Words by Gary Elbert
The spectacle of Eamonn Magee in a boxing ring was always intriguing. The flattened sullen face, the tricolour stained flashy shorts and the stylish southpaw feints and blows coming from all angles was a potent mix to the eyes of a young fella watching on Sky Sports in a living room of a council estate in Tipperary in the late nineties.
A defiance burst from his being, a ready rebelliousness, a glint in the eyes of a face that looked like it had lived ten lives. Magee was an antidote to an increasing corporatism and political correctness engulfing our interactions.
Magee, didn’t give an F as they say and there is no better plaudit to be heaped upon a man who comes from the wrong side of the tracks by his fellow soldiers of dysfunction whether they be from Toxteth or Moyross, Ballymun or Brixton. Men like Magee are bizarre symbols of hope to socio-economic hubs of deprivation. They refuse to bow down, to cower and to give in despite the game being played around them set up to ensure their failure.
I watched his clinical dismantling of respected puncher Jonathan Thaxton and his showdown with the heavily hyped Ricky Hatton. Those were the pre-internet days of perusing The Ring magazine, Boxing Monthly, and ordering VHS tapes of big contests in America from advertisers on the back pages of the boxing periodicals.
Our hearts skipped a beat as Magee dropped Hatton early and our souls left crushed as his performance waned due to stamina issues. The description of Magee’s ill-fated training camp in the lead up to the biggest fight of his career is worth the price of the book alone.
It hardly helped his cardiovascular condition when he was spotted sucking on a tobacco stick by stunned Hatton acolytes a mere hour before making his ring walk. The sense of what might have been or what should have been left a sour aftertaste.
But that emotional comedown from Irish sporting events had become acceptable. We had Sonia’s doom-laden efforts, Michelle Smith’s controversy and countless Irish soccer matches that started promisingly before the inevitable injury time goal concession sent us trudging disconsolately to the bar. We were used to let downs in Irish sporting endeavour. It fed into our strangely deferential submissive post-colonial consciousness. We were the plucky Irish, dangerous early but guaranteed to fade as reality set in.
Those were the days when Irish sport regularly churned out stoic and stubborn spirits who seemed to exemplify some long watered down pre-Christian Celtic Warrior archetype. Fiercely pugnacious unreconstructed rule breaking types like Peter Clohessy and Trevor Brennan in rugby, Steve Collins, Wayne McCullough and Magee in boxing. Roy Keane, Paul McGrath, and Mick McCarthy in soccer. The GAA supplied a consistent stream of off the wall characters of colour in the nineties from Tommy Dowd to Charlie Redmond to John Leahy; the list is endless.
It appears the decline in Irish sporting characters who played by their own rules ended alongside the advent of professionalism and corporate cultural etiquette that now blights the media-trained and personality-free stars of today. Eamonn Magee and his likes may just be a dying breed. Uppity working class Irish sports stars appear to be an endangered species except in the realms of boxing and, more recently, MMA who can bypass the once vital seal of approval from the mainstream press.
Reading Eamonn Magee’s story, written by Paul Gibson, it transports us back to the early noughties era, the embryonic days of the Celtic Tiger and a new nation and polarised island struggling to break free off guns, church and hypocrisy.
Magee’s background is as tough and hard as they come. Owner of a scowl that “could melt molten lava”, according to Adam Smith, ‘The Terminator’ is a compelling figure in the pantheon of working class Irish sporting anti-heroes.
The misfortune of being a highly strung young man born into a vicious sectarian war zone would inevitably mark the personality formation of Magee. His wildness was primarily genetically influenced it seems. For Eamonn, his core emotional style revolved around extremity, a struggle that continues to the present day. This was a man working the doors of Ardoyne as a teenager, ripping off gullible students, and somehow becoming one of the brightest young talents the Irish boxing landscape had helped to mould.
Every town and city and village in Ireland has a local who could’ve, should’ve, would’ve been a contender were it not for the ‘aul drink and the demons. Magee’s book is essential reading for any young athlete on what not to do in terms of optimising their careers and lives. It probably should be part of the curriculum in some form for the sheer fear factor it would induce in our youth.
In the days before sports scientists, high performance units, kale, avocados and Instagram bragging, Magee was scoffing pizza, sculling cans of industrial-strength lager and somehow knocking people out culminating in a silver medal win at the World Junior Championships after despatching the favoured Cuban in the semi-final. He boxed Sugar Shane Mosley in the National Stadium, his fearlessness and love of combat endearing him to legendary Irish boxing patriarch Nicholas Cruz. His bout with Eddie Fisher in 1991 (available on YouTube) is an absorbing tussle and a mainstay of classic fights in the Irish amateur archive.
The dark periods following the bitter closure to his amateur career proves testing for the reader before the embryonic bouts of a mushrooming professional career lifts the book’s narrative into something approaching optimism. Boxing anoraks will delight at the early goings on around Magee’s fledgling career with tales of besting household names in sparring.
The fleet-footed switch hitting Magee of the ring was a sharp contrast to the vengeful nihilist outside it where impulsive decisions underscored by hard drinking and a refusal to tolerate any threat, verbal or physical leading to regular skirmishes and physical assaults. He was like a Ardoyne version of those old John L Sullivan types who would walk into a bar and present a dominant hierarchical challenge to every male customer’s delusions of masculine prowess. A hilarious anachronism especially now in the socio-cultural era where such masculine traits languish in the confines of the lowest socio-economic enclaves.
The what if’s in this story are numerous. What if a mooted fight with Irish Micky Ward had went ahead after the Bostonian had relieved Shea Neary of his WBU strap? What if Magee had boxed at Barcelona 92? And what if Magee wasn’t smoking a cigarette an hour before he dropped Hatton?
Magee’s personal difficulties would require a team of crack psychologists and behavioural experts working round the clock for a decade with numerous tragedies and episodes of violence blighting his existence. Yet, somehow. he managed to win a Commonwealth title, travel the world, and continues to operate as a boxing coach despite being a functioning alcoholic.
In terms of naked honesty and the triumph of athletic and genetic ability briefly overcoming troubled personal circumstances, the book ranks alongside Paul McGrath’s raw autobiographical classic ’Back from the Brink’ and is essential reading for Irish sports enthusiasts and boxing obsessives.