Friday, February 21, 2014

Seán Mannion, the Neglected Great of Irish Boxing

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Rocky Ros Muc, written by Rónán Mac an Iomaire and published towards the end of last year, is a book about the life and times of the greatest Irish professional boxer you never heard of. Seán Mannion was a granite-jawed welterweight / light-middleweight who fought out of Boston, Mass from 1977 until he finally retired in 1993.

In Rocky Ros Muc, Mac an Iomaire looks at the sport of boxing, life in Connemara, the Irish emigrant experience and the life of a man who could have been a contender. He weaves all those threads together to present an invaluable record of a way of Irish emigrant life and of a sport at a time when it was still a big deal.

Seán Mannion boxed as an amateur in Ireland before taking the plane to Massachusetts to make his fortune, like so many before him. He worked for his brother’s construction company by day and by night Mannion boxed in Connolly’s Gym.

Connolly’s Gym was on Broadway Street in Dorchester, the famous “Southie” area of Boston that is famous for its Irish and its hoodlums. Mac an Iomaire excels in portraying the atmosphere of the place at the time, when everyone knew who Whitey Bulger was and nobody wanted to get on the wrong side of him.

This is one of the many marvellous features of the book, how Mac an Iomaire is able to place you in the time and at the place. You’re in the Irish bars celebrating St Patrick’s Day, you’re ringside at the fights, and sometimes you can even hear the thock! thock! thock! of the punches hitting the heavy bag in the gym as Mannion hones his trade with a line of made guys, wiseguys and plain old two-bit hoodlums looking on and hanging out.

As a boxer, Mannion had several gifts. Firstly, he was lefthanded, a southpaw. Most boxers, like most people, are right-handed, which makes fighting a left-hander an oddity in itself. That puts opponents at a disadvantage straight away.

Secondly, Mannion had excellent ringcraft – he was a proper boxer, rather than just a brawler. But best of all, Mannion could take what was thrown at him. Seán Mannion fought fifty-seven professional fights, and was never knocked down in any of them. There are very few fighters about whom that can be said.

But for all that, Mannion had one fatal flaw. When he’s in training, a boxer has to live almost like a monk. He has to exercise right, train right, eat right. He has to go to bed early and be up before the dawn, running miles, skipping rope, sparring, hitting the heavy bag, hitting the light bag.

What he’s not meant to do is to live on fried food and booze, which commodities Mannion found hard to resist. There’s an amazing story in the book that illustrates just how far off the pace Mannion was in terms of training, and just how good he could have been if he’d been better managed.

On the 20th of August, 1982, Mannion was to fight Hector Figuerora at welterweight. Welterweight boxers weigh not less than 140 pounds and not more than 147. At the weigh-in on the day of the fight, Mannion weighed in at 156. Nine pounds overweight.

Figuerora’s seconds demanded a forfeit, but Mannion was given a chance to see if he could sweat the weight off. They ran the shower in his hotel room until hands couldn’t be seen in front of faces from steam, and then in Mannion went, dressed in a rubber suit and carrying a skipping rope.

After one solid hour’s skipping, Mannion was weighted again. Four pounds lost, but still five overweight. Back into the rubber suit with Mannion, and he started running up and down three flights of stairs. Up and down, up and down.

After half-an-hour, he was back on the scales. Another four pounds gone, but still one left. Figuerora’s corner wouldn’t concede the pound, even though Figuerora’s opponent was surely, surely spent after all this.

Finally, a last resort. Mannion was given a raw rubdown by one of his trainers – a massage without oil. The trainer more or less skinned Mannion to lose that extra pound. After the rubdown Mannion, naked and red as a lobster, climbed onto the scales and made the weight. Then he beat Figuerora on points over ten rounds. After all that working out, Seán Mannion was still able to box ten rounds and win.

Mannion got his shot at the World Title eventually, against Mike McCallum. It didn’t go well. Mannion had been injured in training before the fight but even if he hadn’t, McCallum would still have been too good. The great names of middleweight boxing in the 1980s were Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns and Marvin Hagler, and not one of those four ever got in the ring with McCallum.

Seán Mannion’s is an extraordinary story of wins and losses inside and outside the ring and this book is a treasure. So much so that there may be people reading this who will wonder why, if it’s so good, Mac an Iomaire wrote it in Irish.

Firstly, Irish was very important to Mannion. He insisted on one of his brothers being one of his cornermen so they could speak in Irish during fights, and also insisted that Amhráin na bhFiann be sung, in Irish, before he fought McCallum. And secondly, why shouldn’t it be written in Irish?

Books written in Irish are not always good, and the currently ill-judged emphasis on ‘spoken’ Irish doesn’t do much to help. The market of books written in Irish, what gets published and what doesn’t, is a debate for another day. Don’t begrudge us our treat.

Besides; people often say they would warm up their school Irish if only they got a chance. The chance is here now with the publication of Rocky Ros Muc. Seconds out.