“Most people focus on money, but that’s not why I got into boxing,” says Shane McGuigan, reflecting on the sport that has dominated much of his life, from the burden of his father’s legacy in the battle to forge his own. “It’s about what it brings to you and, right now, it brings me so much happiness.”
For one of Britain’s best young boxing coaches, who has led George Groves, Carl Frampton, Josh Taylor and Lawrence Okolie to world titles over the past decade, rapid success hasn’t always guaranteed the same feeling of satisfaction. Sitting in his bustling South West London gym, McGuigan beams with his latest batch of boxers and breaks down the intricacies of their training with relentless enthusiasm, but admits the scar tissue of such a brutal sport isn’t always physical. His last name has been a gift and a curse, prompting relentless scrutiny, and troughs often followed major highs, sometimes even causing him to question whether to detach from sports altogether, like his father, Barry, had always wanted it so resolutely.
But boxing has a funny way of running its blood, an addiction in DNA passed down from generation to generation, regardless of changing circumstances. For Barry McGuigan, it was a source of escape. For her son, it has become something to run towards, under a pseudonym and the cover of night.
“Dad never wanted me to box. He wanted me to play football or golf, ”McGuigan says. “I was in boarding school, but I used to sneak out at night and take the bus to the amateur club and use a different name. My dad heard about it after about six months and said, “If you want to do this, you’re going to do it right. I used to get up and run before school, then go to the gym for a couple of hours and starve most of the day because he had no idea about nutrition . It was horrible, but it instills that courage and determination. “
McGuigan became an outstanding amateur and won national titles in Ireland, his hard-earned respect rather than birthright inheritance. Even success, however, could not lighten the weight of a name. “When I went to London to train, it was like a tumbleweed scene,” he recalls. “It was like stepping into a western every time and you knew it was going to be a shootout. People always wanted the story of chinning [Barry McGuigan’s son]. I wanted to box for Ireland but I had an English accent and a chic accent so it was more difficult to mix with the boys. You’re faced with this all the time and you put yourself in a position of being scrutinized and I knew I couldn’t be… not a failure, but I couldn’t do it halfway.
After being selected for the Commonwealth Games in 2010, McGuigan knew that the reservoirs of willpower he needed had started to run out. He had passed his weight class and “the love began to fade” under the stress of a constant microscope. A transition to coaching was never planned. In fact, when his father asked him to hold the Frampton pads, then a close friend that McGuigan had trained with for several years, he was “hurt” at the idea of becoming a second violin. But during this session, he rediscovered the elements of boxing that he had always found so fulfilling. “I loved the process, the ten weeks leading up to a tournament, the routine and the discipline. I started to study nutrition and different diets and worked with experts in functional medicine, strength and conditioning. For McGuigan, the devil didn’t step out in the ring, he buried himself in the details.
His relationship with Frampton blossomed and in 2015 he worked in the area as the Northern Irishman claimed his first world title. “People asked how Carl could trust a 23 year old guy, but we had trained together and a level of respect was there. I thought I was bringing something new to the table, a youthful ambition that can sometimes be better than the experience because you are willing to do so much to get results. I think this paved the way for a new generation of coaches. “
Few things are as notorious or valuable in boxing as the whispers in the gym. Soon they spread in recognition and McGuigan began working with established British boxing giants, such as Haye and Groves, as well as prodigious amateurs like Taylor, who had just won Commonwealth Games gold for Scotland. A period of sustained triumph soon followed. Frampton put on some weight and pulled off a stunning upset against Leo Santa Cruz in New York to become a two-weight world champion, Groves eventually won his own crown on the fourth attempt and Taylor set off on an unstoppable path for become an undisputed champion. .
But boxing has always been a hitting sport with the same helping hand. In 2017, Frampton and McGuigan acrimoniously separated. In total, five fighters, including Taylor, will eventually leave the McGuigans to join the management company MTK. A bitter legal dispute and broken relationships were a constant background that enveloped the joy of coaching at the center. “I got to the stage where I was a little disheartened by all of this,” he says. “Especially with Josh Taylor because there was so much more I wanted to do with him.”
Court settlements mean McGuigan can’t discuss much of the fallout, but slowly he has begun to rebuild his stable of fighters, with lessons learned and limits set by difficult experience. “I opened up to working with people and made myself more accessible because, selfishly, I want to accomplish a lot with this sport and therefore I want to work with the best fighters.” It wasn’t long before they started to come back through the door.
Earlier this year, Okolie became McGuigan’s fourth world champion. Dubois siblings Daniel and Caroline are touted for these crowns in the future and these are just a few of McGuigan’s hopes that lie ahead. “I’m pretty seasoned now and I don’t take it that personally,” he says. “Everyone in the gym is happy. It can be a very clique affair, it is money and everything is done in power and it can be frustrating, but it also allows you to get great opportunities and get your fighters progressing really fast. I can’t hold onto the negatives too much because there are so many positives around me.
But is it really possible, in such a volatile career, to have no resentment, from carrying a target on your back as a teenager to years of dedication that seemed to fall apart in an instant? “Where I am right now, I take so much pleasure in what I do,” says McGuigan. “I’m so far removed from it it’s nice.”