The Rosmuc boxer who kept cool with the Boston mob and was never knocked down
World title challenger Sean Mannion's Co Galway heritage saw him safe in South Boston, writes Ronan Mac Con Iomaire
When Sean Mannion raced his car through the dark streets of South Boston, little did he realise he was chasing the man who would become one of the most wanted criminals in US history.
Whitey Bulger had just crashed into Mannion's car as the future world No 1 light-middleweight boxing contender was returning home from yet another training session.
Bulger eventually pulled his Chevvy Malibu over and rolled down the window.
"Do you realise you hit my car?" screamed Mannion.
Bulger muttered an apology and threw a roll of cash at Mannion. $500.
"That was more than what the car was worth," said Sean. "It only dawned on me when he pulled away who I had been talking to. I don't think I would have chased him down if I knew it was Whitey!"
Looking to fulfil a dream as a pro fighter, 17-year-old Sean Mannion flew into Boston from the Co Galway Gaeltacht village of Rosmuc in 1977, straight into a world of gun smugglers, drug dealers and the world's best boxers. Despite dubious management and the attention of the Boston Irish Mafia, Mannion quickly climbed his way up from the lower rungs of one of the most competitive weight divisions in boxing history, fighting out of a gym in South Boston along with Whitey Bulger's henchmen.
Sean Mannion's life was so intertwined with the Whitey Bulger underworld that when authorities swooped on Bulger's gang in 1990, the list of arrested accomplices read like a Who's Who of Mannion's boxing circle.
John 'Red' Shea, one of Mannion's friends and sparring partners in South Boston's Connolly Gym, tried to flee from police that night but was later arrested and went on to serve 12 years in jail as one of Bulger's cocaine-trafficking lieutenants.
Paul 'Polecat' Moore, a senior figure in the Bulger infrastructure, ended up being sentenced to nine years for drug dealing. Moore was an imposing figure in Connolly's Gym. At 6ft and over 14st, he was used by Sean when he needed a challenging sparring session against a boxer five weight grades above him.
The third person from the Mannion camp arrested that night was Kevin MacDonald, or 'Andre the Giant' as he was known in South Boston. MacDonald, arrested with a loaded shotgun and a .38-calibre Smith & Wesson by his bed, was Sean's bodyguard when Mannion was preparing for his 1984 world title bout against Mike McCallum.
But Mannion's connections to Whitey Bulger ran closer than former sparring partners and bodyguards. Boston in the late 1970s was not just a very Irish city, it was a very Connemara city. Walking down Dorchester Avenue, you were as likely to hear Irish being spoken on the street as you were English.
Among these immigrants was a guy called Pat Nee. Nee and Sean were distant cousins, both born in Rosmuc, both having attended the same school. Nee's family emigrated to the US in 1952, and Pat quickly settled into the Boston criminal gang scene from a young age. It wasn't long before he crossed paths with Whitey Bulger, both attempting to assassinate the other in a street war between their two gangs before a truce saw Nee and Bulger working together.
Whitey Bulger eventually took over the leadership of the Winter Hill Gang, leading to a murderous domination of the Boston criminal underworld that would eventually see him flee Boston in 1994 after being revealed as an FBI informer.
While Nee was implicated, but never charged, in a number of Bulger-related killings, he began to focus on a new venture following Whitey's takeover of the Winter Hill Gang. He started to put together a huge arms haul destined for the IRA, with more than seven tonnes of guns, ammunition and surveillance equipment. The arms, however, were seized by the Irish Navy from the trawler Marita Ann in an operation that saw future Sinn Fein TD Martin Ferris arrested.
Splashed across the front page of The Irish Times on October 20, 1984, was a photo of the seized arms. On the same front page was a report on Sean Mannion's WBA world light-middleweight title fight held in Madison Square Garden in New York the night before. Few people could have imagined the connection between the Connemara boxer and the seven tonnes of arms seized off the Co Kerry coast.
The FBI eventually caught up with Nee and he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for his role in the Marita Ann arms haul.
But back in 1977, when Mannion first went to Boston, Pat Nee, along with Whitey, ruled the streets of South Boston. Nothing happened without Nee knowing. Sure enough, Mannion wasn't long in the city when Nee came by his gym for a chat. Two guys from Rosmuc, a long way from home, both of whose livelihoods depended upon very different forms of violence. Sean, working the punchbag, didn't notice Nee and his colleagues entering the room. After a quick introduction and a chat about family and Rosmuc, Nee got to the point.
"Sean, if any of these f***s here, or anyone else for that matter, f***s with you, you give me a call. You got that?"
Sean nodded, but the "you got that?" wasn't meant for him. It was meant for the rest of the gym. They got the message. Don't mess with Sean Mannion.
"When Sean came over in 1977, he was around some people that mightn't have had his best interests in mind," recalled Nee. "There were a lot of drug dealers in the gym, bringing all kinds of heat on the place, scumbags, wise guys that would try and make money off Sean.
"When the gunmen get involved, you get a problem, but those were guys that we could and we did handle. Just the fact that they seen us come in to see Sean and knowin' that we're both from the same place in Ireland was enough."
Mannion recalls being asked on a number of occasions to meet Whitey Bulger in his infamous Triple O's Lounge. Boston's Irish mob always needed muscle, but Mannion refused the Boston Godfather's invitations.
"Sean's not a mean person," said John 'Red' Shea. "I heard that Sean was asked to probably join the Irish Mafia, again I don't know that personally, but from what I hear, he was asked. Sean could never do that. He doesn't have the disposition, he's not that type of person to be mean like that."
"I didn't want anything to do with that stuff," said Mannion, "ruining people's lives, pushing drugs on kids."
Mannion's decision stood to him. He went on to have 57 professional fights, becoming No 1 US light-middleweight boxer in 1983 and, despite the calibre of his opponents, never once having being knocked down throughout his career.
"He's from Rosmuc, I'm from Rosmuc," said Pat Nee. "We were both climbing to the top in our respective fields. I would have done anything for Sean, but Sean was a tough guy in his own right. He didn't need me. He could take care of himself on the streets."
Ronan Mac Con Iomaire is the author of 'The Man Who Was Never Knocked Down - The Life of Boxer Sean Mannion', available in bookshops now