Ahead of a busy 2018, light-heavyweight contender ‘Irish’ Seanie Monaghan discusses being at the top of professional boxing, career goals and life as a Navan-New Yorker.
While spending some time with family in the birthplace of his father, New York pro-boxer Monaghan enjoyed a pastry in Earl’s Kitchen, a café down a small laneway in Navan, county Meath. Before he left, he posted a message about the experience on his Instagram account.
He recounted walking by the café the following day while a group of “rough guys” stared him down.
“They called out ‘hey Seanie’ and I thought, ‘what the fuck is this?’ But they just wanted some photographs.
“They’d seen the Instagram posts and just hung around there all day in case I walked by again.”
Monaghan, a former brick-layer, who did not turn professional until the age of 28, by his own admission, “wasted too much time being a knucklehead”.
He quickly set about making up for lost time by fighting his way into the top ten in the light-heavyweight division. He gained a reputation as a dangerous fighter while building a 29-0 record, including 17 knock-outs, which brought him to the very edge of world title contention.
A confluence of this devastating knock-out power and the skulduggery of boxing politics resulted in a frustrating series of missed world title opportunities.
Seanie was born in New York in 1981 to a Navan father and a returned émigré mother. His parents left county Meath for New York while his mother was pregnant with him and his identity is bound-up by these circumstances.
A Long Island New Yorker through-and-through, he is also strongly tied to an ancestral land which he refers to as “home”.
“Navan is a blue-collar town. They’re a working class people and they take pride in their work. They’re proud of being down to earth.
“My wife is Puerto Rican and has been to Ireland three times and she sees similarities in the culture. People work to come home and see their families, having little parties in their homes.
“New York is a rat race, everyone’s out to do the next guy in.., who has the most expensive shit…
“There’s no fancy superstars around Navan.”
Monaghan’s grandmother was one of 17 children, ensuring a vast network of relations that have followed his career with interest.
The sporting culture of county Meath is perhaps best typified by Sean Boylan’s All-Ireland winning teams of the 80’s and 90’s.
Successive player groups translated a county pride in work-ethic and hard-nosed spirituality into a physical playing style that made thuggery into an art form.
Even opponents that managed to overcome those Meath teams left the field angry and disillusioned.
It is not difficult to detect a similar mindset with Seanie Monaghan’s work in the ring. Often, opponents are subjected to heavy punch combinations in the false belief that they are surviving the ultimate onslaught, at which point a devastating blow ends the contest.
He begins each fight by beating the name of Bobby Calabrese, a deceased friend, with a gloved fist which is tattooed across his heart.
Seanie detects an appreciation of this approach among his county Meath family, noting:
“I think my style suits their mentality. Of course, I’m their relation but I think it’s more than that.”
His childhood environment was the heady mix of homeland ties and integrating into a new locality which is typical to many New Yorkers.
“In the 80’s, my dad had my uncles and friends over in New York. They’ve since moved to London or Australia but back then I had around thirty guys from Navan who’d wake me up to watch Mike Tyson fights, show me how things were done, and they were always just talking about fighting.”
The pathway to the top of his sport has been far from straightforward for Seanie. Boxing may have acted as a saviour but he did not accept this path until his options were reduced to very stark choices.
“I had a rough decade or so and I didn’t learn until I had to.
“I used to get in bar fights and just run away but I was involved in a big fight where a police officer ended up in hospital. A week before that, I broke a guy’s jaw and his brother was a police officer.
“I got caught twice in a week and I was facing a lot of time in jail, upstate with the big boys.
“The judge gave me a chance; five years probation but if I got in any trouble I was fucked.
“So I had a lot of spare time and I started really working out. My friend Bobby took me to a boxing gym. He told me I had a real talent for boxing.”
It was far from plain sailing from this point on, however.
“After my first amateur fight Bobby was murdered.
“Around that time, my trainer Joe Higgins lost the lease on his gym
“PJ Kavanagh, a guy from Kildare, came to my house asking me if I’d been involved in a fight in his bar. The bouncer said that in 27 years of breaking up bar fights he’d never seen hands like that. So he took me over to Fort Rockaway to a gym in a really rough part of Queens were the likes of John Duddy was working out.
“Maybe everything happens for a reason.
“It’d be nice not to have a felony but it really limited my options. I couldn’t apply for certain jobs, like being a fire-fighter or a police officer so I had to give everything to boxing.
“I had to work extra-hard as a result and I didn’t care about anything until boxing. My mam didn’t really want me doing it but my dad from Navan thought that it was great.”
Seanie suffered a first career loss to Marcus Browne in July 2017 from which he is building his return. He took the fight as two potential world-title fights against Andre Ward and Adonis Stevenson had fallen through at the last minute.
Monaghan and Browne were good friends and Seanie describes it as “a crazy experience.”
“We were laughing during the stare-down… and the fight was over before it started. I still haven’t watched the tape.”
Hard lessons were learned as Seanie had been reluctant to compromise his own style by holding an opponent in times of danger.
“I never held during fights but fuck it, next time I will.”
A high-profile fight against Joe Smith Jr should be on the cards in 2018; the two Irish New Yorkers first met in the finals of the 2009 Golden Gloves in Madison Square Garden and the re-match has been touted for years by local fans
“People have been talking about it for years. That night he had all [of] his crowd in and I had mine. There were fights in the stands.
“We went pro around the same time and both lost on the same night.
“He is a tough kid and he’s had a huge year. He’ll go down in history; he’s the guy who knocked a legend like Bernard Hopkins out of the ring.
“And I hope he heals up well ‘cos I want no excuses when I beat him.”
In many respects, Seanie’s story is the quintessential New York tale; the child of emigrants embodying the values of an ancestral homeland under bright lights; a troubled kid who chose the correct path, eventually, and sought redemption through an insatiable appetite for hard work.
His career is guided by his trainer, Joe Higgins, who was a fire-fighter on duty at the twin towers during 9/11 and who lost his brother Tim on that day.
New York is the melting pot of the world and children are born to families formed on shared human values which transcend cultural boundaries.
As a professional fighter, creating a stakehold for his young family in the tumult of modern-day America, Seanie is aware of the balance that he needs to strike between raw emotion and exact professionalism.
“It’s a bit of both. I’m a completely different person to who I was as a teenager but at the back of my mind I know that I’ve lost a lot of time.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends to things like car accidents, being murdered and cancer … Half of those guys are gone and it could be me next. That’s all the motivation I need.
“Even the loss of friends has benefited me in some way.
“Preparing for my fights I go through eight weeks of hell, two or three workouts a day while making weight. I’m the most professional guy when it comes to that because I can’t waste any more time.
“You’d need a distraction when you lose someone close; that crazy feeling of someone just not being there anymore.
“There’s only so much you can do sitting on a bar stool.”
Ciaran Priestley, Pundit Arena