Contending With Life

Years after Evander Holyfield clocked him, boxer-turned-shoeshine-man Seamus McDonagh struggles to conquer his fears -- and to confront Holyfield

"I'm glad I didn't get hurt in the fight," he goes on. "I'm grateful it turned out the way it did. It was a terrifying experience, but when it was all over it was fine. It was a relief. Fear can play havoc with you."

McDonagh quit boxing in 1991. Since then, he has gotten his degree, acted in an off-Broadway play and a couple of small films, sold insurance for MetLife, corresponded with Norman Mailer, driven a pedicab at Fisherman's Wharf, worked for an energy-bar company, taught left hooks to novice fighters, helped recovering alcoholics, and taken up a shoeshiner's brushes. It's a contender's résumé -- never at the top, but looking for a chance. Shoeshining keeps you moving ...

For the past 12 years, though, McDonagh has also fought the ghosts of his boxing career, knocking out a few, going the distance with others, not quite sure how to feel about a sport that nearly made him famous and ultimately made him miserable.

Holyfield was the champ, McDonagh the contender. 
The fight lasted 15 minutes.
Holyfield was the champ, McDonagh the contender. The fight lasted 15 minutes.
McDonagh has had small roles in plays, commercials, 
and films.
Donald R. Winslow
McDonagh has had small roles in plays, commercials, and films.

"Proud?" he says softly. "What does 'proud' mean? Do I feel good about it? Not really. But I don't look back and feel bad about it, either. I'm glad it happened, and I'm glad it's over. And I'm glad I exhausted another hope for some kind of satisfaction in this world."

He doesn't watch the tapes of his old fights (they're mostly with his family in New York), and until recently his green trunks were tucked away somewhere in the Tenderloin apartment he shared with Susie (he moved out a few weeks ago). At the same time, though, he'll cheerfully describe the Holyfield fight for a customer between coats, then flash the photo like a badge. Or he'll look for a movie role and wind up auditioning for a bit part in Ali as -- what else? -- a boxer. He says he's happy, he likes to quote Thoreau, and he sings to his customers, "I'll live till I die." But he's also an ex-fighter with one great Kodak moment and a lot of licked demons, still struggling to square his current pursuits with an old, aborted career.

At Kinko's we ease the photo out of the envelope. McDonagh, in addition to the print and the pocket-size picture he shows his customers, has a big, blown-up version that he framed and hung at Susie's place, but now keeps in his closet. The copier whirs, rattles, and spits out a page.

"Maybe I'll make a couple copies, too," he says.

He would have nightmares about fighting, about anticipating a fight or losing a fight or disappointing people, and his mother would have to wake him up. McDonagh always hated boxing. But he was an Irish kid in a boxing family -- born in England, though he doesn't like to admit it -- and he was fighting by the time he was 6 or 7. He says his father, Jim, a construction worker and a solid middleweight in his day, would toss Seamus and one of his brothers in the back of his car, then prowl the neighborhood. "He'd look for the biggest, baddest 7-year-olds he could find," McDonagh recalls. "We'd just put the gloves on and wail away. I was terrified."

The family moved to County Meath in Ireland, and the boy developed into a decent amateur fighter. His father would sneer at his son's opponents: He couldn't shine your shoes.In the early '80s, though, the country's economic woes drove McDonagh to look for a job in New York, a few years after his father moved there, and for a while he gave up boxing. He worked some construction jobs and drove the carriage in Central Park, once dragging the horse into a bar with him. He enrolled at the Staten Island campus of St. John's University and got mostly B's.

Meanwhile, he was closing down bars all over the city. He tried boxing again, as a distraction, and it somehow became a career. McDonagh, with a big left and a lot of charm, moved up the amateur ranks. He won a New York Golden Gloves title in 1985, then turned pro at the end of the year. He scored six knockouts in his first eight fights. In a 1989 bout against Cecil Coffee, with the two fighters locked in a late-fight clinch and McDonagh trailing on points, he spotted the TV announcers ringside and winked. He won in a TKO, with a second left in the sixth round.

"A tremendous prospect," says Neil Ferrara, a longtime New York trainer who worked extensively with McDonagh. "He was a killer. When it was going his way, he'd take you out. Tremendous left hook." Wally Matthews, who covered some of McDonagh's fights for Newsday and now hosts an ESPN radio show, has a different appraisal. "Tough, gutsy, but not very talented," he says. "Tremendous puncher. Nice kid, too. Smart. He was pretty limited, but tough -- tougher than he was good, which I always thought was dangerous." McDonagh was a strong draw, though. Classmates would hop a bus for his bouts at Madison Square Garden, and Irish folks would pour in from Queens and Brooklyn. After some of his fights, win or lose, McDonagh and his friends would head over to a bar across from the Garden.

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