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Contending With Life 

Years after Evander Holyfield clocked him, boxer-turned-shoeshine-man Seamus McDonagh struggles to conquer his fears -- and to confront Holyfield

Wednesday, Mar 5 2003
The shoeshine is a good way to gain momentum for your punches in close without opening up or telegraphing. Hands up (scratch your eyebrows with your knuckles), palms toward you, head down, elbows in, etc. Great for hooks and uppercuts. Shoeshining keeps you moving and keeps him guessing.

-- Boxing instructor Frank Benn, on a punch known as "the shoeshine"

Seamus McDonagh, stooped over a pair of cowboy boots, draws himself up and tucks his chin into his chest. His brogue drops into a comic baritone. "I've been a shoeshiner for many's a yearrr ...," he begins to sing, drawing out the last word in a vibrato. He has a polka-dot apron wrapped around his waist and a horsehair brush in each hand. "... An' I spent all my money on whiskey and beerrr." His two customers -- a fat, gruff guy in the boots, and what appears to be his daughter (black pumps) -- offer stiff smiles. They're up on chairs, atop a low, black stand. Their feet rest on pedestals. "I eat when I'm hungry, I drink when I'm dryyy," McDonagh goes on, slowing down for effect. "An' ... if ... shoeshine ... don't ... kill ... me ... I'll live till I dieee."

McDonagh is a sturdy, handsome 40-year-old with a good jaw and a thick mess of dark hair. His black shoes are dirty and stained, almost purple. He works against a wall on a wide stretch of gray carpet, here on the lower level of the Moscone Center. He and his sometime girlfriend, Susie -- both recovered alcoholics -- run the business. They're the Shiners, and for maybe two weeks out of every month, McDonagh will show up in the morning, lift the heavy blue slipcover off the stand, set down a big air filter (to ward off the headaches), and go to work on the tasseled loafers, crocodile moccasins, and $200 orthotic European pumps of San Francisco's conventioneers.

"Two shines," he'll tell them. "A spit shine costs $8. A hard spit shine costs $10." What's the difference? they'll ask. Two bucks, he'll joke for the millionth time. He'll study the convention pass looped around his customers' necks, call them by name, ask about this year's sales. He'll nod at their stories, laugh at their jokes, grin at their kids' pictures. Sometimes, when he's in the mood, he'll tell them about the commercial he shot with Charlie Sheen, or maybe the horse carriage he drove in Central Park. And sometimes, though not that often, he'll rummage through the bottles of oil and shoe polish in a drawer -- marked with six red stickers spelling out his name -- and fish out a small stained photo in a clear plastic sleeve.

"My previous profession," he tells one customer, a cute, chatty Indian woman (black mid-calf-length boots), in town from Hong Kong for a specialty-foods convention. He hands her the photo.

"Are you serious?" she asks. "Who's this?" She points to the other guy in the picture.

"Evander Holyfield," McDonagh says. "He was very famous here."

The photo, taken in Atlantic City, June 1990, captures the very moment McDonagh was closest, but not that close, to becoming one of the best in his business -- just one second before he became a boxing footnote, and six years before he took his last drink and shined his first shoe.

McDonagh fills up most of the frame. He is thicker here, his hair is a mop, his mouth is open. He's just landed a heavy right hook to the left side of his opponent's jaw. Holyfield's head has snapped to his right. His nose has shifted, his lips have been knocked into the shape of a bullhorn, his mustache is a parenthesis. His right eye is shut, his left eyebrow is cocked.

Holyfield was a world heavyweight champion at the time, an Olympic bronze medalist, just beginning a decade-long reign as the blandest of champs, a guy with Bible verse on his shorts and Revelation in his left hook.

And McDonagh? He was a 27-year-old English-lit major. This was his best punch on a bad night, at the end of a fight that probably shouldn't have happened. "I caught him with that great right hand," he says, "and we're slugging away, boom-boom-boom, the crowd is standing up, and we both throw left hooks. He caught me right before I caught him. And I went down -- I had never been knocked down before. I was embarrassed. Then the thought came, 'Hmm, if I stay here it'll all be over.' Survival, you know? But I couldn't. I couldn't. So I climbed up. I was OK, feeling good, just waking up, ready to go, and the referee goes, 'Oh, you no look so good.'" The ref called the fight -- 44 seconds into the fourth round -- and awarded Holyfield a technical knockout.

McDonagh is recounting all this as we drive to a Kinko's. It's a warm Friday afternoon in January. He's wearing a maroon stocking cap, a dark long-sleeved shirt, and baggy bluejeans. There's a bad scar under his nose. Boxing? "Shaving," he says. He's holding a neon-green envelope; inside is an 8-by-10 print of the photo from the fight. He wants me to have a copy.

"I'm glad I didn't get hurt in the fight," he goes on. "I'm grateful it turned out the way it did. It was a terrifying experience, but when it was all over it was fine. It was a relief. Fear can play havoc with you."

McDonagh quit boxing in 1991. Since then, he has gotten his degree, acted in an off-Broadway play and a couple of small films, sold insurance for MetLife, corresponded with Norman Mailer, driven a pedicab at Fisherman's Wharf, worked for an energy-bar company, taught left hooks to novice fighters, helped recovering alcoholics, and taken up a shoeshiner's brushes. It's a contender's résumé -- never at the top, but looking for a chance. Shoeshining keeps you moving ...

About The Author

Tommy Craggs


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