Interview: Michael Smiley and Barry McGuigan – in conversation

Jawbone and Free Fire star Michael Smiley talks to icon of the ring and personal hero Barry McGuigan

Jawbone is a new British boxing film written by and starring Johnny Harris. Actor Michael Smiley co-stars as trainer Eddie, while Barry McGuigan, and his son Shane, acted as consultants and trained some of the cast. Smiley and McGuigan came together for The Big Issue to talk about what boxing meant to them personally and to Northern Ireland through the Troubles. They begin by remembering when they first met…

Barry McGuigan: We met at the BBC a few years ago. I was aware of Michael, though I tried my best to avoid satire in Belfast. It’s not very easy to do humour in Northern Ireland, is it Michael?

Michael Smiley: No, I think I was lucky because I plied my trade in England  then went back to Northern Ireland to do my stand up. We first met when we did Monumental together, which was a BBC Northern Ireland panel show – Have I Got News For You meets Mock the Week meets Northern Ireland – it celebrated famous people from the north part of Ireland. Barry was the guest hero that week, he was on my team and it was a real honour for me. Jawbone was a different kettle of fish. Being in a boxing environment with Ireland’s greatest fighter was a real buzz, a real fanboy moment.

BM: You took to it like a duck to water, understanding the role of a trainer. The majority of young kids that come into boxing are hard to handle. I think the euphemistic term is ‘hard to reach’, so difficult kids. What you’re doing as a coach, in many ways, is being a parent to them.

Michael Smiley as Eddie in Jawbone

MS: There were a couple of moments in preparation where it was like God was in the house. Johnny [Harris] was training with Barry and Shane and I ended up going to Fitzroy Lodge, which was Johnny’s old boxing gym. I got to see it on a real grassroots level, seeing these kids coming in. It was like a community centre, it was like a front living room, it was like a court. There were all those aspects of honour and discipline and old-school values and it really opened my eyes. In inner cities there are a lot of lost young men and if they end up in places like a gym then it saves their lives effectively.

BM: It’s interesting you should say that because that happens all over. Although I’m from the South, I boxed primarily in the North and for my provincial titles I would have gone to championships in Mid Ulster, in Newry or Portadown or Armagh, and if I was lucky enough to get through I would have gone to the finals in Belfast. It was a pretty hostile time. Embellishing what you just said, in Northern Ireland it took on a slightly more serious element in that a lot of these guys would have been fodder for paramilitaries. You know, unhappy young men that had time on their hands. They would have been prime subjects for organisations who brainwashed kids and got them involved in very serious things, they would have become killers. I’m not exaggerating when I say boxing saved thousands of young lives. Coaches like Gerry Storey in the Lower Falls and Paul Johnston in a different part of town, they saved lives.

Jawbone is about redemption, about a man getting his life together and the only place he knows he can do that is in the boxing gym

MS: It’s amazing that, isn’t it? In what’s seen as being a very brutal sport. What people see is the end product, two men in a ring trying to knock each other out, but the preparation that goes into that is actually moulding them.

BM: Around Lambeth Bridge [near Fitzroy Lodge], it’s no longer affordable housing but back in the day they would have been pretty poor areas and boxing gave a lot of kids who would have got into gangs a chance to keep their lives together. The likes of Mick Carney, although he was a gruff old guy, he was a second father to all of them.

MS: That definitely came across.

BM: And when they had trouble Michael, they would have gone to him first to get help and advice.

MS: Mark Reigate is carrying that torch today. Mick Carney was like a surrogate father to him. I remember asking my dad what it was like getting older, “Moving up the trench getting closer to the sound of the guns,” he said, and when Mick went over the top Mark took his place in the trench. Those lads becoming men who then mentor other lads, we’re losing that in certain aspects of life today – but you don’t lose that in a good boxing gym.

BM: And Jawbone is about redemption really, about a man getting his life together again and the only place he knows he can do that is in the boxing gym. Although it’s a violent business, there is a family element in a boxing club.

MS: And nowhere to hide. There’s nowhere to hide in the ring, there’s nowhere to hide in the gym because a good trainer won’t let you. It’s the only home he’s got left and it’s the place he’s going to get the truth whether he likes it or not.

Johnny Harris in Jawbone.

BM: They call it the truth business and that’s exactly what it is. You know the old cliché, you can run but you can’t hide. There’s no easy way to get fit, there’s no easy way to be a boxer. It’s brutal, it’s tough but for many troubled young men it’s a way to get their lives back on track again.

MS: I’ll never forget when you fought Pedroza in QPR’s football ground, Loftus Road. We couldn’t get tickets but we still went down that night. Inside and outside the ring – I’ll never forget it. That was one of the highlights of my life.

BM: Thank you Michael.

MS: I left [Northern Ireland] in ’83 and came to London. It wasn’t the actual Troubles, it was the economic death of Northern Ireland. Everything seemed to be either boarded up or bricked up. At the time I was in my early 20s, on the dole and homeless with a wife and child, who’s now a 32-year-old man. We were living in sinkhole hostels and B&Bs in the Paddington area, spending days in council offices trying to get on the council lists with the baby in the pram. I was lucky to get on the housing ladder eventually but moving away from our friends put such a strain on the marriage that my wife left me and went back to Northern Ireland. When I hear stories of people struggling at the moment, it takes me back to those days. It seems like it’s against the law to be poor, to be working class and it’s heartbreaking. The roots go back to Thatcher’s Britain. Coming from Northern Ireland I saw what was really going on in this country, everything that English people prided themselves in – the working man who was proud of his country – all that was being dismantled in front of our eyes. It gave me an insight into the English because to be honest the only English I knew up until then were soldiers.

BM: I came over [to England] in ’87 so I’m here four years less. I had a fairly public fallout with my ex-manager. He was a very powerful businessman in Northern Ireland and it’s a small place so I knew there was no hope of me doing well back home. My kids have all grown up here. I go back three or four times a month, but my life is here.

MS: One of the most upsetting things for me was the moment I realised I’ve lived in England longer than I lived in Ireland. But I’ve been a dad longer than I haven’t. There are many more milestones ahead.

One of the most upsetting things for me was the moment I realised I’ve lived in England longer than I lived in Ireland.

BM: It’s not easy over there at the minute. Things are much better, but it’s always tense. To be perfectly honest I avoid politics because enough people talk about that shit.

MS: At the end of the day people in Northern Ireland have always been the same, they’ve always wanted to get on and have a happy existence like most human beings.

BM: But let me say, I care about what goes on. I spent my life being a peacemaker, and I got shit for that from the hardened guys on both sides, but 95 per cent of the people loved me for it. We didn’t have God Save the Queen or The Soldier’s Song, my father sang Danny Boy. Sport is about bringing people together and I certainly did that during my time.

The Big Issue no 1255 cover
The Big Issue's Jawbone special.

MS: Definitely.

BM: The old stupid slogan was, ‘Leave the fighting to McGuigan’, and I done my level best to stay neutral, to promote unity. Ninety five per cent want to live together, all you need is one rotten apple and it can poison the rest of them.

MS: To take the apple analogy, you’ve been one of our shiniest apples, Barry. The one thing about growing up in a warzone like Northern Ireland is you can smell bullshit because we’re always being fed it. People would have been watching for a long time to see if you were a genuine man or not, and we can tell by your legacy and who you are today that you’ve always been that man.

The premiere of Jawbone

BM: Here I am blowing my own trumpet but the night I won the world title, 19 million people watched the fight. I know television has changed in the last 30 years but it just goes to show, I wanted to set a good example, people liked that and even the ones who said they didn’t like it, they watched it.

MS: And deep down inside they did like it. The reality was they were so fucking cynical they couldn’t believe there was a man who was honourable enough to do his best and put his life on the line. Another highlight of my life recently was during filming, me, Barry and Ray Winstone having dinner together at a Best Western in Stoke. It made me pinch myself thinking about that wee lad that came to London when he was 19 years of age, didn’t know what the hell he was going to do, and here he was all these years later sitting with his heroes.

BM: Thank you for that praise Michael. I’ve got to run because believe it or not I’ve got to get what little bit of hair I’ve got left cut off. We’re going to a wedding tomorrow. So I’m going to rock and roll.

Jawbone is in cinemas from May 12 and will be available on DVD from June 5. Follow Michael Smiley and Barry McGuigan on Twitter