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By 1990, McDonagh, with a record of 19-1-1, had beaten a few heavyweights, and Holyfield (23-0) was looking for a tuneup. He was the World Boxing Council Continental Americas heavyweight champion -- a low-rent title in the boxing universe -- hoping to take on World Boxing Association champ Buster Douglas. McDonagh was the perfect patsy, a good-looking Irish kid with a scholarly bent, a solid, hungry cruiserweight who'd be out of his class even against a small heavyweight like Holyfield. McDonagh offered a great story line, too: Promoters could hype the brains -- maybe someone would read Dylan Thomas at a press conference -- and, with a name like his on the card, they'd draw half the O'Briens in the boroughs.
McDonagh's handlers obliged. Neil Ferrara objected. So did McDonagh's father. "He wasn't ready for that," Jim says. "They put him in with a guy with far more experience. He needed at least two more years." Seamus went for it, though. He stood to make $100,000, and his managers had just tossed him the keys to a new Plymouth Laser.
Holyfield-McDonagh was set for June 1 at the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, Showtime handling the broadcast. The newspapers patted the challenger on the head, played up the schoolboy angle, and didn't give him a chance in hell. Vegas oddsmakers wouldn't even establish a betting line.
Fuck 'em, McDonagh tried to tell himself in the weeks before the fight. He worked with a hypnotist, which helped some. "I was going to be a winner," McDonagh wrote in a sort of journal after the fight. "Shock every fugging doubting bastard in the world. God I felt I was fighting the world. Fug them all."
But three weeks before the fight, he dreamed he'd be KO'd in the second round. And the day before the bout, a reporter from a Philadelphia TV station began an interview with something like, "The kid has little hope against the No. 1 heavyweight contender." McDonagh snapped. What the hell do you mean? (He later snarked in his journal: "'Thank you' to all the interviewers who jaundiced my subconscious mind.") He was still raging the night of the fight. In the dressing room, he cussed at a photographer, dumped the banner his father had hauled in for his native County Mayo, even tossed out the bagpipers.
Holyfield-McDonagh was over in 15 minutes, and 13 years later the memories of the fight center on that final staccato flurry -- McDonagh's right, and the left hook that missed by thismuch. They all sound like epitaphs.
Ex-New York Daily News boxing writer Michael Katz: "Holyfield knocked him out. But as he was going down, he was throwing a punch. That's the kind of fighter he was. On the way out he was still trying."
McDonagh cornerman Tommy Gallagher: "Just an inch. Maybe a half-inch. If he woulda hit him, he woulda crushed him. Woulda been the complete opposite."
ESPN radio's Wally Matthews: "He threw the last punch. Sonofabitch tried all the way."
"... I'll live till I die," McDonagh is crooning to a pair of chili-colored wingtips. His customer is Bill, a fleshy guy in thick-rimmed glasses who's here for the specialty-foods convention. McDonagh gives the shoes a final buff with a dirty rag. "How do they look, Bill?"
"Know what they say in Ireland?"
"Perfect," McDonagh says, smiling, "but it'll have to do."
He has shined shoes since 1996, when a friend working a stand at the Crocker Galleria suggested he give it a try. Says McDonagh: "I was like, 'What? I don't shine shoes. I'm somebody.'" The job stuck, though, and he soon cut a deal with Moscone, good money in a big convention town. (He and Susie work some out-of-town shows, as well.) It's his first long-term job since boxing.
"Shoeshining is just a way to pay the rent," McDonagh says. "It's immediate gratification. You can't take more than 10 minutes for a shine. You're done, you get paid. That's it. Boom, boom." Shoeshining keeps you moving.
"It's the only humanistic thing in the convention center," he goes on. "Either you're dealing with products, or someone's trying to sell you something. Here, you pay some money, get your shoes shined, talk to people. It's a lot of fun, a lot of laughs. And sometimes it's just a shoeshine, you know?"
Thirteen years after McDonagh threw the last punch of a title fight, the drift of his career has taken him far from the world of professional boxing, partly because of alcohol, partly because he hated the sport, mostly because of a bloody cruiserweight bout against Jesse Shelby on June 20, 1991. That night, McDonagh boxed five or six rounds in a blackout, and his white trunks were stained red by the end. Shelby won in a seven-round TKO. McDonagh remembers one thing -- "He head-butted me," he claims -- and the rest is a blur.
He was a wreck the morning after the fight, lying in bed in the Manhattan apartment he shared with a girlfriend. "I got the shit beat out of me," he says. "I had no reason to live. I wanted to kill myself. And the thought that kept me alive was, I swear, 'Oh, my God, now I can drink like I want to.'"