“It’s a bit of both,” Seanie Monaghan says when I ask him if he feels happy or sad to be back in his old Freeport gym, on Long Island, at the end of a year in which so much has happened. Monaghan, the wildly popular fighter from Long Beach who won his first twenty-eight bouts as a professional light-heavyweight and come so close to a world title shot, finally retired last April. Six months later he lost one of his closest friends when Patrick Day died four days after his fight against Charles Conwell on October 12 in Chicago. Today is the first time that the thirty-eight-year-old has been able to return to the gym where they worked so hard together for so long.
Memories of Day, and their sweat-soaked dreams of glory, are all around us. But today marks a fresh start for Monaghan. In 2020, a new decade, he will continue his new job in construction in Manhattan while making his debut in two different forms of work. Monaghan has landed a role in a movie where he plays Henry Cooper, the London heavyweight who fought Muhammad Ali twice and, famously, dropped The Greatest when he was still called Cassius Clay in 1963. He also agreed, just before Christmas, to become the manager of a young New York-based English light-heavyweight, Matthew Tinker, who has won his first two pro fights.
“There was real pain [last] year,” Monaghan admits, “but boxing has given me so much. I’ve got a great job at J. T. Magen because of boxing. I’m doing this movie role and now I’m starting as a manager. There was a time when I first retired and people said: ‘What are you going to do now that it’s over?’ But I just wanted to be over thinking about boxing. Especially after Patrick I thought, ‘I’m done with all that.’ Today, I feel a little better about it.”
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Monaghan was meant to fight Bernard Hopkins, Adonis Stevenson and Jürgen Brähmer for different versions of the world light-heavyweight title, and he was tough enough to stand toe-to-toe with a modern beast of the ring when sparring Artur Beterbiev. But, in his friendly way, he winces as he remembers discovering how much it hurt to be a pro boxer. In 2010 he won his professional debut when he knocked out his opponent, a journeyman called Simeon Trigueno, in the first round. But he got a small taste of pro fighting.
“I remember that first fight,” Monaghan says. “I don’t think the guy even had a win. He was real muscly, but skinny, and I was coming to kill him. But early on he hit me with a jab and I said, ‘Holy shit, it hurts with the little gloves on and no head gear.’ If you get hit in amateur fights a jab doesn’t hurt. A good shot in the nose would hurt but up here [Monaghan taps the side of his head] it felt like I got hit by something sharp. I thought, ‘This is different, you’ve got to be more careful.’ I also remember being shocked the first time in the locker room. I’ve got pretty big hands and I couldn’t get them into the gloves. They were like winter mittens, I said, ‘This is a fist fight. This is serious.’”
His laugh echoes around the empty gym and Monaghan pauses before continuing. “If I was going to come back, and I’m not, the hardest fight would be telling my wife and mom. They would not want me stepping inside the ring and I understand. I see guys from this gym fight and you’re so nervous you just want it to be over with. So boxing has been good to me but, coming back today, the feelings are real mixed.”
This is a powerful and evocative boxing story. Its roots are in the grit and pain of real life and the boxing ring—stretching from alcoholism and murder to great nights at Madison Square Gardens and in Las Vegas. But Monaghan’s life and career are uplifting and he tells his story with a winning blend of honesty and warmth. He is a shining example of how boxing is full of good people despite the corruption and death that shrouds its darkest moments.
As happens so often in boxing the source is found in a troubled relationship between a damaged father and his young son. “The one connection I had with my father was boxing,” Monaghan says. “When I was a kid in the 1980s there was always a big crew of Irish and English people at our place in Long Beach when there was a Mike Tyson fight on TV. My house was the party house and thirty guys would be watching the fight. They’d bring me downstairs in my pajamas and give me advice about life or boxing.
“I always had that in my head and, in a way, I wanted to impress my father. I remember one time, I would have been eight, and there was a fight in the playground and this kid took a little pebble and stuck it in the other kid’s ear. They couldn’t get it out and they sent him away in an ambulance. I was furious and, for a little kid, I beat up the other kid really bad in the bathroom. We got brought to the principal’s office and they called my father. I remember the teacher wasn’t mad at me because she knew I was a good kid and he was a bad kid. When my father and my Uncle Sammy came to get me they looked really angry with me in front of the teacher. They were saying, ‘You’re in big trouble!’ But as soon we’re outside they’re like, ‘Yes!’
Monaghan imitates the high fives he received for winning the fight. “I went to my dad’s upholstery shop and as soon I walked in I got a big round of applause. Word had spread about me fighting and the drinking men loved it. They used to call my dad’s shop The Irish Embassy. It was nestled in amongst a bunch of bars.”
He scrunches up his face at the memories of his father who died in 2018. “I look back at my dad and we didn’t have the best relationship. Being a father myself now, I can see that all you can ask from your dad is that he puts you in a better position than he was in. My father didn’t have the easiest life, and he wasn’t the most caring either, but he put me in New York City and I live in a beautiful place in Long Beach. In the summertime it’s like California.”
Image credit: Mikey Williams from Top Rank
But there was darkness behind all that sunshine. “The way he was…,” Monaghan’s voice trails away. “I don’t know if you want to write this but he was an alcoholic.”
“Are you happy if we include this?” I ask Monaghan.
“Yes. He was good in his own way, He did his best. My mother’s the opposite. She’s a great lady. She did a great job looking after all of us and my mother would always make sure to show up to all my sports events. She’d say, ‘Your father wishes he could make it.’ So when he died I felt a mix of anger and sadness. I wasn’t really talking to him at the time so I regret that a bit. But, in fairness to him, my father was the oldest boy of a big Irish family. It was never easy.
“My mother’s family are Irish but she was born in New York. Her family then moved back to Ireland and she met my father. She got pregnant and my father really wanted to get out of Ireland. So they came over here and had me in New York. That’s me—made in Ireland but born in America.”
Monaghan rubs his beard wryly. He thinks of happier times and how his dad was “a great upholsterer and his business did very well. He liked to drink and he was a very social guy. My belief is he would have gone to a bar and drunk a non-alcoholic drink because he just liked to have a laugh. He started a big wave of Irish guys coming out to New York. He would give them a place to stay, a few dollars, show them around. He took on the job of entertaining them. My house was a little crazy when I was a kid. Sometimes I’d come home and there’d be a drunk English or Irish guy on my bed.”
Did he feel angry? “No, there were always fun people around. But, for my mom, it was tough. They waited until we got older and then they got divorced. My father bought his own house and he was drinking a lot towards the end. He was fifty-five when he died and he always said: ‘My father died of a heart attack at forty-five….’ So he had a feeling he was on borrowed time.”
If boxing had not become a cornerstone of his life could Monaghan have followed a similar path? “Oh, easily. I love the drink. I got it under control but I started drinking and smoking weed when I was eleven. Found a bag of weed on the floor and I took a piece of paper out of my school notebook. Me and my friend went into his sister’s dollhouse and smoked it.”
Boxing was Monaghan’s salvation. As a fighter he went thirteen years without a drink and, now, as a family man in a good job, Monaghan is rock solid and happy. From such stability, he can reflect on life in and outside the ring in a balanced way. He came to boxing late when he was introduced to the sport by his best friend Bobby Calabrese who was eventually murdered. Calabrese, a star wrestler at high school, persuaded Monaghan to transfer his street fighting credentials to the Freeport PAL boxing gym.
“Bobby was a great kid,” Monaghan remembers. “We’d always known each other from sports and in my senior year we hung out every day. He liked to smoke weed, and I did too at the time. I am not proud of it and it was tough for my mother. But I was a productive pot smoker. I’d lift weights and play basketball, do construction work and get into fights in the bar.”
Monaghan lets slip a rueful grin. “I was always knocking people out. I never picked on nice kids. I would get furious if I thought someone was picking on someone nice. I was easygoing but if I saw someone who deserved to get punched I’d be happy. In a way I was looking for it, but only for a certain person. I got into a lot of fights.
“One weekend, with Bobby, I got into trouble. We’re walking out of the bar with these girls and guess who walks in? One of the girls’ ex-boyfriend she just broke up with. All hell breaks loose. It turned into a big deal because we went to court after a cop said I assaulted him. It was a wild mix up because he jumped on my back and I threw him off. In court he said I turned around and looked at him with a crazy look and punched him in his chest. This was right after 9/11 when three thousand people died. Hundreds of cops in New York died trying to save people. I got found guilty of a felony and four misdemeanors. I was supposed to go to jail for a couple of years but I got lucky. My mother is a physical therapist and she had helped the captain of that precinct. He spoke up for me and they gave me probation for five years. I had to give up smoking and drinking.
“Bobby said: ‘Why don’t you start boxing?’ He took me to the Freeport gym. I saw Coach Joe Higgins, and said, ‘I want to be a fighter, can I spar with your best fighter today?’ Joe said, ‘Take it easy. Go jump some rope.’”
Joe Higgins and his brother, Tim, had been among the first firefighters to enter the burning Twin Towers on 9/11. They saved many lives before Tim died. Joe survived but he was haunted by that terrible day. One of the many touching aspects of Monaghan’s story is the way that he and, a few years later, Patrick Day saved Coach Joe from the trauma of the past.
“It was a crazy time, right after 9/11, and Joe had just lost his brother,” Monaghan remembers. “He was there the first day I went to the gym.”
Higgins, who joins us in the Freeport gym on a cold Monday afternoon, confirms that, “I wasn’t always here. My mind was all over the place.”
Did boxing eventually help him deal with the torment he endured after 9/11? “There’s no doubt,” Higgins says. “I was diagnosed with everything. But I was a high-profile fire guy, a marine. You don’t admit that stuff. I know it’s stupid and today I counsel people—‘Go get help.’ But going for help made me feel worse. Coming here every day is what helped me. The gym is a family but I’m closest to Sean and Patrick. Sean came here a few months after 9/11 when I was still dazed.
“Seanie kept showing up. I could tell he was serious about boxing and that helped me. Then Patrick showed up. Seanie had such a positive impact on Pat because he is really kind. They sparred a thousand rounds together over the years. Patrick changed me too because I felt he would look at me differently if I got too angry and cursed. So I don’t curse no more. Seanie and Patrick were raised right, and they gave me a healing force with boxing.”
Monaghan, meanwhile, just wanted to impress the grieving Higgins in those blurring early days. “Joe was the man and whenever he came to the gym I would hit the bag extra hard and try to look like Mike Tyson. One day Joe says to me. ‘Yo, kid! Go get some sparring gear. You’re sparring him.’ He pointed to this amateur heavyweight champion. He’s a southpaw and, boom, he put me on my ass with his first punch. I jumped right back up and attacked him. It was horrible looking, but I probably threw two hundred punches in that round. Joe goes, ‘I like that. Next round do this.’”
Monaghan laughs, recalling his exhausted response. “I said, ‘Next round?’ Next round I threw five punches, and I was embarrassed. I couldn’t believe I got dropped. But as soon as I walked in the next day Joe shouts: ‘There he is! I like what you did yesterday. Listen, anyone can get dropped. I want you to spar him again.’ So I sparred him again and did much, much better.”
There was still trouble ahead. In 2004, after just one successful amateur fight for Monaghan, Bobby Calabrese was murdered. “Bobby won the state championship for wrestling,” Monaghan explains. “But after college there’s no real professional wrestling. So he was doing this and that on the stock market and, as a side job, picking up money for the mob. One job Bobby comes to pick up the money and they get out of the car and grab his shirt. One guy pulls the sweatshirt over Bobby’s head and the other kid ran around with a Magnum. He shoots him, boom through the sweatshirt, boom again, through the head.”
Monaghan still looks shocked. “His cousin came to tell and I didn’t believe him at first. I was just stunned. Bobby lived about a mile away. We pull up outside his house and the whole block was full of people, with news cameras. I went into the house, saw his mom and it was brutal. Me and [his friend] Piggy went to where it happened. I saw a big puddle of blood on the ground so I punched the wall and my knuckle was sticking out of my hand. My hand was broken. Coach Joe had just lost the lease to the old gym. I was 1 and 0, but I had no hand, no gym, my best friend was dead. I said I’ll retire undefeated.
“I was very low but then my life changed incredibly. I met my wife Beverly and she became such a huge part of my life and career. The first time I saw her was when I was out one night. I had just lost Bobby a few months before and it was a very rough time for me. She was the hottest Puerto Rican beauty I’d ever seen in my life! I asked who she was and I was told that she had a boyfriend. We had a mutual friend and I said that I needed to know the minute she was single. Finally I got the call one day to say that the friend had seen her on the beach and she was no longer with anyone. So I did about five hundred pushups and went to meet her. It was perfect. She wasn’t drinking because she was playing division-one volleyball and she got a full scholarship to college for it. I wasn’t drinking either as a boxer. So we instantly started spending every second together and were married two years later. She helped me so much and I was back boxing by then.
Image credit: Mikey Williams from Top Rank
“Soon after I met Beverly there was a knock on the door. P. J. Kavanagh owned a bunch of bars and one of my brothers and my sister worked for him. He says, ‘One of the bouncers working that night you had a fight saw you. He’s a tough guy but he’s never seen someone fight like that. You’ve got some serious hands. Are you still boxing?’ I tell him: ‘No, my gym closed.’ He goes, ‘There’s a new gym run by some Irish guys and they want to meet you. Would you come trial for them?’ I said, ‘I guess so.’ I had one fight with those guys and then Joe gave me a call. He said he had this new spot and I came right back to where we are now.”
Did Bobby’s murder change Monaghan? “Big time. Bobby died in 2004 and by the time I came back to Joe I’d only had a couple of amateur fights. I got a tattoo of his name on my chest and I made it to the finals of the Golden Gloves. I thought I won it. The fight’s on YouTube so you can see for yourself. Me and Joe Smith were killing each other. They gave it to him.”
Monaghan was twenty-eight when he made his pro debut on May 21, 2010. With Higgins in his corner he remained unbeaten for the next seven years and two months. It was an extraordinary run and Monaghan, backed by his passionate Long Island fans, built a formidable 28-0 record. I remember seeing him make his Las Vegas debut for Top Rank on the undercard of a bill topped by Timothy Bradley and Juan Manuel Marquez in October 2013. Top Rank loved Monaghan and, in the billing that night, he was above even Vasiliy Lomachenko. Monaghan stopped Anthony Caputo Smith, who had a decent 14-1 record, on a third round TKO. His army of supporters went crazy.
“I was never in better shape in my life,” Monaghan says. “I looked like a monster. I had been so excited when P. J. told me that Bob Arum had called and they wanted to sign me. During that time, I swear to God, I would have given anyone a run for their money. I was in amazing shape and I won those first twenty-eight fights. Unfortunately for me the boxing cold war had just broken out. Oscar De La Hoya was always promoted by Bob—until Oscar started his own promotional company [Golden Boy]. Bob would not deal with De La Hoya. I know Top Rank are the best promoters in boxing and they paid me well. But we couldn’t nail down that world-title shot.
“At the time Bernard Hopkins had all the belts. He was with Golden Boy so I couldn’t fight him. Then Jürgen Brähmer won the [WBO] belt in Germany. We kept trying but he just didn’t want anything to do with us. I definitely would have beaten him. I remember calling Brad Goodman [the Top Rank matchmaker] in 2013 about Brähmer and he said, ‘It’s looking good but they’re not talking giant money.’ I said, ‘It’s not about the money. It’s about the title.’ I’m thinking, ‘I’ll probably make $100,000 for this fight but when I win I’ll make $5 million next time.’ I’m already thinking about all these houses I’m going to buy. Next thing he’s fighting not me but a super-middleweight. Eduard Gutnecht had lost his last fight at super-middle. He gets a world title fight at light-heavy instead of me who’s 20-0. Oh my God! I was gutted.”
Could Monaghan have beaten Hopkins—at least when Hopkins was near the end of his epic career? “I think so. Look at what Joe Smith did to him. Hopkins was old then. But you’ve got to give all these guys respect. Hopkins is a legendary guy. But if he had given me a shot in my prime I would have beaten him. I don’t care who it was. I would have won. Probably all boxers feel that way.”
Higgins feels the same. “Sean was in the mix for all those fights. Bernard Hopkins. Brähmer. Even Andre Ward. Sean was always prepared and when Top Rank were telling us what they wanted to do the plan sounded great. But damn it—none of those fights happened. He wasn’t the kind of guy many wanted to fight. Monaghan’s durable and he can hurt you.”
If Monaghan had made his pro debut at twenty-one rather than twenty-eight, would he have become a world champion? “Forget about it!” Higgins exclaims. “He would have been a multiple world champion. No doubt.”
His first loss came in July 2017 when he was stopped by Marcus Browne. “I’m friends with Marcus,” Monaghan says, “and I had sparred him all over the place, from Brooklyn to Staten Island. He’s fast, big, and slick. But he fades. If you get past the first couple of rounds, you’ll be OK. But, really, he was the last guy I wanted, style-wise. My plan was for the later rounds, but he got me in the second. He caught me with a shot I didn’t see and I went down. I wasn’t hurt—just surprised. I got right up and he was throwing punches but none of them really landed. The ref still stopped it. I should have grabbed Marcus. I hate grabbing but it’s a huge part of boxing. I should have wrestled him for four rounds until he slowed down.”
Monaghan nods and then laughs when I say he must have been wounded to have lost after seven years of being unbeaten. “Here’s a funny story. I went to Ireland for a wedding two months later. I’m walking around my family’s hometown in Ireland and a woman flags me down and she goes: ‘Seanie, my son is your biggest fan. He’s a huge boxing fan.’ I look at this little kid and say, ‘Hey, kid, I hear you’re the biggest boxing fan out there.’ He goes, ‘Yeah, I’ve seen your fight with Marcus Browne.’ I said, ‘I lost. It happens.’ His mom goes, ‘Hey, do you guys want to take a picture?’ He went ‘No.’ I thought, ‘Holy shit. How things change.’”
He won his next fight but then lost his last two bouts—to Sullivan Barrera in November 2018 and then, five months later, he was stopped by Callum Johnson. Monaghan was defeated as much by the passing years and the unforgiving scales. “I saw Johnson fight Beterbiev,” he says, “so I knew he was tough, I saw him drop Beterbiev. But my weight was an absolute nightmare. I was eating like a bird but, the morning of the weigh-in, I was eight pounds over. I was in and out of a hot bathtub—and the room was spinning. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t care what happens in the fight. I’m done with this.’
“I was so dehydrated, my back hurt. My kidneys were dehydrated and I still weighed 177 pounds. I thought, ‘How am I going to lose another two pounds?’ I had brought a bottle of Pedialyte with me—which you give babies who have diarrhea. A lot of boxers drink it afterwards to rehydrate. I said, ‘Let me take a little sip, just to wet my tongue.’ I took the Pedialyte, barely a drop, and went back up on the scale. I was 178.5 pounds, I said, ‘How the fuck did that happen?’ I swear to God I almost cried.”
Somehow, in the two remaining hours, Monaghan got down to 175 pounds for the weigh-in. “I felt like shit. We went out to dinner but I didn’t want to eat anything. I’d put nothing in my stomach for weeks. I was drinking water and my stomach hurt. I ate a bit of dinner and the next morning at breakfast I didn’t want to eat. I remember doing padwork in the dressing room before the fight and I felt so bad.
“Callum Johnson’s real quick. He hit me and I went down. I got up and he hit me again and I went down. He was a really hard puncher but I had nothing left. When you lose so much weight you feel like you’re going to die. Part of your brain doesn’t work as well. You’re not as sharp. Your brain rattles around your dry skull. I got hit with a couple of good shots and the whole thing was like a dream. Next thing the fight is over. I knew my career was over too.”
The subsequent death of such a close friend, and his training and sparring partner, in Patrick Day, is still heartbreaking. Monaghan admits that he was so disconnected from boxing that he didn’t even watch Day’s fight against Conwell. “I thought it was on much later. The first I heard about it was when I looked on Facebook and everyone’s saying prayers for Patrick. I said: ‘What, what the hell does that mean?’
“Coach Joe called me. He says: ‘It’s not good, man. He won’t wake up.’ It was horrible. I thought, ‘Pat’s career is over but he’s a good kid and will do something else now.’ I was sad for Pat because he loved boxing. I never thought….”
Monaghan’s voice trails away. “Then my phone just starts ringing. People are asking, ‘Is everything OK?’ I’m saying, ‘I don’t know.’ Then I watched the fight. I saw Patrick go down and I didn’t like the way his eyes rolled back. His arm was twitching. Every time I spoke to Joe, there was no good news. P. J., my old manager, drove to Chicago and he told me that when he saw Joe they both started crying. He went into the room and saw Patrick and the machine making his chest go up and down. P. J. put his hand on Pat’s chest and he said, ‘Oh my God, it felt like a rock.’ He had never seen anyone in better shape. They couldn’t believe that could happen to this kid—who looked like he was made out of stone even though he was the sweetest kid we’d ever met. But boxing is just such a bad idea. You get punched in the head and…”
Did he get much sleep after Patrick died? “No. I was sick as a dog. I couldn’t eat anything. I ended up in bed sick for a couple of days. I was still battling it a week later for his funeral.”
Patrick’s mother never wanted him to box. Did they talk about her misgivings? “Yeah, we did. But no one’s mother wants them to fight. Even when I was doing really well my mom would go, ‘You’ve done enough now.’ I would say, ‘Mom, I’m close to a world-title fight and making millions of dollars. I’m not going to stop now.’ I remember Patrick telling me his mom was really against it. His brothers supported him but they were nervous. I understand because I know how I felt watching Patrick fight. One minute I’d be sitting down. Then I’d stand up, then I’d have to walk over here, walk over there. It would sicken you. This was a friend of mine from the gym. Imagine if it’s your son or your brother.”
Image credit: Mikey Williams from Top Rank
We spend the rest of our time wandering around the gym. We stop at every faded poster of one of his great nights in the ring. We gaze up at all the photographs of a young Seanie Monaghan and Patrick Day. We pause and stop at Patrick’s locker that still bears his name scrawled on masking tape. We talk more about boxing and how, despite everything, we all still love it.
“You know what?” Higgins says near the end. “Seanie followed his dream. He was a top-five fighter in the world and he fought in Las Vegas and at Madison Square Garden as an amateur and a pro. How many times in the Garden?”
“Eight times,” Monaghan say.
“Eight times!” Higgins says in echoing satisfaction.
Monaghan got out of boxing with his health intact. He is now working in a job he enjoys, loving life as a husband and a father of a boy and a girl, and about to act in a movie and manage a young fighter. Is he finally at peace with boxing?
“I am,” Monaghan says. “Obviously I don’t like the way it ended for me—but this is boxing. That’s the way it always ends. But looking around this place, which I love, I feel lucky. Boxing took a lot—but it gave me so much. I can never forget that. It gave me a special kind of life.”