Eamonn Magee: The boxer whose most fearsome fights were outside the ring

In an exclusive extract from The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee, author Paul D. Gibson charts his opening exchanges with the Belfast boxer whose most fearsome fights were outside the ring.

Eamonn Magee: The boxer whose most fearsome fights were outside the ring
COLOURFUL CHARACTER: Eamonn Magee describes himself as a natural, clever fighter and says his life has been ‘great craic’. Picture: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

‘A book?’ the passive-aggressive voice on the other end of the phone answers me incredulously. 

‘Listen, I’ve been beaten with baseball bats, I’ve had my throat slashed, I’ve been kidnapped and I’ve been exiled out of the country. My family’s been held captive in our home as well. I’ve been shot twice, I’ve been in prison and my son’s just been stabbed to death. Amongst all that, I was the welterweight champion of the world while drinking the bar dry and doing enough coke to kill a small horse every night. My life’s not a book. It’s a fucking movie script.’ 

These were the first words Eamonn Sean Terrence Magee ever spoke to me. I was sitting in a Madrid car park while he stood in John Breen’s gym on the outskirts of Belfast. I still recall the pressure I felt, the fear that I’d lose him before I ever had him, the creeping sense of panic that I’d caught him on one of his supposedly many off days.

Magee is an alcoholic. More than that, I’d been warned he can be a truculent, temperamental, dangerous, depressive, paranoid alcoholic. I believed I had to time my call wisely. Weekends were likely to be a write-off, for example. 

Too early or too late on any day of the week may lead to an unfavourable response from the ex-boxer. I reasoned that after a mid-week gym session was probably my best bet. There was every chance he would have turned up for it reeking of the previous night’s excesses, but hopefully he’d sweat and beat enough of it out of his system to be open to my suggestions. Having earlier spoken to Breen, his closest confidant in boxing, I knew that on this day Eamonn was scheduled to work with Marco McCullough ahead of the local featherweight’s November outing in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall. A text message from Breen was my cue that it was now or never.

‘I don’t want to talk about all this on the phone,’ Magee decides after a couple of minutes listening to my rambling pitch. ‘Come over here and we’ll sit down face to face and see what happens.’ This is as good as I could have expected. He hasn’t swung the door wide open, but neither has he slammed it shut in my face.

The crafty southpaw has left it cautiously ajar so he can get a peek at me before making any definitive decision. I am heading home in a couple of weeks to watch the boxing bill McCullough is on anyway, so we choose the pre-fight weigh-in in the Waterfront Hall for our first physical encounter.

I see McCullough first, his soft features pale and drawn from the effects of days of rigorous abstinence to coerce his body down to the nine stone limit. Magee then comes into focus, lurking in the background, partially disguised by a flat cap pulled low and a scarf around his neck behind which he can tuck his chin. Magee’s posture is striking to observe. All the damage, the attacks by blade and bullet and tooth and bat, has been inflicted onto his left side and, perhaps as a result, he now tends to subconsciously tilt his head and lean to the right. But, as always, his visible facial features are the dead giveaways: the flattened and fattened misshapen nose that dominates his countenance, underlined by thin, terse lips that remain pursed through habit to hide his once- missing front teeth. I can instantly pick his weathered and scarred, old-before-its-time face out of a cast of millions. He is an unmistakeable figure in Northern Irish life.

We shake hands, nod a greeting to one another and agree to find a quiet spot after the weigh-in formalities to sit down and discuss my vision for his story.

Eamonn Magee: The boxer whose most fearsome fights were outside the ring
PA Photo : Gareth Copley
It would be disingenuous to say Eamonn Magee was ever a hero of mine, but certainly he is someone who has always fascinated me.

There is nothing a boxing fan loves more than a hometown hero to support, and I am no different. I am a handful of years too young to remember Barry McGuigan in his prime, but I was there riding the mid-90s Celtic wave across the Irish Sea with the rest of them as Steve Collins gate-crashed the golden era of British super middleweight boxing to dethrone Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank. Collins is from Dublin, of course, but Ireland is a small island and we get behind our own regardless of exact place of birth.

By the time the Celtic Warrior had hung up his gloves, Belfast’s Wayne McCullough was a world champion, but his decision to relocate to the US left him out of sight and somewhat out of mind. As the new millennium arrived, the likes of Damaen Kelly and Brian Magee were quality professionals performing admirably, but they fell short in truly capturing my imagination. I needed something deeper than decent ring performances to grab onto.

As an extremely individual pursuit, boxing cannot rely upon the rabid tribal allegiances of team sports for its lifeblood. For that reason, solo sports tend to be more dramatic by nature and, like all good theatre, the success of the storyline is dependent upon the audience connecting with the portrayal of a character and his foe.

It is largely irrelevant what emotion forges this connection – love, empathy, loathing, awe, whatever. All that matters is that enough people feel enough of something to want to watch an athlete in the boxing ring, or on the tennis court, or on the golf course and so on, over and over again. Magee achieved that, although to this day it is difficult to put my finger on exactly how he managed it. He has that aura particular to geniuses and cult figures that demands you pay attention to even the most insignificant moments of their existence. The sense of unpredictability that surrounds those who live their lives on a knife edge, coupled with Magee’s constant underlying dark and volatile character, combines to convert the routine or mundane into a potential spectacle. He holds a magnetism that appears to attract trouble and tragedy in equal measure, with fleeting flashes of glory occasionally interspersing the two. Gifted and flawed: two characteristics guaranteed to produce a compelling subject.

He describes himself as a natural, clever fighter and his eyes sparkle briefly as he talks about spying a flaw in Jon Thaxton’s footwork early in their 2002 bout. Magee noticed how, when he circled and manoeuvred the Englishman around the ring, Thaxton was prone to crossing his legs for a split second when forced into a particular position.

‘I only had to wait,’ Magee tells me with a sly grin, ‘and then bang in the sixth round. Boxing is a game of chess, you see.’ The Thaxton victory led to the biggest moment of his career, fighting against Ricky Hatton. I still can’t watch the fight without feeling frustrated that he couldn’t finish the Mancunian in the second stanza when, having already been knocked down in the first, Hatton was buzzed again and in serious trouble. Magee famously left the arena to smoke a cigarette barely an hour before his ring-walk that night and I feel compelled to ask whether he has any regrets about how he lived his life between fights – a lifestyle that, it’s fair to say, may have adversely affected his career.

‘I don’t regret anything and I wouldn’t change a thing,’ comes the immediate smiling reply.

I don’t believe him, but I say nothing.

‘My life has been great craic,’ he concludes with another grin, but this one is unmistakably tinged with sadness.

My remark was an obvious reference to the booze and women and drugs and fags. He laughs when admitting that his old manager, the late Mike Callahan, would traverse the city depositing notes behind bars warning publicans not to serve Eamonn in the lead-up to a fight. But his reluctance to travel within the postcode of the straight and narrow had much more serious consequences than an inability to finish off a struggling foe in the ring.

Eamonn Magee: The boxer whose most fearsome fights were outside the ring
Eamonn Magee pictured in hospital in 2004 after he was pulled from his car by four men and beaten mercilessly, leaving him with serious injuries including compound fractures of two bones in his left leg. Photo: Alan Lewis - Photopress Belfast
He brings up the punishment shooting by the IRA himself. The Night of the Long Knives is how it was known in north Belfast: a famous occasion in 1992 when the republican paramilitary group handed down their own unique brand of justice to known drug dealers in the area. Thirteen were targeted that night and twenty-year-old Magee was one of them. Only the intervention of his father, who pleaded with the local IRA commander that his son was fighting for the Irish title in a couple of months, saved Eamonn from a bullet through his kneecap. That injury would almost certainly have ended any hopes of a boxing career. Instead he received a flesh wound to his calf for his troubles. He won that Irish title, by the way, fighting with a bandaged leg and wearing white socks that gradually reddened with his own seeping blood as the night went on. 

The IRA attack is just one of the many contradictions that swirl around the ill-informed myth of Eamonn Magee. In general, sport in Northern Ireland is just another means by which segregation is maintained by those with a vested interest in keeping society divided and conquered. Yet, despite its roots in the working-class districts most embittered and affected by the Troubles, boxing has only ever united the two communities in the province. 

From Barry McGuigan and his dove-of-peace shorts, to Wayne McCullough carrying the Irish tricolour at the 1992 Olympic Games, any sectarian leanings have always been left at the gym door.

It has often been said that Eamonn Magee never got that memo.

There is a belief that he carried his political baggage with him everywhere he went and, in exacerbating any underlying nationalistic tensions that existed, proved more divisive than unifying throughout his career. Those who hold this belief point to his father’s republican past and Magee’s own youthful dalliance with political violence. They point to run-ins with the law, allegedly laced with distinct sectarian undertones. They point to his in-your-face Irish nationalism at a time when a more restrained approach was urged.

I knew all this, but I had always sensed that the truth, as is its wont, was a more complex affair. If Magee was indeed a dyed-in-the-wool militant republican, why had the IRA shot and later exiled him? If he really was a dangerous bigot, how did his lifelong friendships with Protestants like McCullough or proud Englishmen like Hatton develop? If green, white and orange boxing attire truly defined him, what did it mean when he fought with the red hand of Ulster on his chest as an amateur representing his province?

The other topic Magee raises is the financial upside of spilling his heart onto the pages of my book. It soon becomes clear that the ex-fighter is still in possession of a rapier-sharp business mind. He has his own ideas for a title, release date, newspaper serialisation, a sequel and even a movie.

Eamonn Magee: The boxer whose most fearsome fights were outside the ring
Eamonn Magee with the 2018 eir sport Sports Book of the Year award. Photo: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
‘Did you see that Fighter film?’ he asks me. ‘They made a movie about Micky Ward and the fella isn’t fit to lace my boots.’ His eyes sparkle in such moments. As they do when he talks about beating ‘the ex-British soldier and Plastic Paddy, Shea Neary’, taking the piss out of a visiting Guardian newspaper journalist, or telling the promoter Barney Eastwood to shove his offer of 500 quid for ten victories up his hole. But the moments are fleeting and Magee’s default mood appears to be a mixture of pensive sadness with an undercurrent of bitterness. He is always said to have a chip on his shoulder, too, but no one has ever identified who axed it into place.

I haven’t even begun to figure him out, have barely scratched the surface, but I’m hooked.

As night falls we rise to leave. The alcohol has taken its effect and dulled my senses somewhat, but it looks like we have a deal, sealed with a handshake and a silent acknowledgement that our word will be our bond going forward. ‘So where do we start then?’ he asks me as I put on my coat – he never took his off.

I had anticipated this question and have my response ready.

While reading between the lines of an old Irish Independent piece on Magee, I thought I discovered the key to exploring this flawed and complicated man when the article touched very briefly on Eamonn’s formative years and ‘the scourge of internment’. This, I believed, was where his story must begin.

‘Internment,’ I say. ‘I’d like to begin with Operation Demetrius and internment.’ ‘You’ll need to speak to my mother then.’

- The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee is published by Mercier Press and is available in both print and as an eBook. Mercier Press is Ireland's oldest independent publishing house. It was founded in 1944 and publishes a wide range of fiction and non-fiction. For more information go to mercierpress.ie.

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