June 03, 1985 12:00 PM

In a country divided by deadly sectarian turmoil, a gentlemanly boxer named Barry McGuigan has Catholics and Protestants unified on at least one issue: The 24-year-old British and European featherweight champion is the best fighter Ireland has ever produced. On June 8 in London, when McGuigan, raised in the town of Clones (population 2,500), goes for the World Boxing Association crown against Panamanian Eusebio Pedroza, 32, you can bet that politics—for one night, anyway—will be on absolutely nobody’s tongue.

Indeed McGuigan, a punishing boxer who has been dubbed “Boom Boom with a brogue” after former lightweight champ Boom Boom Mancini, works hard to keep politics out of the ring; he wears neutral colors and a white peace dove on his shorts to avoid offending British or Irish followers. “I fight for peace and not religion,” says McGuigan, a Catholic. Adds his father, Paddy: “As an amateur he fought for Ireland. As a professional he fights for money.”

McGuigan is 26-1 since turning pro in 1981. His best fight came last February, when he won a grueling 10-round decision in Belfast against Juan LaPorte, a former WBC featherweight champion. “It was the hardest fight of my career,” says Barry. Anticipating an even tougher match against Pedroza, millionaire Belfast bookmaker Barney Eastwood, McGuigan’s mentor, has hired two Panamanian sparring partners who were at one time coached by Pedroza’s handler. The oddsmakers favor Barry (short for Finbarr), but only slightly. “Yeah, there is a chance of defeat,” allows McGuigan. “But this is a positive game, and you think positive. I think I can do it. The time is right.”

McGuigan’s charmed career has been controversial. He ruffled feelings in 1981 when he married childhood sweetheart Sandra Meiliff, a Protestant, but “the person I loved.” To satisfy his British citizenship, they now live in a three-bedroom, whitewashed bungalow in the hamlet of Kilrooskey, some 50 yards over the Northern Ireland border. Their son, Blain, 1½, is being raised as a Catholic, “but if Sandra said, ‘I’m taking the kid to a Protestant church,’ it’d make no difference to me as long as he believes in the Big Man.” Some people were angrier still when McGuigan became a British citizen in 1981 to get a faster shot at the British featherweight crown and the big time. Again hate mail trickled in. Again McGuigan didn’t care. “I wanted to fight and make money,” he says in explanation. “If it meant taking out Indian or British citizenship, it made no difference.”

A more recent struggle came in June 1982 when he knocked out Nigeria’s Ali Mustafa in the sixth round of a London bout. Mustafa never regained consciousness and died 5½ months later. “I’ll never be over it,” says McGuigan, who quit boxing for seven months and “just walked the hills with my dogs, moping.” For a while the burden of being the family breadwinner fell on his then pregnant wife Sandra, a hairdresser. “God will never let that happen again,” he now says of his ring opponent’s death.

One of eight children, McGuigan took up boxing at 11 when he and his friends found a pair of gloves in a vacant house. “I was absolutely fascinated by them,” says McGuigan. His father took him to a sports club, and “I just knew this was for me.” He would bike the nine miles back and forth to the club, until two men were found murdered—with pitchforks—a mere half mile from the gym. Not long after that, McGuigan trained closer to home. He built his muscles with weights and by hefting 50-pound sacks of potatoes around the family’s grocery store, where he began working at 15 after quitting school.

The training paid off. In 1978, at 17, he won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada, although in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow he performed miserably. It was a rare lapse, and still he managed to catch the eye of British boxing promoters who urged him to turn pro.

For next week’s title bout, about 300 Clones faithful (more than 10 percent of its population) will be on hand, and it’s a good bet the other 90 percent will be glued to TVs in the town’s 21 pubs. Says Barry, who enjoys his peacemaker role, “I’m glad to bring people together to join hands and have a great time and not worry about religion.” For much of Ireland these days, it is a welcome respite.

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