Boxing, burritos and the Tyrone Olympics... Up close and personal with Ireland's fighting Tyrones

Tyrone McKennahas moved to 20-1-1 as a pro. The single loss was in a ding-dong battle with Jack Catterall in 2018, the draw was due to a clash of heads that caused a fight to be called off early in his career
Andy Watters

TYRONE McKenna and Tyrone McCullagh got off their bus from Dublin after they’d done back-to-back sessions in Pete Taylor's gym that included eight rounds of sparring (each other), two rounds on the punch bags and eight three-minute sprints on the treadmill.

They refuse all offers of food and drink and stay on their nutritionist’s dietary plan as we discuss their impending appearances in Friday night’s Golden Contract tournament semi-finals on Sky Sports. Belfast’s McKenna (20-1-1) will fight at light-welter and Derry’s McCullagh (14-0) intends to reign supreme at featherweight and the winners of each section will land a two-year, five-fight contract with MTK Global and a guaranteed six-figure purse for each fight.

They are both dedicated professionals and proper fighting men but that doesn’t mean they can’t be good craic too and Andy Watters talks boxing, bowling, burritos, Pete Taylor, Paddy Barnes snacksiddents, the bank of Tyrone, the Tyrone Olympics, Tyrone Number 2 and much more with Irelands fighting Tyrones…

Andy Watters: I’ve never been in the company of two Tyrones before. Do you call each other Tyrone?

The Tyrones: Yes.

Tyrone McCullagh: When somebody shouts ‘Tyrone’ we both turn round and his wee lad is called Tyrone as well.

Tyrone McKenna: It’s confusing for him, he must think it’s a popular name. Which it isn’t.

TMcC: He must think there’s loads of Tyrones.

AW (to Tyrone McKenna): Is your dad called Tyrone?

TMcK: Nah.

AW: Is he from Tyrone?

TMcK: Nah.

AW: What about your mum?

TMcK: Nah. It’s just a random name.

AW: You were training with Danny Vaughan in Scotland for around a year but now you’re both in Dublin working with Pete Taylor, Katie Taylor’s dad. How is that going?

TMcC: Brilliant. We both worked with him as amateurs so we knew when we joined him that he has a wealth of knowledge. A lot of people think that when you turn pro you need to be a lot more aggressive, get your hands up and go in with a lot of big punches to knock people out.

But Pete has taken us back to our amateur days and he keeps saying to us: ‘If it worked when you were an amateur then why change it?’

I’m back to feinting and moving and that was always the way I boxed. Tyrone is back to that style as well and he has come on leaps and bounds even in a few weeks.

TMcK: Pete has a different mindset to Danny.

I’m a guy who always listens to his coach – whatever my coach says, that’s what I’ll do – and Danny was more about being aggressive, go forward, hands up and fight. But Pete Taylor knew that I was good at as an amateur, I worked with him as an amateur and he knew what worked best for me.

I’m a 6’1” southpaw, I should be boxing more and not getting hit, being evasive and then throwing my combinations.

That’s what he’s got me doing and I think it’s going to pay dividends in the fights. Technically, I think Pete Taylor is above most coaches, he is so dedicated and confident and you feed off how confident he is, he has no worries about this semi-final or who we get.

He doesn’t care because he thinks we can beat them all and he has a gameplan for them all. His whole thing is boxing – there’s coaches out there who don’t turn up for sessions or put them in half-heartedly, Pete Taylor’s weekend is full of planning for the week, he is dedicated to the sport and you feel that in every session.

AW: He’s a brilliant coach and I think you will both flourish in his gym just like Tommy McCarthy and Luke Keeler have. You both went down to train with him at the same time. Do you come as a pair?

TMcK: I tried to leave and go elsewhere but he followed me.

TMcC: You don’t get one without the other. We still get on with Danny (Vaughan), there’s no ill feeling there. We talked about wanting a change because it was difficult for us in Scotland – especially for Tyrone with his kids – and, I know this sounds cheesy, but a happy fighter is a better fighter and we are so happy in Dublin.

We’re enjoying the training a lot more, we’re enjoying everything because where we were in Scotland there was nothing.

TMcK: The weekends in Scotland were longer than the week. They dragged. You were bored out of your head but now we go down to Dublin, Monday to Friday, for great training and sparring and then I’m going home on Friday night and spending the weekend with my family.

You need to switch off from boxing and that weekend break switches you off, you relax and then you’re ready for another week.

AW: I suppose the only downside is you aren’t able to hang around together and plan crazy challenges against each other?

TMcK: After this fight we’ve got something coming up – the Tyrone Olympics.

TMcC: We’re finally going to decide who is Tyrone 1 and who’s Tyrone 2.

TMcK: There’ll be six competitions – who can last in the sauna longest, there’s an eating competition with cheesburgers…

That’ll be the week after the fight and there’s six forfeits as well like bleaching your hair, shaving your eyebrows, somebody will get a punch in the stomach… With no glove on.

But the big one is that whoever loses has to go down to the City Hall and change his name to: ‘Tyrone Number 2’. Legally change their name.

AW: What happens if it finishes 3-3?

TMcC: There’ll be a tie-breaker but I don’t plan on letting it go to a tie-breaker. I’ll take at least four of the rounds.

AW: Who came up with this idea?

TMcC: I did.

AW: So all the challenges might suit you better?

TMcC: I know. Maybe we should have had a slam-dunk competition or something like that in it as well!

AW: I’m looking forward to that then. Have you always been so competitive? When did you first meet?

TMcK: When we were 14. I was All-Ireland champion three years in-a-row. It was unbelievable, everybody knew who I was and I entered the nine counties’ Boy 4 tournament. I thought I was the God of boxing, I thought I had it all worked out and no-one could beat me. Anyway, I turned up and there was one person there: ‘T McCullagh’. I was thinking: ‘Who is T McCullagh? I’ve never heard of him, he’s gonna get battered’.

Then I heard he was called Tyrone too. I was like: ‘Ballix, no-one’s call Tyrone’. I just said: ‘I’m gonna batter this guy’. I had all the flashiest gear, all custom made, and I jumped into the ring and looked across and he was wearing green shorts, a wee dirty red vest and a pair of trainers and a big ugly headguard.

I thought: ‘This poor kid… this poor kid, his coaches should pull him out.’ I jumped in and I thought I won the fight but he, somehow, won.

My mates were shouting: ‘Tyrone, bodyshot’ and the next thing he would hit me a bodyshot. So he beat me, I thought it was a robbery but the next year he beat me again and that was fair.

I hated him for a long while and then we won the All-Irelands at different weights and we went to the Four Nations tournament together in Scotland and I discovered that he is a serious, serious messer.

I was sharing a room with him and a fella called Pete Brady. I came back to the room one day and there was coffee all over my bed – it spelt out ‘Pete Brady’.

I went mad and I went looking for Pete and he was in the corner in stitches. It was him. He went there and he knew nobody and he was doing that sort of stuff all week. All these different pranks, getting under everyone’s skin and laughing, to himself because he had no mates there.

So I discovered this side of him and we became mates after that.

TMcC: I was just in the team. I didn’t know anyone, so I was making my own fun.

The two Tyrones - Tyrone McKenna (left) and Tyrone McCullagh (right) - pictured in 2007.

AW (to Tyrone McCullagh): As an amateur you came very close to beating Michael Conlan in the Irish Elite final. Mick has gone on to great things as a pro and I’m sure you’re planning to follow in his footsteps?

TMcC: Mick had earned the reputation by being an Olympic medallist that I would probably have had to knock him out to win that night. But I was knocking on the door.

100 per cent I want to follow in his footsteps and it gives me great belief that I was knocking on the door of (beating) Mick and John Joe Nevin too. I can go just as far. Why not?

AW (to Tyrone McKenna): Tyrone you have all the attributes (height, reach, footwork) to be a hit-and-move boxer and you love a scrap too. What are your plans for the future?

TMcK: I think I showed the level I am against Jack Catterall (a ding-dong WBO Inter-Continental title fight in June 2018). It was a very tough fight and I think I was put down two or three times. If I hadn’t got put down I would have won the fight – I was only beaten by one point. He is going for a world title this year so that shows you the calibre that I’ve mixed it with. It showed that I’m up there at that level.

With this Golden Contract, if I beat Ohara Davies, if I beat Mohamed Mimoune, I’ll beat top 10 in the world. I’m planning on being a world champion in 2020.

AW (to Tyrone McKenna): Exciting times ahead! You appeared in the movie The Mighty Celt as a child and I could picture you as lead singer of a band. You obviously love being centre stage?

TMcC: Who? Tyrone? No way!

TMcK: Growing up I would do anything to entertain people. I loved having everyone’s eyes on me, always. I’ve always been a confident, confident person. That’s why I got the acting role as well. Anything I’ve ever done, I’ve just been really confident and that’s why I am the way I am.

I love centre stage, I love people talking about me and watching me.

I don’t know where it comes from, I was just born with it.

AW: Tyrone (McCullagh) you’re a bit more reserved than him. Then again, most of us are?

TMcC: I wouldn’t be as out-going as him. I can be very quiet but I think as a professional boxer you have to come out of your shell. I think his confidence has brought mine out a bit because we are always together.

AW: You spend a lot of time together so you must know each other’s annoying habits then?

TMcK: I’ll list a few: He doesn’t let you have the volume at an odd number – if it’s 59 he makes you put it up to 60 or down to 58. He has to go to the toilet before he drinks his tea at night… There’s other ones too. He has a lot of weird habits.

All my habits are all good habits.

TMcC: Aye, well he loses or forgets something every week. For about six months he didn’t have a bankcard so every single transaction went through my account. He was always: ‘Tyrone I sent you a tenner or 20 quid or whatever, will you take it out (of the bank machine) for me?’ That went on for about six months in Scotland.

He lost his bank card and he just wouldn’t order a new one!

TMcK: I lose bank cards every couple of days and keys and stuff.

TMcC: He’s blind as well. He kept losing his glasses and he’s given up on ordering them as well.

TMcK: I lose everything so I use him as my bank. He’s now my bank. The bank of Tyrone.

Losing at bowling meant Tyrone McKenna added a tattoo of Tyrone McCullagh eating a burrito to his collection

AW (to Tyrone McKenna): Tell me about the tattoo you’ve got of Tyrone (McCullagh).

TMcK: We had a bet, whoever loses in bowling has to get a tattoo of the other one’s ring name - Mighty Celt or White Chocolate done. I lost but I couldn’t think of a good tattoo to go with White Chocolate so I thought: ‘I’ll get one of him eating a burrito with his slogan: Get skinny or die trying’. I’m actually pretty happy with it.

AW: What did the tattoo artist think?

TMcK: She knew. She knows who I am.

TMcC: His missus wasn’t too happy but.

TMcK: She wanted me to get one done about her. Now it’s his face she’s not happy. But she’s more unhappy about the change of name (to Tyrone 2 if he loses the Tyrone Olympics) if that happens.

TMcC: When that happens.

AW: Boxing is a tough sport. You need to have that banter to keep the spirits up?

TMcC: It is a brutal, brutal sport. I’ve only been linked-up training with Tyrone for just over a year. Before that I was on my own in Liverpool living above a wee bar. It was just a room with a microwave in it and a TV.

I was training at 7am and again at 12 so I was home at half one or two sitting in the room all day by myself. That was for about a year… I don’t know how I kept it up, I wouldn’t have lasted much longer if I hadn’t moved up to Scotland.

AW: You could have got into gambling or drinking or whatever…

TMcC: I did a bit at the time, aye. Only it was the worst bar in Liverpool I would have been a full time alcoholic. Just to pass the day.

AW (to Tyrone McKenna): Has it ever been as difficult for you?

TMcK: I was by myself when I first went pro over in America. My girlfriend was going to come over with me but when she was expecting we decided to stay at home. When I went back out I had Ray Ginley and Anto Cacace for company so it was never too bad.

AW: In Scotland you were both sharing a house with Paddy Barnes and Sean McComb. Now Paddy has retired, do you miss him?

TMcC: Oh aye.

TMcK: Paddy Barnes is a legend and always will be.

TMcC: But I don’t miss him coming in with his wee treats.

TMcK: He used to come into the house all the time: ‘Lads, I had a snacksiddent’. His mouth would be filled with Malteasers or something.

TMcC: We still talk to him every day.

TMcK: All boxers get on, boxers are the nicest people, it’s a great community and there’s a lot of sportsmanship. A small community and if something happens everyone knows about it.

AW: Winning the Golden Contract will change your lives and you both boxed brilliantly in the quarter-finals. How hard have you trained for Friday night?

TMcC: When you have to knuckle down, you knuckle down.

TMcK: See when it gets down to training, we train hard. We’re both hard trainers. Once Pete says lets go, we train extremely hard and put everything into everything. Then after it we’re back to having the craic.

TMcC: The coach down there was even saying that – we put everything into every session.

The draw for Friday night’s Golden Contract semi-finals was made in London on Tuesday. Tyrone McCullagh will fight Ryan Walsh and Tyrone McKenna is in the light-welterweight section against Mohamed Mimoune. The fights will be live on Sky Sports from 7.30pm.

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