Carl Frampton: Two days in the company of a world champion
In the 48 hours leading up to Saturday's super-bantamweight world title fight between Carl Frampton and Scott Quigg in Manchester, journalist Paul Gibson gained access to the Northern Irishman's camp.
The weigh-in is intense. Both comfortably make weight but all fighters carry trepidation in their souls when they step on the scales.
Of the two, Bury's Quigg looks more physically strained and Carl takes heart from his rival's drawn appearance.
"He looks so gaunt," the Tiger's Bay boy whispers. His blue eyes dance as he soaks in the atmosphere before departing stage right.
Back in the hotel, now replenished and miraculously fleshed out, Frampton, the Jackal, plays with his two cubs on the lobby stairs. Fighting a man appears the furthest thing from his mind.
We brave the frigid bite in the air and walk the streets of Manchester in search of Thai food. Every 10 steps we are interrupted. "Can I get a photo, Carl?" is the usual query, in various shades of Irish accent and differing degrees of soberness. "Of course you can, mate," is the inevitable reply.
We're 169 miles as the crow flies from Belfast, less than 10 from Bury, but a vast incursion into foreign land is well under way.
This should be Quigg's turf but the Jackal Army have set up camp. You feel the unconditional love from the foot soldiers as they march on by.
Dissenting voices are rare. From a cruising black taxi a great Lancashire cry of "Go on Sco…" begins before the traffic lights turn red, the brake lights redder, and the cabbie's face redder still.
Now stationary alongside us, the driver shows admirable courage to complete his cheerful taunt, even if it ends up being more of a sheepish whisper.
As if they instinctively know their king is under attack, a rendition of "He's from the Bay, he's better than Haye," rings out from around the corner. Shane McGuigan, trainer of Carl and David Haye, can only smile.
Frampton takes the day of the fight as it comes. Superstition is a symptom of weakness, after all. He judges an IBF mandated weight check to perfection, bang on 10lb over the mass of north Belfast muscle that tipped the scales the day before.
Quigg is a couple of pounds lighter than necessary and reluctant to be in the same room as his opponent. Superstitious, maybe.
At a late breakfast Frampton is surrounded by his family, his team and close friends. Kids are running riot, playing on make-believe bouncing castles and generally hyper from the thrill of a weekend in a fancy hotel.
Shane McGuigan passes the time watching some old footage of Quigg and highlighting chinks in his armour. But his charge has bigger concerns.
Baby Rossa wants another slice of apple - and where exactly is this bouncing castle all the kids are talking about?
It is hard to think of a better adjective than 'cool' to describe the Jackal, in every sense of the word.
After a few days in his company you notice he tends to instinctively judge situations outside the ring, as well as his confrontations between the ropes.
In an age when sports stars appear to choose between forcing and faking intelligence, dumbing down or bland vapidity, Frampton's natural character has allowed him to forge his own path.
Always articulate in media commitments, he switches effortlessly between measured, informed dialogue and cutting, searing monologue. Engage him and he'll converse. Cross him and he'll end you.
He strides along that thin line between confidence and arrogance, but never topples into the latter.
It's a self-assuredness that must stem from the unshakeable knowledge that he's a dangerous man with his fists, perhaps the best super-bantamweight on the planet.
Civilians much heavier than the limits of his division wouldn't trouble him. "You're a big man but it wouldn't take me 30 seconds to deal with you," I once heard him warn a tall, handsome promoter towering over him at a press conference.
His intelligent eyes betray that latent threat. He's invariably affable but never what might pass as nice. Nice guys don't win, not when it matters.
It'll matter in a few hours. "This one must feel special," I remark. "Not really," he assures me. "There's been more media hype around it but I'm so sure I'll win, that it won't even be close, that it just feels like another fight. I'm not really allowed to say this but it's going to be boring."
The spite in his personal rivalry with Quigg has grown in recent weeks but he expects an embrace at the end. "Sure, I'll pick him up off the canvas and give him a hug," he confirms, with a cheeky grin.
He's at the arena early, decorating his changing room with family photos and good luck cards. I wonder how Quigg is getting on in his quarters after the phony dressing room war that raged for a couple of days.
Sky Sports enter to set up a small camera and mic. A towel goes over the camera and the mic is unplugged as soon as they leave. Who knows who is watching and listening.
Frampton's wife Christine sits in for a while but with her nerves echoing around the room she soon exits with a hug and a few whispered, private words.
Classic R&B plays as the Jackal loosens, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder dominating the airwaves. Around an hour from ringwalk it begins to get serious. Tables and chairs are pushed to the side to give the fighter room to breathe.
You sense his mood darken. The eyes are still dancing but the beat is more ominous. He spits water onto the floor, as if marking his territory in some atavistic ritual. Eye contact with everyone other than his trainer is at an end.
There is little talking beyond Shane's instructions. "Box, box, box!" Barry McGuigan suddenly cries as the temperature increases.
Barry puts an ice pack on his own barren pate and I almost expect steam to rise. The Jackal's manager has lived and breathed every punch Carl has ever thrown.
The fighter bares his torso now, inked, like a Russian mafia convict, to tell a story. My name is Carl. I'm from Tiger's Bay. I came, I saw, I conquered. And now he marches out, invading Manchester to the tune of Belfast Child, merged, by a crack of thunder, into Run This Town.
The noise is overwhelming to the uninitiated. "I felt electrified," Carl told me later.
It is a fight of two halves and Frampton wins both. He controls the opening 18 minutes, in which only the generous give Quigg a round with any confidence.
The Englishman opens up down the stretch and it is competitive while they trade. But most have Carl winning quite comfortably.
A ringside judge is at inexplicable odds with the vast majority. This is boxing.
The embraces before and after the final round are heartfelt. They played the game throughout the promotion but you can't hide genuine respect. "You beat me," Scott whispered in his foe's ear.
It is party time in the dressing room. Another rendition of Only One Carl Frampton spontaneously sparks to life. "Come on the Jackal!" roars Carl with a grin as wide as the Lagan.
On the way out he calls in to see Scott. It's a sombre scene and the contrast jars. With a broken jaw, the Bury man struggles to say much but it's the crushing pain of defeat that mutes the beaten boxer.
The room applauds Frampton out. "You wee so and so," whispers Wayne Rooney as Carl passes by. Frampton just cost the Manchester United striker a bet with Rory McIlroy.
In the taxi to the after party there are already discussions on the homecoming reception in Belfast. As always, Carl is easy.
He leans his hooded head against the window as we drive through the Manchester night and I wonder what the emotion is now.
Now he has unified the super-bantamweight division in front of 20,000 rabid fans in one of the great domestic showdowns of recent times.
"I don't know," he answers after a pregnant pause. "Just normal I guess. I'm alright." Then, turning to me he asks: "Is that weird?" I wish I knew.