Stevie McKenna has taken the leap; from the little streets of leafy green County Monaghan, nestled amongst Ireland’s Border region; to the fast-paced sidewalks of Hollywood, glistening in boxing’s hotbed.
I’d caught up with his younger brother, Aaron, dubbed ‘The Silencer’, before he turned professional with Goldenboy Promotions. Aaron had celebrated an exciting first year as a professional, racking up six wins, with four inside the distance. He’d caught the eye of Sugar Ray Leonard and been picked by various outlets as ‘one to watch’ for the year ahead.
Twenty-one-year-old Stevie, equally reserved, explained his decision to follow in his baby brother’s footsteps, “What made me turn over was seeing how well Aaron was doing. He’s 6-0 now, and once I’d went to his debut fight, I wanted to get in there too.
“I think the pros suits me more and I think it’s my time to go. The amateurs is risky, waiting for the Olympics or whatever and then you get a cut or a bad decision. The professionals is the much smarter move at the minute, it’s the right time for me to make that change.”
A Commonwealth youth gold medalist and European youth silver medalist, McKenna had big wins on the unpaid scene, including a victory over Matchroom prospect Louis Lynn. His talent had been polished over the last six months, in preparation for his big move.
One of three boys in the McKenna household, I’d been keen to understand their introduction to the sport. Stevie and Aaron are currently co-trained by father, Fergal, and former heavyweight banger Courage Tshabalala, basing themselves in Los Angeles for the majority of the year. Eldest brother Gary, however, remains at home, studying to become a qualified PE teacher.
“In the back of our house we have a full gym, totally kitted out with full strength and conditioning [equipment], a treadmill, a full boxing ring. It’s got almost everything, really. We always trained together and sparred together growing up and that helped us – it brought us all on, you know? We had each other to work with and it was competitive.
“We started off in MMA, and my Dad used to run a karate club. We never used to like it, you see, so me and Aaron joined the boxing club. We went down one night and it happened from there. We fell in love with it straight away and my Dad’s been training us for the last twelve years. He’s been there all the way.”
All three McKenna siblings had been crowned Irish national amateur champions, with talent naturally coursing through their veins. Whilst two are now professional fighters, Stevie didn’t rule out seeing all three grace the ring in the States.
For now, it was a double act, Stateside. Whilst the middle child was still looking for a definitive promoter, he was hoping to make his debut at the end of February. There were no plans to hang around at entry level, though, as he revealed his aspirations for his first year as a professional.
“We can’t say too much at the moment, so we’ll just see what happens. We’ll take it from there, but most likely [the fight will be] in Los Angeles around the end of February. Once we go back [in January], we’ll be in camp, full-on.”
He continued, “Once I get my debut underway, hopefully I perform well and get a knockout and we can move up the ladder quickly. I want to be doing six and eight rounds right away, I think the longer rounds suit me because I’m very fit in the ring. Those later rounds, I’ll come on stronger and they’ll suit me more! Aaron is the same, the longer rounds suit him more and we’re doing twelve rounds at the minute [in training].”
The training that Stevie had been undertaking in Los Angeles hadn’t been your average. A young man, yet to make his professional debut, had found himself thrown into the Lion’s Den, sparring World champions and contenders, daily.
McKenna noted the benefit of sparring elite-level fighters when we’d spoken of sacrifice. Leaving his family home behind, remembering Monaghan and it’s small, personal population had been tough. Though, the opportunities that had presented themselves weren’t available in Ireland, or even in the UK.
“It’s unbelievable. Every day when we go into the gym, we’re sparring a World champion or someone of that level. You couldn’t ask for any better sparring. It brings you on leaps and bounds, like.
“We mostly spar in the Wildcard gym and I’ve been sparring with Jose Zepeda, he’s fighting for a World title next month against Jose Ramirez at 140lbs. I’ve been doing a lot of sparring with him at the Wildcard. I’m doing really well and it’s great sparring for me. I was sparring Ryan Garcia, as well, in Legends boxing club.”
Alongside the sparring Stevie mentioned, it was another name that caught my eye when flicking through his endless list of training partners on his Instagram. A young man from a small County of 60,000 people, yet to step inside a professional ring, given the opportunity to test himself against the best on the planet.
“Lomachenko – he’s something else, like. It’s like a game of chess when you’re sparring him. If you make a mistake, he’ll get you and he’ll counter you. He does a lot of thinking when you’re sparring, he tries to work you out. He got it hard trying to work me out for the first couple of rounds.
“I was hitting him and he was hitting me – a really good spar. I learnt a lot from it. His footwork, feinting and his speed, unbelievable, like. He picks his shots really well and you couldn’t ask for better than Lomachenko.
“I didn’t really get talking to him too much, but he said, “Great work” and he was happy with it. We did five rounds and that was before his last fight [against Jose Pedraza].”
As part of his move to LA, Stevie had linked up with ever-consistent sports management company, Sheer Sports. They had played a part in younger brother Aaron’s career, and introduced him to Oscar De La Hoya’s promotional company.
The work of Rachel Charles and Sheer Sports had been recognised since linking up with Jason Quigley, Aaron and many others. They’ve allowed the young Irish siblings a smooth transition, something that both were thankful for.
Stevie told me, “Sheer Sports are brilliant. They do fantastic work with me and Aaron, they’re one of the best managerial companies in the World, anything we need or want, we have it. Rachel does a great job with us, we get on great with her! My coach Courage [Tshabalala], he’s a great coach and we couldn’t have a better team around us. I think this is the best team to make us two Irish World champions.”
Whilst World titles are the ultimate goal, McKenna was aware it would be tough. They have come to America with high expectations after concluding celebrated amateur careers, with Stevie now expected to gain heavy promotional backing.
The pressure of delivering for Ireland wasn’t something that bothered McKenna. He knew he was good enough. He believed in himself. However, alongside that quiet confidence was a refreshing air of realism, boxing is the hardest of sports. McKenna is ready to write the first chapter in February, in what could be one hell of a story.
“It’s a great time to be involved. In the next couple of years, Ireland could have a lot of World champions, so it’s exciting times.
“The toughest challenge will be becoming a World champion. It’s a hard road to it. I’ve got to get better and better and within four years, hopefully, become a World champion – both me and Aaron. We’ll see what happens but it’s gonna be a very exciting journey! I’m more than ready for it, at the moment!”
Article by: Craig Scott
Follow Craig on Twitter at: @craigscott209