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'They don't know how we ended up out here in California - two Irish lads aged 22 and 19'

Stevie McKenna returns to the ring for his second professional bout in California tonight.

Stevie McKenna in the opening seconds of his professional boxing career.
Stevie McKenna in the opening seconds of his professional boxing career.
Image: Valentin Romero

BETWEEN LEARNING TRICKS from some of the world’s finest proponents of their trade, earning the admiration of — and a pre-fight visit from — rap star Kendrick Lamar, and obliging Cyndi Lauper in her request for a selfie, it’s been quite the start to life in California for Monaghan’s McKenna brothers.

For over a year, it was younger brother Aaron who shone beneath the spotlight: signed by Oscar De La Hoya to Golden Boy Promotions, the welterweight was Ireland’s youngest professional boxer at 18, and by 19 had racked up seven straight wins, four of them quick; it was Aaron for whom 13-time Grammy winner Mr. Lamar travelled for three or four hours — and remained seated until the wee hours — to watch in the flesh a week after observing the brothers sparring against each other in the gym.

Older brother Stephen, 22, whose trophy cabinet from the amateur days is at the very least on a par with that of his younger sibling, has experienced much of the same pizzazz and enjoyed some of his own; last November, for example, he pretended to be a southpaw and swindled a sparring session with boxing’s pound-for-pound kingpin, Vasyl Lomachenko, a pugilistic professor with whom even a few rounds shared can provide a year’s worth of lessons.

But ‘Stevie’ spent his first year on the West Coast doing a Masters of sorts while Aaron put into practice his own learnings; ‘The Silencer’ made ample noise in the ring while ‘The Hitman’ loaded his gun outside of it.

That was until April, when Stevie McKenna took out Trey Branch in the first round of his debut professional fight, announcing his arrival in the punch-for-pay ranks with aplomb and no shortage of bombs.

56744693_623373041469550_5591151192861310976_n Stevie McKenna celebrates his debut win at the Sports Arena in Pico Rivera. Source: Valentin Romero

“Well, the gloves are a lot smaller and it’s a lot easier to hurt people!” McKenna laughs, reflecting on his pro bow. “When you hit the guy with the eight-ounce gloves, they can feel ‘em. It’s not like the amateurs — and obviously pro fights are longer than three rounds, as well, so you’ve plenty of time to get rid of them.

“I want to put on a show and show everyone what I can do, and get these guys out of there.

“That was the plan… And it worked.

“It was good to get the first one out of the way. I was really excited for it, and it was a long time coming.

I was like a caged lion and then I was let loose in there. I was really happy with my performance and happy to get the knockout. I’ve been sparring for a whole year leading up to this, watching Aaron going and doing what he’s doing — winning — as well, so… I wanted to go in there and do the same, and I was delighted that I did.

“I never really got frustrated with the wait,” McKenna adds. “I was just preparing myself so that when I did get my chance to get in there, I’d be at my peak in terms of performance. I was sparring in all the gyms, I was working on things, I was learning things every day with my coach, Courage [Tshablala], and my dad [Fergal McKenna, co-trainer].

“So the wait paid off. I’ve settled down a lot more. I don’t have as much of an amateur style anymore, either. I’ve really taken to the process of settling down in the pro game.”

56558610_363330401189610_7613786051441590272_n McKenna drops Trey Branch. Source: Valentin Romero

Also new to McKenna in his professional induction was the little bit of talk — or more accurately online commentary — done by Trey Branch in the lead-up to their bout.

The American part-timer, perhaps seeking footage of his highly touted opponent, stumbled upon a YouTube video by The42 which featured the McKennas training in their famed back-garden shed back home in Smithborough over Christmas, and labelled the lanky light-welterweight “Long, tall, stupid, and ugly as fuck” in the comments section.

Branch’s curt assessment made its way to McKenna before long, and it blew up in his face soon afterwards.

“He gave me a reason to go in and hurt him, yeah,” laughs McKenna, albeit somewhat awkwardly; he’s plainly reluctant to twist the knife having already battered his foe in the ring as expected.

“I passed no remarks on it at the time — I just stayed focused and did what I had to do and got him out of there.

I’m going to have to get used to that kind of thing in the pro game — there’s a lot of it, so… But you have to stay focused on the task. I’ll just let them at it. People can say whatever they want to say, but you’ve gotta do your talking in the ring — that’s when I like to do it.

“But it made it that bit better when I stopped him, the mouthing he was doing.”

She’s a hero to each of them and an admirer of both having trained alongside them on several occasions, and there is a touch of the Katie Taylors about how both McKenna brothers conduct themselves on the safe side of the ropes: they are utterly besotted with their craft, every waking moment linked in some way to boxing.

The cheekiest part of a post-fight celebration tends to be a burger — no booze — and usually, by the following Monday, they’re back in the gym.

The brothers McKenna are quiet by nature, too, at least around anyone who isn’t family or a friend — or Rachel Charles who is, by now, both.

Mrs Charles, who handles media for the brothers’ management team, Sheer Sports, and has welcomed them to the States with open arms, will often warn jovially not to be fooled by Stevie and Aaron’s butter-wouldn’t-melt public personas. She has the Photoshops — which on occasion have involved distorted versions of her face adorning advertising billboards around Los Angeles — to bolster her point.

But she has work cut out for her on the professional side of things, too. ‘Her boys’, as she describes them, are in increasing demand among American fight scribes.

“They’re starting to watch us over here a lot, all the media,” says McKenna. “At my first fight, all the Mexicans loved my style of fighting — it’s quite a Mexican style. They were all cheering and all, looking for photos… All the Mexican media as well.

The media over here is starting to pay a lot of attention to both me and Aaron, because they don’t know how we ended up out here in California — two Irish lads aged 22 and 19, going around all the gyms sparring anyone and everyone.

“We’re getting a bit more comfortable, getting a bit more used to it, now. Over the next year or so, I’d say we’ll have even more media attention on us. It’s good, like.”

D85gdKeUEAAH1Ok Stevie McKenna and Keasan Freeman at the weigh-in for tonight's encounter.

‘The Hitman’ has sparred the likes of former world champion Viktor Postol ahead of his his sophomore bout at The Hangar in Costa Mesa tonight. There, he’ll square off with another familiar face: Keasan Freeman, who fell foul of Aaron in ‘The Silencer”s third professional bout last year.

You can watch it live, or watch it back in the morning, on the SoCa Fights Facebook page.

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