Classic Irish Boxing 2009:
By Jonny Stapleton
World Title mania has made a long overdue return to Ireland.
Bernard Dunne’s WBA Super Bantamweight clash with Ricardo “El Maestrito” Cordoba has put world championship boxing back on the Irish radar.
It’s not just the Dubliners upcoming shot at a coveted world crown that has caught the public imagination, however as the pending March 21 fight has forced people to reflect on great boxing days of yester year.
With World Title fight talk in the air fans and pundits alike have began to reminisce and romanticise about Irish fighters previous attempts to be crowned kings of the boxing world.
The fact, like Dunne, a Panamanian pugilist was the final hurdle between Barry MaGuigan and his world title dream has drawn obvious comparisons but pubs, papers and pundits have all been full of reminiscent debate of fighters who put Ireland on the world boxing map.
Tales of Steve Collin’s defeat of Chris Eubank in Mill Street are once more warming Irish hearts, as are those of Wayne McCullough’s WBC World Championship title defeat of champion Yasuei Yakushiji in Nagoya, Japan.
The Pocket Rockets failed bid’s to take titles held by Daniel Zaragoza, Erik Morales and particularly Prince Naseem have also been regaled. And there has even been some murmurs of Dave Boy McCauley, Rinty Monaghan, Nonpareil Jack Dempsey and Packy Mclarlinn and their world title escapades amongst boxing enthusiasts.
It has been a very exciting history lesson in Irish contenders, but one man, who more than deserves to be mentioned alongside Irish greats and his shot at world glory, seems to have been left out of the proud recollection.
RosMuc native Sean Mannion isn’t as much the forgotten man but the man unknown to his own, as his brilliant boxing career is rarely recognised on the Emerald Isle.
But fortunately for a true boxing legend his greatest achievement has not gone unnoticed by all. Mannion will be honored by Eddie McLoughlin and Irish Ropes for an historic accomplishment in Madison Square Garden on the Erin Go Brawl March 16 2009 fight night which sees Andy Lee and Wayne McCullough in action.
Twenty five years after he clashed with the now legendary Mike McCallum for the WBA lightmiddleweight world title, in fight that had more drama attached to it than any Rocky movie, Manion will be honored for giving a modern day legend one of the fights of his life.
The Bodysnatcher, McCallum, who is generally talked about with a reverence reserved for true pugilist greats was three time three weight world champion and a boxer who ensured greatness in an era when the middleweight divisions were packed full of some of the sports biggest stars.
The likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns and ‘Hands of Stones’ Roberto Duran, fighters who are still household names, were all competing around 11 stone at the time. Hence creating one of the most competitive divisions of all time second only to the brilliant heavyweight scene of Ali, Forman, Frasier and co.
So it is ironic a fighter that earned a world title shot in such a talented punching pool- and did so in a time before the alphabetic belts- and is respected world wide has never really got the respect he deserves outside boxing enthusiast in his own country.
But hours before Ireland’s national day in a Garden he packed with Irish people from Boston and across America 25 years ago, gaelgoir Sean Mannion, who up and until recently has been working on building sites, and his shot at world glory with a true boxing legend will not just be remembered but honoured.
“It is a big honour to have the fight remembered in the Garden. It’s a great honour to be in the ring at the Garden anytime. I really appreciate Eddie McLoughlin and Irish Ropes for honouring the fight 25 years later,” Mannion explained.
“I know a lot of people don’t know much about that fight, but then again there are a lot who still talk to me about it. Younger boxing fans wouldn’t be aware of it, but that’s boxing unless you are like Mohammad Ali or Roberto Duran you are forgotten when you finish. It is a case of when your finished your finished,” added the man who former trainer Angelo Dundee claimed he could have made a World Champion if he had got the chance to work with him earlier.
“But it will be great to step into the ring in front of a packed Madison Square Garden once more. I haven’t been there since I fought McCallum. I am really looking forward to it and there are all ready a few coming to see me.”
Mannion might have some support in boxing’s most famous venue come March 16 but the majority of the sell out crowd will be there to see the return of the Pocket Rocket and Irish prospect Andy Lee. That wasn’t the case in 1984, however when Mannion was the main draw. The Garden was packed with an Irish support, which has subsequently been praised by McCallum. Legend has it the famous stadium had to open five hours early to let the partisan crowd in. It has also been reported the surrounding pubs did roaring trade, as numerous disappointed potential punters had ticket money to spare on drink, seen as they couldn’t get into the packed arena.
“Other than the fight the one thing I remember is the crowd. There was a huge Irish support in the Garden that night. They had to put on five extra trains from Boston there was that much interest from there. There was also people from all over the States turning up and some from RosMuc and Conemara. It really was an amazing crowd,” Mannion added before reflecting on how the famous fight came about.
“I got the title shot after I beat the number one contender, a Korean, E-Choi-Back who was 26-0 with all his wins coming by knock out. He was a rising star and I beat him well. He went on to be a world champion and had 43 knock outs in his 47 fights but he wouldn’t fight me down the line. That win made me the number one contender and I got my shot. I got a nasty cut in training though, and I had to get seven stitches over my eye. So before that fight I couldn’t spar. In hindsight I should have postponed but my manager didn’t want to know. My brother, who was my trainer at the time, wanted me to pull out but I was afraid my chance at a title would be gone. In fairness to McCallum he had a more horrific build up his girlfriend and mother of his young child died three months before the fight while he was in training camp. I don’t know how he climbed in the ring after that. I certainly wouldn’t have been able too.”
Regardless McCallum’s tragedy and Mannion’s lack of sparing the bout went ahead, and the Rosmuc man claims after 15 action packed rounds he knew he was beaten by a man that would become know as a great.
“McCallum is regularly ranked as one of the top ten fighters of all time and I knew he was good after I fought him. He was the most skilful fighter I every fought. He was crafty and so hard to box. People always say I was a brawler and a hard nut, but I could box too, and honestly he out boxed me that night. He deserved to win. I did catch him in the ninth and his legs buckled but that’s as close as I got. He stopped the likes of Julian Jackson and Don Curry in his career. I know Haggler and Durran sparred him and as a result they wouldn’t fight him after that. Emanuel Stewart, who worked with near on 30 world champions, also said McCallum was the best he ever worked with. In one way I feel proud to have fought and lasted the distance with such a great fighter and in another way it’s a pity my shot at a world title was against such a great fighter.”
That sense of pride didn’t exist directly after the fight, however. Mannion was depressed after the defeat. He wanted to win the title for himself and do well for Ireland and pride wouldn’t allow him claim any moral victory. After the fight the Pugilistic careers took very diverse paths. McCallum discovered riches and achieved icon status while the only belts Mannion donned were the one’s to hold up his building trousers. The Irish Westerner’s career albeit distinguished was hampered by poor management.
“Directly after the fight I was depressed I really wanted to win not just for me but for Ireland. Talks did immediately begin with Roberto Duran. I would have loved that fight, but it didn’t come off. After that I had to work on the building sites to get money and I never made the money I should have from the game. I was getting 2000-3000 per fight and I was screwed left right and centre, and despite fighting three more one time world champions I never got a shot at a title.”