Michael McKinson: The golden ticket

During his first 24 months as a professional, Michael McKinson only earned one paycheque from the sport he had dedicated his life to. Balancing a nine-to-five job with the rigours of training took a toll on the Portsmouth man, both mentally and physically. His struggles were exacerbated by the arrival of his daughter into the world. With a young family to provide for, ‘The Problem’ contemplated turning his back on boxing, but each time the thought entered his mind, he could not bring himself to hang up the gloves. McKinson did not just believe he was good enough to make a living from the sweet science, he knew he was. One fight could change his life.

Tonight, the 26-year-old has the opportunity to prove that his self-belief was well-founded when he faces Chris Kongo for the WBO Global welterweight title at the Europa Point Sports Complex, Gibraltar. McKinson has long since been convinced that he is the cream of the current domestic 147lb crop and has spent two years demanding that the marquee names of the division take him on. His pleas fell on deaf ears. It is hardly surprising, an elusive southpaw with a comparatively low profile was never likely to be an enticing prospect for the likes of Josh Kelly or Conor Benn.

Immediately after his decision victory over Martin Harkin in October, McKinson (19-0, 2 KOs) changed tack, rather than make another futile attempt at securing a fight with the aforementioned young stars, he issued a challenge to the big-punching Chris Kongo and the Bermondsey man promptly accepted.

It would be understandable if McKinson experienced a sense of trepidation ahead of this bout, after all, if he is unsuccessful it is unlikely that a second chance on the big stage will be forthcomin; however, McKinson remains as confident as ever; defeat is not an option.

“Chris Kongo is my golden ticket to big things,” McKinson told Boxing Social. “Once I take care of him, who knows? Right now, I’m tunnel visioned, and I’m fully focused on Chris. It’s been a long time coming, in particular I have been calling for the fight with Chris Kongo since my last fight. He was the first name that was on my lips, so I called him out and I’ve got what I wanted, so I’m happy.

“No one can say they are the best fighter in the UK, unless they beat one of the best fighters in the UK. I’ve had to take tough fights and I’ve had to take risks. The big names in the UK, I haven’t managed to fight yet. [Kongo] is one of the four that’s worth talking about. I called him out over the rest because the rest won’t fight me, I knew Chris Kongo would fight me. I believe I’m one of the best fighters in the UK, I just wanted my opportunity to prove it and I’ve finally got it.”

While it is difficult to find two fighters as stylistically diverse as McKinson and Kongo, they find themselves in similar situations. Both men believe they are the best in Britain, each holds a top 15 ranking with WBO (McKinson No.6, Kongo No.13) and they have found defining fights hard to come by. As such, the bout makes perfect sense, yet contests that make sense rarely come to fruition in boxing. The alphabet soup of sanctioning bodies allows fighters to circumvent legitimate contenders while plotting their course to a world title shot.

McKinson is acutely aware of the risks involved with taking on the Londoner but is adamant the rewards will make the gamble worthwhile.

“I think we both deserve all the credit in the world for this fight,” he said. “Especially when there are fighters that do want to stay clear of us. We both deserve all the credit in the world for stepping up for this fight. We are both hungry, we are both very ambitious, too. It’s a good fight, especially for the fans.”

Tonight, the odds are stacked against McKinson, with bookmakers Betfred pricing him as a 13/5 underdog. Make no doubt about it, the Portsmouth portsider has not been handed this fight as an opportunity to showcase his ability, he has been brought in to lose. The show is headlined by Kongo’s manager, Dillian Whyte, attempting to avenge his defeat to Alexander Povetkin. Judging has once again come under scrutiny as each week at least one unfathomable scorecard gets turned in across the world. However, McKinson remains unperturbed, he has found himself in the away corner before and has had his hand raised in victory on each occasion.

While the role of underdog is a familiar one for McKinson, fighting on a high-profile show is uncharted territory for him. While he admits that he has felt the weight of expectation associated with boxing on a card that will be broadcast on Sky Sports Box Office, he is convinced that he will shine under the bright lights.

“I’ve been the B-side a few times in my career, it doesn’t concern me at all,” he said. “It would be like that if I was in close fights, but I make fights look easy. My record doesn’t say I’m a big puncher, but most of my wins are shutouts anyway, I very rarely lose rounds. I don’t have a problem with being the B-side. Obviously, the B-side on former Matchroom shows haven’t been as successful, but this is me; I’m fully focused on myself and getting the job done. I believe I will get the job done in style.

“I beat Ryan Martin on the road, that was when there was thousands of Swindonians booing me and abusing me coming to the ring. Not many people gave me a chance in that fight, and it was a very clear, convincing points win, in his hometown. Although I was the A-side, I boxed Sam McNess in his own backyard, and I beat him more-or-less every round and was smiling whilst doing it. 

“Being the B-side isn’t new territory to me, being on the big stage is new territory to me, but I’m somebody who has boxed my whole life. I was born to be on that big stage. I’m not going to crumble under this pressure. There’s a lot of pressure [with] being on the big stage, boxing a very dangerous fighter like Chris Kongo, but I perform very well under pressure. Everybody is in for, I wouldn’t say a shock because he’s not a massive favourite in the fight, but I’m going to make a massive statement.”

McKinson (right) has the big fight spotlight he has always craved against Kongo.
Photo: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.

It would be easy to misconstrue McKinson’s confidence as arrogance, however it is that unwavering belief in his own abilities that has allowed McKinson to persevere in pursuit of boxing dream. Pugilism is all he has ever known. His father, Michael Ballingall, is a trainer and manager to professional fighters. At four years old, Michael Sr. began the process of teaching his son to box. At 14, McKinson started sparring boxers such as former Southern Area lightweight champion Floyd Moore.

Being able to give a good account of himself against veteran boxers while still an adolescent reaffirmed McKinson’s belief that he was destined to become a champion. Sadly, talent alone does not guarantee of success in the pro ranks, without the backing of a major promoter; the early years of a fighter’s career can be an arduous slog, often punching for little to no pay. McKinson, like many others, found himself in that all too familiar position. On occasion, he did contemplate leaving the sport, but the thoughts were always fleeting. He had worked too hard to turn his back on boxing. He believes this steely resolve sets him apart from his rivals.

“I got paid once out of my first 10 pro fights,” he admitted. “I couldn’t really sell tickets, there used to be massive ticket sellers in the same town as me, so that didn’t do me any favours. I didn’t earn a penny for my first 10 really. I had only done two six-rounders because I couldn’t sell enough tickets to do more rounds,” he said with a laugh. “After the first 10 fights, I was lucky to still be boxing. I could have just quit because I couldn’t sell tickets.

“Without self-belief, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in right now. I’ve got a lot of self-belief; I believe in my team as well. The people I’ve got around me, everyone plays a big part. I’m so confident in all of that. In my head, there’s no way I’m losing. I work too hard to fail, that’s why when people see me on them scales and they look at me ooze confidence, it’s because of the hard work I’ve put in. Not just for the eight weeks I’ve put in beforehand, it’s for the hard work I’ve put in my whole boxing life. What makes it even more rewarding is, you see all these boxers jumping straight onto the big stage and getting all that attention, I’ve done things the very, very hard way. In the top 10 in the UK, there’s nobody that’s done it as hard as me, that’s why it’s more rewarding.”

McKinson’s self-confidence is best exemplified by a decision he made in December 2017. After defeating former British welterweight champion, Colin Lynes (WTKO6), McKinson resigned from his job at a marketing company, a post which he had held for three years. 

Boxing was still not paying the bills and he was not receiving any financial assistance. His daughter, Tiarna, had just celebrated her first birthday when McKinson embarked on his bold plan. It was a gamble, he was acutely aware of the fact, but he believed that the best way to provide for his family was by dedicating himself to boxing full-time. Fortunately, McKinson’s belief was vindicated.

“I handed in my notice at Christmas with no back-up plan,” he recalled. “I had a meeting with a sponsor in the January, but if that meeting didn’t go well, I had no income. That was a massive risk. I managed to get the sponsor in the January, and I haven’t looked back since. 

“There was times then when I couldn’t get sponsors and there wasn’t really much of an income when I thought: ‘I could give up now,’ but in the back of my mind, I knew, I’ve known for years, that there’s going to be a big fight around the corner. Okay, it’s took a long time to get it, but I’ve always been good enough to get it, so in the back of my mind I thought: ‘Why quit now? When six months’ time, or 12 months’ time or three years’ time, I could get the big fights that could change mine and my daughter’s life’. I’ve finally got this fight. Winning this fight, not just having this fight, but winning this fight changes me and my daughter’s life. I’ve got to win.”

McKinson is extremely confident of fulfilling what he perceives to be his destiny, but that does not mean he is underestimating his opponent. Kongo has long since been mentioned by those within the sport as a fighter of great potential. However, ‘2Slick’ had to bide his time for the opportunity to prove he was every bit as good as he was rumoured to be. Kongo finally received his chance in August last year when he stopped Luther Clay in the ninth round on the undercard of the first bout between Whyte and Povetkin.

While McKinson was impressed by Kongo’s performance, he believes his experience will be pivotal tonight. Kongo has only been past the sixth frame on one occasion, whereas ‘The Problem has gone the 10-round scheduled distance five times. McKinson is of the opinion that Kongo has become arrogant on the back of his victory over Clay, and ‘The Problem’ is adamant he will humble his rival tonight. This is the moment McKinson has waited for. Tonight, he vows to change his and his daughter’s future.

“In that fight, you’ve got to give Chris Kongo credit because it was his first 50/50 fight and he got a very good knockout win,” he said. “Since that win, he thinks he’s the boy. There’s levels to this sport and I’m a good few level higher than Luther Clay. I think Chris needs to realise that.

“He got a good knockout win on a big show, so everyone is going to remember that. That’s in his head now. He’s a big puncher anyway. When he’s got somebody in there that he can’t nail, and it gets to the championship rounds when he’s never ever been in that territory and he’s falling down on the scorecards and he’s got somebody there that’s smiling at him and talking to him and just taking it away from him, he’s just going to come unstuck. I’ve been in this territory many, many times and it’s a whole new area for Chris Kongo. Let him try, as the rounds go on, he’s going to get more desperate and he’s going to try even harder to get that knockout and it’s just going to play into my hands. This ain’t nothing new to me. The only thing new to me is the stage I was born to be on. Mentally, I am ready for this.”

McKinson believes victory over Kongo is in his destiny tonight.
Photo: Dave Thompson/Matchroom Boxing.

Main image and all photos: Matchroom Boxing.