Boxing journalist Paul D. Gibson spends extensive time with former world champion boxer Eamonn Magee to tell the stranger-than-fiction life of an incredibly gifted, yet troubled fighter.
Boxing naturally lends itself to remarkable human stories. The nature of this brutal sport means a career in pugilism is not often pursued by those with wider options. As such, fighters usually first enter a gym as an escape from reality; whether poverty, a broken family, run-ins with the law or similarly tough circumstances.
So when a fighter reaches a level of celebrity and success, and achieves his own rags-to-riches story (before it often returns to rags), it can sometimes seem lifted from a movie script: a dirt poor kid growing up in a crime-ridden community discovers boxing, makes his way through the ranks and on to riches and superstardom.
Now, when compared to the backstory of many top stars from other sports, these Cinderella-style tales are extraordinary, but when set in the confines of boxing, they’re really a dime a dozen.
Rest assured, as Paul D. Gibson reveals in Lost Soul, there is nothing unoriginal about the life and times of Eammon Magee.
A supremely talented boxer from an early age, Magee enjoyed an illustrious amateur career before, eventually, taking a long and winding road through the pro ranks where he briefly reached the pinnacle in the form of the WBU welterweight world title.
But given his once-in-a-generation talent, there is no doubt that Magee’s was a career unfulfilled. In fact, boxing was often an after-thought, the dedication required to reach the level his talent deserved severely lacking.
Magee’s formative years, spent in the Ardoyne during the height of the Troubles where death and violence was an everyday occurrence, no doubt laid the foundations for the complex and troubled man he would become.
His relationship with his father was also a major influence, while the heavy drinking culture played its part in setting Magee on a path that would lead to a life of alcohol-dependency.
The countless violent altercations – many meaningless, others that carried greater consequence – run-ins with the UDA and IRA – where one with the latter resulted in a gunshot to the leg – and the relentless drink and drug binges, have ensured a life of perpetual self-destruction.
Forget about Magee’s unfulfilled boxing potential for a moment – it’s a minor miracle he’s still alive.
Then there were the boxing politics at play that worked against Magee, which not only stunted his rise, but led to further recklessness in the pubs and streets of Belfast.
You would think, given the complexity and holy-fuckery of his life, given his self-destruction and unstoppable slide deeper down the bottle, Magee’s fighting style would be a reflection of his fractured personality. But instead, the world witnessed a fighter of immense poise, grace and style; of composure, intelligence and guile.
It all feeds further into the Magee enigma.
Attempting to accurately portray such a unique and complex figure is by no means an easy feat, but Gibson does so masterfully in Lost Soul.
Relying on access to Magee’s family and friends for a deeper understanding of the man and fighter, Gibson is able to provide well-rounded context to this extraordinary story, while meticulous levels of research allow the reader to be immersed in Magee’s world and the social and political climate which provided the backdrop to his life.
But it is Gibson’s personal relationship with Magee that is the hero of Lost Soul. The burgeoning rapport between author and subject is laid out on the page as Gibson weaves his personal experiences with Magee into the boxer’s story.
Gibson is able to extract from Magee many of his deepest and darkest thoughts, conveying the personal relationships central to his life – including those with his parents and brothers, his children and their mothers, his boxing inner circle, and his friends and drinking buddies.
This relationship – one of trust and friendship which extends beyond the regular author-subject boundaries – also allows Gibson to relay the most harrowing of Magee’s life experiences: the murder of his son Eammon Jr.
Lost Soul portrays Magee as a complex and conflicting man: someone who has done plenty of bad, but in essence is not a bad person, who was both a victim and facilitator of his surroundings, who loves his family deeply but whose actions rarely reflect those emotions, who was generous with his time and money but who has enemies across Belfast.
And underneath it all was a fabulously gifted boxer, who despite not reaching the heights his talent deserved, was still able to garner cross-community support during one of the most fractured times in Irish history.
Magee’s is no ordinary life and Lost Soul is no ordinary book.