For many reasons boxing makes uncomfortable viewing. The modern day sight of two young, invariably working class men slogging it for the entertainment of the celebrity set amidst the over-hyped glow of exploitative satellite television coverage doesn’t sit easily with me in many ways. One well-known sports journalist in a national newspaper has described his notepad being splattered with blood and struggling at that moment to find any justification for the spectacle he was reporting on. However, despite all this, and indeed the unfortunate whiff of scandal and corruption that lingers around the pro-boxing scene, bowing is truly the sport of champions.
Bernard Dunne is our latest offering and his victory over Englishman Esham Pickering to claim the vacant European super bantamweight title in front of a sell-out crowd at the Point Depot earlier this month was a compelling contest. His victory has already been listed as one of the highlights of the Irish sporting year, alongside the triumphs of the Munster Rugby team and Derval O Rourke, yet in many ways I feel that this victory has the potential to outshine them both. Because Bernard Dunne has the potential to be one of the great Champions of our time.
Every generation, boxing has produced a figure that has unified an often divided people behind the power, charisma and determination of this one man. Sport in general can be divisive as we have often seen. The various loyalties and tribal identities are played out on playing pitches across this concerti and every country weekly in exercises often deliberately promote division and disharmony. The bigoted dog-fight of the Rangers-Celtic clashes in Glasgow get the racist and sectarian juices flowing in Scotland and Ireland. Every weekend Gaelic fields see players lumping the heads off each other in the name of county / parish / my-side-of-the-hill-not-yours ‘pride’. Indeed, recently one of the most promising hurlers in Ireland consider retiring at the tender age of 18 years because of the mauling he received at a club match in Galway this summer. Rivalries between private fee-paying secondary schools are at fever pitch as their teams lock horns in the annual nauseating spectacle that is the Leinster Schools rugby competition. So why is the most violent sport of them all more unifying?
Mohammed Ali was widely acclaimed as the greatest sportsman of the 2oth century. However this wasn’t on the basis of his many sporting achievements. Ali managed to win the Heavyweight Championship of the World on three separate occasions, but it was his other fights that made him such a sporting legend and a true champion. At a time when the black people of America needed a figure to raise their self esteem and confidence and prove that they could aspire to their rightful place as equals in their society, Mohammed Ali spoke with their message, reached to their hearts and became a world figure that no man, however prejudiced or racist, could ignore. People were lifted by his courage and by his refusal to be anything else than himself. He understood the problems in his country and strove to change them. He was undeniably a man of his time and gave oxygen to the dreams that many in the black community held quietly in their hearts. He was a true champion in a time of great unease and change in American society.
In our own land too, when Northern streets were battlefields and television screens told the daily horror of the terrible conflict called ‘The Troubles’, both sides of the sectarian divide took time out of their hatred to cheer on one man. Barry McGuigan, the Clones Cyclone. His representation of Northern Ireland in the Commonwealth games endeared him to Unionists; his Catholic faith and his Monaghan upbringing made him the daring of Nationalists. And on packed nights in the Kings Hall in Belfast, a divided people roared their approval as ‘wee Barry’ won title fight after title fight. It didn’t last long, but for a time, Barry McGuigan distracted us, and maybe even united us when nothing else could. Northern Irish sport has always been riddled with sectarianism – that November night in Windsor Park in 1993 taught us that. Catholics generally play GAA and Protestants generally play rugby. The problem has reached such heights that an ice-hockey team is now seen as the way forward. But no matter what silverware the Belfast Giants claim over the coming years, it will never mean as much as when Barry was bobbing and weaving.
We have more since. Wayne MacCullough, the Protestant from the Shankhill Road representing Ireland at Barcelona in 1992 and bringing home silver. Francie Barrett, a member of the travelling community carrying the Irish flag at the opening ceremony in Atlanta four years later. Barrett represented a country who consistently discriminate against him yet he united people behind him. Again, like McCullough, a true champion.
My hope for Bernard Dunne is that he can do the same. Dunne does not have a fashionable address and Dublin accents like his are frequently derided in radio and television advertisements. Yet he has the potential to unite a people behind him. We are A divided people. We are an incredibly class-conscious, property-obseesed race who are fast losing whatever sense of community spirit we ever had. We need Bernard Dunne probably more than he needs us. He can remind us of the honesty of human endeavour and the power of the human spirit that has nothing to do with accent or address. He has the potential to make us re-examine our values and the gross inequalities in our land by just being himself. Maybe I am asking too much. Maybe Bernard should just be allowed box.
Well done Bernard. You’re a true champion.