In June 1990, Seamus McDonagh, a native of Ireland, who was then living in New York, squared off against Evander Holyfield in a heavyweight bout in Atlantic City.
Holyfield, who had already held the light heavyweight and cruiserweight titles, was four months away from beating James “Buster” Douglas for the heavyweight crown.
Although the hard-punching McDonagh, who was then 27, had a degree in English literature from St. John’s University, he was a hell-bent brawler with a big left hook and a fighting heart as big as his adopted hometown.
From the first bell, he threw caution to the wind and attacked Holyfield with the steely determination that had made him a New York fan favorite.
But as hard as McDonagh tried, Holyfield would not be beaten that night. He viciously stopped McDonagh in the fourth round and went on to greater glories in bouts with Douglas, Mike Tyson (twice), Riddick Bowe (three times), George Foreman and Larry Holmes.
The New York Daily News reported that, “Holyfield knocked him out. But as (McDonagh) was going down, he was throwing a punch. That’s the kind of fighter he was. On the way out he was still trying.”
“Fighting Holyfield was my 15 minutes of fame,” said the now 43-year-old McDonagh, who amassed a record of 19-3-1 (14 KOS) during a career that lasted from 1985-91. “But it has already lasted 16 years.”
In New York’s Irish-American community, McDonagh’s fame will last a lot longer than that. That was very apparent during his appearance at two recent John Duddy fights at Madison Square Garden’s Theater.
McDonagh was recognized by countless fans, many of whom wanted to shake has hand, pat his shoulder, or share a joke.
The easily approachable McDonagh exudes what seems like boundless positive energy. Besides being extremely fit and handsome in a Gabriel Byrne type of way, he is always laughing.
He also has a very self-deprecating sense of humor, which makes him a very easy interview.
He doesn’t recall if it was Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry Thoreau who was asked what they considered the measure of a man’s success. However, he remembers the answer, which was to laugh often and laugh freely.
“I must have a lot of success,” said McDonagh. “I certainly laugh a lot.”
Truth be told, laughter did not always come so easy for McDonagh. For many years he battled the crippling diseases of alcoholism, self-doubt and self-loathing.
“I was very resentful about a lot of things,” said McDonagh. “Most of all, I was resentful toward myself.”
Wherever he turned, he felt as if he was being sabotaged by outside influences. Most reporters dismissed him as a tough but limited pug. In the weeks before the Holyfield bout, he even worked with a hypnotist to offset his debilitating doubts.
Around that time a Philadelphia reporter began an interview with something like, “The kid has little hope against the number one heavyweight contender…..”
McDonagh, who worked hard to maintain a high confidence level, erupted in anger. In the journal that he always kept, and continues to keep to this day, he wrote, “Thank you to all the interviewers who jaundiced my subconscious mind.”
On the night of the fight, he cursed at a photographer, threw the bagpipers out of his dressing room, and even dumped the banner his father had brought in from Ireland.
“I felt like I was in total isolation,” said McDonagh. “It was a tough night. I did my best, but always thought I could have done better.”
McDonagh fought just once more after the Holyfield fight, one year later against journeyman Jesse Shelby. He was stopped in the seventh round. The only thing McDonagh remembers about the fight was a headbutt inflicted by Shelby and his own bloodied white trunks.
What happened afterward is equally blurry, but even more painful.
“I had no reason to live,” he recently told a reporter from the San Francisco Weekly newspaper. “I wanted to kill myself.”
The only thing that kept him alive was the belief that he could now drink as much as he wanted to.
After a bender that lasted a few days, McDonagh, who still had a broken nose and a face full of stitches from the Shelby fight, was stumbling down Broadway when he was recognized by a television broadcaster. The only words McDonagh remembers mustering were, “I’m sorry. I don’t want to talk to anybody.”
“Alcohol anesthetized my fears,” said McDonagh.
Thinking that acting might provide a rush that was similar to boxing, McDonagh landed a small part in a play about hunger striker Bobby Sands at the Irish Arts Center.
Unfortunately acting was not the elixir for happiness that he desperately needed.
McDonagh moved to San Francisco for a change of scenery, but still battled the ravages of alcoholism. After several ebbs and flows, he finally got sober about ten-and-a-half years ago. He has not had a drink since.
He now lives a 12-step lifestyle, and two of the things that are crucial to his success are transcendental meditation and journal writing, both of which he practices daily.
As far as the writing, he says, “It really helps me get rid of my fears, to put my resentments and fears on paper.”
The meditation brings him peace and enables him to put all of the challenges of daily living into perspective.
Since the late nineties, McDonagh has operated the Moscone Shoe Shine Concession at the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco. A first class raconteur with an abundance of Irish charm, he has no shortage of repeat customers.
He gets occasional modeling and acting gigs, and also teaches the rudiments of boxing to white collar clients. No longer a boxing fan per se, he admits to being a John Duddy fan. Although he doesn’t say so, you can’t help but think that he sees a little bit of himself in the exciting middleweight prospect.
“Life is good today,” said McDonagh. “Actually it has never been better. I have no regrets. Everything that I’ve been thorough brought me to where I am today. Today, I’m in a good place.”
Find out more about McDonagh at his website: www.shiners.us.