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Dublin: 7 °C Wednesday 16 January, 2019

'I met Paulie Malignaggi in the airport. I told him: 'If Conor won't fight you, I will''

‘The Silencer’ Aaron McKenna does his talking in the ring. Well, most of it.


“SILENCE HIM.” THAT was Oscar De La Hoya’s sole instruction to Aaron McKenna when he swung by the Monaghan man’s dressing room at Fantasy Springs Casino, Indio, California a fortnight ago.

That’s not to suggest Keasen Freeman – only a couple of years McKenna’s senior, aged 20, and a decent fella by all accounts – had been spitting slurs in the Smithborough native’s direction before their scrap. Rather, this was a boxing legend and promoter’s means of lighting a fire beneath the arse of his youngest fighter.

Imbued by De La Hoya’s nod, McKenna came out hot and gave Freeman a one-round roasting.

Aaron McKenna looks on as Keasen Freeman attempts to get up from the canvas Aaron McKenna scores a TKO1 of Keasan Freeman Source: Tom Hogan/INPHO

“Before I went in to fight, Oscar came into the dressing room,” says McKenna, who answers his phone while getting a spin back to his new home in Santa Monica. “It just gave me that boost in my performance. It was just unbelievable when he came into the dressing room, wishing me luck.

“He gave me some advice, too: ‘Silence him,’” the 18-year-old laughs, before proceeding to explain why: “He loves my nickname, ‘The Silencer’, so he does.

It was actually when I was away on an international trip [as an amateur] – that’s when I got given the name, ‘The Silencer’. One of the boys just said that outside of the ring I’m quiet, but once I go in the ring, that’s when I like to do my talking. I liked it.

“It suits me, too. I like it a lot.

“But Oscar is a lovely guy. He just talks away to me about boxing. It is a bit surreal – unbelievable – to see him come into the dressing room like that. It definitely gave me a big boost just before going out to fight.”

Untitled Oscar De La Hoya (L) with his youngest fighter, McKenna

‘The Silencer’ is still of an age where, for many, ‘advice’ can seem all too intrusive. McKenna, though, could scarcely be accused of perpetuating the teenager stereotype: he left school to traverse the Atlantic and pursue a dream, and takes his pugilistic studies more seriously than most students would the academic variant.

Tips, advice and instructions are welcomed, examined and absorbed. Case in point: footage of McKenna’s stylish stoppage of Freeman in Indio shows him land a thudding overhand right to the American’s temple. A member of his corner – likely his father, Fergal, given the Irish accent – is then heard shouting: ‘Now put something behind it!’

Seconds later, McKenna detonates: he throws the same right-hand shot but with added spite, ending the fight before so much as a second bell can sound.

This was his second first-round knockout in three weeks (both of them televised on ESPN), which in itself is a testament to the former eight-time Irish champion’s insatiable appetite not only for destruction, but work; McKenna is known to often train so hard that his team are forced to intervene for his own good.

Golden Boy intend for him to fight eight times in 2018, all going to plan. So far, so good.

“It was great to have two fights in three weeks,” he says. “I felt very good in there – very strong and relaxed as well. It’s great to get that experience under my belt. I’m coming on leaps and bounds.

In my first fight [a unanimous-decision win last December], I probably wasn’t as physically strong as I am now. I think that’s why we’ve seen my power more recently. Two first-round stoppages in my last two fights: you couldn’t get much better than that, really. I’m starting to get a lot stronger now, too – I’m feeling physically stronger with every fight.

“And in the gym, I’m working on sitting down on my punches with my coach [Courage Tshabalala]. I’m getting off some good, solid shots.

“I’m doing 14 training sessions a week, and three strength and conditioning sessions. Even the difference from that over the last few months – we probably saw it in my last two fights compared to the first.”

That increase in power could be partially accredited to his natural growth, too: McKenna was fighting at 114 pounds just over two years ago, and now operates up in the welterweight division – 147.

Perhaps most impressive about his most recent victory, though, was the ease – and speed – with which he dispatched an opponent of a solid caliber: Keasan Freeman brought with him to the ring a record of 4-1 (2KOs), his sole career reversal arriving inside two rounds at the hands of 2016 US Olympian Gary Antuanne Russell – younger brother of WBC World featherweight champion Gary Russell Jr.

“Yeah, it was great to fight an opponent with a good record – experienced, too,” McKenna says.

“It’s great to be fighting people that come to fight, come to win, and at 18 years of age as well. You want to get the experience of fighting those kind of guys at this stage in my career.

“He [Freeman] definitely came to fight, he came to win, and to get him out of there one round quicker than an Olympian was fantastic.

“But I wasn’t too bothered when I heard that Gary [Antuanne] Russell had stopped him in two rounds, and I’m generally not too bothered by my opponents, anyway: I just have to focus on myself and what I can do.

“Ever since I was 14, 15, I’ve been sparring people that were way older than me. And even since I was younger – like when I was nine or 10, I would have been sparring people that were two or three years older as well. So, I’ve always been fighting people and sparring people that might have more experience, or might be bigger, older.

I’ll have serious experience under my belt when I’m older, now myself – like when I’m in my twenties – and honestly, I just can’t wait to see what happens when I’m that age. I’m really looking forward to the future.

He’s not only developing physically, of course: there’s a marked difference between the McKenna who fields questions in April of 2018 than the younger man who first picked up his phone to this writer last summer.

The Old School BC product is still more at ease when chatting about his beloved Liverpool’s Champions League chances against Roma, sure, but the one-sentence answers of old – which were to be expected, frankly, given his age and natural inclination – are further unfurled on this occasion.

There’s no Hollywood twang, thanks be to God, but a noticeable steely assurance accrued through sit-downs aplenty with boxing scribes and vloggers across the water.

It’s while discussing this topic that Irish boxing’s quiet man alludes to the noise he’s making back home and how, not dissimilar to his Golden Boy and Sheer Sports stablemate, Jason Quigley, he’s beginning to acquire support from beyond the typical demographic for an Irish fighter.

Only, where Quigley was pleasantly surprised by his popularity among Latin-Americans – who christened him ‘El Animal’ before he relocated from Los Angeles to Sheffield – McKenna arrived in America fully expectant that his fighting style would resonate with his new neighbours.

“I’m really comfortable with the media stuff”, he says, “and definitely getting more attention with every fight. It’s great, but it’s great as well that everyone is acknowledging it back home.

“To have the Irish support, too, is very important: I want to have all the Irish behind me, and I can’t wait to be fighting back home someday as well.

It’s funny: over here, I’m getting a lot of Mexican supporters, too. They love my style – they love my aggressive style.

“I haven’t really picked up much Spanish, yet – maybe only a couple of words – but I knew when I got over here that they’d like my style, because it is like a Mexican’s. It is aggressive.

“It suits me, over here. I’m getting quality sparring as well. I’m sparring in all the top gyms: Wild Card, Legends, Maywood – the lot.

“Everyone I’m sparring is 12-0, 15-0 as a professional: you can’t really get better than that. Back in Ireland, it’s very hard to get those spars.

The way I always go in, I don’t be afraid of anyone. I go in and take no prisoners. I tend to be the only white guy in the gyms – or me and the brother [Stevie, who recently joined Aaron in the pro ranks] – so people kind of can’t believe it, these white guys going in and fighting like Mexicans.

“Once they see us in action, it’s a different story.”

original (5) The brothers McKenna with Freddie Roach at Wild Card Gym

It’s been all ‘go’ since his arrival – so much so that one might wonder how McKenna winds down once he steps back out through the ropes: where many boxers tend to enjoy a few drinks with friends and family post-fight, for example, the Smithborough welterweight is underage by three years in his new place of residence.

It’s not a problem, though, because Aaron McKenna doesn’t drink. He also doesn’t wind down.

“I just go straight back in the gym,” he says.

“I always want to be ready, because you never know when you’re going to be fighting next. You have to be ready at this point in your career.

“Drink’s not good for the body, either, so I stay away from it altogether.

I just love boxing, so I don’t feel I need to wind down. I’m always just thinking about the next session, when I can fight next. I fight, and then already I’m looking forward to my next fight.

“After a fight, I’m back in the gym on the Monday, getting ready for my next one. And I’m better off doing that, as well: I don’t want to relax, I don’t want to go out of shape. If you take a long break, it always takes longer for your body to get back into that routine that you were working on, so I want to just always stay in that shape.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been out of shape, really. I’ve always trained the whole year round.”

But even if there is no glitz and glamour where McKenna is concerned, there have been perks to the job at hand.

Tales of his rubbing shoulders with various stars – most of a fistic rather than artistic persuasion – have to be coaxed out of him, but are recalled with an undeniable fondness.

“Oh yeah, I met Vitali Klitschko in Gold’s Gym after our workout,” he says. “You never know who you’d meet over here, and it was class to meet Vitali.

“It was the day of the [Anthony] Joshua-[Joseph] Parker fight, and I asked him who did he think would win: he fancied Joshua, all right.

“I met Tim Bradley, too. He gave me a lot of advice, actually. He told me: ‘always work the body, and the hands will drop.’ He retired fairly young, too, Bradley.

I couldn’t really believe it when we met Adam Sandler. We actually met him twice in the one day, so we did. Me and Stephen were walking down the street in Santa Monica. We were stopped at the traffic lights and he was whistling behind us. Stephen turned around and saw him. We couldn’t believe it!

“He said that he had been in Ireland and all, and that he loved it.”


“And then we [Aaron and Stephen] went training a couple of hours later”, McKenna continues, “and we were pulling into the apartment – like, the driveway – and he was pulling out. We saw him again! He pulled down the window and we were talking to him again for about five minutes.

“He’s a very nice guy, so he is. Absolute gentleman. He talked away to us. I told him I was a boxer, that I was signed to Golden Boy, and all of a sudden he got very excited. He said he was a boxing fan. Lovely guy.

It’s actually crazy the amount of people you’d see over here. I met Paulie Malignaggi in the airport – that was about four weeks ago. I told him: ‘if Conor McGregor doesn’t fight ya, I will.’ He just laughed. He didn’t realise I was a fighter, I don’t think. But I told him I was signed with Golden Boy as well.

Untitled McKenna with Paulie Malignaggi

“The top-quality training and sparring would still be the highlight, though, for me,” McKenna adds, reiterating his motives for moving to America so young.

His upping sticks has been made easier by the presence of his father, Fergal, who trains McKenna along with his coach-in-chief, Courage Tshabalala – a South African former heavyweight contender. Stevie McKenna, who has spent the past three months Stateside with his brother, will move over permanently next month, too, in pursuit of his own pugilistic dream.

Their mother, Loretta, went over for Aaron’s last two fights but has since returned home to Monaghan.

It’s only when he’s asked if he misses his mother – and home – does ‘The Silencer’ very briefly go quiet. For the first time he sounds 18, in that he expertly navigates his way beyond the awkward question.

“Yeah, but I find that I’m comfortable over here. I don’t really miss home. I love it over here, so I do.

I suppose my friends all think it’s fairly crazy. Well, I don’t really know… I’m well used to it at this stage. I’ve been traveling the world with boxing since I was a small child. I’ve been to Russia six times! I’m well used to being away.

“Golden Boy have planned eight fights for me this year over here, and no less than six. So I’ll be fighting every four to six weeks, and I’m always in shape – always ready. This is what I’m here for: I’m here to do a job.

“I’ll be good to go for whatever comes.”

18 for 18: Monaghan sensation Aaron McKenna is set to take names across the Atlantic

Monaghan boxing star Stevie McKenna joins brother Aaron in turning pro across the pond

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