Contending With Life

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

That afternoon, he limped to the Bear Bar on 75th Street -- left arm in a sling, nose broken and bandaged, face full of stitches -- and ordered a draft. McDonagh doesn't know how long the bender lasted. He remembers stumbling down Broadway a few days later and hearing someone call out: Hey, Seamus! Embarrassed, he tried not to look. Seamus! He looked. It was a broadcaster he knew. I'm sorry, Seamus told him. I don't wanna talk to anybody,and he staggered off.

He'd start early and stay through last call. The Bear Bar, McGee's, Irish Pub, Rosie O'Grady's. "Closed every bar I was ever in," he says. "Alcohol anesthetized my fears." He'd forget where he had parked his car -- the same Plymouth Laser -- and he'd spend the next day tracking it down.

In 1992, at age 29, McDonagh moved in with his father. He got a small part in a play at the Irish Arts Center about Bobby Sands, the hunger striker, a futile attempt to recapture the rush of boxing. "No satisfaction," he says. McDonagh gave up on New York, headed for the Bay Area in 1994, but all that changed was the weather and the names of the bars. He tried a program for alcoholics, but could never get a foothold.

Finally, things began to click. He got into transcendental meditation, doing it twice a day for maybe 20 minutes. He learned to catalog his fears as they pop up, to grab a pen and start scribbling -- "taking inventory," McDonagh calls it. He started buying his pens in big packs. And one day seven years ago, he downed a straight vodka and that was it. "I learned how to quell the disturbance in my head," says McDonagh, who regularly meets with recovered and recovering alcoholics. "I have less fear -- fewer worries, concerns, or dread about anything." (He's normally loose and funny -- even his bad jokes have a jab-jab-punch sense of timing -- but he talks in stiff mantras when the subject turns to his alcoholism: I have fear; fear is not real; reality is now. He's not simply parroting someone else's self-help manual, though; it's something he has absorbed and now repeats, the way other people quote dads or Dylan songs.)

Still, he's not satisfied. He looks for other work. Every few weeks, McDonagh heads to Los Angeles and trolls for small parts in commercials (a friend's girlfriend got him into the business; he now has a casting agent). He was an extra in the Visa spot with Charlie and Martin Sheen, though his scene hasn't been used, and he thinks his arm made a cameo in a recent Red Lobster ad.

Neil Ferrara, McDonagh's old trainer, recently suggested he return to New York and work with a few fighters, maybe teach them that sledgehammer left. "[I told him] he could be a pretty good trainer," Ferrara says. "He said, 'I'm 40 years old.' ... But it's still constructive, what he's doing now. This is a country where you can get knocked down, shovel shit, and still come out on top."

For a while, McDonagh flirted with the idea of opening up a boxing gym in his small studio, just around the corner from Susie's apartment. He even got a phone number with the last five digits spelling BOXER. But then he and Susie broke up, and McDonagh moved out of her place and back into his. "So I'm not gonna open a gym," he says. "Never really wanted to do that. I don't even like training people. I have one client. That's all I want."

Indeed, the closest McDonagh gets to his old sport is a once-a-week boxing lesson that lasts an hour and costs $100. His student -- or "client," in his words -- is a 43-year-old fitness buff who works in financial services and would like to eventually fight an amateur bout.

On this Monday, after working the specialty-foods convention, McDonagh and I drive to his client's sparkling home in Cow Hollow. McDonagh is beat, and throughout the 15-minute drive he leans back in the passenger seat and meditates, his bright-blue stocking cap pulled over his head.

The boxing room is a bare converted kitchen. A punching bag hangs from the middle of the ceiling, like a fat sausage. There's a framed photo on the wall of Jack Dempsey's fists. For the next hour, McDonagh shadows his client (who agreed to let me attend only if his name wasn't revealed) around the bag, making sure his stance is good and his jab stays up. He teaches him how to walk backward, in a defensive crouch, and still keep his balance. "Good, good," he says. "Like you soiled your pants."

During a break toward the end of the lesson, he leans in for a better look at Dempsey's fists. It's a close-up, with the fighter's dark knuckles in the middle of the frame.

"Where did you get that?" McDonagh asks.

"My friend," his client explains. He bought it off a Web site.

"I wonder," McDonagh says, "if I could put my Holyfield picture online and sell it."

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