Barry McGuigan is crying. What has been an extraordinary audience with one of Britain and Ireland’s best-loved fighters is drawing to a close and the pain of an unbearable loss contorts his face like a sucker punch.
He gestures to a wooden urn on a bookshelf of his Kent home. He says it contains the ashes of his daughter, Danika, who died tragically last summer. He has just paid her a glowing tribute, wiping away his tears as if fending off blows from an invisible opponent.
“I’m talking about her and I’m still just hoping she’s going to walk through the door,” he says. “It’s like it all happened so quickly. I lost my dad at 52 and I lost my brother – 33, 34 – to suicide. But they pale in comparison to losing your child.”
The agony of his daughter’s death is about to be brought back into sharp relief for McGuigan. An actress whose credits included the Bafta-winning and Oscar-nominated Philomena, her final film, Wildfire, has recently been chosen to make its world premiere at next month’s Toronto Film Festival.
McGuigan will not be in Canada to see it. Instead, he will be in court to face Carl Frampton, the boxer for whom he was once a father figure but with whom he is now mired in a toxic feud, one linked to what he complains is the decimation of his boxing management business, as well as what he says is a looming threat to the sport itself.
It is this which is occupying his thoughts ahead of his High Court showdown with Frampton next month and his former protégé’s return to the ring on Saturday for the first time since the coronavirus crisis.
McGuigan looks ready for the fight. Given the toll recent events have taken on him, he is the picture of health, despite closing in on his 60th birthday.
“I don’t drink or smoke and I read a lot and I keep fit and train,” McGuigan says, the contours of his muscles visible though a white linen shirt and salmon-coloured shorts. He also still exudes the charm and charisma which made him universally popular on both sides of the Irish Sea during his heyday.
But he is clearly hurting, both from the death of his daughter and from his bitter legal battle with Frampton, which has dragged on for almost three years. Prior to that, the pair had been a winning combination for eight years in which the latter emulated his mentor by being crowned featherweight champion of the world, becoming Northern Ireland’s first two-weight champion in the process.
The 33-year-old’s defection to MTK Global saw McGuigan sue him for breach of contract and Frampton countersue over allegedly withheld purse money, a claim centring on earnings said to be in excess of £4 million.
Frampton has since been followed out of McGuigan’s Cyclone Promotions and into MTK by then-European middleweight champion Conrad Cummings, then-world lightweight champion Chantelle Cameron, Commonwealth and British bantamweight champion Lee McGregor, and unified light welterweight champion Josh Taylor. McGuigan won British Boxing Board of Control cases against both Cummings and Taylor following their defections but his stable of fighters has been decimated.
The blow has been compounded by them leaving for a company that is not simply one of the biggest boxing management firms in the world but one which was co-founded by an alleged £1 billion crime lord.
Daniel Kinahan has no criminal record but Ireland’s Criminal Assets Bureau told the High Court in Dublin in 2018 that he had “managed and controlled” the drug-trafficking operations of a notorious cartel which also smuggled guns into Ireland, the UK and mainland Europe.
The same year, it was reported that Kinahan had been banned from entering the United States, using special legislation introduced after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre, and also that a police officer told a court in Spain that Kinahan had ordered the murder of gang rival Gary Hutch on the Costa Del Sol in September 2015 as part of a bloody feud.
In May, Dublin’s Special Criminal Court accepted evidence the “Kinahan crime group” was involved in “serious criminal offending”, including “execution-type murders”.
Kinahan, whose lawyers have branded allegations against him “grossly defamatory”, cut his formal ties to MTK more than three years ago after he was allegedly targeted during a shooting at a weigh-in that led to its fighters being banned from competing in Ireland.
But he continued to bring boxers to the company, including Tyson Fury, with the scale of his involvement with the WBC heavyweight champion laid bare this summer when the latter announced Kinahan had struck a deal for him to fight Anthony Joshua in the biggest bouts in British boxing history.
Following boycott calls led by then-Irish premier Leo Varadkar, MTK Global president Bob Yalen announced Kinahan was “taking time away from the sport”.
McGuigan questions whether Kinahan was involved in some of his own fighters’ moves to MTK, something neither the company nor lawyers for Kinahan responded to requests for comment on. McGuigan says he also fears Kinahan will not be out of boxing for long. “It’s really worrying, very worrying,” McGuigan adds of the latter’s “grip” on the sport, branding his role in a prospective Joshua-Fury showdown as “a black mark” on it.
He says everyone in Ireland, north and south, knows about the Kinhan cartel – “You would need to blind and deaf not to” – and describes the activities that have now been laid bare in court as “a horror story”.
This is coming from a man born and raised in an Irish border town during the height of the Troubles, who says police gave him a gun when he was told Republicans had put a price on his head and there was a plot to kidnap him. “I couldn’t hit a barn door,” he jokes.
But asked whether he is worried about speaking out against the Kinahan gang and its alleged leader, he snaps back: “I don’t give two hoots about Daniel Kinahan. I don’t care about this guy.” He stops himself before starting again, clearly seething, but then decides this is all he wants to say on the matter.
His anger is borne from frustration over the loss of fighters in whom he has invested hundreds of thousands of pounds, as well as years of his time, with no guarantee of a return. He is also not alone in having seen boxers leave for MTK, which he says he fears could become a “monopoly”, something he warns would be bad for the sport.
Those concerns form part of a wider fear McGuigan has over the future of boxing, one that leads him to call for one of the most radical changes to its governance in its history.
“I’d love to have an international task force that would sit in and hover above the four existing organisations that are in power, the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO,” he says. McGuigan wants these “Untouchables” to police doping, medical matters and rankings worldwide, as well as the potential monopolisation of the sport.
One of his foremost concerns is boxing's policing of doping. He brands the existing drugs sanctions “a joke” and warns someone “will die in the ring” at the hands of a doper if it does not crack down on the problem.
McGuigan says he knows more than anyone the “consequences” of killing an opponent 38 years after his tragic fight with Young Ali. “These are red flags and if we do not take heed of them, we’re in trouble," he says. "We’re already in trouble and we need to get this resolved, absolutely.”
His passion stems from a love for a sport that remains undiminished 35 years on from his iconic world title triumph, with the memories of that night and the accolades that followed still fresh in his mind.
He admits he has thought about giving up in his fight to rescue his business, particularly since the death of his daughter after a brief battle with cancer, a disease she had previously beaten. Dissolving into tears, he says: “As a dad, I’m supposed to be her protector. Sitting there, feeling f---ing useless.”
But he is not ready to throw in the towel. “It’s something I’ve dedicated my life to. I’m a hall-of-fame fighter. I’m in the World Boxing Hall of Fame and the International Boxing Hall of Fame. I’m former world champion and BBC Sports Personality of the Year. I’ve done a great job with all the fighters I’ve looked after, a magnificent job, and why should I walk away?”