Have gloves, will travel - Stephen McKenna wants to fill Michael Conlan's bantamweight boots
HAVE gloves, will travel - that has long been Stephen McKenna’s motto.
Whether it’s a last minute call to go and spar five-time Irish champion Eric Donovan, or a one-time pro world title contender is in Belfast for a few days and fancies getting a few rounds under his belt, McKenna is more than happy to oblige.
You see, as important as it is to win titles, boxing is about learning and growing for the 19-year-old from Smithborough. The growing bit has taken care of itself in the last year, with the reigning Irish light-flyweight champion jumping two weight classes to 56kg for this year’s national elites, which get under way on Friday.
Having grown two inches – he now stands at 5”10 – before heading to Samoa with the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Youth Games team in September 2015, McKenna has worked hard on bulking up his maturing frame.
In the not-too-distant future, he believes his height will force and move up to lightweight. For now though, the challenge is to land a second Irish elite title in as many years.
Apart from the hundreds of rounds sparred week on week with brothers Aaron and Gary, both of whom are also expected to enter next month’s championships in Dublin, McKenna has travelled far and wide to gain experience.
Regular trips to Athy for sparring against Donovan, now a 2-0 pro, have brought him on leaps and bounds, while dad Fergal packed his sons into the car earlier this month and headed for the home of Eamonn Loughran in Ballymena.
Apart from taking them on the pads, the former welterweight world champion also imparted plenty of advice to help them on their journey.
The following week the McKennas were bound for Belfast after receiving word that South African Simpiwe Vetyeka - a 29-3-0 fighter who challenged Nonito Donaire for the WBA world title in 2014 - was at Tony Dunlop’s Kronk Gym. Although there haven’t been many competitive fights since winning that Irish title last year, 2016 was good for McKenna.
He said: “I was doing a lot of training camps in Ireland with the likes of India and Kazakhstan, getting a lot of experience so it was great.
“I had my first international fight at the Gee Bee in Finland and I lost to the European Games champion from Russia in a very close fight that could’ve gone either way, it was a very competitive fight and showed me what level I’m at.
“In that time I’ve been doing a lot of strength and conditioning, because I was getting too tall for 49 and then 52. I’d no real competitions in 2016 so I took my time to build myself into a 56 kilo fighter.”
McKenna is just one of many young men hoping to follow in the footsteps of Michael Conlan at bantamweight. Kurt Walker has won the last two Irish titles at 56kg while James McGivern, a Commonwealth Youth Games team-mate of McKenna 17 months ago, steps up to senior level for the first time.
The competition is stiff, particularly within Ulster, but McKenna believes he is the man to fill Conlan’s boots: “I think I’m the man to replace Michael Conlan,” he says.
“When I was younger I always looked up to him and I’m good friends with him now. Unfortunately I never got the chance to spar him because I was always lighter, I mainly sparred with Paddy [Barnes].
“But I believe I have the ability to go on and win big things in the future at European and world level. It’s a busy division but none of them train harder than I do.
“I’m training three times a day, every day. I live the life of a full-time athlete. My dream is to be an Olympic champion in 2020 and this is the first step on the road.”
A COUNTY Antrim select is to take on St Michael’s, Athy at Belfast’s Lansdowne Court Hotel on Saturday, February 11.
In an event sponsored by Belfast City Council, some superb bouts lie in wait, with the bill on the night to be confirmed within the next week. The first fight will be at 7pm.
BELFAST’S James McGivern landed his 10th Irish title on Friday night when he took the national U22 bantamweight crown.
The St George’s stylist, a Commonwealth Youth gold medallist in 2015, convincingly beat Cheery Orchard’s Jack Kelly in the decider – three weeks after the same pair met in an exhibition at the Devenish Complex.
With his underage career behind him, McGivern will aim to transfer that success to senior level when he competes in his first Irish Elites in the coming weeks.
There were two more Ulster winners at Dublin’s National Stadium on Friday night, with Darryl Moran (Illies GG) beating Urlingford’s Jordan Leahy while Dylan Duffy from the Pegasus club in Downpatrick defeated Martin Sammon at 60kg.
Elsewhere, Holy Family, Belfast’s Jason McKay lost out to Glasnevin’s Jordan Moore in the flyweight final, while Camlough native Eugene McKeever (Holy Family, Drogheda) was beaten by Dublin’s John Maughan at 69kg.
THIS year’s European Elite Men’s Championships are to be held in Kharkiv, Ukraine from June 14-25.
The tournament will act as the sole qualifier for August’s AIBA World Elite Championships in Hamburg, Germany.
The top eight in each of the 10 weights in Kharkiv book tickets for Hamburg, where 280 boxers will compete.
Up to 260 places are up for grabs through the various continental qualifiers, as the host nation will take 10 places and there are 10 wildcards.
“It is a major competition for us; it is the qualifier for the World Championships,” said Irish head coach Zaur Antia.
“We have to do everything possible to qualify and our team will give our best, give our best performances against the best in Europe. We look forward to this challenge very much.”
KELLIE Harington is the highest AIBA world-ranked Irish boxer, male or female, of 2017 so far.
The World Elite silver medallist, from the Glasnevin BC in Dublin, is ranked number two at 64kg in the updated rankings.
Cork middleweight Christina Desmond is ranked for the first time after reaching the European Elite semi-finals in Bulgaria last year. The other ranked Irish female boxers are Moira McElliggot and Grainne Walsh.
The women’s rankings were updated this month to reflect performances at the European Championships in Bulgaria last November.
Brendan Irvine, Dean Walsh, Sean McComb, Steven Donnelly and Joe Ward are also ranked by AIBA.