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EXCLUSIVE: Michael Hennessy Jr – “The Inevitable Journey…”

“I’ve been told I will have a minimum of five fights this year, which is very active considering we are already in March and I haven’t had a fight yet. I’m looking forward to getting back out there.”

When Michael Hennessy Jr uttered these words, he was eagerly anticipating a March outing at the Skydome Arena, Coventry on the Pitters-Sugden undercard. That fight date has since passed without so much as a punch being thrown. An April date at Crystal Palace featuring Alex Dilmaghani’s challenge for the European super featherweight title against France’s Samir Ziani will now do likewise.

Even as we spoke to Hennessy Jr, just a little over two weeks ago, official concerns over coronavirus were already ramping up, with the 20-year-old admitting that, “We have already put off the sparring to make sure we have as little interaction as possible.”

Just 48 hours later both shows were canceled, and the BBBofC called a halt on all UK boxing promotions for the foreseeable future. A situation that is now being mirrored the world over and has left the boxing community in a state of void. “Foreseeable” has, in due course, become everyone’s least favourite word as it offers no end date – just an endless wait as the news bulletins deliver a 24-hour supply of evermore depressing content.

Like so many others across all professions and walks of life, Hennessy Jr’s life remains on hold, as he is forced to wait patiently for normal service to be resumed. With just four [3-0-1] professional fights under his belt, his career is still warily accelerating its way out of first gear, and thus this unwanted sabbatical must be a source of absolute frustration. It is, however, a situation that the engaging and ever-smiling Sevenoaks-based middleweight is sure to accept without undue complaint.

Hennessy Jr made his debut in the pro ranks as recently as May last year, appearing live on Channel 5 with a six rounds points shutout win over Adam Grabiec. He made his public entry on a card including Hughie Fury and Savannah Marshall – an opportunity craved by many of his ‘Novice Pro’ peers. But, when your dad happens to be renowned promoter and Manager Mick Hennessy, perhaps this is inevitable.

“It was incredible boxing on television and all of the support I was getting from people before and after the fight,” recalls Hennessy Jr of his debut, before admitting to some first-night nerves.

“I was fine all week [leading up to the fight] and when it got to fight day I was still all OK, but as soon as I got to the changing rooms and saw all the television cameras, bright lights, and stuff; I was like ‘Oh wow. This is a bit different!’ I started to get a few butterflies then. But as soon as I got into the ring I felt fine again.”

For Hennessy Jr, this very public start to his career was followed by an even bigger stage courtesy of the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Topping the bill was the superstar presence of Amir Khan, and you get the feeling that the 20-year-old is still pinching himself over this high-profile opportunity.

“Saudi was incredible,” he reveals. “It was crazy just being in the hotel and seeing all these big boxing stars walking around. I can’t really put it into words. It was just crazy seeing these guys in the flesh and then boxing on the same card as some of them.”

A well-contested fight against Afghan Farhad Hazratzada subsequently ended in a drawn verdict, but with many of those at ringside and watching at home left feeling that the Sevenoaks man was unfortunate not to secure the win.

“To be honest, I felt I’d won it pretty comfortably,” he admits. “Don’t get me wrong: it was a proper fight. But I think I won the first two rounds very comfortably. I had a dodgy 3rd round that was close and would probably just edge it to him [Hazratzada], but the 4th I definitely won. I thought I had won the fight and so I was very surprised at the draw.

“But I learnt a lot from that fight and would love a rematch one day. There is no use crying over it. I just look to the future and will learn from the mistakes I made in that fight.”

Hennessy Jr suggests that fighting over just four sessions proved disadvantageous, and it is likely to be his only appearance at the shortest distance. “We didn’t really want four rounds,” he discloses. “From the start my dad only wanted me doing six rounders because he knows I’ve got a good engine. And over four rounds anything can happen.”

Not surprisingly, Hennessy Jr is both managed and trained by his father. A set-up that has been in place since the younger Hennessy was permitted to try his luck at the sport as an 11-year-old. He recalls that his father was initially not keen on his son’s desire to involve himself in pugilism; “He should have thought about that before he started inviting me to all the shows,” he laughs.

“When I was growing up I was going to all the big shows. There was a stage when my dad was doing shows most weeks and I was at the boxing pretty much every weekend. I just believe it was inevitable. I was always going to take up boxing.”

In fact, it was a childhood that was utterly immersed in the sport, with superstars of the fight game routinely entering into his orbit. “When I was really young I can remember them all coming to the house,” he reminisces, before reeling off a who’s who of British boxing nobility. “I remember Carl Froch, Junior Witter, Darren Barker, John Murray; and I remember seeing Tyson [Fury] a lot. These guys were super-heroes to me when I was 8 years old. I didn’t need Batman or Spiderman when I had these guys to look up to.”

The uncharitable –and most likely those who have never met Hennessy Jr- could argue that the presence of his father has given him a gold-plated head start in a sport where finances and exposure can be hard to secure. This is a fact not lost on the 20-year-old. “There’s a lot of good fighters out there on ticket deals and things. It is hard and I feel for them to be honest, because some of these fighters are really good and not only are they having to sell tickets to get paid, or barely even paid, they are sometimes fighting for no money at all. I’ve got a lot of admiration for ticket sellers.

“I could understand why there could be a little bit of jealousy there. I haven’t experienced anyone ever saying they were jealous [of me] or whatever, but I could imagine some people could be,” he admits with an admirable self-awareness.

But the flip-side of carrying the Hennessy name is the fast-track into the public eye of big fight nights and televised bouts at a time when many of his peers would be quietly learning the pro-game on small hall undercards. “I don’t really worry about it,” he reveals when considering this additional pressure. “I don’t read too much into what people are saying, I just focus on myself and listen to my coaches. They’re all just fights at the end of the day and I’ve had hundreds of them, so why worry.

“But I do feel like every time I step into the ring with someone it’s like always the best version of themselves. They always come to take me out. Every single person that I meet in the ring is coming to beat me. They’re coming to destroy me basically. They can’t have this baby-faced kid coming out and beating them.

“Sometimes I do get into a bit of a tear-up and make it harder for myself. I’m working on improving that at the moment. It’s all about just sticking to my boxing, being a bit more mature and taking as little punishment as possible. I plan to stick to the boxing and let the openings come.”

Such an approach has not come naturally for someone who loved to step into the pocket and trade as a junior. That preference led to his amateur coaches nicknaming him ‘Miguel’ in honour of Mexican warrior Miguel ‘Macho’ Hernandez.

But despite continuing to wear the name ‘Miguel’ on his shorts, the middleweight has actively demonstrated just how far he has matured in his last fight against granite-hard Hungarian Richard Baba, who was determined to lure the Sevenoaks man into a ragged street-fight. “He was very tough,” recollects Hennessy Jr.

“At some points, he put his gloves down and just let me hit him. It was crazy, but I think it was done more out of frustration because he couldn’t do anything else with me unless I stood in the pocket with him.

“I thought it was a much more mature performance from me. I was very happy with it because normally I would have stood there and got into a war with him. But this time I showed some maturity, stuck to my boxing and cruised to victory. I was very happy with that performance.” But he can’t resist adding with a cheeky nod, “When I get my man-strength, if I get a free shot, I’ll be looking to spark them straight out!”

At just 20 years old and still developing into his rangy 6”2 frame, Hennessy Jr suggests that as he fills out a step up to super-middleweight or even light-heavy is highly likely. “But I will take it as it comes. I don’t stress about weight and walk around pretty much on the weight,” he says.

With well over a hundred amateur fights in his locker across the UK and Ireland, the decision to turn pro whilst still a teenager hasn’t fazed him. The timing to enter the paid ranks was one precipitated by his father, and his enviable knowledge in bringing fighters through. “After my last amateur fight, my dad said he was really proud of how I was boxing and thought I was ready to turn pro. I’m just guided by him really,” he asserted.

“He believes, and I see it as well, that you should get into the pro game as soon as possible and start adapting because it’s majorly different from the amateurs. I always thought I had a pro-style, but it has taken me a little while to get used to it and get into the right mould. There are lots of adjustments that you need to make when turning pro, so I am very glad I started early.”

With his undoubted ability and such first-class guidance behind him, Hennessy Jr perceives no limit on what he thinks he can achieve in the sport of boxing.

I would like to win every single belt from English and Irish upwards to world titles. All the belts is my goal!” he exclaims with a confident yet modest smile. “That’s what I’m in boxing for and to take the next step up each time that I know I’m ready for that level. I would love to be in a position where I can retire when I’m 30, God willing, and have achieved everything that I wanted to achieve. But I know it’s going to be a tough road!”

A road that at the moment has been made even-tough to navigate by the continuing presence of COVID-19.

Interview by Garry White

Follow Garry on Twitter: @LWOSGarryWhite