When the trio of McGuigan brothers enter the coffee shop on Belfast’s Great Victoria Street, it is immediately apparent who is the most relaxed. It is the day before Shane will walk to the ring as the trainer of a world champion for the first time but, having just fed and watered his fighters post weigh-in, his work until the first bell rings is largely done: and judging from his confidently content demeanour, that work has been done well.
For siblings Blain and Jake, the two central figures of CWM Cyclone Promotions, their personal workload is in the process of steadily building to a pressure-laden crescendo. So as the former scurries off to take the latest in an endless stream of calls, and the latter recounts some of the more unrealistic media requests, the youngest McGuigan orders the coffees and settles down for our chat.
Born in 1988, Shane is far too young to recall any of his father’s glory nights in the ring. And being just six months old when McGuigan senior hung up his gloves, he was never hoisted aloft in celebration by his dad in the manner Blain enjoyed following major fights in the mid-eighties. Yet, it was Shane who contracted the most virile strain of the boxing bug that has made his family name the most illustrious in Irish pugilistic circles.
Raised just outside leafy Canterbury in what he describes as a very privileged upbringing, golf and football in Millfield private sports school were Shane’s main athletic activities until his mid-teens when the sweet science came calling.
“I started picking up boxing, hitting the pads and stuff for a bit of fitness, when I was around fourteen and it just escalated from there. Dad took me down to Faversham Amateur Boxing Club and let a kid try to beat me up for three or four rounds. He wanted to throw me in the deep end to put me off boxing but after landing one punch to the other kid’s one hundred I asked for another round.”
Naturally well-built, bigger than his old man ever was, and heavy-handed, Shane embarked on a 69kg amateur career that included senior titles, over 30 wins and just a couple of losses that Jake assures me were both dubious decisions. He was sparring the likes of BJ Saunders, Frank Buglioni and Bradley Skeete, and a pro career appeared to beckon. But for a kid that weighed a solid 74kg at 16 years of age, making weight in his late teens was becoming a tougher fight than anything between the ropes.
“I boxed until I was 21 and the last two years really killed me. In the amateurs you have to make weight on the day of the fight and I never had time to fully rehydrate. I was always performing so well in the gym, beating the tripe out of decent pros, but then didn’t have that snap or energy in the fights.”
In truth, he was gradually falling out of love with the sport and the added pressure of being Barry McGuigan’s son did nothing to arrest the descent. Never one to crave the limelight, the extra attention was something Shane struggled to deal with.
“I absolutely loved the training aspect of boxing but hated the fighting. I didn’t like to be up there with everyone looking at me. I just didn’t enjoy it and that’s when I knew turning pro wasn’t for me.”
But off the back of these travails, an obsession with nutrition and physical preparation was born and he took himself away from the sport to become a strength and conditioning coach and personal trainer. Not one to do things by halves, Shane learnt this new trade from the best. He studied under the world-renowned Charles Poliquin, spent time in the elite Irish Strength Institute in Dublin, and absorbed knowledge from intensive courses all over the world. But the actual work, training hedge fund managers from the Home Counties, was leaving him unfulfilled.
“I was coming from an athletic background, which is all goal-orientated, and the people I was training didn’t have any genuine achievable goals as their lifestyle took over. The whole thing was leaving me pretty unsatisfied.”
It was at this juncture, a time Shane describes as quite a low point in his life, that a certain Carl Frampton became an adopted member of the McGuigan clan.
“Dad had just signed Carl and he was training down in Kent. I got involved and it just felt natural. I felt I could express myself through coaching and really help these guys achieve whatever it is they want to achieve.”
The relationship with Frampton solidified quickly. Although still watching the Jackal’s fights from ringside rather than the corner, it was Shane’s advice that Carl was starting to seek when things got tough: no more so than the 2011 bout with Robbie Turley. Frampton, cut for the first time in his pro career, was labouring through his worst performance to date and desperately searching for answers. The man he looked to was Shane, then sat alongside his brothers in the fourth row.
Straight after that fight McGuigan went to Scotland and got himself a professional licence. He then worked Frampton’s corner alongside Gerry Storey for five successive victories until the eve of the first Kiko Martinez fight. When Storey withdrew, he stepped up and guided Carl through the toughest challenge of his boxing life. Shane McGuigan the lead boxing trainer had arrived.
And in arriving with his own unique expertise and background, he is a coach cut from a slightly different cloth to the majority of the sport’s greats. Where others hire individual nutritionists and strength and conditioning experts, Shane does all of the above and I wonder how big an advantage this is.
“I believe the fact that I do all three does help bring the best out of my fighters,” he says. “A lot of boxers have individual boxing coaches, S&C coaches, and nutritionists all concentrating on their own thing but one may not know exactly what the other is doing.”
By centralising power, McGuigan ensures everything is in sync to produce a fighter in optimum condition come fight night. But he is also quick to point out that the likes of Freddie Roach and Robert Garcia delegate responsibility for everything that happens outside the ropes and that clearly works very well for them.
“At the end of the day, 95% of preparation is done in the boxing gym, not the weights room or with the nutritionist. That helps but if their boxing technique or game plan is terrible, they’re not going to win the fight. And I’m a much better boxing coach than I am a nutritionist or S&C coach.”
He also tells me with a smile that he assumes the role of unofficial psychologist to his four fighters on top of everything else. It is a lot of responsibility for one so young and his youth, two years less than Frampton, was a stick many within the sport were keen to beat him with when he was first handed the Jackal’s reins.
The relationship between trainer and fighter tends to be a complex one but Shane boils it down succinctly in two words: trust and respect. Thankfully, these are two qualities that he and Carl have in natural abundance for each other and the esteem Frampton is held in by other fighters ensures his example will be followed by all who enter the McGuigan gym in Battersea.
He then comes over a little Swiss Toni in drawing an analogy between starting an intimate relationship with a woman and a professional one with a prize fighter. If you don’t immediately click and gel, cut your losses and get out is his sage advice.
In recent years he has clicked and gelled with three other prospects in middleweight Conrad Cummings, super featherweight Anto Cacace and neophyte Josh Pritchard: all three will be in action in the Odyssey arena tonight and all three are expected to take another step towards emulating their illustrious stable mate.
Reaching Frampton-esque levels of performance and achievement is a big ask for anyone but they are in the right hands to do just that. It is interesting to scroll through the Hall of Fame trainers and note the age they had their first world champion. Cus D’mato was 48, Eddie Futch 47, Emanuel Steward 36, Angelo Dundee 34, and Freddie Roach 27. It’s perhaps only the legendary Ray Arcel who, at 24 years of age, may have just pipped Shane to the youngest-ever accolade back in the 1920s.
This is not a bit of trivia that McGuigan is in the least bit concerned with either way. He is a man focused on the here and now and that means a first successful defence of Carl Frampton’s super bantamweight title against the brash American, Chris Avalos. I’m not going to spoil the ending for anyone but, rest assured, Shane and Carl have the entire fight planned out.