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MacKenna On Monday: MTK Ban Prevents Us From Truly Appreciating Greatness Of Carl Frampton

If this was the end of the line then, as far as boxing goes, there’ve been far worse exits. After all, it is an arena that causes people to hang around far too long, only to be beaten brutally and humiliatingly into a realisation well after it should have already dawned on them.

Carl Frampton wasn’t floored though. He wasn’t carried from the ring. He wasn’t cut up and hurt in a way that will have any long-lasting effects, physically at least.

Instead, he walked out from the frenzy following typically classy words – this at a time when poor man’s controversy and outrage is cheaply sold to the lowest common intellectual denominator – to a standing ovation that of course wasn’t just for or even mostly for him, but for a fantastic scrap that enthralled for 12 rounds.

He may be back. Yet, unlike many, he’s smart enough to know when to leave this game well enough alone.

Either way he should be respected as, regardless of his loss to Josh Warrington, the 31-year-old goes into the debate around Ireland’s greatest boxer. Think of our history and you get a sense of his achievement then.

The controlled dominance versus Martinez, the comeback against Gonzalez Jr, the knockouts of Cazares and Avalos, the epics with Quigg and Santa Cruz. Half a decade floating around and beating the best about. It would be a great shame in a sporting world that too often asks lazily what-have-you-done-for-me-lately if that’s all overlooked.

There’s another side to Frampton however, and to stare too hard at the art is to miss out on the artist. It’s as if thinking that Tiger Woods’ golf game is what makes him so interesting. So let’s dip a toe.

At a time of threats of hard borders that would inevitably cause some to return to the worst excesses of humanity, at a time of a bumbling and greedy mess in London, at a time when the DUP still feel the need to put past division ahead of not just present solidarity but actual prosperity via a best-of-both-worlds scenario for Northern Ireland, consider his story. It’s an inspiration that should’ve been more prominent and still hopefully can be.

Where Frampton lives is in part a throwback to a different time. Tiger’s Bay is pockmarked by spray-painted silhouettes of the Queen’s head. Bunting and Union Jack flags flutter like a soundtrack. And the tall, cold and chilling peace wall that faced the house he grew up in was the sort of name that brings forth George Carlin’s theory of a softening of language to change our unease rather than their reality.

Across the road from there was the New Lodge, the quickest way into town, although in his teens they’d never dare go through it. Little wonder as, for instance, back in 2001, a friend called Glen Branagh held onto a pipe bomb too long and blew himself apart. A member of the UDA’s youth wing, it caused a blame game that some on both sides gladly exploited to pour more fuel onto long-raging fires.

So imagine that was your background. Imagine how even soft and easy the indoctrination could have been and how quick the hate could come against those you’re told are against you.

Yet here is Frampton now, married to a Catholic in Christine, who had Paddy Barnes as his best man, who reminds openly of the warmth of boxing in Belfast and how it takes those from the toughest backgrounds and most sharp divides and brings them tightly together.
Five years ago, speaking to Frampton in his neighbourhood, he had the ability to articulate all this as well.

“I believe in God,” he said, “but I think if you live your life like a good person that’s enough. I realised pretty quickly, maybe through boxing, that all the religious tit-for-tat and the divide, it’s so stupid. So much is all about territory. People want to have a voice, an opinion. Each to their own but it doesn’t interest me. I’m proud of where I come from, to be from Tiger’s Bay, I’d never deny that. I know where I am from but that’s enough for me.”

The high road. The hard road.

There’s one little problem though, and how prominent and lasting it should be is difficult.

Does it deflect from Frampton’s legacy? Or is it now destined to be a part of it?

* * *

Roughly 90 minutes before Carl Frampton began his ring walk on Saturday night, a man just three-years-older than him was out on the road where he lives in Blanchardstown. There he was shot dead, in yet another gangland murder linked to the Kinahan-Hutch feud.

It’s a bloodbath whose icy fingers have touched all parts of the island.

At only the start of this month, less than a half-dozen miles from where Frampton grew up, Jim Donegan was outside his son’s school on the Glen Road in west Belfast. A married father-of-two, six bullets were put in his head and chest by a man who didn’t so much as put on a mask.

That is the brazenness and confidence that exists. That is the control and the power that must be stood up to.

If you want to know more about why Frampton has never gotten the credit his story in and out of sport deserves in the Republic, there are a few reasons. Firstly there’s that old us-and-them mentality buried so deep by history; secondly there’s the problem that boxing is a largely working-class endeavour in a society smothered by elitism, to the point even the sporting manifestation can be seen in the relative prominence of the hockey girls and rugby goys; thirdly there is Mack The Knife Global boxing management company and their ban.

To call them a grubby little group would be wrong, only because there’s nothing little about them. Instead, they a business that are pouring money into the sweet science here in a way no one else can, or certainly no one ever did. In doing so they’ve tried to buy their way into respectability, through the likes of Paddy Barnes and Tyson Fury and Michael Conlan. And also Frampton in an advisory capacity.

That sits as well as food caught in your neck.

Theirs is a company with a history they hate being mentioned. While their CEO Sandra Vaughan says the past disappeared when she bought MTK a little over a year ago, this was an enterprise with Daniel Kinahan’s touch all over it from its early days, as he was co-founder.

His links to boxing helped see a Hutch gunman mistakenly shoot former Irish champion Jamie Moore in Spain in 2014. Meanwhile, in 2016 at a weigh-in for the European title bout between Jamie Kavanagh and Antonio João Bento in the Regency Hotel in Dublin, Hutch gunmen entered and shot the place up, killing a man. Vaughan too has links indirectly, with her former husband in 2012 rescued by Spanish police having been kidnapped, tied to a bed, tortured and beaten by what their government referred to as the “Irish mafia”.

Besides, just think of where the money to lay MTK’s foundations likely came from. That can never be scrubbed away.

Rather than confront any of these facts though, Vaughan and MTK took it out on the messenger and in a divisive and idiotic way. Under the #FairNews campaign, media in the Republic of Ireland yet not Northern Ireland were banned from chatting to their own best fighters and thus the lack of coverage. The likes of Frampton had helped heal, but now those he associates with are helping do anything but.

It has been one of the conundrums in Irish sport across 2018, the sort that shows up those that try and tear sport away from the intricacy of real life. It also leaves a great respect for the likes of him railing against a more recent reality you wish had never happened.

So do you blame Frampton for his decision? Does his background mean he should care more or not care at all? Are there any situations that make the acceptance of their money acceptable? Has it ruined his story or merely suppressed it? Would an apology suffice?

Boxers like him have questions to answer, if only these queries were allowed be asked by their paymasters. But still it’s MTK that should feel most shame for a litany of reasons, not least for denying many perhaps one last chance to hear and to enjoy the likes of Frampton’s tale. Their origins created enough bad news, without stopping access to genuinely good news.

And while Frampton is, of course, wrong to a degree for his choices, gut feeling goes a long way amidst such moral complexity. As he left the ring on Saturday night, instinct reminded that he will go down as one of our greats. Even if so few were allowed to realise as much.

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Author: Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.