For many boxing enthusiasts across Ireland, the news of the death of legendary boxing promoter and businessman Barney Eastwood will be met with a great sense of sadness.
Often cited as the Irishman who could “make or break” boxers, he put Northern Ireland on the international boxing map with his intricate knowledge of the inner clique within boxing management. His inimitable personality and style were exuded in a way which commanded the respect of his teams and sporting opponents.
Originally hailing from Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, Barney Eastwood also amassed an impressive consortium of businesses, not least the chain of renowned betting shops Eastwood Bookmakers. He then sold it to UK-wide firm Ladbrokes for £135 million, an intuitive move just prior to the global financial crisis in 2008.
His championing of the Co. Monaghan boxer Barry McGuigan would give him the lasting credentials as an elite promoter and manager. McGuigan, AKA ‘The Clones Cyclone,’ famed for the unyielding concussive power in his jabs, was relatively unknown before Eastwood worked his magic upon him. Blood, sweat and tears were invested into McGuigan’s training, receiving nothing but the best from Eastwood’s cohorts in his Andersonstown gym throughout the 1980s.
In 1985, McGuigan’s victory over esteemed Eusebio Pedroza in London brought a sense of normality to the deeply divided society of Northern Ireland, as well as a small glimmer of hope that sport had the real potential to unite. Barney Eastwood, almost another paternal figure to the youthful McGuigan, was by his side as throngs of eager onlookers flocked to see the WBA Featherweight Champion pass through Belfast city centre.
McGuigan would put his title on the line in a head-to-head with Steve Cruz in Las Vegas in 1986, a decision he would ultimately come to regret. The highly unexpected defeat to Cruz saw the relationship between himself and Eastwood crumbling, with McGuigan publicly accusing his corner of giving him false hopes. The subsequent dispute between the two former allies worked its way into the courts, concluding in 1992 with Eastwood receiving substantial damages from McGuigan in a libel case.
Upon the release of his biography Hooked on the Job almost a decade ago, Eastwood recalled that the breakdown in his relationship with McGuigan, who he propelled to world title success, weighed heavy on him in the resulting years. McGuigan’s humble tribute recognised the crucial contribution Mr. Eastwood made to his career, that uneasy chapter between the two men now left in the confines of history: “We achieved great things together and shared some amazing times.”
His stewardship of other future world champions such as Larne’s Dave McAuley was reflected in his own tribute to his former manager, saying he would be “nowhere without him,” and adding that he was the man who “made things happen.” Barney Eastwood’s determinate eagerness to excel traces its origins to his growing up as a young boy in 1940s County Tyrone during the Second World War. He was in awe of the rather alien spectacle of British and US service personnel stationed at RAF Cluntoe pitted against one another in the ring in the nearby rural village of Ardboe. From then onwards, his fascination with boxing was manifesting itself.
Terry Brown, a County Down hotelier and businessman, became acquainted with Barney Eastwood in the early 1980s when working as a manager at the Europa Hotel in Belfast. He explains his humble beginnings: “When Mr. Eastwood was a young man, he took over the running of a small Carrickfergus public house. In those days, all the men watched the races in their local pub and in the absence of a bookies, there they made an under-the-table bet. Barney decided to fill the void and opened his own next door. This was the beginning of what would become an empire.” An empire it did become and with a hand in the world of horses and greyhounds, he was an all-rounder in every sense of the term.
The latter chapters of his life were comfortably spent within the surroundings of his Holywood home, after a lifetime of hard and rewarding graft as a man on the ground. Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Ivan Little recalled how he always remained steadfastly loyal to his Tyrone roots.
Although not in the public eye in recent years, he did come out to endorse Carl Frampton as one of Ireland’s top boxers, prior to his meeting and defeat to Josh Warrington in 2018. Frampton took to Twitter highlighting Eastwood’s “integral” contribution to Irish boxing. It was Mr. Eastwood’s doing the heavy groundwork which laid the foundations for the ripe boxing talent which emerges from Ireland today.
Mr. Eastwood’s granddaughter Sorcha Eastwood, a Lisburn and Castlereagh councillor, dedicated a moving eulogy saying her grandfather was: “An absolute gent who showcased the best of us and the best of what we could be.”
His promotional ability to unite the disparate elements within a divided society will further add to his lasting legacy. He was a son of Ireland who will forever be etched on its pantheon of greats and who offered the means to make the country a sporting envy.
Barney Eastwood died at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald, following a short illness. He was 87.
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