Jim McDonnell, The Man Who Retired McGuigan

Boxing promoter Frank Warren talks to James Degale's trainer Jim McDonnell afterJames DeGale loses on points at the O2, London. (Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)
Promoter Frank Warren talks to Jim McDonnell after James DeGale lost on points to Chris Eubank Jr. at the O2 Arena in London on February 23, 2019. (Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)

The final chapters of a boxer’s career are seldom autobiographical. From Trevor Berbick to Kevin McBride, boxing has long been littered with unwelcome ghostwriters, authors of woe, intent on adding a miserable conclusion to an otherwise uplifting story. Jim McDonnell, “Jimmy Mac” to those who know him personally, was once a ghostwriter. A competent talent who flirted with world level before becoming a first-class trainer boasting numerous accolades, McDonnell, perhaps unfairly, is remembered primarily for being the man who penned the final moments of Barry McGuigan’s memorable story. It is a conclusion he has fond memories of producing.

“I didn’t think I was ever going to get that fight,” screeches McDonnell, a shrill excitement in his voice that is often evident in ex-fighters delighted at the prospect of sharing war stories one more time. “I was with Mickey Duff if you can remember and Barry was with Barney Eastwood, so it should’ve been an easy fight to make. It wasn’t until I was with Barry Hearn that the fight happened. Barry phoned me at about one in the morning and he said, ‘Jim, we’ve got the McGuigan fight. Press conference is tomorrow so put on your best suit.’ There was no way I was getting back to sleep, so I just threw on my running gear and got out in the streets for an hour or two because I was so excited.”

On the verge of nailing a monumental victory, McDonnell’s journey to this crucial point in his life had been one built on seemingly endless toil. He is a product of 1960s London, a city congested with a wide variety of characters ranging from gentleman gangsters to scooter-riding Mods. The “Swinging Sixties,” essentially a youth culture centered on art, fashion, and music, didn’t appeal to a sports-obsessed McDonnell, who made football and boxing his priorities while his fellow youth pursued alternative fixes.

“My mum and dad went their separate ways when I was a young lad, so I made the move from East London to North London. Football was on Saturdays and Sundays, and because I’d been boxing all week I’d always be turning up with bruises, cuts, and black eyes. I could’ve done something with football, but it was boxing that I was better at, and that’s why I made the decision to stick with it. My fitness was always one step ahead of everyone else’s because I took my running and sprints so seriously. Having good coaches at my club, St. Pancras in North London, taught me everything I needed to know about boxing and, when you add in my fitness, then I started doing well in it.

“Boxing was a valuable currency in London when I was competing. You went in the ABA finals then the local paper was doing a big spread on you, Boxing News would give it about four or five pages, and you’d have the BBC screening the whole event live and you might even get a repeat screening too. I lost ABA finals, but I also won one, and you can tell the difference in both as it was a big stage to perform on and almost everyone could tell you who the ABA champions were back then as the exposure it provided was huge. The Olympics was always the big one, but you could get yourself a few quid from a promoter if you had an ABA title.”

McDonnell grabbed his ABA gong in 1982 and added a silver medal from that year’s Commonwealth Games before lending his ears to the wide variety of promoters who controlled British boxing at the birth of the turbulent 1980s. In a country plagued with mass unemployment, McDonnell, despite the loud backdrop, applied himself vigorously to boxing, climbed the rankings, and was European featherweight champion by the end of 1985.

With terrestrial television strongly backing something of a domestic boxing saga starring names like Frank Bruno, Nigel Benn, Herol Graham, and an emerging Chris Eubank, McDonnell was an excellent supporting act whose envious levels of fitness, combined with a knowledge of boxing basics, made him a handful for boxing’s shrewdest operators. Possessing a ledger providing evidence that he wasn’t quite good enough for the Brian Mitchells and Azumah Nelsons of the world, McDonnell was more than a match for this version of McGuigan, and when he came face to face with the Irish icon at their prefight media gathering in May 1989, McDonell was certain he was going to make a lasting impression.

“I never got a look in with the press for that fight until one fella at the back shouted out, ‘Jim, what makes you think you’re on Barry’s level?’ Barry Hearn tried to answer for me, but I grabbed my microphone and asked the journalist why he was up at the back and not on the front with the guys from the dailies and the magazines. I told him that being on the same table as Barry meant I was on his level, yet he was up there in the sky whilst all the big journalists were at the front. That got me a good laugh and it kind of helped me relax a little as it took some sting from the press conference.”

McDonell and McGuigan met at the G-Mex Centre, in Manchester, on May 5, 1989. Setting his usual Tasmanian-devil pace from the opening bell, McDonnell overwhelmed McGuigan almost immediately. Both men had endured grueling careers, and when the time came to reach down and claim any sort of respite being offered, it was McDonnell who could go further. The Londoner relentlessly targeted a cut on McGuigan’s eye, and with the laceration worsening with each thudding punch landed, referee Mickey Vann called a halt on a McDonnell combination, and a brief examination of the Irishman’s eye proved enough to end the fight.

After ousting McGuigan from boxing permanently, McDonnell was now desperate to emulate his most recent victim as he strived to become world champion, though he was confronted by Ghana’s cherished son, Nelson. On Bonfire Night, 1989, at a congested Royal Albert Hall, McDonnell sat at the top of the bill on a show that featured the rise of future heavyweight titlists Herbie Hide and Lennox Lewis. In Nelson, McDonnell faced a modern great, possibly at his peak, and the gulf in class was evident despite a courageous effort from the London man, who was sensibly saved in the final stanza.

“I needed the Nelson fight when I had the McGuigan one,” remembers McDonnell, a hint of pride in his voice while analyzing his tough battles with featherweight royalty. “Far too much of me went into that McGuigan fight that I think it was nearly impossible to get to that level again so soon after. I was always one of the fittest, but against Nelson, I began to tire really early and that never really happened to me. Maybe I was getting old, but I do think the desire and energy I put into the McGuigan fight knocked a lot from me and it was the Nelson fight when I realized it.”

Two more fights, eight years apart, and both losses, hurled McDonnell’s fighting career towards the exit door. He had endured plenty in his eventful thirty-fight tenure, but a world title, something he always wanted, stayed just out of reach despite the prize teasing McDonnell on a few occasions. Undeniably a student of his craft and a constant nuisance to all his coaches, Jim made the switch from fighter to trainer look effortless as he guided Brixton heavyweight Danny Williams all the way to a world title shot.

“You hear fighters sometimes say fighting is the easy part, but I always loved training. The runs up to Hampstead Heath with George Francis where he’d make you jump in the freezing pond at the end and then onto the gym later where it’d be packed and noisy, and the sparring went on for hours. The gym was something of a peaceful place for me, and I felt alive whenever I was in there. There were times I couldn’t wait for my career to be over because I always knew I was going to be a trainer from when I was a young lad.”

On Williams, McDonnell added: “He could do it all could Danny, but only when he felt like it. There were days in the gym when he’d be sparring or doing pads, and fighters like Takaloo would just be standing there in amazement at what they were watching. Danny was really quick, he could bang and he set traps really well. It was no surprise to me that he beat [Mike] Tyson, because I knew what Danny was capable of. For weeks I’d have sparring partners going all out for the first two rounds trying to kill him as I knew that’s what Mike would try. Clifford Etienne was told he’d get £1,000 from my own money if he could drop Danny in the first couple of rounds. I had to make sure he was ready for the onslaught.”

In survival mode from the opening bell like a game-show contestant racing against the clock, Williams resisted Tyson’s well-planned attacks and his strategy was aided when the New Yorker’s knee seemingly blew out at the end of round one. As Tyson’s injury became more destabilizing, Williams’s confidence was inflating with every passing session and a fourth-round flurry was enough to cause a seismic upset. Tyson’s well-thought-out blueprint to earn another world title shot was in tatters, and it was Williams who obtained a Christmas date with WBC ruler Vitali Klitschko.

After slaying one generational ruler, Williams was unable to destroy another as the Ukrainian monster produced one of heavyweight boxing’s most brutal performances, punishing Williams in a showing that mirrored an angry bully slapping around a timid victim. The brave Brit was consistently floored and, halfway through the eighth round, Jay Nady halted a massacre that could’ve been stopped many rounds sooner. Williams’s days as a world-class contender were over just as swiftly as they had begun, and McDonnell still harbors regrets when looking back at the events of December 2004.

“It was too much too soon for Danny. From Tyson to Klitschko was too big an ask in consecutive fights and I wish there was the opportunity to fight a bigger man in the mold of Klitschko before heading into the fight. Someone also thought it would be a good idea for Sterling McPherson to help out in the corner, and that also ended up being something of a mess because Danny was just getting advice from all areas and I should’ve put a stop to that immediately. I grew as a trainer overnight in that fight because I told myself that things would be different moving forward and that I’d always listen to myself rather than others. Danny didn’t have a chance looking back, but I was convinced by others that he belonged in there. He needed more experience at that level and then maybe things might’ve worked out differently.”

Man enough to admit his shortcomings in a business where weaknesses are exploited ruthlessly, McDonnell was a much shrewder operator when James DeGale demanded his services in 2008, just months after winning an Olympic gold medal. Oozing self-belief, enough to make supporters dislike him in his early career, DeGale’s demeanor couldn’t be more of a contrast from that of McDonnell. Despite this difference, McDonnell and DeGale, almost like father and son, conquered the boxing world when “Chunky” became a titleholder in 2015 by outpointing Michigan’s Andre Dirrell in a lukewarm classic. With DeGale now retired, McDonnell looks to the former super-middleweight champion as the man who gave him his biggest highlights in boxing.

“James winning that belt was everything I’ve always wanted, and I couldn’t have been happier for him. I’d take that moment over and over again for the rest of my life. Even if someone offered me wins over Azumah Nelson and [his other world-leading opponent] Brian Mitchell, I never would’ve taken them if it meant that James didn’t get his world title. I was with him for the first fight, and I was with him in his last. There’s not many trainers who have what me and James had, and I’m forever grateful to him for letting me be there for what was a brilliant time.”

McDonnell added, “Losses to [George] Groves and [Caleb] Truax never once changed James’s opinion of me. I saw things wrote about how he needed a new trainer and that’s one thing I hate about boxing. It’s far too easy to blame the trainer, and James never once blamed me. He had amazing drive and always wanted to be the best and test himself in the biggest fights. When he first turned over with me, I remember we were due to meet and run some hills at five-thirty in the morning. The snow was really bad this day, and the whole gym was meant to be there. When I got there, it was only James that had shown up. An Olympic gold medalist and a few quid in the bank, and he’s first there in awful conditions. That was James all over. A proper fighter, who had the exact same attitude that I had all those years ago. Good on him for getting to the top because it was something that I was never able to do.”