'You’re seeing the results of a 15-year training programme...' The making of the McKenna brothers

Aaron McKenna celebrates with dad Fergal (second from right) and cornerman Tony Dunlop (right) after stopping Jack Ewbank in London last Friday night
Aaron McKenna celebrates with dad Fergal (second from right) and cornerman Tony Dunlop (right) after stopping Jack Ewbank in London last Friday night

AS the rounds went by, the Mariachi music got louder. By the end of the 10th, Los Mandados was pumping out and hoarse spectators grabbed a drink as the exhausted fighters flopped down on their stools caked in dust, blood and sweat.

Boxing was stripped back to the basics and spars in the intimidating hurt locker gyms in Los Angeles or south of the border down Tijuana way were savage. Walk in there and you had to fight, fight and you better give every ounce because the other guy would come at you like it’s the MGM Grand and there’s a world title belt and a million dollars for the winner.

The McKenna brothers, Aaron and Stephen, went into baddest-ass clubs with only their dad Fergal there to support them and the benefits of days spent surviving and then flourishing in the harshest of boxing environments are now becoming increasingly apparent.

Last Friday night, Aaron won the first belt of his career - the WBC Youth middleweight title - with a dominant display against Carlos Callego. Tough Mexican Callego hung in over eight one-sided rounds but all three judges scored it a shut-out win for McKenna.

On the same bill, elder brother Stevie ferociously blasted out Jack Ewbank in 70 seconds (including a delay for loose tape to be trimmed off Ewbank’s glove and an eight-count when he was dropped by a thunderous right upper cut) to move to 11-0. Ewbank, a late replacement opponent for ‘The Hitman’ who had also hoped to fight for a world youth title, was way out of his depth but he actually lasted 28 seconds longer than Stevie’s previous opponent.

The wins were statements of intent to end 2021. Next year the standard of opposition will go up but the brothers are prepared for that says their dad and coach Fergal.

“Some people would think you can go in and do what the boys do with a 12-week training camp - you can’t,” he said.

“Our training camp started when the boys were six and seven years of age and you’re seeing the results of a 15-year training programme in the way the lads are fighting and performing.”

And that programme – which began in Smithboro ABC and continued in the shed behind the McKenna’s home – included five years in the USA.

“You can’t beat the Mexican gyms for competitiveness and toughness,” says Fergal.

“You can see because of the environment they come from that the fighters in there are bred to fight.

“A Mexican coming into the ring is fighting for every penny he earns so you’re getting somebody that is coming with an extra 20 per cent. In Robert Garcia’s gym (Oxnard near LA), when you walk in through the doors, he had maybe 15 or 20 fighters there and every one of them was in the top 10 or 15 in the world.

“We sparred three times a week there and it was a great apprenticeship. We served that apprenticeship over the years we were over there and with our experiences in Tijuana, the boys have an enormous amount of experience that nobody really knows much about only ourselves.

“We loved it over there, we wouldn’t say a bad word about it because it was some experience but it wouldn’t be something anyone could do. There were three of us together and I was able to give the boys the security and the backbone they needed to get through it all.

“Because of what we’ve done, we have nothing to fear from any of the top 10 in the world. We’ve been in with them and there wasn’t much difference in what I could see so if we were to fight them in the morning it would be a very competitive fight.

“We have that confidence and security in knowing that because of the experience we’ve had. How many other young fighters have had the chance to measure themselves against world-rated opponents so early in their careers? As we evolve and as Mick Hennessy brings them through towards world title shot, I’m absolutely confident that when the two boys get their opportunity they will do themselves justice.”

Barry McGuigan was still fighting out of Smithboro ABC in county Monaghan when Fergal first joined the gym as an 11-year-old. He won a mid-Ulster title and got to an Ulster final but, after around 50 amateur contests, he switched to karate and for 15 years concentrated on martial arts, establishing his own club as a third Dan black belt.

When his sons came through he returned to Smithboro ABC. Within six months was the head coach and, after title after title was won by young fighters from the club, he spent seven years as a coach in Ireland’s High Performance unit.

On the face of it, his sons have contrasting styles. Aaron is the slick boxer, Stevie is the wrecking ball terminator but Fergal says there are elements of both styles which neither has shown yet.

“We went to America and we saw that to survive in the boxing world you were fighting fight-by-fight and you could take nothing for granted,” he says.

“The way Aaron developed, he had really high quality boxing skills. I’m not saying Stephen doesn’t have that, but Aaron has that system in place where he knows he can out-box someone and he’s very confident in doing it.

“Stephen comes in with a different attitude. He felt that if he lost a fight his career was going to be a non-starter so he felt he always had to perform, he always had to come with an attitude to bring his best and we took advantage of that.

“People have said to me that Stephen is a better boxer than what he’s showing because he does get in there and he brawls but we like his style, it’s very intimidating and I know from the background – from the performances he produces in sparring which people don’t see – that he will be a handful for even the very best in the world.

“We really don’t have to change him. Some people say that he needs to tighten up his defence but when he’s throwing punches and landing them and he’s physically very, very strong, it’s up to the guy that he’s competing with to worry about his defence.

“So we take full advantage of that (his attributes) and we encourage him to go out and devour his opponents. We don’t want him to let him settle and any opportunities he can take to get the fight over quickly, we want him to take them.

“Aaron has the same mentality but he’s more structured. He has that boxing style and skillset that means he hasn’t felt threatened too much by his opponents so far. Later on, as his fights get tougher, he’ll have the same fighting style as Stephen – it just has to be unleashed at the right time.”

The McKenna family are ardent fans of the stars of the golden 1980s era, particularly the ‘Four Kings’ – Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Marvellous Marvin Hagler. Hours and hours of footage of the legendary clashes between or featuring members of that quartet have been scrutinised and broken down.

“If you watch those guys, which we do a lot, you’ll see that they are constantly in heavy exchanges,” Fergal explains.

“It’s is brawling-type fighting with a quality skillset and we like to emulate that style so the boys would try and use as much of ‘Hitman’ Hearns’s style as they can and a wee bit of Hagler. When we’re looking at modern boxers, the boys would be encouraged to attack like ‘Triple G’ (Gennady Golovkin) and defend like Lomachenko.

“We’re not really interested in winning on points or looking good, this is prize-fighting and it’s dangerous so the quicker you can get in a do the job the better. It can be a safe job but only if you put the right effort in to preparing diligently.”