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'Who'd have thought two guys from Smithborough would have Freddie Roach standing in their corner?'

Three ‘ordinary human beings’ from Monaghan have added a boxing legend to their arsenal as they try to do something extraordinary halfway across the world.

Light-welterweight Stevie McKenna, welterweight Aaron McKenna and father-trainer Fergal McKenna.
Light-welterweight Stevie McKenna, welterweight Aaron McKenna and father-trainer Fergal McKenna.
Image: Valentin Romero

“THE BEST LAUGH I’ve gotten so far was when the boys were running the Santa Monica Stairs one morning,” says Fergal McKenna, father and co-trainer of California-based professional boxers Aaron and Stevie McKenna.

“I’m sitting using the phone just to monitor their times, and this wee fella comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, how are ya?’ He was about 80 years of age.

“I looked at him and says, ‘Good, how are you?’

“He says, ‘What are ya doin’?’

“And I tell him that I’m just doing the time, here, with the boys — I’ve never met this fella before in my life.

“And he nods towards my phone and says, ‘What, using that?’

“‘Aye,’ I says. And then he pulls out this huge, gigantic stopwatch.

“‘This is what I use,’ he says. ‘You should get yourself one of these. Phones are too much of a distraction.’

“To be honest, I was a little bit bewildered, so I says to him… ‘Who are you, anyway?’

“And he was Carl Lewis’s athletic coach.”

That was the McKennas’ introduction to Joe Douglas, one of athletics’ greatest ever minds. He is the founder of the Santa Monica Track Club which, since its inception in 1972, has been the base camp for 27 Olympic medals (19 gold), 18 World Championship golds, and the tying or breaking of 37 world records.

You’ll find him at the Santa Monica Stairs most Saturday mornings, apparently.

“Last time I met him”, Fergal says, “I was asking him, ‘Of all the athletes you’ve trained, what was the key ingredient, the key thing you found in all your coaching, that made the great ones great?’ And he said the key, for him, was recovery: train hard, but make sure everyone gets their rest. So I’ve really taken that on board with the boys’ training sessions. The minute we finish a training session, I start to make sure they’re recovered for the next one.

“…I got myself a wee stopwatch as well!”

douglas Joe Douglas, founder of the famed Santa Monica Track Club. Source: Joe Douglas 400m & 800m Training Philosophy/runnerprogram.com

Such chance encounters are staples of a County Monaghan story whose latest chapters are being written in Hollywood.

A few Tinseltown highlights: soon after their arrival in Los Angeles three years ago, the brothers met Adam Sandler twice in the same day. An avid boxing fan with an Irish bodyguard at his hip, Sandler enjoyed his first conversation with Aaron and Stevie so much that he stopped for another when their paths crossed once more a few hours later.

Another pop-culture icon to have become enamoured with the Smithborough youngsters is 13-time GRAMMY winner Kendrick Lamar, the most influential hip-hop star of the past decade. Lamar, who boasts tens of millions of fans worldwide and whose talents are commensurate to a separate Wikipedia page for all of his awards, once happened upon the brothers sparring each other at an undisclosed LA gym in which he was also training.

After consuming a typically fiery sibling slugfest from beneath the bottom rope, he got to talking to Aaron, Stevie and their managerial representative from Sheer Sports, Rachel Charles. A fortnight later, he drove for over three hours to the Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio to watch Aaron’s sixth professional fight, staying for four hours to watch ‘The Silencer’ in a post-midnight floater bout before driving home through the night.

as15 Former trainer Courage Thsabalala, Fergal McKenna, Aaron McKenna, Kendrick Lamar and Stevie McKenna. Source: Valentin Romero

Pre-fight, Lamar visited Aaron’s dressing room to wish him well and was very nearly banished by an in-the-zone Fergal until older brother Stevie hissed, ‘Dad, that’s Kendrick Lamar’, which still meant very little to the McKennas’ very Irish dad: ‘Oh aye?’

A quick photo, a fist bump, and Lamar was back off to his ringside seat. There have been catch-ups since, and the McKenna brothers now regularly enjoy the rather surreal experience of scaling Santa Monica’s steps while a world-famous fan of theirs performs linguistic gymnastics in their ears.

And then there was one Hollywood experience — the last of such anecdotes for now — which tickled Fergal especially. It occurred after one of Aaron’s fights. Job done and pressure off, Fergal was able to soak in a moment during which his youngest son, minding his business shortly after an eye-catching victory, stopped for a picture with a selfie-hunting fan before moseying on without giving it a second thought. That was the night Cyndi Lauper met Aaron McKenna.

as12 The McKenna brothers, Cork light-heavyweight amateur Tommy Hyde, and Kendrick Lamar.

But Aaron, 20, and Stevie, 23, could take or leave their crossing paths with actors and musicians. Their true colours shine only when discussing meetings with high-profile personalities who pertain to their own profession: their Hollywood story is first, foremost, and solely as they see it, a boxing story.

And so there is more audibly detectable excitement when they give the lowdown on their new head trainer, one of the most revered pugilistic figures of them all.

“To have him by my side up on stage at a press conference was just brilliant,” says Aaron. “No better man to have by my side than Freddie Roach to take me to the top.

It’s unbelievable when you think of it, like. Growing up, I would have watched Freddie working with [Manny] Pacquiao and [Miguel] Cotto. Now, to have him in my corner is just unbelievable. The experience I’m going to get from him is going to be fabulous, so it is.

“He’s by my side in training. Everything I’m doing, he’s watching. He’s telling me what to do in sparring — giving me good, positive feedback. And then, straight after sparring, he watches me on the bag. And then on normal training days, he watches what I’m doing and advises me. So, I’m learning a lot from him, and I can only get better with him as my trainer.”

“Growing up, me and Aaron would have always seen Freddie even on the [HBO] 24:7 shows,” adds elder sibling Stevie. “So, it’s funny looking back and it’s just unbelievable, now, to have him with us.

Like, who would have thought two guys from Smithborough in Monaghan would have Freddie Roach standing in their corner, walking them out to the ring?

“He’s going to take us to the next level. He loves our style of fighting and loves the Irish as well!

“Our opponents are going to be looking across and seeing Freddie Roach in the corner, so… We’re going to go the whole way to the top with him.”

pjimage - 2020-05-20T215240.687 L: Freddie Roach speaks with Stevie McKenna after a spar in the Wild Card; R:the brothers and their new trainer.

Aaron interjects:

I was just thinking that there, as well: imagine when I’m in that ring and Freddie Roach is standing beside me, the fear that my opponent is going to have looking across at me and then Freddie Roach. It’s going to bring an extra 20% to my game, too. Once that opponent gets into the ring, he’ll know it’s real. Once he sees me and Freddie, it’s a different ballgame.

The McKennas’ relocation to Roach’s famed Wild Card facility came off the back of a short stint spent under the tutelage of another venerable mentor, Robert Garcia, a three-time Ring Magazine Trainer of the Year who has been directly involved in 12 fighters winning world titles.

Ultimately, the thrice-weekly 200-kilometre round trip to Garcia’s gym in Riverside from the McKennas’ Ladera Heights home — combined with the notorious Los Angeles traffic — put paid to that particular arrangement.

Fergal didn’t need Joe Douglas’ two cents to realise that hours spent stuffed into a car wasn’t an ideal recovery routine. The three of them still speak incredibly highly of Garcia, who was sorry to see them go, but they’re confident that their altogether more convenient new setup, on their doorstep in Hollywood, will stand them in better stead.

“We always sparred in the Wild Card and we always knew Freddie”, says Stevie, “and Freddie was always fond of us. He always had an interest in us when we were sparring even going back over the last couple of years.

Like, the Wild Card is only 20 minutes away, literally. So, to have it right on our doorstep is a big bonus. It’s a lot easier on us and, because of that, we get to train even harder because our bodies are fit for more without that long commute.

“It was our management, Sheer Sports, who took care of it. We went to chat with Freddie and Freddie was delighted to hear we wanted to go train with him — he was looking forward to it. He really likes us, so he does.”

“It’s a very exciting phase of their career,” Fergal says. “As Stephen pointed out there, you couldn’t have imagined two young lads from Smithborough — the asshole of nowhere — would be fighting with Freddie Roach in their corner, one of them signed to Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions and the other with the potential, maybe, of working with Top Rank or Golden Boy.

Freddie and the boys have a real connection — a real, solid connection — because of the way they fight. It’s that old 1970s, 1980s style that Freddie told me he likes about the boys. The way they fight with that attitude. And he’s always talking how hard-working they are in the gym — how hard they train and how much they pay attention. That’s one of the things that Freddie pointed out to me that he admires about them.

Working alongside Roach is also quite the experience for Fergal, a highly regarded trainer in his own right back home, who now oversees his sons’ regime on the strength-and-conditioning side of things.

Key to Aaron and Stevie’s boxing education has been countless sparring rounds with world champions and world-ranked contenders all over the state of California, and this has been mirrored on the safe side of the ropes where Fergal has had the opportunity to observe the methods of some of the world’s finest trainers.

All of it dovetailed perfectly on one particularly influential evening in November 2018. Stevie, who joined his younger brother and father in California permanently only a year after their original move, was 11 months into his Masters course in the sweet science but yet to cut his teeth in the professional ring.

And so what better way to expedite that process than to blag his way into a sparring session with the consensus pound-for-pound number-one fighter on the planet? There could have been few better ways, too, for Fergal to gain an insight into one of the greatest familial partnerships in all of sport.

as14 Stevie McKenna and pound-for-pound superstar Vasyl Lomachenko.

“That was some experience, that was, the spar with Vasyl Lomachenko,” Fergal says. “That was brilliant. They were looking for a southpaw to spar and Stephen was the guy who turned around and says, ‘Yeah, I’m a southpaw.’” (He isn’t one — at least not usually).

“What I enjoyed about it was to actually see how Lomachenko’s corner works. You know, they have a father-and-son coaching relationship as well. So I was observing that. I learned an awful lot myself just from that experience alone.

“His father [Anatoly Lomachenko] is deadly serious — a very, very focused man. And you could see that he doesn’t allow for anyone to distract them. There’s no messing, they don’t leave anything to chance. Everything is meticulously worked out.

So, when we went into that spar, there was no friendliness: there was no, ‘Nice to meet you’, and all this. It was just straight down to business. ‘Spar? Yeah, okay.’ And then Lomachenko and his father went into automatic training mode. It was very strict. I saw that as the reason why Lomachenko is so successful. Because when you look at other practitioners, they’re maybe laughing, joking, talking. There’s none of that with the Lomachenkos. It’s deadly, deadly serious: they treat their spar like a fight. And when Stephen was sparring him, Stephen was doing tremendously well with him, but you could see Lomachenko all the time trying to work him out to capitalise on any mistake that he could force Stephen into making.

“This is how serious they are,” Fergal adds. “This really impressed me:

Before we even got the spar, they went and they weighed Stephen. They wouldn’t take at face value, ‘Oh, he’s such-and-such weight’ — whatever he was at the time. They took him away and weighed him on the scales to make sure he was the weight that we said he was. And this is before Stephen had even had a pro fight!

Stevie has spoken to The42 previously about his knock-around with the two-time Olympic gold medallist and three-weight professional world champion, but his demand as a dance partner has grown since.

Light-welterweight world champion Jose Ramirez drafted the decorated former Irish amateur standout into his training camp for his world-title unification clash with the also-undefeated Maurice Hooker last year, the six-foot-one and explosive Stevie providing most of Ramirez’s sparring opposition before he stunned the rangy Hooker in an all-American fight-of-the-year contender for a pair of belts at 140 pounds.

Ramirez asked Stevie to spar him once more in preparation for his next title defence, a fight versus Ukrainian Viktor Postol which would ultimately fall foul of the coronavirus. The kicker, however, was that Postol also sought Stevie’s services to prepare for Ramirez prior to the bout’s cancellation; they had previously traded plenty of heavy leather in West Coast bullpens.

He could have been a double agent. And he remains a free agent: while Aaron was signed by Oscar De La Hoya to Golden Boy Promotions from the get-go in 2017, Stevie has taken a different approach, earning his stripes behind the scenes for a full year in 2018 before finally debuting as a professional in April of last year and putting himself in the shop window with a series of quick victories.

as4 'Hitman' secures a stoppage win. Source: Valentin Romero

“I was rearing to go by the time I got in there,” says ‘The Hitman’, 4-0(4KOs). “Going in, it was like letting a lion out of a cage. I’m happy with the way things are going. I have to just take it one fight at a time and just keep knocking these guys out.

“We’re in talks with a few promoters so we’ll see soon what happens.”

“We’re working on Stephen’s record but probably at any stage, we have the option of signing with any of a few promoters,” Fergal expands. “But we went more with the approach of building his experience first to allow him to get a few fights without being under the pressure, maybe, of having to fulfil promotional obligations. And it’s worked out well so far. There’s a lot of interest, a lot of people watching him and keeping an eye on him. The options are there, and over the next two, three or four fights, there might even be more options. We’ll know more soon.

“Ken Sheer [manager, Sheer Sports] has done a fantastic job with him — picking fights that make him look good, yes, but are still testing fights. You know, his last fight was no walk in the park — he was up against a guy who was 6-6 [Gonzalo Dallera], and that guy has since been pencilled in to fight a 9-0 Golden Boy prospect. So that shows you the level that Stephen is at.

“We’re getting his name out there and it means that whichever promotional company Stephen does sign with — it could be Golden Boy, Top Rank or whoever — he’ll get off to a tremendous start with them straight away; he’s not going to be dilly-dallying because he’ll have some experience in the bank already.”

Aaron, ‘The Silencer’, is three years Stevie’s junior but a little bit further down the road in his development as a prizefighter; an extra 18 months’ seasoning in the professional ring saw him park his record at 10-0 (6KOs) as the world ground to a halt in the spring.

He has for the most part campaigned a division above the slighter-of-frame Stevie, at welterweight (147 pounds), but growth spurts and gym gains will soon dictate that he migrates north to light-middleweight (154); he has tipped the scales at 149.5, 151.5 and 149.75 over his last three fights, the most recent of which was a stunning second-round destruction of a decent Mexican by the name of Victor Eddy Gaytan [6-4, 3KOs].

as3 A fist-bump from 'The Silencer'. Source: Valentin Romero

“It was good to finish off last year with a knockout, just to show what I’ve learned from all my fights,” Aaron says. “Got him down with a nice body shot.

I’m starting to develop a bit more power and I’m learning that they’re tougher to the head, so you’ll drop them easier to the body. They’ve all got these hard, tough heads!

“Going into my next fight, now, I want to put on a big show for everyone and let everyone know who I am.”

Aaron’s planned first fight of 2020, scheduled for 28 March but cancelled due to the onset of COVID-19, was due to be his biggest to date. The 20-year-old was flanked by Hall-of-Fame trainer Roach at the Golden Boy press conference for a high-profile card designed to place the spotlight on some of De La Hoya’s burgeoning talents, with Aaron addressing a sizeable media assembly from an on-stage podium — a novel experience which he says he enjoyed despite a natural proclivity for silence as well as violence.

as2 Aaron floors an opponent. Source: Valentin Romero

And though Golden Boy’s bill at the 17,500-capacity Forum in Inglewood, CA. never came to fruition, Aaron found it had a taste of more about it — especially because the main attraction was reigning Ring Magazine Prospect of the Year Vergil Ortiz Jr [15-0, 15KOs], the 22-year-old Texan sensation with whom Aaron regularly juxtaposes vicious blows and kind words.

“Like, I’ve sparred probably over a hundred rounds with Vergil Ortiz,” he says of his promotional stablemate. “So, to see him headlining in The Forum, a big arena — that’s what I want to be doing. I’ve set a goal for myself to be doing that. I want to be ranked in the top 15 in the world in the next 12 months.

“Vergil and I have had some great spars, so we have. We’ve learned a lot off each other. A lot of spars we had were toe to toe — a lot of toe to toe,” he laughs. “And then others were more, like, trying to learn off each other.

“We’d talk to each other plenty, so we would. Vergil’s a really nice guy. He likes to give feedback, too, so it’s great to learn from him as well.”

With California locking down a couple of months ago, the McKennas availed of the opportunity to head home to Smithborough to spend time with their mother — Fergal’s wife — Loretta, a nursing-home worker, and the eldest of the three brothers, Gary, who boxed at a national and international level as an amateur and is now a PE teacher.

It’s been a chance to take stock of a life-changing few years, certainly, but there’s a fat chance of the prodigal sons indulging in too many home comforts as they await a resumption of activity in their adopted state across the drink.

as5 Aaron, Stevie, Loretta, Fergal and Gary McKenna celebrate one of Stevie's victories in California. Source: Valentin Romero

“It’s all gone, probably, sort of the way I expected it to go,” Fergal muses. “When we first made the jump, we had full conviction in what we were doing, and the full belief that we were going to achieve everything that we set out to do.

“The one thing I would say is, even if you’re only 18 or 19, it doesn’t matter. Things are still expected of you. For anyone thinking you might get an easier ride of it because you’re young — you don’t. It’s a tough game. That’s one of the things you have to make sure to acclimatise to.”

“I wouldn’t say there’s much pressure,” says Aaron, who put pen to paper with Golden Boy and made his punch-for-pay bow just months into adulthood. “You’ve gotta just put in the hard work and then the results will show. There’s no real pressure on me to show off or anything. I’m not interested in talking a lot on social media and all that — you’ve gotta just do it in the ring. Prove that you’re the best fighter out there. And don’t take anyone lightly.”

Fergal adds:

We treat each fight like it’s a world-title fight. Fight one: world title. Fight two: world title. Right through to fight 10 in Aaron’s case and fight four in Stephen’s. And we’ll keep doing that so nobody will ever say that we didn’t prepare properly, or so that we’ll never have an excuse — ‘Aw, we didn’t do this, we didn’t do that.’ It’s my job to make sure that the two lads are very well prepared. And as we’ve transitioned so far, we’ve met all our expectations but only because we’ve never taken anything for granted. I think that’s why the boys have done fairly well, and if we keep the same policy, they should continue to do well.

There are professional boxers in name and professional boxers in nature. The McKenna brothers are both: they don’t drink, they don’t go ‘out out’, they eat well, rise early and train maniacally. They live and breathe their jobs. So, what about the prospect of physical or mental burnout?

“We include a lot of motivational things to keep ourselves mentally focused,” Fergal explains. “If we weren’t doing that, I can see how hard training camp would be. The boys wouldn’t like it that way, and I wouldn’t like it that way either — it’d drive you insane. You’d only be able to do a couple of training camps like that. It’d just be too hard on your system. Whereas the way we work… There’s a great team aspect to it, a team spirit. I’m a big believer in morale. If the morale’s not right, you’re wasting your time. If the boys didn’t enjoy this and if we didn’t enjoy doing what we’re doing, we wouldn’t do it. But we genuinely like it.”

as17

“It’s an exciting life, you know? This is what we want to be doing. We do really enjoy it,” says Stevie.

“It’s hard, hard work, but sparring is the one thing we look forward to more than anything else,” Fergal adds. “Monday, Wednesday and Friday, there’s a buzz. We get the same buzz heading off to sparring as we do on fight day. Now, if you don’t have that buzz, I could see, maybe, where you might make a change. But with where the boys are at at the minute, ask them what their favourite part of training is, and they’ll tell you it’s the sparring.”

Aaron and Stevie nod in agreement.

“And we look forward to the mountain run,” Fergal smiles. “It’s very motivational.”

“Aye, well it’s a good feeling when you get to the top!” says Stevie.

“When you’re doing the stairs in Santa Monica, and you’re looking across over at the ocean, there is a feel-good factor to that,” Fergal continues. “We’d be up there at 6:30 on a Saturday morning. It’s really, really… ‘Motivational’ is probably the word for it.”

“Sparring is definitely my favourite out of it all, but I actually like all the training,” chimes Aaron. “The running — the run we do on the Santa Monica Stairs really is motivational, so it is. Just, like, knowing that feeling when you’re done, and trying to get that feeling. It’s a really, really tough run on your legs. It’s short but we do it eight times up and down, a minute’s rest in between. Once you’re done, you’re just happy, like. You know you’ve put in the hard work.”

“See, the training is very specific, too,” Fergal elaborates.

So, when we do our aerobic training, it’s specifically to build endurance to measure ourselves against the rounds the boys are doing in the ring. So, when you watch the boys fighting, they’re incredibly fit. They don’t get tired. But when we go to boxing training, it’s more about technical skills than aerobic work — we’re not testing ourselves in terms of how fit we are, we’re not using the boxing session to get fit; we’re using it to work on skills. And then, when we do sparring, it’s specifically geared to measure how well the aerobic sessions and the boxing sessions are combining to improve the boys. They do three sparring sessions a week.

“We write it all down, we document it all. We log every single run time. And when the boys hit a certain time on the track, I know they’re starting to peak. The point is to make sure they peak for a fight. We’ll do a track session, the Santa Monica Stairs, and a mountain run — they’re three tough runs to get through in a week. And between those, we’ll do three recovery runs.

The recovery runs are three-mile (5km) runs in under 20 minutes. If we were doing them at a sort of competitive pace, the boys can hit 17 minutes for a three-mile. But we look at a time of 20 minutes for an easier run.

Nominate them for an Instagram challenge at your own peril.

“We’ve always been like that,” Stevie says.

“So over Christmas, there, when Aaron’s fight finished on…what date was it?” Fergal asks.

“December 5th,” Aaron replies.

“December 5th. We tapered off, then”, Fergal says, “right to Christmas, but we kept their conditioning work going: the running and their strength work. We don’t let fall away because that’s the hardest bit to get back. But while we’re home for Christmas we don’t do the hard runs — we do the three-mile runs but we try to get it down to about 18 minutes to keep that wee bit of aerobic competitiveness.

And then the boys do their own strength work when we’re back home [in Monaghan]. I leave them alone — for me to get away from them, and for them have their own space. They do their own thing in December and January. They hang around with their friends. So when they’re doing their strength work at home, it’s with the guys they hang around with. These are guys that they’ve grown up with, they’ve played football with them, they went to school with them. These are lifelong mates, so they are. They have to be able to keep the relationships going with the guys they grew up with. So that’s when I stand back — and I do so knowing that they’re that focused that they’ll do it without me, and they don’t need me. But I have to stand back and give them space.

“So, it’s a chance for us all to wind down when we’re home, but they’re still doing what we call ‘maintenance training’ while catching up with friends over Christmas and all that… Now, their friends won’t do the three-mile runs, but they’ll go into the jacuzzi after!”

Remaining up to speed with the lives of childhood chums can be difficult when you’re living eight hours behind, Aaron says, “but you’d still keep in touch with Snapchat and things like that — it’s a handy app. And it’s good to get back then for Christmas or for a couple of weeks, usually, in the summer, and catch up that way.

I’ll get loads of messages from them while I’m over there, anyway — when’s my next fight and that sort of thing… And then, ‘Will the fight be streamed?’ That’s a big one!

The three McKennas laugh. Fergal says: “I’ll post it on Facebook: ‘Here’s a stream for Aaron’s fight’, and five minutes later I’ll get a message: ‘Is there any stream for Aaron’s fight?’ But wee texts and messages like that are not irritants for us by any means. That’s motivation. That’s support. One thing we realise is that the fans are the most important part of this business. Without the fans, you’ve nothing. We love the fact that people follow the boys from home, on their social media but also through The42 or RTÉ or the Irish Independent or whatever it might be. And it would be our ambition to try and do as much as we can for Irish boxing, to get the Irish support, and to get the Irish-Americans, as well, once the boys break through.”

Fergal can “definitely” see major opportunities for his boys to one day captivate audiences on the more Irish-American-saturated East Coast, particularly in the absence of a resident John Duddy type as things stand, but says that first, “we just have to serve our apprenticeship and make sure the boys are ready for those openings.”

aaron-mckenna-is-introduced-to-the-crowd Aaron McKenna salutes the crowd before a 2018 scrap. Source: Tom Hogan/INPHO

Stevie and Aaron are happy to keep turning heads on the opposite side of the continent for now, building towards bigger nights and deeper water.

“You have to be an exciting fighter — let everyone know to come and watch you, like,” says the older brother. “I just try to get them out of there. You don’t get paid for overtime, as they say.

“I like to hurt them, so… That’s the game we’re in — it’s the hurt game. I was always an exciting fighter so I was keen to bring that into the pro game.

“The harder fights are coming and those fights will be exciting, so they will, where the opponent tries to bring you into a war. But at the same time, you’ve just got to stick to your boxing… And try to knock them out,” he laughs.

“Those will be the most exciting fights”, Fergal adds, “but I also think it’ll be where we’ll see the best of the boys.

There will be a time when they’re in well-matched fights, but that’s where you’ll see the boys come through the other side — the years and years of training, their experience. Well, hopefully! As anyone knows, and I think you’ll agree, with the game that we’re in, you just have to hope you keep coming through the other side, but of course there no guarantees.

“The boys and I are big fans of the sort of 1980s-style fighters. And when they get up to 15, 20 fights, we hope they’ll have that sort of mentality. I think the boxing world needs that sort of fighter. ‘Triple G’ [Gennady Golovkin] sort of had it in his heyday, and I think the boys have something similar. Particularly Stephen. Stephen is one of those fighters where…he’s very unpredictable!” Fergal’s wide-eyed smirk brings a chuckle out of his sons. “But he’s exciting to watch and he just has to keep his structure and his shape.

“And Aaron has a very technical style, very well schooled, but when we see him put under pressure we’ll also see that extra wee level that makes fighters into world champions. And if you don’t have that, you’ll not become a world champion. That’s when you’ll know: when you’re properly tested, when your back’s against the wall, when it’s ‘fight or die’. And the two boys have been conditioned for that. Their mentality is getting strong — and it needs to be.

At the start of a boxing career, 90% of it is going to be technical. But as you really start to improve your skill level, it then moves into the vicinity of being a mental game: who believes they can win the most? And we’re that focused, sometimes, that we can maybe look like selfish people, but we’re really not. It’s just focus and intent to ensure we’re prepared in every way.

as6 Stevie McKenna braces for impact. Source: Valentin Romero

The brothers have certainly demonstrated a psychological edge during the early stops on their respective boxing routes. Mind you, it helps when you’re a six-foot-one light-welterweight or welterweight. The McKenna ‘death stare’ is becoming something of a hallmark, Aaron and Stevie towering over opponents and boring holes through the souls of men who, in fairness, are usually professional boxers in name only.

“You see a lot of these younger boys and they’re mouthing and mouthing,” Fergal says. “And as I say to the two boys, just stand and look them straight in the eye. They’ll know — they’ll know without you even having opened your mouth who’s going to win and who’s going to lose. You can read it from a fella, you know?”

“Once you look into the eyes, you always know,” smiles Stevie. “I sense fear in them. They know, once we get into that ring, it’s business.”

“If you ever look at Mike Tyson, as well”, Aaron says, “when he stared at his opponents, he had that death stare as well. They’re all, like…you don’t want to say scared but maybe intimidated by the time you get into the ring.”

death stare The death stare.

It’s all decent practice for days to come when the eyes of the man opposite won’t stray downwards or glaze over; when boxing is that man’s business too, and not merely a nixer. But the death stare is not something you can actually practice in the mirror, either, the brothers explain with a laugh. They find the pictures as amusing as everybody else. “I don’t even notice it. I’m just…kind of looking at him, but no, you couldn’t work on it, I don’t think,” Stevie says.

“When you see that intent at the weigh-in, it’s a culmination of their training camp,” Fergal explains. “For that 10 seconds that you see that staredown, it’s like a week of training per second. You can’t rehearse that. It’s total belief because they’ve put the work in. They think they’re unbeatable and they know that, at this stage of their career, the other guy is looking for a major scalp but he probably hasn’t had a good training camp, he might have struggled making his weight. The boys know in their heart and soul that it’s only a matter of time once they get into the ring. And the other guys know too.

Our whole presentation is to intimidate because we’re in the intimidation business. And that’s why, as soon as the boys walk into the gym, we take that leaf out of Lomachenko’s book: we’re deadly serious. The laughing and talking stops, we don’t chit-chat with anyone, and it’s right down to business. And we carry that to the fight.

“Now, outside of that, then we laugh and talk and we act like ordinary human beings,” Fergal laughs.

as18 The McKennas.

Californian rest days tend to consist of days out: trips to the beach, a few hours spent on jet skis — the McKennas’ new normal. But a bit of downtime can also often more closely resemble the equivalent back home in Ireland.

“We see all of Liverpool’s Sunday games, and on Saturdays we’ll see the five o’clock kick-offs after our stair run,” says Stevie, a diehard Red, as is his younger brother. Neither man is old enough to have seen Liverpool lift a league trophy, but they got a chance during their Christmas wind-down to head over to Anfield for a 2-0 victory over Watford during what should eventually prove to be a title-winning season.

As the conversation winds down with football chat, Aaron, aware that this writer is a Manchester United fan, gratuitously reels off a stat about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s win percentage at the wheel. The hurt game indeed.

They know their stuff. Stevie was having a shocker in fantasy this year, he says, though. Aaron had been ticking along nicely before the world was turned arseways.

“You were talking to Andy Lee about it, weren’t you?” Stevie asks Aaron. “Andy keeps an eye on us in the league,” he says. “We were just trying to beat him in it this year. He takes it seriously.”

The McKennas: three ordinary human beings from Monaghan trying to do something extraordinary halfway across the world. A father and two sons hellbent on conquering theirs.

One of own, Clive Doody, is undertaking this walk to raise funds for another one of our own, Andy, her partner Adam and her two kids. Well done to him – support in any way you can. #fightlikeandy #teamport

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Portarlington R.F.C

on 

Monday, 4 May 2020

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