Kevin McBride (pic Tom Hogan)
By Thomas Hauser
Boxing is the world's hardest sport and also the world's hardest business. Earlier this month, Nikolai Valuev and Thomas Adamek defended their titles at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois. Tucked away on the undercard in an off-television bout was a man who, sixteen months ago, stood at the center of the boxing universe.
Kevin McBride is a 33-year-old heavyweight from Clones, a small town just south of the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. He's a large hulking man (6-feet-6-inches, 278 pounds) with heavy thighs and some extra pounds around his waist. He looks more like a lineman for a National Football League team than a fighter.
McBride has been boxing since he was a boy. "I was eleven or twelve years old when I had my first fight," he remembers. "My opponent was also from Clones, and he stopped me in thirty seconds. But I won my next fight and I loved it."
At age 19, McBride represented Ireland in the super-heavyweight division at the Barcelona Olympics. After a first-round bye, he lost to Peter Hrivnak of Czechoslovakia in the second round. Later that year, he turned pro and, in his inaugural bout, fought to a draw against a 1-and-6 fighter named Gary Charlton. Then he reeled off nineteen consecutive victories (only three of his opponents had winning records) before being knocked out by journeyman Louis Monaco. After a comeback win, he was knocked out again; this time by Michael Murray, a club-fighter who lost 17 of his final 18 fights. Murray's sole win during that stretch was his knockout of McBride.
"I shouldn't have fought Murray," McBride says. "My father had just been diagnosed with cancer [he died later that year]. My head and my heart weren't right for boxing."
In 1999, McBride came to the United States to pursue his ring career. Since then, he has been living in Brockton, Massachusetts, and training with Goody Petronelli. To make ends meet, he does construction work on the side. He's a nice man, amiable and easy-going, a bit reticent when meeting strangers but the words flow when he feels comfortable. His place in boxing history was secured on the night of June 11, 2005. On that night at the MCI Center in Washington DC, Kevin McBride became "The Conqueror of Mike Tyson."
When McBride was twelve years old, he'd told his father that someday he wanted to fight Tyson; and his father had assured him, "If you work hard and believe in yourself, someday it will happen." But parents often say things like that to their children. Reality is a different matter.
As their careers progressed, Tyson and McBride were on decidedly different levels. One was largely unknown. The other was the highest-paid fighter in history and the "baddest man on the planet."
As Tyson's decline as a boxer became evident, his management team began looking for increasingly soft touches as opponents. In 2004, McBride put his career on hold when a Tyson fight was dangled in front of him, only to see the opportunity go to Danny Williams. In March 2005, having been inactive for fifteen months, McBride fought (and defeated) Kevin Montiy on ESPN2 Friday Night Fights.
"I looked bad against Montiy," McBride acknowledges. "I only had four weeks of training and twenty rounds of sparring. But it was a gift from God that I looked bad because that's what convinced Tyson's people that he should fight me. If I'd looked good against Montiy, I'd never have gotten the Tyson fight."
McBride's purse for fighting Tyson was $150,000, far and away his biggest payday in boxing. He was marketed to the public as "The Clones Colossus" and viewed as a sacrificial lamb.
When the fighters met for the first time at a press conference in Washington DC, McBride was in awe of his opponent. "I was going to fight Mike Tyson, the biggest show on earth," Kevin remembers. "He had the tattoo on his face like I'd seen on television. He looked larger than life to me. I said to myself, 'This is really Mike Tyson.' But by the time we got to the ring, he was just another fighter."
Many of Tyson's opponents were beaten before the opening bell. McBride wasn't. Prior to the fight, he saw a hypnotist several times to convince him that he could win. "Maybe it helped; maybe it didn't," he says. "But I didn't want to leave any stone unturned."
The McBride camp studied tapes of Tyson's fights against Lennox Lewis and Danny Williams because they were roughly the same size as Kevin. "What I saw," McBride says, "was, every time Mike got inside, they leaned on him to wear him down. And against Williams, Mike was hurting him the first three rounds; but when Williams took the fight to him, Mike crumbled. That meant, if I weathered the storm early, I could create my own storm. Goody told me, 'He's going to try to psych you out and his hands are fast. You have to be ready for those things.' But the beautiful thing about sports is that the underdog can win."
At the final pre-fight press conference, Tyson told McBride that he was going to fillet him like a fish, although the consensus was that he was more likely to club him to death like a baby seal. McBride responded that, when he hit Tyson on the chin, the punch would feel as though it had the weight of all Ireland behind it.
When fight night came, McBride was in a decidedly hostile environment. "Everything was about Tyson," he says. "The only people rooting for me were the people in my corner. The crowd was all for Mike. Even the commission was on his side."
But McBride had come to win. He wasn't intimidated. And more importantly, Tyson looked worse than he had ever looked before. Watching Tyson fight when he was young was like watching a pitbull tear a rabbit apart. But against McBride, his timing was off, his defense was non-existent, and his punches lacked power.
"At the end of round one," McBride remembers, "I told myself, 'The plan is working.' Early in the fight, Mike tried to bite my nipple. That was the scariest thing that happened. And he was head-butting, throwing low blows; a couple of times, he tried to break my arm off at the elbow. But as the fight went on, I could see that he was getting tired and frustrated. Finally, I said to him, 'If that's all you've got, you're in trouble.' Near the end, I was cracking him with everything I had, and I could feel the energy going out of him."
In round six, after five lumbering stanzas, Tyson was penalized two points for an intentional head butt, fouled some more, and fell to the canvas in exhaustion. He quit on his stool before the start of the seventh round.
"Imagine," McBride says. "The baddest man on the planet quit on his stool against an Irishman. Sometimes, I still can't believe it happened. But it's a night that no one can ever take away from me. It was the greatest night of my life so far."
After the fight, McBride needed seventeen stitches to close a cut over his left eye that had been caused by a head butt. His thighs were black and blue from low blows. Then he went back to Clones.
It was wonderful," Kevin remembers. "The whole town stayed up for the fight. Because of the time difference, it started there around four o'clock in the morning. I don't think the pubs closed that night. My mother still lives in Clones. I saw her, and I went back to the school that I went to when I was a boy. They had an assembly; all the kids were there. I told them what my father told me. 'If you work hard and believe in yourself, you can accomplish your dreams.' All the kids crowded around me, asking for my autograph like I was famous."
The victory over Tyson was supposed to be the springboard to a title shot and bigger purses. That's how things had worked for Danny Williams, whose next bout after beating Tyson was against Vitali Klitschko for the WBC heavyweight title. Tyson's other conquerors (Buster Douglas, Evander Holyfield, and Lennox Lewis) made tens of millions of dollars in the ring.
But McBride's only fight after beating Tyson was a fourth-round stoppage of a club fighter named Byron Polley on April 1, 2006. So to stay in the mix, he agreed to fight Mike Mollo on the undercard of Nikolai Valuev versus Monte Barrett. The idea was that he would beat Mollo and fight Valuev next.
"My dream," McBride said a day before the Mollo fight, "is to become the first Irish-born heavyweight champion of the world. A world title is my goal. If I can win a world title and have a successful defense or two, my daughter will never have to worry about where the money will come from to pay for her education and everything else she needs."
Mollo came into the fight with a reputation for being a pretty good puncher and taking a pretty good punch. But he's unpolished and his heart has been questioned. He's better at front-running than coming from behind. In six years as a pro, he'd built a 16-and-1 record with ten knockouts against the usual suspects.
McBride versus Mollo was for the vacant WBA Fedelatin title. That didn't make much sense because McBride is from Ireland. And Mollo, whose parents were born in Italy, was born in Chicago. But the WBA sanctioned the bout (for a fee) because, at one time, Mollo's parents lived in Argentina.
McBride weighed in 278 pounds. Mollo came in at 231, looking cut, confident, and mean. "I'm not the fastest man in the world," McBride said after the weigh-in. "I'm not Muhammad Ali or George Foreman. But I have the courage and determination that a fighter needs to win. A fighter needs more than talent. He needs heart."
Nine fights were scheduled. McBride shared a dressing room with five other undercard fighters. He arrived at the arena wearing a white T-shirt with black lettering that read "Petronelli's Boxing Club" on the front and, on the back, "I can only be beaten 2 ways - If I die or if I give up."
The dressing room was well-lit with a cobalt blue carpet and faux-wood paneling on the walls. Goody Petronelli moved several folding metal chairs into a corner and set up shop. At this level, no one from the opposing camp would watch the taping of McBride's hands. The job was overseen by a commission inspector.
McBride's fight plan was to wear Mollo down, but he never got the chance. Mollo came out aggressively at the opening bell and was all over him. Everything that the hometown favorite threw landed. A flurry of punches punctuated by a left hook sent McBride reeling backward into the ropes. The referee properly ruled it a knockdown. McBride survived the round but not much longer. Early in the second stanza, a left hook put him on the canvas. He rose, got hammered some more, and went down again. The fight was stopped at 44 seconds of the round. The dream was over. Mike Mollo had beaten the conqueror of Mike Tyson.
After the fight, McBride returned to the dressing room and sat for a while on a folding metal chair. Nothing that he or anyone else could say would erase the reality of what had just happened. He dressed slowly, then went back into the arena to watch the WBA heavyweight championship bout between Nikolai Valuev and Monte Barrett. Whatever else might occur that night, he was still "The Clones Colossus" and the only person in the house who had beaten Mike Tyson.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org