McDonagh Polishes Up His Act

(Published in the Philadelphia Daily News on Feb. 6, 2007)

The former fighter, in his lilting Irish brogue, recites the lyrics to the 1969 Simon and Garfunkel hit as if they have a deep, personal significance. And maybe they do. Not that Paul Simon wrote the song expressly for him, but the words resonate nonetheless. If this haunting hymn of loneliness and despair is not about his life – or at least a long, dark stretch of it – then for whom?

In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade

And he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down or cut him

’Til he cried out in his anger and his shame

“I am leaving, I am leaving,” but the fighter still remains

–Paul Simon, The Boxer

The former fighter, who also is an honors graduate in English Literature from St. John’s University, can quote passages from the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and, of course, those wrung from the tortured psyches of Celtic writers James Joyce and Dylan Thomas. The power of words has always moved him, in ways that mere punches never could. So, several moments after his impassioned recitation, and even with the camera still rolling, a solitary tear wells in the corner of his eye.

Television does not get much better than this, at least not for a PBS sort of crowd.

Welcome to the public rebirth of Seamus Patrick McDonagh, a onetime heavyweight contender and recovering alcoholic whose work has gained a cult following on the CurrentTV web site.

It is now clear that there are so many more bits and pieces than we previously knew of McDonagh, 44, whose prior claim to fame was that on the night of June 1, 1990, at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, he was stopped by Evander Holyfield in the fourth round of a failed bid to wrest a meaningless trinket, the WBC Continental Americas heavyweight title, from the superior fighter who held it.

Holyfield, who was paid $1.2 million for his night’s work against McDonagh, in his next bout knocked out Buster Douglas, conqueror of Mike Tyson, to become undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

McDonagh (19-3-1, 14 KOs), who was paid $100,000 – his previous high purse had been $10,000 – to serve as Holyfield’s springboard to superstardom, fought just once more. He says he suffered a concussion in an early round and fought in a “blackout” the rest of the way before losing on a seventh-round technical knockout to Jesse Shelby on June 20, 1991.

With that defeat, McDonagh disappeared into himself and the bottle. The onetime pride of County May, Ireland, who had relocated to Brooklyn, N.Y., when he was 19, vanished from the boxing radar as swiftly as he had appeared on it.

Oh, sure, McDonagh had been an interesting enough story for a time, what with his striking resemblance to a future James Bond, Irish actor Pierce Brosnan, and against-the-grain educational background. Had he somehow bucked the odds and beaten Holyfield, as Douglas had shocked the world by upsetting Tyson, how would his tale have played out?

McDonagh has had lots of time to reflect upon the might-have-beens, and has concluded he was not ready then for breakout success, given all the inner demons with which he already had been grappling.

“Your whole sense of self-worth can be completely smashed,” McDonagh says of the introduction to the harsh reality thrush upon him by Holyfield’s fists. “After the last fight (against Shelby) I didn’t know what to do. I was completely suicidal.

“But, in retrospect, I’m so glad I didn’t knock Holyfield out. I don’t know what I would have done then. I’d probably be dead now.”

As is the case with Gerry Cooney, another well-known fighter of Irish heritage, McDonagh had been pushed into boxing at an early age by his father. Jim McDonagh, a construction worker, had been a middleweight and it was his dream that Seamus, then only seven, would earn the acclaim in the ring that had eluded him.

Seamus, however, now insists he never really liked boxing. The years he spent in the sport might be described as an ongoing quest to affirm his father’s love, to prove his manhood, to counterbalance his own sensitivity through the implementation of brute force.

“It’s the Irish way,” McDonagh says with resignation. “We are paralyzed by a fear we always feel we must overcome.

“I was depressed as a kid. I remember being depressed at 11. I was depressed at 21. I thought long and hard about suicide.”

A natural cruiserweight who had had only a few bouts as a heavyweight, McDonagh was ranked No. 10 in the larger classification when Holyfield, who already was in negotiations for a title shot at Douglas, sought a tune-up bout against a presumably safe opponent. The decision was to pair Holyfield, who would go on to become perhaps the premier heavyweight of his era, with that nice-looking lad from the Auld Sod, the one with a fondness for poetry.

“I actually thought I could win,” McDonagh recalls. “I had seen Holyfield fight Alex Stewart and Alex put up a great fight. I thought I could have beaten Alex, so that made me think maybe I could beat Holyfield.”

Knocked down twice in the first round, McDonagh’s big moment came in the fourth round when he landed an overhand right that caught Holyfield flush on the jaw and contorted his face, a moment frozen in time by still photographer Donna Connor’s camera. But the moment passed; seconds later, both fighters simultaneously launched left hooks. Holyfield’s got there a split-second quicker, sending McDonagh crashing to the canvas as if he’d been shot.

Referee Joe Cortez stopped the bout moments later.

In his post-boxing life, McDonagh acted in an off-Broadway play and a couple of small films, sold insurance, worked for an energy-bar company. He moved to San Francisco in 1994 “because I had a friend living in Berkeley and I wouldn’t have been able to stop drinking if I had stayed in New York.” He has remained there since.

By 1996, McDonagh had taken up a new occupation, shoeshining, and, not coincidentally, come to grips with his boxing past.

Years earlier McDonagh had seen the photo taken by Connor, in which he is depicted landing that big right hand to the side of Holyfield’s face, but now he wanted one for himself. He eventually got in touch with Connor, who forwarded him several copies.

Being a shoeshiner is a lot like being a barber. It is largely a social function, a chance to make conversation and to interact with the public as you work, a therapeutic outlet for a recovering drunk who has rediscovered the joys of a smile served up with a dollop of blarney.

“We all need validation,” McDonagh says when asked what the photo – a dog-eared, pocked-sized copy of which he often shows to his customers – means to him. “Look, I know that all that photo and $1.50 will get me is a ride on the bus. But so many have told me that, by being in the ring with the great Evander Holyfield, I did something that 99.99 percent of the people could never do. I’m proud of that.

“The first question I ask a customer when he gets into my chair is whether he’s a boxing fan. If he’s not, I let it go at that. But if he is, I’ll show him the picture so we can have a laugh and a talk. It’s just an easy way to connect with people.”

Connor’s photo also was the conduit that brought McDonagh back to New York where it was a part of a November exhibit at the Irish Arts Center entitled The Fighting Irishmen: A Celebration of Celtic Warriors. A friend there introduced indie film producer and author Sandi Bachom to McDonagh, who of course showed her the photo of the punch.

“I knew nothing about boxing,” Bachom, herself a recovering alcoholic, says of the chance meeting she now believes to be destiny. “Seamus is not being ostentatious or boastful when he shows someone that picture. It’s so natural when he does it. It’s his way of making a new friend faster.”

Fast? Within minutes, Bachom realized she had a live subject for her next mini-introspective, which she taped the following day at the Irish Arts Center.

“He is the most charismatic man I have ever met,” Bachom says of McDonagh. “His story is so compelling. Here was someone who was literally drinking himself to death, but he found the strength to get back up after life had knocked him down.”

Bachom’s clip of The Shadow Boxer, in which McDonagh talks about his life and times, is 1 minute, 53 seconds long and, shortly after it was posted on CurrentTV, got more hits than anything on the site and shot to No. 1. His heartfelt, dramatic interpretation of The Boxer also is drawing considerable attention. The appeal of both segments, Bachom believes, transcends gender and only peripherally involves boxing.

“I watch Seamus when he is introduced to guys and they’re drawn to his personality,” Bachom says. “And women … forget it.”

McDonagh is grateful for this opportunity to sip again from celebrity’s cup, ticking off the names of those who have contributed to this new chapter and career. “I want to have the best life that I can have,” he says. “I don’t want to have it tomorrow. I want to have it now, and I do.”

Author’s note: People have, well, always taken a shine to the personable McDonagh, now 54, who says he has not had strong drink pass his lips since Feb. 1, 1996. In a posting on Linkedin, he states that his shoeshine stand eventually evolved into a global marketing business with shoeshine chairs in exhibit booths at convention and trade shows, a come-on to steer traffic into  exhibitors’ booths. He also has logged several acting credits in plays in New York City and San Francisco.

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