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Shane McGuigan: ‘I thought about walking away’

Shane McGuigan
Mark Robinson/Getty Images
Shane McGuigan and his family have encountered unspeakable heartache but with the family gym again bursting with world class talent, the gifted young coach is only looking forward. By Matt Christie

“I LOST my sister,” says Shane McGuigan. “Things of that magnitude put everything else, like boxing, into perspective.” Temporarily unguarded, he turns his back to shield from the sun that soaks the substantial grounds of Matchroom HQ in gorgeous shades of green and blue. McGuigan is with Chris Billam-Smith and Anthony Fowler, two fighters he trains who will compete here on July 31 in Matchroom’s first Fight Camp event of 2021.

Shane is in a good place. Or at least a better place than where he’s come from. It’s exactly two years since Danika McGuigan passed away. The family have not emerged on the ‘other side’ because there will never be any escape from the pain of the 33-year-old being taken so young. But the loss of several elite fighters to management and promotional group MTK Global is significantly easier to rationalise.

“Boxing is a sport, it is our lifestyle, but it doesn’t define us as individuals,” Shane tells Boxing News. “Losing my sister like that was horrific for my parents, for all of us. We’re a very close family and it’s been tough. On the back of that we had to go through a court case with [Carl] Frampton which got settled outside of court. [Josh] Taylor, Chantelle Cameron, people like that have all left. But it is what it is. When one door closes, another one opens; I’ve got Lawrence Okolie who is the [WBO cruiserweight] champion, Daniel Dubois who I believe is going to be a world champion in a couple of years’ time, I’ve got [Anthony] Fowler and CBS [Chris Billam-Smith].”

Contracts and earnings were disputed by several of the boxers who ended up with MTK, yet the British Boxing Board of Control ruled in favour of the McGuigans in every case. Only the split with Frampton, which never went in front of the Board, made its way to court before it was amicably settled by both parties. Yet the perception seemed to be that the McGuigans had been dishonest with their fighters despite only the contrary being ruled.

Earlier this year Shane’s father, Barry McGuigan, appeared on BBC Panorama’s Boxing and The Mob and spoke out against MTK and the notorious Daniel Kinahan who founded the group in 2012 after leaving a trail of (alleged) grisly drug crimes behind him. The former world featherweight champion was immediately subjected to sickening social media abuse from several figures associated with MTK. It’s therefore easy to understand why the McGuigans considered leaving the sport they had dedicated their lives to.

“I did think about walking away,” Shane admits. “It would have been a shame because I know how good I am as a coach and how good I am at developing people. I know how much of a wise head my dad has on him, how much experience and wisdom he has to pass through. Now, it’s a case of whether the people we choose to work with deserve that knowledge and respect.

“It’s easy for a company to come along and pick up Frampton or Taylor, who are already established and marketable and world champions. If you can’t manage and navigate their careers [at that point] you’re doing something horrifically wrong. It’s really about building them from scratch. We did the donkey work but now we have people where the donkey work has been done elsewhere, so I can’t be sour grapes when it comes to that.
“I now prefer to work with someone like that. I personally like working with people who have gone somewhere else and they’ve realised how s**t boxing is – because it is a horrible business. Like Luke Campbell, not because he was mistreated, but because he knows how tough the business is. There are so many things to do and you need someone to take the reins and do that for you. I already have a strength and conditioning coach for my fighters in place, I have nutritionists that I work with, I have therapists all in place. So someone like Campbell comes in, after trying for so long to sort all these things himself, and says it’s amazing that we have all these things under one roof.”

Shane, still barely in his mid-thirties, is now looking forward. He is no longer angry with those who judged his family or left them behind. Shane understands implicitly that life is too short to dwell on one side of the story. He sits in front of Boxing News with Fowler and Billam-Smith both close by. Campbell, Okolie and Dubois also put their trust in McGuigan while the now-retired George Groves and David Haye speak exceptionally highly of their time with the 2016 Boxing News Trainer of the Year.

With each fighter he takes on, be they young boxers on the way to the top or looking for a fresh start, McGuigan takes great care to first recognise their strengths and then develop them.

“I won’t take on anyone who’s [had a long career and] got nowhere close to world level. There’s only so much I can do with them. If they’re getting beaten at domestic level there’s no point in putting my time into them. You’re going to get found out at the top level,” Shane says. “Look at George. I can look and see he did some good things with [Adam] Booth, he did some good things with Paddy [Fitzpatrick] so let’s merge them together. There are things I’ll change, often only little things; George would spar with a bar on but I pointed out that one of his perceived weaknesses is that he’s fragile so take the bar off when you spar. Learn to overcome that weakness, face it every day and then you’re more comfortable under pressure.

“I remember things from when I was fighting myself. You’d spar someone one day and they’d have big gloves on and it was like hitting you with pillows then the next day it feels like they’ve increased their power, but all they’ve done is change to smaller gloves. Little things make all the difference.”

But there is little point in trying to concoct skills that are not already there. “Practice every day what is going to make you a better fighter and be realistic about yourself,” McGuigan says. “Don’t try and be Lomachenko because you can’t be Lomachenko. You can’t be Canelo, sitting there sliding and rolling with shots. No. Don’t do that. Don’t even try to do that.

“The thing about professional boxing is you need to get the most amount of results from the least amount of effort. You have 36 minutes, it’s an endurance sport, be super-efficient with your energy. George had amazing power but every shot was flat out. If you keep throwing a fast ball every single time, your opponent will pick up on that speed, so chuck a slow one, chuck a fast one, spin one, and there’s a much better chance of catching them out. It was lovely to work with George and get him over the line. When he finished his career we were on very good terms.

Campbell is going to fight again and I don’t think we’ll ever fall out because he’s seen this business and he appreciates what we do for him.”
Dubois is Shane’s youngest professional fighter, one so far unproven at the highest level. After witnessing the work he had done with his sister Caroline, Dubois turned to McGuigan for help as he rebuilt following his loss to Joe Joyce last year.

“I was a bit apprehensive about taking Dan [Dubois] on, not because of his skills but whether or not he wants to listen to me and if he’s capable of that. Because we’re almost strangers at this point. It takes time to build that rapport,” Shane admits.

“The sign of a good coach is someone who is always able to dial into somebody else and that’s something I’m good at, working out what makes other people tick. To do that you have to eradicate the ego within yourself because you’re providing a service. No matter how big I get as a coach, I’m still providing a service and I still need to get the most out of that athlete, not myself. That’s where you see a lot of coaches go wrong in my opinion because they have their system, ‘this is how I train fighters’ and that’s not the way it should be. Lawrence Okolie has got a 6ft 9ins reach but when I worked with Carl [Frampton] he had no reach at all, he had to transition from long to short with his legs whereas Lawrence doesn’t need to do that. I would never train people in the same way because if I had a system, I wouldn’t get enough out of people.”

McGuigan has got the best out of every fighter he’s worked with. Not least Billam-Smith, who is the one fighter in the McGuigan Gym today who was there when the likes of Groves, Frampton and Taylor were still there. The cruiserweight never once considered leaving the trainer who took him on when he turned professional after a solid but unspectacular amateur career. On Saturday night he takes on Tommy McCarthy and should he win, he might just be Shane’s biggest success story.

“He had five trials with Team GB and never got on,” McGuigan remembers of Billam-Smith. “He used to come down and spar George and I saw something in him, and George saw something in him. He’d been boxing seven or eight years but when I took him on the pads I realised he could only move one way. He could only punch off one side and that’s basic stuff. He needed to be in a gym like GB, or like mine, where he was going to get pushed every day. I contemplated whether I was going to take on Lawrence Okolie because I was loyal to Chris. But Lawrence joining is the best thing to happen to CBS – now he has world-class sparring every day in the gym.

“He knows what his strengths are now, he never did before. He’ll never fight Lawrence but when he moves up in a couple of years, I believe CBS can win a world title. Back when he was trying to get on GB you wouldn’t even have thought he could win a British title.”

Trust and loyalty now mean more to Shane McGuigan than anything. “It’s a weird one. You spend a lot of time with people but that doesn’t mean you get on with them. Myself and Taylor had a good working relationship but there was never really a friendship rapport between the
two of us. So it’s nice to have what I have now. Me and Lawrence get on so well, Fowler is such a great lad, CBS and myself are really close and Josh Pritchard, my assistant, is like the glue who keeps everyone together.

“The gym is in the best place it’s ever been. It’s all been great. It’s done a full 360.”

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