From the Smithboro Boxing Club to Golden Boy and Santa Monica - Ireland's youngest pro fighter Aaron McKenna
The Old School Boxing Club isn’t what you’d picture when you first hear its name.
When you’re travelling to Barry McGuigan’s first boxing gym in Smithborough, Co. Monaghan, you have a certain idea, or an image of what that gym might look like.
It’s a vision that has a car park and a reception, a sign out the front of the premises, maybe a couple of fighters hanging around the entrance after an early morning session. What I did not envision was a barn door on some random farm in Corlat.
Stranded on the side of a one way road with no notion as to where I was, much less where I was going, I decided to give Fergal McKenna a call to find out where this place was, this gym that had produced 22 national titles in the last nine years.
I rang Fergal and met him at a nearby petrol station where I followed him to what looked like a chapel, which made sense given that we had pulled up just outside a church.
But looks can be deceiving and this was indeed the Old School Boxing Club.
When Fergal stepped out of his car to greet me he was accompanied by his son Aaron, Ireland’s youngest professional fighter and the youngest fighter signed to Golden Boy Promotions.
Golden Boy, a pro stable started by 10-time world champion Oscar De La Hoya, is one of the biggest promotions in professional boxing with 75 fighters including Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez, Miguel Cotto and Donegal’s Jason Quigley.
McKenna is number 76, but much like the outside of his gym, he doesn’t scream professional boxing, that is, until he steps inside the ring and starts shadowboxing.
All it takes is one minute for you to see how he’s an eight-time national champion. The speed and ferocity at which he throws punches aligns with what you’d expect of a fighter of his caliber, but so too does his training regime.
I’d print out the whole training session, but in the interest of space and time, it’s roughly, per week, 4000 situps, six laps of the track, 11 miles of running, three gym sessions, 80 minutes of shadow boxing, over an hour of skipping, over an hour of reaction and balance training, six sets of shuttle sprints and 40 combined rounds of sparring and padwork, spread over 16 sessions across six days. The only thing more difficult than reading it is actually doing it.
Even rest is accounted for, not a moment is spared, and this is a training schedule that has been designed for Aaron while he awaits a visa so he can move to Los Angeles, where his schedule will be further tailored once he arrives.
“We’re building him to be a world champion, he’ll get there if we plan it properly,” said Fergal, Aaron’s father and coach.
The plan for Aaron is intense, it always has been, but it’s not just a program that has been devised over seven days, it’s been steadily building for 12 years.
McKenna has been boxing since the age of six and he has been training alongside his older brothers Stephen (20) and Gary (22), both of whom are also Irish elite champions.
The brothers split time between the Old School Boxing Club and the Smithboro Boxing Club, the boxing gym Fergal built at the back of their house equipped with a 16ft ring, a full gym and a wide variety of pads, bags and gloves.
When Aaron says boxing is his life, it’s not just a figure of speech, it’s literally been there since the day he was born and has pervaded his life ever since.
“I’m just focused solely on boxing,” said McKenna.
“I just want to improve. Everything I do is about boxing. I’ve been doing it since I was six-years-old. Boxing has been my whole life.
“It has always been my ambition to be a pro boxer since I was young and I always just wanted to win a world title. It’s all I want to do.”
There’s a line between wanting to do something and it being the only thing you’ve ever known. McKenna dabbled in Gaelic Football and a few other sports as a child but boxing is all it has ever been for him since he was 11.
It’s a road that has been paved for him and a path that he is happy to walk, but why bypass the amateurs? Why turn pro at 18? Why not have a crack at the Olympics and turn pro afterwards? At 18-years-old, time is well and truly on his side.
The answer, as with everything in Irish Boxing, is complicated, but the truth is that the IABA’s funding was slashed from €900,000 to €700,000 in 2017 following a disastrous showing at the 2016 Rio Olympics where the Irish team failed to win a single medal.
The reduction can be attributed to the performance in Rio, the high profile departures of Michael Conlan, Katie Taylor and Paddy Barnes to the pro ranks, as well as gross ineptitude on behalf of the IABA, but the number of boxers receiving individual grants has also fallen from 14 to six, with many fighters having their funding cut in half while some in the High Performance Unit receive no funding at all.
McKenna, an eight-time national champion, a European Schoolboys gold medalist, and a silver medalist at the European Juniors, was overlooked for an individual grant.
With the High Performance Unit based at the National Sports Campus in Dublin, he would have to travel or live and work in the capital with his brother Stephen, who is also in the High Performance Unit.
With Golden Boy chasing his signature and offering to look after his every need in Los Angeles, it made his decision to turn pro that much easier.
But ultimately, fighters like McKenna are put in a position where chasing an Olympic Gold medal has become harder than it may have been before, but the McKenna’s aren’t looking for sympathy.
They’re looking for world championships and anything that will help them get there.
“We had a jeep for five years and we got over 300,000 km’s on it,” added Fergal.
“The mechanic was amazed. We’ll go anywhere and everywhere for a good spar. If we know we can get some solid rounds in Cork tonight, we’d go. We’ll go anywhere that we feel will make us better.”
Aaron has traveled all over the country to train, but he won’t have to drive to Cork or Kerry, Dingle or Dublin to look for rounds, he’ll head to the IRON Fitness gym in Los Angeles where he’ll train under the watchful eye of former Heavyweight fighter Courage Tshabalala.
The two have a solid working relationship and while McKenna will be leaving the Old School Boxing club in Smithboro for a new school in Santa Monica, he’ll carry the same goal as he always has with him, becoming Monaghan’s next world champion.
A road he’ll start earlier than most.