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Boxing

Goldenboy starlet Aaron McKenna vows to be 'Ireland's greatest ever boxer' ahead of Madison Square Garden debut

Aaron McKenna at the Wild Card Gym with coach Courage Tshabalala
Andy Watters

AARON McKenna doesn’t say a lot, but when he does, he wastes no time getting to the point.

18-year-old McKenna, AKA ‘the Silencer’, makes his professional debut at New York boxing Mecca Madison Square Garden tonight and sees his career going along similar lines – straight to the point.

“My goals are to be a world champion and be Ireland’s greatest ever boxer,” says the welterweight prospect from Smithboro, county Monaghan openly, honestly and matter-of-factly.

That’s quite a statement for a lad who hasn’t thrown a punch as a pro.

Yes, he’s super-confident and brash and he wouldn’t be the first (or last) youngster to start out on boxing’s hard road to fame and riches only to have his hopes dashed through accident, bad luck, injury, loss of form, bad management or a combination of them all.

But McKenna has a lot going for him including undoubted talent (161 amateur contests around the world and only nine losses), physique (he’s 6’1” with a 74.5” reach), total dedication and the backing of ring legend Oscar De La Hoya’s promotional juggernaut GoldenBoy.

Andy Watters: You take your first step on a long journey tonight Aaron.

Aaron McKenna: Yes and I’m really looking forward to it, it’s great to be fighting in Madison Square Garden, where all the greats have fought.

Imagine fighting there! I’m only 18, could you imagine any other 18 year old making their debut at Madison Square Garden? It’s unbelievable.”

AW: Have you been there before?

AMcK: No. This will be my first time in New York.

AW: This is your first pro fight, your first trip to New York… There are a lot of firsts for you. Do you feel any pressure?

AMcK: No. I’ve boxed all over the world, I’ve been in Russia six times and this is my fourth time in the US.

They all turn pro over here when they’re 18 and I’ve been working on a professional style for the last two years. I had 161 fights as an amateur so I’m very experienced – I’m European champion, a European junior silver medallist, I was world multi-nations gold medallist in Russia earlier this year when I had four fights in four days. I beat the world champion in the semi-final and in the final I beat the Russian in Russia. I’m well travelled.

AW: So what are your goals in boxing?

AMcK: To be a world champion and to be Ireland’s greatest ever boxer. In three to four years I expect to become world champion.

AW: You want to be Ireland’s greatest, but first you have to be Monaghan’s greatest and you have the likes of Barry McGuigan and Kevin McBride in your path?

AMcK: Kevin McBride will be at the fight, he’s a very good friend of me and my dad, we’re very close with him.

Barry McGuigan came to the club once and I did a pad session with him when I was younger. Barry and Wayne McCullough would be my Irish boxing heroes.

AW: Who are your global boxing heroes?

AMcK: Mike Tyson, I always liked watching him, and Oscar De La Hoya and Marvin Hagler. I love their fighting styles and I try and bring them into mine – it’s a great mixture.

I know Oscar now, he’s the boss (at Goldenboy) so I’m close with him.

AW: Tell me about your fighting style?

AMcK: They compare me to Tommy Hearns, I’m the ‘The white Irish Tommy Hearns’ I hit solid; I have good strength and conditioning and a good workrate. I’m a solid fighter.

AW: Which welterweights do you admire now?

AMcK: The main man at the minute is Keith Thurman, he has two of the belts and then you have Errol Spence and Jeff Horn as well. They are the main men at the minute in the welterweight division.

AW: You are living permanently in Los Angeles now. When did you first go out to the States?

AMcK: I came out twice for around three weeks and then last summer I was out for 12 weeks so I’ve been here a lot. I’ve been around all the gyms – the Wildcard, Iron, Maywood… I’m learning a lot and getting great sparring too – I sparred world champion Jesse Magdaleno last year and at this training camp I’ve been sparring with Javier Molina who has 19 professional fights. I’ve learned a lot and I’m ready to go.

AW: Donegal middleweight Jason Quigley is also on tonight’s bill at ’the Garden’ and it’s the farewell performance for ring legend Miquel Cotto.

AMcK: Miquel Cotto is having his last fight – a boxing legend is leaving and then I’m just beginning my career.

AW: What is your walk-in music?

AMcK: ‘The Foggy Dew’ by Sinead O’Connor

It’ll be great for the Irish fans – once they hear it they’ll be buzzing and there are loads coming over and a lot coming from New York and Boston. I’m expecting a good support.

AW: You achieved a lot as an amateur without appearing at the Olympic Games, so non boxing fans might not be aware of you yet, but you can change that.

AMcK: That’s why I’m called ‘the Silencer’, I don’t say a lot outside the ring because I like to do my talking inside the ring. One of the boys came up with it and it’s stuck, I like it.

AW: As we all know, you don’t ‘play’ boxing. You’ll have to be dedicated, make sacrifices and live the life…

AMcK: I love the life.

This is the boxing capital of the world and you couldn’t get a better place than this if you want to become a world champion.

AW: Will GoldenBoy keep you busy?

AMcK: Yeah, I’m gonna be fighting everywhere. I’ll fight in New York, Boston, LA, Las Vegas… I’ll be kept busy and maybe next year I’ll be fighting in Ireland.

I’d love to fight for a world title at St Tiernach’s Park in Clones - that would be unreal, it would be some achievement.

 

AARON was the third McKenna brother that rolled off their dad Fearghal’s production line at Smithboro ABC in county Monaghan.

Gary (the oldest) was good, Steven was better, but Aaron… With footwork, power, reflexes, attitude and a V10 engine to go with them, Aaron was different gravy.

When he started aged six his gloves were as big as his head but by nine he was beating up 11 year-olds and tonight the strains of ‘The Foggy Dew’ will echo around Madison Square Garden when the 18-year-old walks out for his professional debut alongside Fearghal and coach Courage Tshabalala, a former heavyweight contender.

“Aaron was lucky in the pecking order,” says Fearghal over the phone from Los Angeles.

“The oldest boy, Gary, came through first and I made a lot of mistakes with him. Then Steven came through and we were learning as we went along. He turned out a better boxer than Gary.

“When we got to Aaron we had ironed out all the mistakes and all the experience from the previous years was pushed into him. When Aaron was six we identified that he had a very competitive edge and when he was nine he was fighting in halls around Ulster and we were matching him with 11 year-olds and he was beating them.

“His physicality was very strong and if he was put in with someone the same age as him it wouldn’t have been a fair fight. When he was 10 he was going in with 12 year-olds and 13 year-olds when he was 11.”

McKenna fought 20 times in Ulster and won Ulster Boy 1, 2 and then 3 championships with a series of stoppage wins (19 in all) right through until Youth level when he switched his focus to international boxing.

“As a nine year-old we saw that he was a wee bit different than everyone else,” said Fearghal.

“Then we used to take him sparring down to Dublin and he would spar four or five different lads in the one night. As an 11 year-old his engine was unbelievable, he just seems to have a gift for stamina – even now he’s capable of going in and sparring eight or 10 rounds and that’s what experienced professional boxers are doing.

“There’s something different in him that gives him this wee edge stamina wise. His physicality is very strong too and those are the things that we identified with him.”

Fearghal explained that he and Aaron have been preparing for tonight’s fight since the spring. Sparring sessions at the Belfast Kronk Gym have helped get him used to the pace of the pro game.

“We knew from March/April that he was going to be fighting and we were already training him for his debut fight,” he said.

“In America, Courage Tshabala, his pro coach, worked on settling him down and getting him to sit down on his punches and take his time more. We’ve really seen a tremendous improvement in him.”

Being based in LA means Aaron has top class sparring virtually on tap. Fearghal has no doubt that his son is in exactly the right place to fulfil his potential in the sport.

“It’s very unique to see him and Mick Conlan and Jason Quigley over here,” he says.

“Aaron is right when he says ‘this is the boxing capital of the world’. We have been super impressed since we first came out here two years ago with the abundance of quality sparring you can get here.

“We see it as an opportunity to bring Aaron to a very high level because he’s like a sponge, he soaks up information rapidly quick and it would be an injustice to have him in a situation where he wasn’t getting developed at the level he should be.

“He will serve his time in the professional game, get brought along nice and gently. Fight by fight we’ll analyse how he is doing and fight him according to his quality and his experience as we build him.

“It’s very exciting times for the young fella and his is a tremendous opportunity for him. He’s ready to seize it.”

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