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Dublin: 17 °C Monday 22 April, 2019
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'He’s been shot, he’s been stabbed, he’s been crippled, and here he is defending a world championship after 15 months out'

This book extract takes a look at a remarkable moment in the life of Eamonn Magee.

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee by Paul D Gibson.

Lagmore Dale is a small and quiet cul-de-sac, the type of street where parents have no fears about letting their kids play out front unsupervised. There were several families living there back in 2004, all with children around the same age who enjoyed each other’s company.

Through the kids the adults became friendly and soon there were regular get-togethers in different living rooms or gardens. One summer’s day a barbecue was in full swing when a nine-year-old Eamonn Junior appeared in floods of tears. Junior had been scrapping with Joe Clarke’s son and when Clarke emerged to break it up he allegedly threatened to take his own hand to the boy. Enraged, Eamonn went in search of his neighbour.

He found him, threatened him and then knocked the 50-year-old to the ground with a single punch. It was always a massive risk to use fists on anyone who had friends in the IRA, but time passed and nothing more transpired between Eamonn and Joe.

18 months later, snow lay on the ground. Eamonn, still buzzing from a party the night before, spoke on the phone to his mother, who had returned to live in Belfast. Isobel marvelled that, due to the shade her house threw over Holmdene Gardens, her front was an icy white while across the street was clear and bathed in sunshine.

Meanwhile in Lagmore, the neighbourhood kids were busy making the most of the cold snap to build rival snowmen on the front lawns and hurl snowballs back and forth. A couple of direct hits soon soured the mood and before long there were only piles of slushy remains where fully-formed sculptures had once proudly stood. The Clarke kids felt they were the main victims in the snowy war and apportioned the blame to 12-year-old Áine Magee.

Áine believes that Joe Clarke and his wife never liked her because they thought she delighted in antagonising their children. When Big Joe’s daughters told him about their wrecked snowman, he marched to the Magee door to remonstrate with Mary about her child’s behaviour.

He expected Áine to be punished and, seeking to appease Clarke and get him off the doorstep, Mary assured him she would be. Eamonn was informed and Áine was sent to her room with a firm but fatherly slap for her troubles.

But the fact that Clarke had come accusing only Áine, and none of the other kids who were just as guilty, ate away at Mary throughout the day. Finally she decided to walk over to Clarke’s to have it out with him. Mary tried to make her case but felt she was shouted down and made to feel small.

In the meantime, Eamonn had gone up to Áine’s room to check on his admonished daughter. ‘It wasn’t just me, Daddy,’ she pleaded. When Mary then arrived home in tears, sobbing about taunts and insults from Clarke, Eamonn snapped. With Francis in tow, he stormed towards Clarke’s.

Boxing Magee Belfast's Eamonn Magee celebrates after retaining his Commonwealth light welterweight title. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

More than a decade later, memories of the next three minutes are hazy, but Francis recalls Clarke, clearly anticipating a reaction after the words with Mary, standing in his doorway. When Joe’s hand appeared to move towards Francis, the expected response duly arrived. Before he had a chance to react, Eamonn delivered a head-butt which left Joe sitting in the snow with blood running from his mouth, tonguing a loose tooth.

Eamonn arrived home, suddenly and terribly sober with a feeling of dread heavy in his stomach. He peered out his front window and saw Clarke standing in the street on his phone. Mary called a friend, also named Joe, from a nearby street and he flew round to collect Eamonn. The plan was to drive him over to the relative safety of Isobel’s in the Ardoyne, but as they left Lagmore Dale, a car entered the estate to pick up Clarke.

‘Go for fuck sake,’ Eamonn screamed at his driver. ‘Let’s get out of here.’

They left the Lagmore estate and hung a right onto the Stewartstown Road. They then took the first exit onto the Creighton Road and accelerated, hoping to make it safely along that two-mile stretch to join the M1 motorway. But with the Blacks Road motorway junction in sight, the Clarke car caught them. There was a collision and the pursuing vehicle spun to a halt in front of Eamonn’s car. At this point, Clarke and his driver emerged with the pickaxe handle and a baseball bat in their hands.

‘Go, go, go!’ screamed Magee. ‘Put it in fucking reverse and go!’

But the car didn’t move an inch. His friend was frozen at the wheel in a state of paralysing shock.

The first swing of the wooden club struck the carbon-steel frame between the windscreen and passenger window, shattering both. Clarke’s massive hand then reached in and wrestled the passenger door open. Eamonn, convinced that he was a dead man if he let himself be removed from the car, leaned across and held on to the steering wheel with every ounce of his strength. Joe sat back in stunned horror, guarded by Clarke’s companion at the driver’s door just in case he got any ideas.

Clarke eventually gave up on dragging Magee out of the car and instead set to work on his kicking legs with the heavy wooden club. Each swing was that of a baseball slugger aiming for the fences, and each direct hit splattered blood onto the road and emitted a sickening crunch of bursting muscle and fracturing bone. Eamonn, convinced he was fighting for his life, didn’t feel a thing and it was only when he stole a glance back at Clarke that he noticed he could see straight through his flesh to his own splintered tibia.

‘Look what you’ve done to my leg you big bastard,’ he shouted between blows.

Clarke must have looked and the gruesome sight must have interrupted his blind fury, for he immediately ceased the attack and walked calmly back to his car.
Still Joe the driver hadn’t moved a muscle but Eamonn soon snapped him out of his daze.

‘C’mon you silly bastard!’ he managed between gritted teeth. ‘Close this door and get me to the fucking hospital.’

Five minutes later the battered car pulled up at the Royal Victoria Hospital with Eamonn’s mangled left leg hanging limply out the window. He was rushed into theatre where surgeons worked on the compound fractures of his tibia and fibula and a shattered knee. There was heavy bruising all over his body, and they also discovered a punctured lung.

John Breen John Breen (file pic). Source: Russell Pritchard/Presseye

The next day he was transferred to the Ulster Hospital in east Belfast where specialists took muscle from his calf and tissue from his thigh and grafted it over the gaping hole in the front of his leg.

Then, the pain began.

He describes it as a searing hot poker being thrust into his leg, only this agony was constant. He hammered the button for more morphine but nothing could dull the intense burn inside his veins that had him involuntarily weeping for mercy. The consultant was called and immediately diagnosed blood clots.

With a pair of surgical tweezers he pinched one and began to pull. As Eamonn looked on, the doctor proceeded to draw out, hand over fist, reams of dark, scarlet, clotted blood and allowed them to coil like sinister skipping ropes on a silver tray.

The next day Eamonn asked the surgeon what his chances of fighting again were. The doctor pulled up a chair and looked him straight in the eye.

‘Eamonn,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry, but I guarantee you that you’ll never box again.’
As Eamonn’s head dropped, the bleak prognosis got even worse.

‘And I have to warn you, Eamonn. You may not even walk again.’

He struggled desperately with the sudden and shocking reality of his situation. For the first time in his life he wept publicly as he told reporters gathered around his bedside of the consultant’s words. When Callahan and Breen visited they found their champion boxer agitated and physically tremoring. All three men had tears in their eyes.

‘Joe Clarke’s going to fucking kill me,’ Eamonn whispered to them after a while, his eyes large and fearful.

‘No he’s not, Eamonn,’ Breen soothed. ‘I’ll speak to Joe Clarke.’

Breen knew Clarke personally and to this day, much to Eamonn’s chagrin, he describes him as a big gentleman. He spoke to Joe and managed to negotiate an uneasy truce: if the two men stayed out of one another’s way, then that would be the end of it. John was barely through the door in the hospital the following day when Eamonn asked him if he had spoken to Clarke.

‘I have, Eamonn,’ he answered. ‘It’s all taken care of, son. Don’t worry about any of that.’

But Eamonn couldn’t stop worrying. Thoughts of a vengeful Clarke creeping into the hospital under cover of darkness to finish the job he began on the Blacks Road tormented his sleep. Mary soon noticed strange blister-like lesions appearing on his hands and feet. The doctors investigated and concluded they were symptoms of stress, evidence of a tortured mind, but their priority was reconstructing his shattered limb.

After surgery it was caged in an Ilizarov frame with metal pins driven into place above and below the break. Later, from ankle to hip, the leg was cocooned in a plaster cast. The blood clots were a major concern and so Warfarin and constant observation were prescribed. He was in hospital for three months and warned that the protective casing must stay in place for six months before serious rehabilitation could begin.

Eamonn Magee encourages Paul McCloskey Eamonn Magee (file pic). Source: James Crombie/INPHO

When the discharge date arrived, Eamonn hesitated to leave for he was unsure where to go. He didn’t trust Joe Clarke, and life in Lagmore had become unbearable for Mary and the kids. Living just a few doors from the Clarkes, they had to pass Joe most days and act as if nothing had happened. Equally intimidating was the approach made by other neighbours when they presented a petition signed by all those in the area who wanted Eamonn and his family to pack up and get out.

While Mary looked in estate-agent windows, Eamonn took himself off to supplement his painkillers and blood-thinning tablets with his own brand of illicit medication. One night he returned home in such a state of paranoia that he concealed kitchen knives about his person and gathered his family together to spend the night in a huddle on the living-room floor. The spectre of a follow-up attack from Clarke haunted his sleep and he soon decided he couldn’t live another day in Lagmore. He spent time with Hamill, with friends in west Belfast and in London. He also spent time with a woman named Maria Magill.

They first met at a charity boxing event in the Chester Bar in early 2002. At the height of his fame, Eamonn was there to hand out prizes and he easily struck up a conversation with Maria at the bar. He claimed to be already separated from Mary at the time and the pair left the bar together that night. It wasn’t long before Maria realised that Mary was still very much in the picture, but by then she was in love and didn’t care.

They snuck around for a year or so, Eamonn spending as many nights in Maria’s Glengormley home as he did in the new house he had bought for Mary and the kids in the west Belfast hills. It was only when Maria fell pregnant that Eamonn sat his original family down and told the truth.

Mary was absolutely devastated, but the revelations somehow failed to extinguish the dying embers of her love for Eamonn. He officially moved in with Maria and her young daughter from a previous relationship, and it was in her home that he took his first painful, shuffling solo steps to dumbfound the specialists who ranked his chances of walking unaided again at fifty–fifty.

There are plenty of happy memories from this time, but the drink and drugs and gambling invariably ensured the good days were outweighed by the bad. He was a good partner when he wanted to be, but the violent outbursts continued, as did the gaps when he’d not show his face for days on end. Maria now knows he was back with Mary then, or with any other woman on the side who would take him. It was a destructive pattern that would repeat itself for more than a decade.

***

Incredulous, John Breen watched the pale, hard figure limp across the gym floor and drop his bag unceremoniously in the corner.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ he asked.

‘What?’ Eamonn replied.

‘What the hell are you doing in here? Do the doctors know you’re here?’

‘Don’t worry about them, fuck sake John. I need to get back in shape. I need to get back in the ring.’

Eamon Magee and Shane Mosley 1992 Eamonn Magee (file pic). Source: ©INPHO

The pins and plaster that held his bones in place had been removed two months earlier than every specialist in Northern Ireland had predicted. Soon after, a pair of complimentary NHS crutches were tossed to the side and never again picked up. Barely five months on from lying in an intensive-care unit with two of his leg bones cracked and exposed to the world, Eamonn was attempting to glove up and step through the ropes.

What drove him on was a steadfast refusal to be dictated to by anyone. Nobody on the planet was going to make his decision to retire for him, even if they insisted upon the career move after around twenty unanswered blows from a three-foot pickaxe handle. Consultant after consul­tant shaking their head and advising him just to focus on walking again and forget about boxing was more fuel for the fire that burned inside him. He’d show them all.

John managed to restrict his eager fighter to light cardio and shadow-boxing for the first month or so, but by the end of the summer Magee was forcing his way into the ring with a head-guard on, looking for game sparring partners. One of the specialists who had treated him in the Ulster Hospital was aghast to see a photo of the boxer in his gear and immediately phoned with a dire warning.

Eamonn was still on a course of Warfarin to thin his blood and the slightest nick could cause him to quickly bleed to death. For once, he heeded the medic’s words and continued with non-contact gym sessions until given the green light just after Christmas to start training for real.

As 2005 dawned he was still the WBU welterweight champion of the world. Jon W. Robinson’s death had left a void in the organisation and, despite Magee not having fought for over a year, nobody had bothered to strip him of his title. With itchy fists, he started pushing for a return.

The BBBofC gathered several independent medical opinions, studied various x-rays, shook their heads in disbelief and renewed his licence. A new moniker, ‘Miracle Man’, began doing the rounds and the clamour for his return intensified. Sky Sports committed to screen it, wherever, whenever and against whomever. Warren, Callahan and Breen urged their fighter to take on a ten-round walk in the park to test the water, but he was having none of it.

The WBU had awoken from their slumber and announced that their champion must defend his title by the end of March or surrender it, and so Eamonn demanded a ranked opponent to satisfy the championship stipulations. Allan Vester, an ex IBF inter-continental champion and world title challenger, was soon nominated.

As this was to be the biggest event in Irish boxing for more than a decade, a suitable venue was required and the famous King’s Hall in Belfast fit the bill perfectly. Barry McGuigan had residency in the iconic arena throughout the mid-1980s and another of the great Irish pugilists, Rinty Monaghan, graced its ring many times in the 1930s and 1940s. Joe Calzaghe versus Brian Magee was announced as chief support and tickets sold out in an instant.

Boxing - Joe Calzaghe Open Workout - Abercarn Joe Calzaghe (file pic). Source: PA Archive/PA Images

This was the biggest fight in Ireland since Ray Close’s rematch with Chris Eubank in the same venue in 1994. Eamonn was there that night, making a few extra quid as he worked security on the door, but this would be his first time fighting in the atmospheric, century-old building. To complete the circle, the great Eubank flew over and sat ringside to watch Magee’s return in person.

The crowd generated a ferocious din to welcome the first bell. Magee had drawn a crowd even back when he was a young amateur, but there were plenty of new and unfamiliar faces peering towards the ring on this night. Comebacks of any kind stir something inside the average sports fan, but when the long walk back to glory commenced with a brutal, near-death experience, there is an almost morbid curiosity to witness how one of their own breed could possibly do it.

Breen had spoken from the heart in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph on the eve of the fight. ‘I think the whole of Northern Ireland should be behind Eamonn when he steps into that ring,’ he said with conviction.

‘We live in a troubled place and Eamonn has had his fair share of troubles, but he’s back. I truly believe he’s an inspiration to anyone who has been intimidated, anyone who has suffered, because he has come back from the brink. I didn’t think he would be back but he just refused to give up; he refused to let anyone stop him from defending his world title. There’s only one Eamonn Magee.’

Ian Darke and Jim Watt echoed those sentiments as Eamonn appeared from behind a curtain in front of thousands in the King’s Hall and hundreds of thousands watching on television. Darke described it as one of the most remarkable comebacks in the history of all sport before handing over to Watt to complete the tribute.

‘It’s unbelievable,’ gushed the traditionally dour Scotsman. ‘If they used Eamonn’s life for a Hollywood script they’d have to water it down because it is too unbelievable. In his lifetime he’s been shot, he’s been stabbed, he’s been crippled, and here he is defending a world championship after 15 months out. The man is truly amazing.’

After the almighty build-up, it was a quiet opening stanza. Magee, the counter-puncher so accustomed to lying in wait, was forced onto the front foot by his opponent’s timorous reluctance to engage. He pursued Vester with a palpable sense of menace, a look in his eye that promised hurt.

Vester, by nature of his soft features and the less than imposing jaunt to his gait as he stepped anywhere that wasn’t into range, immediately looked like the occasion might be too much for him. But Eamonn demurred to lash out with the bout still in its vulnerable infancy. Like a hibernating bear emerging for the spring, the fighter was aware of his potency but also conscious of the time his punching muscles had lain in stasis. He pawed after Vester but all the while he was allowing his body to re-associate itself with the environs of the prize ring.

In the third, Eamonn stretched his sinews. A glance from the angle of his shaven skull pierced the skin at the corner of Vester’s right eye and the Dane desired refuge immediately. He sought it by bowing down until within an inch of kneeling. It was as if he was faking taking a knee in an attempt to trick Magee into arresting his assault, yet not oblige an eight-count from the referee.

But with Vann nowhere to be seen, Eamonn continued, scimitar-like arms swinging scything hooks until his man did drop. Vester complained to Vann, but the Englishman was unmoved, completing his mandatory count just as a drop of Danish blood dripped onto the challenger’s bare chest. Magee scented the claret and moved in to draw more. By now he knew that Vester couldn’t hurt him and he wanted this all over inside nine minutes.

Marching in he got caught with a solid right, but while Vester may have grinned his pleasure at the truest blow he would land all night, Eamonn barely flinched. He backed his man into the corner and an uppercut had Vester two-thirds of the way down before he uncharacteristically turned back for more.

Another uppercut was duly served, severing the Dane’s guard and blurring his senses. A knee was the quickest way to the canvas, but barely had his patella touched the floor when Magee threw in a spiteful dig that chopped down onto his right ear. Vester rose once more but Eamonn was now in a rage.

It was no longer an almost defenceless Allan Vester across the ring, it was Joe Clarke and his three-foot pickaxe handle. Mickey Vann couldn’t even complete his wave to motion the action to recommence, for Magee was already on top of his quarry and flailing wildly as a visibly startled Vester scurried about the ring in search of a suitable patch of canvas for this third and final knee. With twenty-eight seconds to go he found it, knelt and removed his gum shield. Eamonn had won in the third round.

There was a distinct inflection to the roar that greeted Vann calling the fight off. It was a more heartfelt sound than anything that had welcomed Magee’s previous twenty-five wins as a professional. Within it was admiration, adulation, awe and reverence. ‘He’s not the Terminator,’ said Ian Darke, ‘he’s the Miracle Man.’

And it certainly felt like he had achieved something very remarkable. He reached through the ropes to embrace Mike and then walked laps of the ring, applauding the fans revelling in what they had witnessed. Eamonn could make himself a hard man to love at times, but that night it was impossible not to feel something in the way of affection and respect towards him.

From his sock he pulled a betting slip on which he had wagered £100 on himself to stop Vester in the third round at odds of twelve to one. He spied Eubank at ringside, upright and applauding heartily.

Eamonn dived between the ropes and as Eubank warned him to take care with his new, three-piece, tailor-made suit, Magee grabbed the ex-super middleweight king in a bear hug and held on tight until the Saville Row fabric had absorbed at least a pint of his sweat. Eubank later explained his surprise appearance to local reporters.

‘I had never seen him box [live] before,’ he began. ‘But when I heard what he had gone through, I had to get on a plane and come to watch. I don’t know him as a man but as a fighter he has the character and the true grit that seems to be missing quite a bit today. He’s a proper fighter.’

Eamonn was calm and measured as he sat on the ring apron and answered Ed Robinson’s questions. He made a point of dedicating the victory to all of the doctors and nurses who had treated his leg in the Royal Victoria and Ulster hospitals, and then promised he had much more left in the tank before he hung up his gloves for good.
‘It’s the only thing I know how to do,’ he concluded. ‘And I just can’t walk away from a game I love so much.’

The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee by Paul D Gibson is published by Mercier Press. More info here.

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