Tuesday 18 June 2019

Hard work paying off for Monaghan brothers Aaron and Stephen McKenna with duo on the brink of the big time in the US

Stephen McKenna
Stephen McKenna

Sean McGoldrick

Fergal McKenna trained alongside Barry McGuigan and was ringside in the MCI Center in Washington when his fellow Monaghan man Kevin McBride sensationally beat Mike Tyson in 2005.

However, karate was the sport he was devoted to and he imagined his three sons – Gary, Stephen and Aaron, who were born within five years of each other – would follow suit. They didn’t.

He eventually took them to Smithboro Boxing Club, where both McGuigan and McBride had learned their trade and where McKenna had boxed during his teenage years.

Once it became obvious that the trio had an aptitude for the ring, their father quit karate and within a few years he was the new Head Coach of the renamed Old School Boxing Club.

Helped by a Credit Union loan of €35,000, a disused school house – where McGuigan had trained – was renovated. Within a decade the club had become a powerhouse in Irish underage boxing, with the McKenna brothers securing 14 All-Ireland titles. 

A self-employed carpenter, McKenna is man of action who doesn’t do thing by half-measures. He converted a shed at the rear of his home into a fully equipped gym, complete with a full-sized boxing ring in which world champions ‘Rinty’ Monaghan, McGuigan and McBride had fought in.

“It came from Belfast and the Smithboro club used it for their tournaments. Then it got thrown to one side, but I knew its history and I sourced it from a local man and restored it,” he says.

For the best part of the next decade the McKenna siblings used the ring morning, noon and night to hone their skills.

“It more or less took over our lives,” acknowledges Fergal. “The lads had shown so much enthusiasm and dedication that we had to feed it.

“We were going to Dublin every weekend, which meant Loreto (his wife) and I missed out on a lot of things like christenings and weddings, but what we got out of boxing was just as rewarding.”

They often rose before dawn to do a session before Gary, Stephen and Aaron headed to secondary school in Clones and Fergal went to work. 

Loreto would collect the boys at lunchtime and bring them home for another session and after school there would adjourn for more training to the shed.

Traditionally, every Irish amateur boxer dreamed about at least competing in the Olympic Games before the thought of turning professional even crossed their minds.

However, Aaron – who was emerging as the most talented of the trio with a string of top-class performances abroad – was always more interested in the pro game. 

Ultimately a phone call from Rachel Charles, an executive with a Los Angeles-based sports management company, changed the life of the McKenna family. 

Sheer Management had already enticed world silver medallist Jason Quigley to the west coast of the US. Belfast boxing coach Tony Dunlop, who runs the Kronk Gym in the city, had recommended Aaron, even though he was only 16  at the time.

“Sheer Management flew Aaron and me out to LA for two weeks in 2015. We were introduced to Courage Tshabalala, who was a scout for the company at the time,” says Fergal.

“Aaron and Courage went into the ring and did pads. Looking at them you’d swear they had been doing it out in the shed at the back of the house for 10 years. They just gelled so well.”

They pair were back in LA the next summer; this time they spent three months there and his handlers were so impressed by Aaron that there were suggestions he might turn professional straight away and box in Mexico, where age is no barrier.

Ultimately he waited until he was 18 before signing a professional contact with Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy company. 

Fergal and Aaron moved permanently to LA in November 2017 – they were joined in early 2018 by Stephen, who had been training full-time with the Irish High Performance Unit since he won the Irish elite light flyweight title in 2015.

Gary, meanwhile, chose a more conventional path and is studying to become a PE teacher.

Fergal, Stephen and Aaron live in an apartment in Woodland Hills, near Santa Monica. Their lives revolve around boxing.

On two mornings a week they rise at 4.30am to an hour-long track session done before the hot sun rises. They spar three times a week and on Saturday mornings it’s off to Griffith Park in the LA hills for an uphill four-and-a-half mile trail run.

“The benefits you get from training in LA is that the lads never get a cold or a flu. Their immune system is always strong.  Nearly every fighter we spar with is a Mexican so there is no easy sparring,” says Fergal.

Aaron has chalked off six professional wins in the welterweight division – four inside the distance – since he made his debut in the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas in December of last year, while Stephen is expected to make his professional debut in the spring.

The brother’s ultimate dream is to win world titles and defend the belts in St Tiernach’s Park in Clones. It’s a long way off yet but it’s a case of so far so good.

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