survive this far with a sharp brain. He won titles, made hay. Why risk it further—especially when he already thrives in another gig.
To pivot: Frampton really doesn’t view boxing as his life’s calling. His Mom took him to a gym at age 7 and he excelled on his very first night. That superiority is why he hasn’t left; he doesn’t even necessarily know that he’d affiliate with the game after retirement in Malignaggi-fashion.
“I’m good at it,” Frampton told me in Westchester. “It’s the only thing, really, I’m good at.”
That kind of brutal honesty is affecting. I can only imagine what it’d feel like to take a singular quality and have the world—thousands in attendance and millions watching—judge it in real time. If this is your strongest trait, how would you feel if it were exposed, superseded, plain-old picked apart?
For Santa Cruz, this first New York fight stands out for a darker reason: His father, who usually trains him, could not this go-around. He has stage 3 myeloma and wasn’t sure he’d be able to make the trip. Leo initially resolved to withdraw from the bout if his José couldn’t accompany him. But his father told Leo he must go regardless, and now the father, in shiny cowboy outfits, a father of four sons and one girl who vowed to raise a champ of one of them, is here, too. He made it, even if he must return soon after the fight for further chemo in Mexico.
Small moments of humanity before the violence: When Leo mentioned his father’s condition at the consulate, the aforementioned publicist, Kelly Swanson, patted the father’s shoulder consolingly, which he accepted in the way patients tend to. That tore hit me hard, and I blinked out a tear or two. I didn’t want to be patronizing in the least but I did the same when I finished interviewing him later. There was some subconscious idea that maybe my own bodily strength, whatever of it I have, might be transferred through touch. Conferred upon a deserving man with a tan face and dark mustache, a cowboy not unlike the Marlboro Man (which resemblance was a painful, morbid observation I never intended to have). Leo carries his father Jose’s mustache—but in his eyebrows, which have that same thick, dark Tom Selleck sheen.
You can’t cure cancer by winning a fight. You can’t quiet a country in the midst of a civil war over what it should be. And fuck, terrorism is a knot an entire globe hasn’t been able to untangle. It has been a messy summer and will continue to be.
But a (whuppin’) tree grows in Brooklyn. And for all its bombast and self-promotion, that’s all boxing ever really promises: unforgettable nights, small moments of majesty.
We have to start somewhere.
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