Eamonn Magee: Dignity in Troubled Times

An hour before the biggest fight of his career, Eamonn Magee stood outside the MEN Arena in Manchester, England, smoking a cigarette. Inside, more than 20,000 fans were preparing to vent their animosity toward the Belfast man ahead of his bout with hometown hero Ricky Hatton. Always one to show defiance, Magee later exacerbated the hostile crowd’s ire by wearing an outfit in the Irish tricolor with sunglasses of the same design.

As he was called to approach the ring for that 2002 fight, Magee (above, in Rich Wade photo, see more on RichWade.com) willingly stood in the aisle for what seemed like an interminably long time. Through a hardened visage defined by a misshapen nose, protruding cheekbones and a lack of front teeth, Magee smiled, absorbing the jeers and baiting the crowd for more. The louder the boos, the more energized Magee became.

Almost 13 years to the day later, Magee again found himself confronted with adversity while standing before a crowd. But this time there was silence. His tricolor attire was absent, replaced by a black suit and red tie. Through puffy eyes Magee stared vacantly into the distance. A tear ran down his cheek.

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Fighting in the ring has been the easiest part of Magee’s life, with an unwillingness to conform leading to turbulence throughout his 43 years. That appetite for dissent can be traced back to Magee’s upbringing in the epicenter of Northern Ireland’s sectarian violence.

Born in the Ardoyne, a Catholic enclave surrounded by Protestant strongholds, Magee’s family focused on boxing as an escape from the city’s conflict. Indeed, Magee’s mother told her three sons that boxing was as important as school.

“Growing up in the Ardoyne, you become used to the violence,” Magee said in 2004. “It was a normal part of life. You’re young and, in a funny way, you enjoyed it.”

It appeared that his mother’s guidance was justified as Magee’s talent for boxing was quickly evident, and in 1992 he seemed ready to represent Ireland at the Olympic Games. He won the Irish title that year, which traditionally guaranteed an Olympic berth. But in an unusual move, the Irish selectors decided not to automatically choose Magee and instead asked him to prove himself worthy by fighting an opponent he had already beaten. Unhappy with the new arrangement, Magee refused to partake in the fight, told the selectors to “stick it up their arses,” and promptly quit boxing altogether.

Magee’s stubborn nature also seemed to generate hostility from outside the boxing community. A couple of years prior, he was lucky to survive a street fight in which his neck was slashed by a broken glass bottle. Later in 1992 he was abducted by the IRA paramilitary group in what was known as a “punishment attack.” Magee’s assailants beat him, pinned him to the ground and shot him in the thigh. Occurrences such as this were typically carried out for a reason, and while Magee refused to reveal how he fell afoul of the IRA, he admitted that he “was up to no good.”

After several years of idleness on the streets of Belfast, Magee finally returned to boxing and entered the pro ranks at 24. Some early success seemed to convince him that committing to prizefighting was worthwhile, and under the tutelage of John Breen he gained recognition as one of the better 140-pound fighters in Europe. Despite his headstrong demeanor outside the ring, Magee was a thoughtful boxer who used patience and smooth defensive skills to wait for an opening before unleashing hurtful barrages on his opponents.

There were some stumbling blocks early in Magee’s career when he lost two bouts by points, decisions that could have gone his way. The defeats took the gloss off his record and dented his progress, resulting in some meager paydays.

“Boxing is the f—— hardest game in the world, and the one with the lowest wages,” recalled Magee. “It controls your life, and the lives of your wife and kids, too. They all have to look after you, mood swings and all.”

Despite the setbacks, Magee recorded victories over some of the top fighters in Britain and was eventually rewarded with a lucrative 2002 bout against rising superstar Ricky Hatton. In that fight Magee knocked the unbeaten Hatton down in the first round, silencing the shocked crowd.

The bout ultimately went the distance, with the judges declaring Hatton the victor. Yet Magee had defied the odds in rattling Hatton, and the unexpectedly strong showing was all the more impressive given that Magee’s preparation was not ideal. “He had been on the booze up until two weeks before the fight,” Magee’s trainer John Breen said in 2007.

Magee’s performance in the high-profile event boosted his name recognition and in 2004 he was in negotiations for a bout with world titlist Sharmba Mitchell. But his ambitions were abruptly halted by a series of incidents triggered by the seemingly innocuous presence of a snowman.

A dispute between Magee’s children and those of his neighbors’ over the destruction of a snowman attracted the attention of the fathers. Words were exchanged and the dispute quickly escalated, resulted in the neighbors dragging Magee from his car and severely beating the boxer with a baseball bat. The attack left Magee with a broken left leg, fractured left knee and punctured lung.

Magee underwent surgery to have muscle grafted on his shattered leg, and doctors told him to forget about his boxing career; even walking would be a daunting challenge. Yet if there’s one thing that Magee doesn’t like, it’s being told what to do. Remarkably, Magee was back in the ring one year later, recording his 26th professional victory.

Even so, age and restricted mobility caught up with him, and after another win and two defeats, he retired from boxing in 2007 with a 27-6 pro record. Training up-and-coming boxers at Breen’s gym seemed like an ideal vehicle for Magee to transition into retirement, but it proved insufficient to rein in his fiery temperament.

The subsequent years saw Magee’s wealth dwindle, with gambling a major drain. “Everyone thinks I’ve made a mint from boxing and I’m rolling in it, but I’ve lost an awful lot,” he said in 2009. In addition, there have been convictions for assault, while his lawyer noted in 2013 that there are days when Magee is paralyzed by anxiety, forcing the ex-fighter to lock himself away from society.

Yet in Magee’s seemingly dark world, a shining light began to brighten his outlook last year. His son, Eamonn Jr., became a professional boxer, vowing to repeat Senior’s in-ring success. Magee showed a keen interest in his offspring’s new career, which indicated early signs of promise via two convincing victories.

Moreover, Eamonn Jr. also showed ambition beyond the ropes as he enrolled in university last September to study for a degree in housing management. During media interviews Eamonn Jr. cited his father as an inspiration, but Magee Sr. seemed just as energized by his son’s exploits, and in recent months he was regularly seen in Breen’s gym training young boxers with a spring in his step.

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In early June,  Magee stood in front of a crowd on the outskirts of Belfast. Instead of fans, he was now surrounded by mourners. Walking alongside his son’s mother, Mary, Magee was once again thrust into the public eye. Undoubtedly, leading such a procession was a far more daunting task than anything he had previously experienced.

Several nights prior he received a phone call at three in the morning. The voice on the line asked Magee if he could travel across the city to identify a body. A 22-year old male had been stabbed to death in West Belfast. Eamonn Magee Jr.’s promising life had been cruelly extinguished.

Stepping out of a friend’s house to receive a pizza delivery at 2:30 a.m., Magee Jr. was savagely attacked by a 32-year-old man, Orhan Koca, who was lying in wait. Stabbed several times, Magee Jr. died soon after arriving in the hospital. The suspect’s petty motive made the crime all the more horrifying; he was reportedly jealous of Magee Jr. striking up a relationship with a former girlfriend of his.

The news stunned the Belfast community, with hundreds attending Magee Jr.’s funeral service. In addition, a large crowd supported Magee Sr. as he attended the court hearing that formally charged Koca with murder. Anger against Koca was also evidenced by an attack on him in jail and vandalism at businesses where he previously worked.

Yet throughout the tumult, Magee Sr. maintained a solemn dignity. Not always keen on doing media interviews, Magee summoned the strength to speak with reporters in the days after the tragedy, despite the emotional strain on his face. Magee’s words of grief focused on paying tribute to the young life lost, rather than the events surrounding the crime.

“(Eamonn Jr.) was always full of laughter, always full of fun, he went everywhere with me,” said Magee. “When he grew up he done everything for his mother, would have done anything for anybody.

“I don’t know how to get my heard around it. What a journey that is, from your house over to the hospital to identify your son. It’s a journey that I wouldn’t wish on any parent.”

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In late July, six weeks after his son’s death, Magee was back on the Belfast streets. This time he wore a wide smile. He gave a salutary wave to a crowd of several hundred that had turned out for a charity run organized in the memory of his son. The community cheered as Magee walked arm-in-arm with Mary. Dozens of well-wishers rushed over to offer a hug.

Despite the rawness of the tragedy, Magee kept a sanguine demeanor throughout the day, matching the uncharacteristically sunny weather.

“This event has been fantastic and it’s given me an opportunity to thank everybody in the whole community for what they’ve done for my son,” said Magee, with the emotion of the occasion creeping into his voice.

Magee may have been a divisive figure in the past, and known for being a hard man due to an inclination for combat. But under the harshest of circumstances that any parent could encounter, Magee showed true toughness in maintaining decorum, and unified a community behind him.

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COMMENTS

-Buzz Murdock :

great photograph, great writing....part of the lyricism of pugilism...


-MCM :

Great piece. Great read.


-Kid Blast :

Really great article from beginning to end. Top notch stuff. Thanks for the great read.


-Kid Blast :

Really great article from beginning to end. Top notch stuff. Thanks for the great read.


-stormcentre :

Yep - good stuff. Great read. The "Terminator" has had a colourful life - that's for sure. Not that you really want to (seriously) get into where is the hardest place to grow up (as a ghetto is a ghetto anywhere you put it); but sometimes some places in Belfast would make East LA look sedate. Eamonn Magee is fine by me. Horribly tragic to have that happen to your son. :)