Seanie Monaghan is a “throwback fighter.” In the 1940s, he would have been a neighborhood fight club headliner and local hero.
Seanie is the oldest of four children. His parents immigrated to the United States from Ireland and settled in Long Beach, a town of 33,000 located on a barrier island east of New York City. Long Beach faces the Atlantic Ocean. There was a time when it styled itself as “the Riviera of the East” and vied with Atlantic City as a tourist destination for New Yorkers during the hot summer months. That time is long gone. In recent decades, the town has gone through cycles of urban decay and renewal. Last October, it felt the full force of Hurricane Sandy.
Seanie grew up in Long Beach and still lives there. His father runs an upholstering business. His mother is a physical therapist. His paternal grandmother was one of 17 children so he has a large family, many of whom still live in Ireland. His wife, Beverly, earned a masters degree in special education from Hofstra University. Together, they have a 22-month-old son, Sammy.
But there’s a painful backstory.
“I was a lost teenager,” Seanie acknowledges. “I had no ambition or direction. Everything was short-term. I didn’t care where I was going. I smoked weed every day. I wrestled a bit in high school and played some sports like football and lacrosse but the other guys were better than me. And if I wasn’t good at something right away, instead of working to get better, I gave up on it.”
Seanie graduated from Long Beach High School in 1999. “Barely,” he says. But trouble was brewing.
“There was an unhealthy culture in Long Beach and I got caught up in it,” Seanie recalls. “I wasn’t a bad kid. My mother and father are good, hard-working people. I came from a decent home. I wasn’t a street guy. I never stole anything or sold drugs but a lot of people in my family have had drinking problems. I was drunk a lot and I tried just about every drug there was except heroin.
“Around the time I was 15,” Seanie continues, “I started getting into bar fights. I was working as a barback [a bartender’s assistant] and was surrounded by grown men who were drinking and I’d try to keep up with them. A fight would start, sometimes with me, or if it started with someone else, I’d jump in. People would crowd around and cheer. I’d always wanted to be really, really good at something. And there it was, knocking guys out. It felt so good. There were a lot of fights, 50 or 60 over the years. My nose got broken. I was constantly hurting my hands. I’d come home with a black eye or cuts and try to hide it from my mother. I look back on it all now and say, ‘Forget about everything else. Look at the stress I put my mother through.’ I wasn’t a bad kid. I got along with people, all kinds of people, when I wasn’t fighting. But it was like, if there was a problem, I was the Long Beach representative. One time in a bar fight, I got stabbed in the throat and needed 30 or 40 stitches. I was arrested a few times. The last time was for assaulting a police officer who was trying to break up one of the fights. I didn’t know he was a police officer. He grabbed me from behind and I threw him off. The judge gave me a break. He put me on probation and told me, ‘If I see you in my courtroom again, you’re doing five years hard time.’ That straightened me out. I stopped drinking and doing drugs. I don’t drink or smoke at all now. I haven’t had a drink in more than 10 years. Casual drinking is okay if you can do it, but I couldn’t.”
As part of Seanie’s probation, he was required to attend meetings at Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and also attend an anger management course.
“The anger management course really pissed me off,” Seanie says. “I didn’t think I needed to be there. But over time, I realized that little things were making me furious and I was getting mad for no reason. Even though I might not have been starting the fights, I was looking for them. It took me a while, but finally, I understood that I had to change. I learned to take a step back when there was a problem and how to control my emotions. I had relatives in Ireland who were telling me, ‘You’re on probation. Come back here before they throw you in jail.’ But the problem wasn’t that I was in Long Beach. The problem was me.
“Then I looked at my life as a whole. I hadn’t built anything. All I was doing was drifting from day to day. I was in danger of losing any chance I had for a good future. My whole personality is different now. I’ve learned discipline and how to dedicate myself to things that are important to me. I’m a much better husband and father than I could possibly have been back then. I’m much happier than I used to be. I’m not an aggressive person anymore except when I’m in the ring.”
After Seanie stopped drinking, a friend named Bobby Calabrese suggested he try his hand at boxing. That sounded like a good idea, so he went to the PAL gym in Freeport, which had a boxing club run by a now-retired firefighter named Joe Higgins.
“Two guys were in the ring, sparring,” Seanie remembers. “I liked what I saw. There was a trainer there. I told him, ‘I’m Seanie Monaghan from Long Beach. I want to be a boxer.’”
“He was a real character,” Higgins recalls, “a kid off the street with a chip on his shoulder. He told me he wanted to spar that day and I started laughing. He said, ‘I knock guys out on the street.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but this ain’t the street.’”
The next six weeks were about footwork, balance, head movement, and how to throw a jab.
“Finally, Joe said I could spar,” Seanie says with a smile, “and the first punch I got hit with, I went down on my butt.”
Seanie had 15 amateur fights starting at age 26 and turned pro on May 21, 2010. He’s now 31 years old and has had 18 pro fights in less than three years. His trainer is still Joe Higgins (who also trains junior middleweight prospect Patrick Day). His manager is P.J. Kavanagh.
“I’m usually the aggressor,” Seanie says of his fighting style. “I come at you, go to the body a lot, and don’t stop coming. Getting hit doesn’t bother me that much. I kind of zone out when I’m in a fight. The biggest problem I have is that I cut too easily. My biggest fear is that I’ll be in a fight I know I can win and it’s stopped on cuts. And I have to get past my natural instinct to try to just smash everybody.”
“Seanie works so freakin’ hard,” Higgins says. “He takes a week or two off from the gym after a fight, but even then, he runs. And outside of those breaks, he hasn’t missed a day in the gym since I started with him. He does everything I ask him to do. He’s in monster shape every time he fights. He makes my job easy. I tell the other guys in the gym, ‘Study this guy. Be like him.’”
The downside to it all is that Seanie started boxing late in life, has limited ring experience, and is relatively slow in a sport where speed kills.
Top Rank matchmaker Brad Goodman has taken a special interest in Seanie and notes, “The first time I saw him, he had no technical skills. But he had some natural ability and I’m impressed with how much he has improved since then. It’s our job as matchmakers to see that he isn’t in with an opponent who’s too advanced for him at this stage of his career because Seanie has a warrior mentality. He’ll fight anyone you put in front of him.”
In a similar vein, Steve Farhood (who has watched the evolution of Seanie’s career while behind the microphone for Lou DiBella’s “Broadway Boxing” series) observes, “Seanie is a good example of a fighter who started out with limited skills and has made something of himself through determination and hard work. He’s always in better shape than his opponent. There was, and still is, a lot of room for improvement. But Seanie has improved a lot. He’s now a competent fighter. He’s also one of those guys who’s easy to root for. He’s very likeable and unpretentious. You hope he succeeds.”
“Seanie will never be on a pound-for-pound list,” opines Lou DiBella. “He’ll probably never be a world champion. But he’s a guy who deserves to be seen. He’s a blood-and-guts warrior. His arsenal consists of heart and balls. And he’s also a good guy. If I’m going to war, he’s one of the guys I’d want in a foxhole with me. And I’d sure as hell rather watch Seanie in a good club fight than a lot of so-called world-class fighters.”
“Seanie is the quintessential club fighter,” adds Top Rank matchmaker Bruce Trampler. “He’s the kind of guy you want to put on your show if you’re a promoter. He maximizes his talents. He gives you his best effort every time out. He energizes the crowd. And there aren’t many fighters who sell tickets like he does.”
There’s a buzz in the room when Seanie fights. And more important, there are asses in seats.
Seanie started out as a Long Beach attraction. His fights were like a high school reunion for a dozen classes at the same time. And his fan base has grown since then. That appeal has enabled him to remain a promotional free agent. Because he’s a ticket-seller, promoters like Top Rank, DiBella Entertainment, and Star Boxing are willing to use him on a fight-by-fight basis.
Seanie generally receives a fixed purse for each fight plus a percentage of the proceeds from each ticket Team Monaghan sells.
“When there are 400 people from your hometown watching you fight,” Seanie says, “you have to look good.”
Indeed, there’s a school of thought that Seanie would be more disappointed if he let his fans down than if he didn’t get paid.
If that sounds farfetched, consider the events of January 19, 2013. Seanie had signed to fight Roger Cantrell at Madison Square Garden on the undercard of Mikey Garcia vs. Orlando Salido. Cantrell had been out of action for almost three years but sported a 15-and-2 record. One day before the bout, he weighed in at 184½ pounds, well over the 178-pound contract weight.
Brad Goodman takes up the narrative from there.
“We told Seanie, ‘You don’t have to fight,’” Goodman recounts. “’We’ll pay you your purse anyway.’ And Seanie said, ‘No, I’ll fight him.’”
“We’d sold a thousand tickets,” Seanie said afterward. “It was too late not to take the fight. It would have hurt my ticket sales for the next one. And I had family and friends who’d come over from Ireland. I couldn’t send them home without seeing me fight.”
It helped that Cantrell was required to forfeit half of his purse to Seanie. Be that as it may, the fight was a war. Seanie won a hard-fought eight-round decision but came out of the bout with an ugly cut above his left eye and a large welt beneath his right.
Beating Cantrell brought Seanie’s record to 17-and-0 with 10 knockouts. “We figured we owed him a soft opponent for his next fight,” Goodman says. That led to Seanie vs. Rex Stanley on the undercard of the April 13thtitle bout between Nonito Donaire and Guillermo Rigondeaux at Radio City Music Hall.
Stanley is 36 years old. Prior to the fight, his record stood at 11-and-4 with 7 knockouts. But he’d won only once in the previous 35 months (a four-round decision over Andrew Keehn, whose record was 0-and-1 at the time). That was in May 2011, and Stanley hadn’t fought since then.
Radio City Music Hall bills itself as “the biggest stage in New York.” It’s a long way from fighting on the street outside a bar in Long Beach.
Seanie had spent the day at a hotel in Manhattan and arrived at his dressing room in Radio City Music Hall at 8:00 p.m. Higgins and cutman George Mitchell were already there. Joe had put in a full day at the gym in Freeport before driving to Manhattan for the fight.
Team Monaghan was sharing the dressing room with seven other undercard fighters. This was the “red corner” dressing room. All eight of the fighters were expected to win. The “blue corner” dressing room was within shouting distance down the corridor.
Donaire and Rigondeaux each had his own dressing room where they could dictate the mood, whether or not there was music, who said what. Undercard fighters can’t control their surroundings. They co-exist with other fighters and their teams.
Some of the fighters near Seanie were sitting quietly. Others were laughing and talking loudly.
The room was hot and stuffy with a claustrophobic feel, long and narrow with a low ceiling and 13 vanity mirrors. Fifty people, many of them physically active men, were crammed into a space designed for 13 chorus girls.
Seanie was wearing faded blue jeans, a black T-shirt, and blue sweatshirt. His fight was scheduled for ten o’clock. For a while, he talked quietly with Higgins, sipping occasionally from a bottle of water.
At 8:20, Juan Perez of Top Rank came into the room and told Seanie, “Your opponent’s not here yet. I hope he comes.”
“Me too,” Seanie said.
The undercard bouts were visible on a television monitor at the far end of the room. In the third fight of the evening, Tyler Canning (who’d been flown in from Wyoming on the assumption that he’d lose to prospect Dario Soccia) scored an upset split decision triumph. Cheers erupted in the “blue” dressing room down the corridor.
Seanie lay down on the carpet in a corner of the room and closed his eyes.
Soccia returned, angry. “Un-f**king-believable,” he said to no one in particular. “What the f**k were the judges looking at?” Then he picked up his cellphone and started texting.
Other fighters fought and returned, some with their faces bruised and swollen. In boxing, even winning takes a toll.
At nine o’clock, Seanie got up from the floor and sat on a chair. Higgins began taping his hands. P.J. Kavanagh came in to wish his fighter well. When the taping was done, Seanie put on his shoes and trunks. At 9:45, trainer and fighter went into the corridor and began working the pads.
“Start with the jab,” Higgins instructed. “That’s it…Work with the jab from the opening bell. Then go after his body…Turn the hook over…Good. That’s what I’m looking for. Show me that again…”
Down the corridor in full view, Rex Stanley and his trainer were engaged in a similar exercise.
“One-two,” Higgins continued. “Again…One more…Jab…Hook…Keep everything nice and short. No gorilla punches…Beautiful…Nice deep breath.”
When they were done, Seanie sat on a stool in the corridor and closed his eyes.
“I was thinking about my son,” he said later. “Sammy is going to see this fight someday, and I wanted it to look good for him. And I was thinking, I can do all the work in the world in the gym, but it doesn’t mean anything if I don’t perform when it counts.”
Moments before leaving for the ring, Seanie put on his last piece of clothing, a faded kelly green sweatshirt that he’d worn for his first pro fight. There had been a problem on that May night in 2010. Once Seanie had gloved up, the sweatshirt wouldn’t fit over his gloves and Higgins had to cut a slit in each cuff to get it on.
“People tell me all the time that I should get a fancy robe,” Seanie says now. “But why change what works?”
This was the second fight card in the history of Radio City Music Hall. Roy Jones vs. David Telesco on January 15, 2000, had headlined the first. Like its predecessor, this one sold out. Seanie’s purse was $20,000. Team Monaghan would also receive 20 percent of the revenue from the tickets it sold. Seanie had sold 500 tickets and come back for more, but none were available.
There were cheers from the crowd as Seanie made his way to the ring.
“This place is so big that they were a little far away this time,” he said afterward. “It means a lot to me that they’re there. But to be honest - and this is no disrespect to my people; I love them - I used to think about my fans during a fight. Then I realized that my mind can’t be in two places, so I kind of block them out once I get to the ring.”
Radio City Music Hall was built for large stage spectacles, not boxing. The sight lines are good, but most of the seats are far away from the action. For most of the night, the capacity crowd of 6,145 relied on four large video screens to see what the two small figures in the ring were doing.
Seanie versus Rex Stanley was scheduled for eight rounds but was much shorter than that. Stanley has some skills but he doesn’t have a chin, a prerequisite for a professional fighter. Seanie fought like a professional and did what he had to do, taking his time and moving forward behind a stiff jab. Midway into the first round, he backed his opponent into a corner and landed an overhand right flush. Stanley dropped to the canvas and rose on wobbly legs. He might have twisted an ankle, but the rest of him didn’t look so good either. Referee Harvey Dock appropriately halted the bout before another punch was thrown. The time was 1:51 of round one.
Seanie Monaghan is now 18-and-0. Where does he go from here?
“I want to be a world champion,” Seanie says. “That’s my goal and dream. I get a sense of accomplishment from being a fighter. And boxing is an opportunity for me to do something big with my life, for me and for my family. I was a bricklayer before I turned pro. Believe it or not, I enjoyed laying bricks. I could do it again if I have to. But I feel like I’m getting better every day as a fighter. I take a lot of pride in what I do. If I stop getting better, I’ll call it quits. But so far, that hasn’t happened. I’ve sparred with guys like Tony Bellew and Isaac Chilemba. I get my respect from them.”
“Seanie keeps getting better,” Joe Higgins posits. “His boxing skills have improved a lot. He’s sparring with top guys now and holding his own against them. He’s number 15 in the IBF rankings, and there’s some other guys in the top 15 we’d like to fight.”
The people in a fighter’s camp want to believe. What do more objective observers think?
“Let’s be honest,” says Ron Katz (who selected some of Seanie’s early opponents for Star Boxing and is one of the best matchmakers in the business). “The best light heavyweights - guys like Chad Dawson and Sergey Kovalev - would kill Seanie. But he’s better than a lot of people think he is. He’s a top-50 fighter for sure. And there are ranked fighters - guys like Tony Bellew and Andrzej Fonfara - who I think he’d be competitive against.”
“Seanie believes in himself, and that’s important for a fighter,” adds Brad Goodman. “He’s moving up in the rankings now. Maybe a champion will be looking for a soft touch and figure Seanie for an easy mark. It would be a nice payday for Seanie. And let me tell you something; Seanie is not soft.”
“Seanie would be in shape,” Goodman continues. “He’d fight his heart out. And this is boxing. On a given night, anything can happen. One thing I know for sure, a lot of people would be rooting for him.
In sum, everyone knows that there’s room for improvement. The question is, “Given the fact that Seanie is 31 years old, how much time is there for improvement?”
That, in turn, leads to the big “What if?”
What if Seanie had started boxing when he was 16 instead of 26?”
“I started late,” Seanie acknowledges. “I know that. If I’d started boxing when I was 16 instead of 26, I’d be a lot further along than I am now. But I was so immature and undisciplined when I was young that it probably wouldn’t have worked out. And you can’t change what happened yesterday. So when people tell me I’m old, I say to myself, ‘Look at what Bernard Hopkins is doing at 48.’ I don’t want to be fighting when I’m 48. But that tells me there’s still time for me to do what I want to do.”
Meanwhile, regardless of what happens next in his career, Seanie Monaghan is a boxing success story.
“There was always a big crowd cheering when I was fighting in the street,” Seanie says. “Now I get paid, and I don’t have to run away from the cops.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His next book (Thomas Hauser on Sports: Remembering the Journey) will published by the University of Arkansas Press later this spring.
April 23, 2013