IRELAND’S Seamus McDonagh is best known to fight fans for going down fighting to an unbeaten Evander Holyfield in June 1990. Yet McDonagh, who retired from boxing with a 19-3-1(14) record a year later, is well known in acting circles due to his TV, film, and stage work.
Today, living in San Francisco and speaking with the intelligence and clarity, Seamus talks about his two careers:
Q: Your biggest fight was against Evander Holyfield in the summer of 1990. Do people still ask you about that fight?
Seamus McDonagh: “All the time (laughs). Yes, it’s over 24 years ago and people still talk about that fight. At the time I thought I did terrible, but looking back, I’m glad I got off the floor. I got up and I beat the count but for some reason the referee wanted to count me out. But whatever, I think that [loss] did me a favour and I got out of boxing just over a year later.”
Q: You boxed as a pro for less than six years, a relatively short time compared to many fighters. Did you lose interest?
S.M: “I never lost interest. I actually got myself a new trainer, named Joe Ferrara, who worked with Mark Breland and Junior Jones. I met him at Cus D’Amato’s camp in the Catskills; I met Cus as a teenager and he wanted to train me. At the time, I was just a kid and I just never knew who he was and I had just left Ireland and I didn’t want to go to The Catskills. I won the Golden Gloves in New York as a heavyweight in ’85 but I didn’t know what was going on and I declined the offer to work with Cus. Anyway, after the Holyfield fight, when working with Joe, I learnt how to fight – after 17 years! And Joe was touting me to everyone, saying I’d be the next cruiserweight champ. But my next fight got cancelled, and so I went back to the gym and began working again, and finally I asked him if I was being over-trained. He told me, ‘There ain’t no such thing as over-training.’ And I just got worse and worse, dehydrated. The fight with Jesse Selby, a good fighter who was ranked in the top-10, I got butted in the second-round and I blacked out for the next six rounds or so, and I said to myself, ‘that’s it.’ That [seventh round TKO) loss totally got rid of boxing for me, which was so hard because boxing was my whole life at the time.”
Q: Did you have any idea what you’d do with your life then?
S.M: “Not at all. Boxing had been my whole life. I became disillusioned and I was drinking a lot and I thought about committing suicide. I am grateful for all that boxing gave me – the experience, the sparring, the little fame and money I got. But at the time, I was so down. I’d always been a drinker, I’d layoff for a month or so before a fight. But I was a shy person, but give me a couple of drinks and I’d open my mouth and talk like nobody. Now I’m sober, I have been for 19 years, but back then I went to Broadway in New York and I drank heavily. I couldn’t drink as much as I wanted when I was boxing, but now I thought, ‘I can drink what I like (laughs)’. When I was 21, I tried to kill myself by taking some pills but nothing really happened. By the age of 28, I’d given my whole life to boxing and I thought then I’d kill myself. Boxing had been something to do every day. But today, I like to think I’ve healed from the hits, I’ve healed over the last 19 years and I’m happy. I had those demons but now I’m just like Cyndi Lauper, I just wanna have fun. What’s the point of being alive if you can’t enjoy life?”
Q: You were quite friendly with Norman Mailer during the time you were a pro fighter?
S.M: “I was. I went to his house one time but he had been called away. I met his family. Anyway, I wrote to him and he replied. I had written a paper on him at university and I’d done my research and found out he was a boxing fan. Initially, I never even knew he’d written in the 1930s and ’40s. We exchanged letters. I asked him if he’d like to spar at my gym and he wrote back, saying that he hadn’t put gloves on since he’d turned 60, seven years ago (laughs). But he said he appreciated the offer.”
Q: And how did you get the acting bug? You have been in a few films and TV shows as well as doing work on stage.
S.M: “I was an alcoholic, with that type of personality and temperament. I was shy but as I say, after a few drinks I’d talk to anyone. But I never thought I’d be an actor. The thought of going up on stage was never a thing I thought I could ever do. But since I’ve been sober, I do a thing each day, a 12-steps a day thing. I practice transcendental meditation and I do these 12-steps every day. It’s a way of dealing with my fears, with the resentments that are in my head. And when I do this, something happens. I get peace in my brain and I come into reality. I think every fighter gets damaged to a degree from getting hit in the head and for a while, when I was depressed, my memory was awful. Anyway, the acting. I was at St. John’s University in Staten Island and I saw a sign for a play, and there was one part left at the auditions. I thought, ‘who doesn’t want to be an actor?’ Anyway, I got the part as the cop in Guys and Dolls. I had three lines and I loved it.”
Q: And that led to TV and film work?
S.M: “Two years on, I didn’t have enough money to get my car back after it was towed away. I was depressed and this car pulled up as I was stood on the corner of a street on the west side of Manhattan. This guy shouts out my name, and it was Jimmy Smallhorne, the director. We talked and he said there were still places available in the play “Bobby Sands M.P” The next day I auditioned and the director said to me, ‘that was the best audition I’ve ever seen.’ I got the part of a British soldier that day.”
Q: And you have a new T.V show that you have just filmed?
S.M: “Surviving Sam. It will go out worldwide on TVtibi. John Duddy is also in it. I got John into acting. He told me he wanted out of boxing – he had a fight scheduled with Andy Lee at the time – who I see won last night, which is great news – but he wanted out. I asked him if he wanted a part in the play I was in off Broadway, “Kid Shamrock.” And he said yeah. The next day, he was out of boxing (laughs). Yes, Surviving Sam is a drama/com. It’s funny and it’s serious, which makes it all that much better I think. I’ll also begin making a film next year, Bill Bradley has given me a part. This is the first time I’ve actually made any decent money from acting. I pay my bills through my shoeshine company. But the acting is great and very enjoyable.”
Q: What’s harder, being a fighter or being an actor?
S.M: “I’ve got to say the fighting. With boxing, it is so competitive; you are trying to become No.1 in the world. That’s hard, you know (laughs). You have to eat, sleep and breath boxing. Myself, I’d never rest. I was obsessed about my next fight, even two months before. I wouldn’t go near people that smoked, I wouldn’t even walk down a busy street in case I breathed in exhaust fumes.”
Q: Are you still a fight fan today?
S.M: “I’m not a huge fan. I won’t go out of my way to watch a fight. But I’m good friends with Freddie Roach and I like Amir Khan a lot. He’s actually in the Bay area [of San Francisco] where I live and I hope to meet up with him and say hi. And I was with Larry Holmes last week. I like watching Manny Pacquiao fight. I’m connected to boxing and I always will be.”