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'It's great that our dad is there to tell us to calm down if things go out of control a wee bit'

Monaghan youngsters Aaron and Stevie McKenna talk life in California, adding Kendrick Lamar to their American fanbase, and sparring the great Vasyl Lomachenko.

From L to R: Stevie, Aaron and Fergal McKenna.
From L to R: Stevie, Aaron and Fergal McKenna.
Image: Valentin Romero

ON A MONDAY evening in December, word spreads lively that the McKenna brothers are due in the Macho Gym on the Ballymount Road Lower, Walkinstown area, at 10 o’clock the following morning.

Aaron, Stevie and their father-slash-co-trainer, Fergal, are home for Christmas after a stellar year Stateside. It makes sense to pop around for a chat for two reasons: it won’t cost me a week’s shopping on this occasion, and I’ve actually never met the McKenna lads in person despite covering them fairly extensively over the last year and a bit.

It’s the same morning as Jose Mourinho gets sacked by Manchester United. I arrive at the gym at something like 10:20. Clearly, there hasn’t been much messing going on: Stevie McKenna, the older of the two professional boxing brothers at 21 but yet to make his pro debut, is already three rounds into a high-octane sparring session with fellow pro Eric Donovan — himself a former Irish amateur standout and now a prospect some eight wins further along his own journey.

Beijing Olympics silver medalist Ken Egan stands on the near side of the ring, hand on chin, occasionally leaning inward to bark orders at his friend Donovan, who looks sharp for a man sparring for the first time since overcoming an injury which curtailed his year and threatened his career.

Egan is flanked by three or four members of the ever-dwindling Irish boxing media, this writer included. Rarely would we convene like this but then it’s not often the McKennas wind up in the capital. Plus, it’s always great to catch up with ‘Lilywhite Lightning’ Donovan, an outstanding boxing pundit who could nearly qualify as one of our own if he wasn’t equally an outstanding man.

On the far-right-hand side of the ropes, observing intently as Donovan and his son trade at close quarters, is Fergal McKenna, who lives with his sons in California and trains them alongside South African former heavyweight contender Courage Tshablala.

48389466_10215456107968409_8506423685983240192_n Teams McKenna, Donovan and Macho Gym.

Younger brother Aaron, Irish boxing’s teen sensation — 6-0 with four quick nights in the punch-for-pay ranks to date — stands closer to the ring, his arms folded. He recently signed a sponsorship deal with Adidas Boxing and he’s fittingly kitted out from head to toe in the sportswear giant’s garb. He says nothing throughout the spar but watches every second, every shot, every twitch, his facial expression unwavering regardless of who plants leather on whose whiskers.

For a student of his craft, there are learnings to be found with every feint, bob, and pivot; what to do, what not to do, what to try.

Observing from further back is the McKenna boys’ mother, Fergal’s wife, Loretta, who works in a nursing home back in the family’s native Monaghan. She has been over to California on seven occasions to see her lads; with her employers’ support, she can work up the hours accordingly in order to spend a few weeks over there at a time, and usually does so around one of Aaron’s fights.

God knows what she’ll do when Stephen’s professional career makes for double trouble from early next year, she muses with a smile during sparring, but she’s confident she’ll figure something out. In any case, Loretta is glad to see all of her boys flying it, with eldest brother Gary — himself formerly a high-level amateur fighter — now pursuing a more conventional education on this side of the pond.

After four explosive rounds, Donovan and Stevie McKenna call it quits to warm applause. In freakish time, the latter catches his breath and is joined by his little brother Aaron — all six-foot-one of him — for a yap.

48407077_10215456108328418_6731271276859490304_n Aaron McKenna (middle) and Stevie McKenna (R) give the latest on their respective careers.

“Maybe she’s not ever gone for long enough,” smiles Aaron when he’s asked if he ever misses his mother over in California, cognisant that Loretta is a yard or two out of earshot.

“Ah, it’s great to be back for a while and spend time with the family and that”, says Stevie, hands breathing but otherwise still kitted out from his spar. “But we’re training away — we’re in what we’d call maintenance over Christmas, so we’d be training twice a day whereas we’d usually train three times a day back in Los Angeles.

“We’re going back on 9 January, then, and we’ll be straight back into it to get ready for our fights in February or March.

“It’s nice to be home and see a bit of the Irish weather, actually. It’s nearly nice to see the rain…”


“I think we’re well acclimatised to the heat over there [in LA] at this stage,” says Aaron.

“47 degrees it was, one day,” adds Stevie. “Celsius. That’s too warm. But we train indoors as well, like, with air conditioning and all. It’s all right in the gyms and that, but we have to go out early in the mornings to run… Beat the heat and beat the traffic.

“It’s a great setup we have over there: we have an apartment, a pool, tennis courts, basketball courts; there’s a big, huge mall across the road, so we’ve plenty to do in our spare time, outside of training.”

“Yeah, we wouldn’t get bored or anything,” says Aaron. “Santa Monica Beach is close enough to us too, so once we have a bit of downtime we can just head to the beach or use some of the great facilities we have around us.”

45696455_368681743878146_3824779401992601600_n (1) Aaron McKenna stops Abel Reyes with a bullet-like left hook to the body.

Indeed, if they get sick of anything, it’s probably being in a state of not boxing: granted, both Liverpool fans are faring nicely in the Irish boxing fantasy football league despite the time difference — “Did you qualify for the cup?” asks Aaron, who can’t hide his shame when I give him the bad news — but these are two young men obsessed with their chosen profession and not much else.

The McKennas, hugely decorated as amateurs, are now full-time, professional fighters in every sense of the term: Aaron, 19, doesn’t drink — not that he legally could yet in the States even if he was so inclined — and has typically celebrated each of his six pro wins by munching down a burger before returning to the gym the following Monday; Stevie, 21, has trained non-stop alongside his brother for the bones of 12 months without having a concrete fight date in mind, but is expected to join Aaron in signing for Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions in the coming weeks before finally making his own walk beneath the bright lights.

There won’t be a week off taken between now and then, and there won’t be a complaint made either.

“We wouldn’t really get sick of each other, like,” Aaron says.

The thing is, when we train together, it’s competitive — we push each other on. And it can get heated sometimes during those spars, that’s why it’s great that our dad is there to tell us to calm down if things go out of control a wee bit!

Mind you, over countless rounds, Fergal hasn’t had to physically intervene yet: if you’re going to have it out as siblings of a fairly similar age and size, you might as well do it in a boxing gym while wearing gloves and headgear. The brothers go on to explain that, usually, a sentence as simple as ‘get back to your boxing’ is enough to douse the flames.

45812766_330893627721532_4899695147928780800_n (1) Stevie McKenna carries the Monaghan flag to the ring as Aaron walks out for fight number six at Fantasy Springs Casino.

Not unlike the Conlan brothers of Belfast or Dublin’s Hylands before them, each of the McKenna boys from Smithborough, Co. Monaghan remains the other’s biggest fan.

Having thrown every punch thus far with his pugilistic partner-in-crime, however, soon-to-be debutant Stevie “can’t wait to get going” early next year.

He has been earning more than his share of stripes while waiting in the wings, having sparred the consensus best fighter on the planet, Vasyl Lomachenko, as well as top Golden Boy prospect Ryan Garcia and numerous others of a similar ilk over the course of his first 12 months on America’s west coast.

Lomachenko was “unbelievable” in his craftsmanship during their knock-around, the older brother gushes. “His knowledge in the ring, like — he’s always thinking. He’s the best I’ve sparred yet, certainly.”

He’s constantly feinting, and he’s quieter in the early rounds, figuring you out. And then as it goes on, he tries to get some shots off. Like, if he sees you dropping your right hand early on, he’ll notice and he’ll capitalise on it the next time you do it.

“You always have to try and be one step ahead of him. His fitness, as well, is outstanding. He doesn’t get tired. That really stood out in the spar, and you see it in his fights, too: once the guys get tired, he steps on the gas and punishes them.

In sparring, he doesn’t throw too many punches, like, but when he does let go he’s really accurate. Once he knows he can hit you, he’ll hit you, but he doesn’t waste any shots in there.

“I was really happy with the way it went,” Stevie adds. “It was a really professional spar, like. I was catching him, and he was catching me as well, but I was very satisfied with how I did. You can’t get much better sparring than Lomachenko, in fairness.”

46501084_2042593512706394_2528172704255705088_n Vasyl Lomachenko (L) and Stephen McKenna

“That’s one of the great things about America,” Aaron explains. “You walk into the gym and anyone could be there.”

“It could be an Olympic champion, a world champion,” adds Stevie. “You just don’t know who you could end up sparring. Like, the time I sparred Ryan Garcia, they literally just told me, ‘You’re getting in there with Ryan’ — I didn’t even know.”

There have been more encounters with famous boxers than hot dinners at this stage — fistic royalty such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Micky Ward, Vitali Klitschko and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr have all received a handshake from one brother McKenna or both.

But you don’t mix solely with world champions and Hall of Famers when you operate within the state of California.

As well as one day training alongside Andre 3000, there was a now-famous October gym encounter with rap music sensation Kendrick Lamar, the 12-time Grammy winner who, a fortnight later, turned up to cheer Aaron on from ringside during his sixth professional fight, visiting him in his dressing room beforehand.

What’s more, Aaron’s fight that night was the floater, meaning it could have been slotted in at any point throughout the night. In the end, it occurred after midnight, post-main event. Even still, the new King of Hip Hop stuck around to watch the Irish teenager pick up an impressive second-round stoppage as he creased Mexican Abel Reyes to the body.

“He was just saying ‘best of luck’ in the dressing room basically,” Aaron recalls of Lamar’s pre-fight visit.

But he was actually a really nice guy. He’s doing a bit of training himself, boxing-wise, and two weeks before my last fight he watched me and Stephen spar in the gym — he stayed and watched the whole spar, so he did. He was right up against the ring watching us fairly closely.

45186819_248214772542410_6314281036758908928_n (1) Kendrick Lamar watched the McKenna brothers spar at the gym in which he was doing his own training.

“He really liked what he’d seen”, adds the younger McKenna brother, “because he wanted to go to my fight, then. And fair play to him, he showed up! I think he had to travel three or four hours just to get there,” he says with a furrowed brow, turning to his brother for clarification:

Yeah, it would have taken him a good few hours to get there,” says Stevie. “He travelled up and then went straight home afterwards, as well — he was only there for the boxing. Like, Aaron was the last fight of the night, and he had gotten there really early, but he stayed the four hours to watch Aaron and then headed home.

45723541_1130224877142299_9139743242575675392_n (1) Lamar visits Aaron's dressing room to wish him luck pre-fight.

46067697_10215202195820764_1238116321271480320_n Lamar heads back to his seat after a picture with the McKennas.

Of course, living in or around Los Angeles, it’s not always in gyms where one might spot a famous face. Last January, though, they spotted the same one twice in two separate locations.

“We were just walking down the street when we met Adam Sandler,” smiles Stevie.

He was whistling out loud, so I turned around and looked at him and thought, ‘He looks familiar…’ We walked on, and it took me like a minute or so, and then I copped on; I said to Aaron, ‘Is that Adam Sandler?’ But he had a bodyguard who was from Dublin, actually, so Adam was talking away to us — we walked along the street with him for a couple of minutes.

“And then, later on that day, we met him again. We were driving along in the car into our apartments, and he was coming out. Really nice guy. He watches boxing as well, so we were telling him Aaron was a professional boxer and all that, he was chatting away.

“I wasn’t even pro at the time — it was only a few days after I came out to America.”

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Screenshot (3629) Stevie McKenna and Adam Sandler on the streets of LA.

But in truth, these stories need coaxing out of the Old School Boxing Club boys who recount such instances more so with a shrug of the shoulders than with any kind of childish glee.

They’d never really be starstruck, Aaron explains. What he’s too polite to say is that they intend to become stars in their own right. All going to plan, one day they’ll make for somebody else’s anecdotal encounter.

“End of February we’re thinking for myself,” says Stevie of a prospective date for his professional debut, his lift-off long-awaited at this stage. “Or maybe we could even get on the same bill. We don’t know yet.”

“Probably March, I’d say, for myself,” says Aaron, who outlines his blueprint for the year:

“I want to have two or three more six-rounders, and then maybe a couple of eight or 10-rounders, but this time next year, I want to be fighting for my first title — maybe the NABF [North American] title or something like that.

“I think it was around 11 or 12 fights when Jason Quigley [Sheer Sports and Golden Boy stablemate] fought for the NABF title, so hopefully I can get something similar.”

Aaron McKenna looks on as the referee waves off the fight Aaron McKenna stops Keasan Freeman back in April. Source: Tom Hogan/INPHO

“I’ll be looking to do something similar to Aaron, then, in my first year,” says Stevie, who is expected to sign on the dotted line with Golden Boy upon his return to America next month. “I’d like to get maybe two or three four-rounders, even, and then straight into six and eight. I think the longer rounds suit me more, so…”

As to whether they could see themselves ever following the aforementioned Jason Quigley back to a place like Sheffield in search of something closer to their roots, the brothers respond in unison: “Nah.”

The highly-ranked Donegal middleweight and his former Irish team-mate Michael Conlan cited the Mexican-style sparring and dissipation of their fundamental boxing skills as cause for leaving California for the UK despite being signed to separate U.S. promoters in Golden Boy and Top Rank respectively.

True to form, however, the McKenna boys reckon it’ll be grand.

“I think we’ll be fine with our dad there”, says Stevie, “and we have each other, as well, for that kind of sharper boxing in sparring. Plus, whenever we’re home we’re constantly sparring here as well.

It’s funny, it is kind of a different speed sparring in Ireland compared to what you’d get in Los Angeles; it was only Eric’s first spar back earlier today but he was very sharp, very accurate, and it’s at a high pace. Whereas over in Los Angeles, it’s slower but they’re trying to put you to sleep.

“But you have to keep ready, like, and be ready for all styles. The European style — we spar a load of them in Lomachenko’s gym, there are a load of Europeans — Russians, Kazakhs. And a bit like sparring back home, they operate at a different pace completely, so we get plenty of variety.”

“Actually,” adds Aaron, “just before we came home, I was sparring in Lomachenko’s gym against Alexander Besputin [Russian former amateur standout, 11-0 with 9KOs as a pro]. He’s the WBA number one in my division.

He’d be right up there as the best I’ve sparred against — him, [Amir] Khan… I sparred Sergey Lipinets as well who was a world champion, I did seven rounds with him — a good spar. There are plenty more, but all of that sparring is brilliant this early in our careers.

46508696_10215273105313457_8497621391028256768_n (2) Aaron and WBA #1 Alexander Besputin after a spar.

At the outset of his professional career, which is now just over 12 months old, Aaron stated his intention to win his first world title within three years — by the age of 21.

That goal still stands, but he’s mature enough to perceive it as being flexible.

“I said three years but I’ll take it when it comes,” he says, a year on. “I’m not going to rush things, either, like. Every fight is a stepping stone towards it, so you have to take it one fight at a time.

“If it comes at 21, that’d be great, like. But once I’m ready for it, my coaches will know. I have to be ready.

“I don’t know if I’m still growing as well, because Stephen was 20, 21 before he stopped, so you never know,” muses ‘The Silencer.’

A lot of people have been saying I could end up a light-heavyweight, and I could see it, yeah. It’d be great to win world titles from welterweight all the way up!

Stevie’s intentions, meanwhile, will make his mother’s future plans all the easier…

We’ll be at different weights but our goals are the same: world titles. And imagine if both of us fought for world titles on the one night like, or even in or around the same time. Two Irish brothers, two brothers from Monaghan — it’d be a slice of history.

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