He makes short steps down Dorchester Ave. There’s no swagger in his stride but the fulsome greetings he’s afforded suggest he was somebody.
He pushes through the door of Dunkin Donuts and joins the queue, patiently waiting to be served, anonymous, until he arrives at the counter.
“Hey, Seán, what can I get ya?”
“Coffee?” asks the waitress in a Boston accent.
It’s almost 30 years since he “fought for the world” at Madison Square Garden. Thirty years! It’s long enough to make him wonder how people don’t forget.
“In boxing, they say you are only as good as your last fight,” he says. “That people remember you for that but with me for some reason they don’t. I meet people still and they say to me ‘the last time I saw you was that weekend in New York.’
“The Boxing Commissioner, Teddy Brenner, he told me there was more than 10,000 fans directly from Ireland in Madison Square Gardens that night. I just went from the dressing room to the ring; I didn’t know half the people who were there. But I knew they’d come from all over to support me.”
They don’t forget …30 years on, how could they.
The street near Fields Corner is a quiet parade of wooden three-deck houses with balconies running belt-like around the midsection. Eileen Mannion from Connemara set her feet here in the 1970s and she hasn’t been staggered since. Seated in the armchair of her front room, 58-year-old Seán Mannion fiddles with the remote control.
It’s 5.30 am and he’s waiting to be collected for work on a downtown Boston building site. Upstairs in the corner of the dining room a white dressing gown hangs limp on a hook. On the back his name is written:
The ends of the waste cord are worn by a 59-fight pro career.
His mobile rings, shattering the silence. He kills the television. “Let’s hit the lights,” he says standing up. “Séamus, AMACH,” he orders the dog “as Gaelige.” Outside, car-exhaust fumes billow into the street. Seán grumbles a greeting to the driver and jumps in the back of the car.
“You’re shoveling today, Seán,” jokes Eddie White.
“Do you want to stop in Dunkies?” he asks after a pause.
‘Long Hot Summer’ by Keith Urban is playing on the radio.
Intermittently, they talk about work on the building site in Copley, Downtown; about Fields Corner; about the fade of the green in Dorchester.
“Hey. Have you been to The Twelve Bens (Pub) yet?” asks Eddie. “Have you seen the picture of Seán in the Rosmuc shorts?”
His professional career started the day he took the train to Brockton after work. It was 1977. Marvin Hagler used to work in construction too and Sean wanted to see him in action. Instead, he walked into the Petronelli gym and found trainers, Goody and Pat, calling to the floor for a “left hander.”
They needed a specialist to spar world title contender Tony Petronelli but there was no one with a southpaw style, until Seán put his hand up.
“You got gear kid?”
Still dressed for work, the gym watched this wiry 20-year-old Irish speaker climb through the ropes to spar with a boxer only beaten weeks before by the legendary Wilfredo Benitez. As the minutes passed, the ring apron filled with fighters like ‘Rockin’ Robbie Simms and Hagler. They filed across to watch ‘the kid’ and Tony.
“They were four hard rounds,” says Seán. “But I wasn’t intimidated. I was never worried about getting hurt.
“The way I saw it, I’d been boxing since I was young and the sport had grown with me.
“It was like breathing in and out.
“Afterwards they told me I was wasting my time as an amateur and that I should turn professional.”
Within months he did; within a few years he’d be trading like hell with Hagler and never once did he end up on the canvas. Throughout his whole career, he was never put down.
The aftershock of those sessions registered in gyms up and down the east coast. They saw what Hagler did to Tommy Hearns and Alan Minter and everyone else. They heard what he couldn’t do to Seán through a period when ‘Marvelous’ was tuning up for titanic struggles that now carry epic billings like The War.
Few were keen to fight Seán Mannion, who legendary durability trainer Angelo Dundee would later compare with Muhammad Ali. The rugged Irishman was an unquantifiable and dangerous opponent for anyone with a title shot in mind. Something remarkable happened that made them all wonder about Seán.
It was 1982 and the junior middleweight was making his ascent on the title when he dropped weight to fight a tough Puerto Rican called Hector Poppo Figueroa. His manager Tony Cardinale was ringside to watch Seán win a late-notice-fight against world ranked number 7 Nino Gonzalez in front of toxic home support in New Jersey.
He saw him defy the odds again against the highly rated Rocky Fratto when Seán turned the title hopeful’s ESPN TV debut into a horror show. But the Figueroa fight delivered a deadly insight. On the day of the weigh-in, Seán tipped the scales seven pounds over.
Wilfredo Benitez was by now managing Figueroa and he called for a forfeit. It was looking like it was going to be an easy pay day only Sean said he could shift the weight. The Mannion team of Cardinale, Peter Kerr, his brother Paddy and Jimmy Connolly went back to their hotel, ran a steaming hot bath in the toilet, taped up the door and Sean skipped for an hour in a rubber sweat suit.
When they returned to the scales he was still three pounds over so he took to running up and down the steps of an arena already beginning to fill ahead of the main event – MANNION v FIGUEROA.
When he weighed in again he was just one pound over. His management asked Benitez to waive the 1lb but they refused. Out of ideas and with fight time closing fast, the boxing commissioner called Mannion’s seconds to one side and told them to give their fighter a ‘raw rub down with alcohol.’
“He’d seen this work once before,” said Cardinale.
So they took Sean to a side room and worked him for 30 minutes.
When he emerged he was red, blotchy, dehydrated and naked.
“We were about half an hour from fight time and the scales were close to the entrance to the arena, people were walking by and looking at the main event naked on the scales,” said Cardinale.
Mannion’s opponent and Benitez crowded around to see if the Galway man had shifted the 1lb.
“But he was dead on,” said Cardinale. “And when he knew he was, he turned to Figueroa and said: ‘Now you f***er, I’m going to make you pay for every f***ing pound.’
“It was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen.
“He could have knocked him out early but he gave him a measured beating for 10 rounds after spending his body like that to make weight.
“No one had ever ever seen anything like it.”
“TÁ JOE LOUIS anseo. Tá Floyd Patterson anseo. Tá Rocky Graziano anseo.” (Joe Louis is here. Floyd Patterson is here. Rocky Graziano is here.)
It’s ringside in Madison Square Gardens and RTÉ broadcaster Seán Bán Breathnach is tumbling over superlatives.
The Garden is pulsing. An estimated 10,000 Irish fans are crammed into the arena watching Seán Mannion fight Mike McCallum for the WBA world title at Junior Middleweight at 154lbs.
Badly cut at a training camp in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, there was talk that the fight might be canceled.
But trainer Jimmy Connolly was determined that his fighter would realize a dream that started in Galway in the 1960s with wily trainer Mike Flaherty.
Mike is here. So too are Seán’s brothers and sisters and thousands of fans from Ireland. The interest is so great among the Irish along America’s East Coast that Amtrak put on an extra five trains from Boston’s South Station to Penn Station in New York.
Backed by vociferous support, Seán Mannion has blazed a trail to a title shot, beating World No 1. contender in Chul Baek, and then Danny Chapman before showing more punching power than ever before against Roosevelt Green.
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When Mannion emerged from the dressing room, the arena rumbled with the excitement of more than 10,000 Irish fans from Connemara to Connecticut.
Now they are chanting “GO, SEÁN, GO’.
Only Seán is getting tagged with punishing right hands. He’s shrugging off McCallum’s punches but he’s coming off worst on the inside and the outside.
On HBO, Sugar Ray Leonard suggest that Seán needs to turn the fight into a “brawl”.
“These were the days when men were men,” says Tony Cardinale and championship fights went 15 rounds.
“By the final round I knew Seán needed a knockout. I knew our dream of getting a US-based Irish fighter to a championship fight had been achieved but McCallum was just too good. Pound for pound he remains one of the greatest of all times.
“Through wild summers in the 80s and for the Irish, Sean Mannion was someone to get excited about, to identify with – a guy who came from the sites to Madison Square Gardens.
“By the end, I just wanted to see him finish on his feet.”
Today, Sean Mannion is 66 years old.
* Originally published in Sept 2014. Updated in 2022.