IT was with no shortage of pride that Damien McKenna watched one of his Holy Family fighters climb through the ropes at Belgrade’s Stark Arena yesterday, with another to come at the weekend.
The draw wasn’t kind to Eugene McKeever, pitting him against Asadhuja Muydinkhajaev on the first day of action at the World Elite Championships, the Uzbek progressing despite a gutsy performance from the Mullaghbawn man.
An opponent from the same nation awaits Ricky Nesbitt on Saturday too, with Nodrjon Mirakhmador standing between the Dundalk light-fly and a place in the last 16.
It is a tough ask but once you step onto that stage, it’s sink or swim. McKenna knows that better than most.
Having represented Ireland at World Championships in 1997, 1999 and 2001 in Belfast, helping other young men achieve that same dream marked a full circle completion of his journey from boxer to coach.
It also continued the cycle of excellence that has become the Drogheda club’s hallmark since first opening its doors in 1980. At a 40th anniversary show in January 2020, just a matter of months before the Covid-19 pandemic turned the world on its head, McKenna took his place in the ring to pay tribute to his father Christy, standing in the other corner.
An Irish champion at 12 and 15 who went toe-to-toe with the great Charlie Nash in the 1972 senior final, Christy McKenna was one of those who helped build Holy Family from the ground up.
Shouts of “you’re a legend” permeated his son’s speech, the warmth from the floor at Drogheda’s Crescent Concert Hall evidence of the appreciation for a lifetime’s work.
Yet the job goes on, and Christy couldn’t have asked for anyone better to take up the reins. When boxing’s in the blood, the sense of responsibility is inescapable.
“As a six or seven year old I was tagging along with my father most nights – he was head coach, and eventually I ended up falling in love with it myself,” says Damien McKenna.
“As you get older, you become more aware of different things and your goals change. Like, for example, with him having won those Irish titles at underage, that was something I wanted to emulate.
“I’ve been very fortunate that throughout my career I got to represent Ireland at youth level, U18s, elite level and winning national titles, and getting to box at European and World Championships was a great achievement for myself and the club.
“It’s something I’m proud to have done.”
After showing his potential coming through the ranks, McKenna landed his first Irish senior title in 1996. After losing out to Holy Trinity’s Atlanta Olympian Damaen Kelly in 1997, then missing the following year due to injury, McKenna swept to a hat-trick of senior crowns between ’99 and 2001.
Plenty would give their right arm for half the haul McKenna ended up with and, while he would have loved to reach an Olympic Games, the 47-year-old is long enough in the game to realise how lucky he was to have achieved so much through boxing.
“I was European reserve for the Atlanta Olympics in ’96, I was at the training camp with Damaen Kelly, Brian Magee, Cathal O’Grady.
“In 2000 I was beaten by the European champion in a qualifier [for the Sydney Olympics], so I suppose I didn’t always get the rub of the green.
“In this game it’s all about getting a small bit of luck at the right time; some people have made a lot of money out of getting that small bit of luck! But look, I enjoyed my time, I loved meeting new friends, people from Belfast to Cork.
“There’s lifelong memories of getting to travel the world and experience different cultures - I’ll cherish all of that forever. And then, when my own career was finished, I wanted to help out my dad, and to give something back for the time the club put into me.”
He has done so in spades, with the past month among the most exciting in Holy Family’s history.
When Nesbitt received a walkover to take the 48kg Irish elite crown before McKeever proved too sharp for former national champion Wayne Kelly, Holy Family was back among the big boys.
Uncertainty reigned in the weeks after over whether Ireland would send a team to the World Championships – the last time it didn’t was for the 1978 tournament, also held in Belgrade.
Eventually, after a week of sparring and evaluation at Team GB’s Sheffield headquarters, the Irish Athletic Boxing Association confirmed that a team of seven boxers was being sent to the Serbian capital, with two Holy Family fighters among them.
It’s a proud moment for McKenna and everybody associated with the club, and nothing more than McKeever and Nesbitt deserve.
“When there was talk of no team going, I was disappointed for them because Ricky missed out on the last Commonwealth Games, he’s been beaten in two elite semi-finals, he hasn’t had many opportunities to box for Ireland, and the same goes for Eugene,” said McKenna.
“It took a bit of time for them to get over the line to get this opportunity, but I’m delighted for them. To have two boys get elite titles on the one night, then to be selected on a seven-man team for the World Championships, it speaks volumes of the work that all the coaches at the club are doing, and the dedication the two boys have shown.”
HALE SET TO MAKE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP BOW
BELFAST’S JP Hale will make his World Championship bow tomorrow, when he takes on Serbia’s Semiz Alicic in a round of 64 clash at 60kg.
The Star man impressed Irish coaches during a week-long training camp in Sheffield after his maiden Irish Elite title success earlier this month, and will be hoping to get off to a winning start as he makes the step up at international level.
Eugene McKeever was the first of a seven-strong Irish team in action yesterday, the Mullaghbawn man just coming up short against experienced Uzbek Asadhuja Muydinkhajaev.
There are two more between the ropes today, with flyweight Sean Mari taking on Hungary’s Aitila Bernath, while two-time Irish Elite champion Brandon McCarthy faces Italy’s Gianluligi Malanga at 63 kilos.
European U22 silver medallist Adam Hession looks to carry the impressive momentum built up over recent months into his showdown with tough Russian Eduard Savvin.
Ricky Nesbitt and Kelyn Cassidy must wait until Saturday for their chance, with light-fly Nesbitt up against Uzbekistan’s Nodrjon Mirakhmador while Waterford banger Cassidy faces Mexican Arriaga Olivera.
AIBA World Elite Championships
67kg (round of 64): A Muydinkhajaev (Uzbekistan) bt E McKeever 5-0
51kg (round of 32): S Mari v A Bernath (Hungary)
63kg (round of 64): B McCarthy v G Malanga (Italy)
60kg (last 64): JP Hale v S Alicic (Serbia)
57kg (last 32): A Hession v E Savvin (RBF)
48kg (last 32): R Nesbitt v N Mirakhmador (Uzbekistan)
80kg (last 32): K Cassidy v A Olivera (Mexico)