Jonny Rashman hears the fascinating story of Fergal, Stevie and Aaron McKenna and their journey from Ireland to America and back
“I bought a jeep in 2008, five years later it had done 300,000 miles, the engine blew out. I had to sell it for peanuts,” Fergal Mckenna vividly describes to me. He was referencing the hours and hours of long drives, often up at the crack of dawn, chauffeuring his three young sons around every inch of Irish road to get to the next boxing competition or training session. It sounds brutal, but it was the way the McKennas did things. They are not like most families.
“We were doing things most others weren’t willing to do,” Fergal tells me. “It wasn’t just the long drives; we did a hell of a lot of flying. We travelled to a host of countries where the boys had to compete, including Russia, Ukraine, Poland and many more.”
The haul of amateur trophies his three sons, Garry (26, who no longer boxes), Stevie and Aaron amassed, vindicates the long traveling and time spent away from home for the 52-year-old. Success was earned and never given. Stone-cold discipline is bread and butter for the Mckenna clan.
“I came from a karate background,” Fergal explains. “I was a third dan black belt in Shotokan karate and fought all over the world including the World Championships at the Tokyo dome. Karate gave me something I will always be grateful for. It built certain characteristics into me such as, an air of modesty, discipline, calmness, but also a killer instinct that I then passed on to my boys.
“The boys [Stevie, 23 and Aaron, 21 who both appear on this Friday’s Hennessy Sports show] actually took up karate, but I could see they weren’t getting the same fulfilment out of it as I did. It just wasn’t aggressive enough for them. They told me they want to box, so I took them to the local boxing gym where I had previously trained.”
Old School Boxing Club in Smithborough, Monaghan, once home to legendary world champion Barry McGuigan, is the club he was referring to. After deciding to take a step back to let his young boys find their own way in the sport, Fergal was then asked to become a coach in the club, eventually transitioning into head trainer which would signal the start of a trophy-laden period for the gym, with his three sons at the forefront.
With his continued success, the Irish High Performance Boxing Team enlisted fergal’s services. Yet again, the head of the Mckenna family climbed the ranks, progressing from national schoolboy boss all the way through to national elite coach. The foundations were set and ready to be developed.
“In my karate years, I physically built a gym in my back garden,” he reflects. “It took five years to build. When I decided to give up karate, I then turned it into a boxing gym for the boys to train out of. As I was developing as a coach, I was passing my knowledge on to them.”
The converted boxing gym Fergal painstakingly constructed is affectionately known as ‘The shed’, where the two siblings would sharpen their craft in between attending Smithborough and then the Irish National High Performance set-up.
With success comes attention and after winning almost everything as amateurs the unassuming brothers’ abilities were being recognised across the pond, most notably by athlete management gurus Sheer Sports. Respected boxing trainer Tony Dunlop’s relationship with their esteemed PR lady Rachel Charles would play a pivotal role in the McKennas’ American journey. After back-and-forth dialogue an opportunity for Fergal and Aaron presented itself to relocate to Los Angeles. There was a decision to make.
“When the news came about LA, we jumped at it,” Fergal tells me. “The first year it was just me and Aaron and it was hard without the rest of my family. But we were that focused, we just got on with it as we knew this is where we wanted to be.”
The jungle of LA was about to experience a formidable Irish explosion. Normal service was resumed, the lush green Irish hills were swapped for the dusty, loud American roads. Yet again, Fergal racked up the car miles, visiting gym after gym with youngest son Aaron in tow.
The famed Wild Card Boxing Club, owned by Hall of Fame coach Freddie Roach, once viewed through the lens of their television screens back in Monaghan, Ireland, is now home to the Mckenna family.
“It’s so memorising, there’s a presence to it,” describes Fergal. “Freddie has created that. It’s a real throwback, it’s so fascinating to be in there, you never get sick of being in it.”
The gym has played host to legends like Manny Pacquiao, training in front of a throng of captivated photographers all jostling for position to catch the perfect snap. Sharing the floorspace with such an icon must be earned first.
“I will never forget the first time Freddie asked us to come down for sparring,” Fergal recalls. “It was a whole new breath of fresh air; we were sparring in Freddie’s own private headquarters. He has a fountain of knowledge. It is incredible for the boys to train under such a great man and trainer. There are also many things I have picked up as a coach.”
Hearing Fergal’s story and the sacrifices his family has made over the years, gives you an indication of the commitment and discipline needed if you want to be successful in the sport. As the old saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
A softly spoken yet animated voice echoed down the phone line. It was Stevie “The Hitman” Mckenna (5-0, 5 KOs). However, don’t be fooled by the gentle demeanour. The ferocity and brutality the 23-year-old brings inside of the ring is truly awe-inspiring. Simply put, there is an intent that cannot be taught.
“I want to be as exciting as possible and put on a show for the fans; Stevie enthuses. “I want to bring that old-time boxing style back. I have always had a very aggressive style, ever since I was young. When I first entered the boxing gym, I knew it was for me; I just loved to go in and trade out with guys.”
Traditionally, it is the Mexican and South American fighters that have gone down in boxing folklore for their come-forward, marauding style.
“I have a lot of amateur experience,” Stevie points out. “I fought a variety of styles in different countries. Even though I was thinking about going to the 2020 Olympics, my dream was to always be a professional fighter. The pro game is more suited to me. I’m not just a come-forward fighter. I have a universal style, I can box long, southpaw, orthodox and on the back foot. There is plenty more to see of me.”
This “universal style” he alluded to was manufactured all those years ago in ‘The shed’ alongside his brothers and father. Although having a purpose-built gym in his back garden may seem unique to people, it’s just another day in the office for the Mckennas.
“I love it in ‘The shed’,” he explains. “We have everything for us, we have equipment for our strength work, treadmills and fantastic boxing facilities. If you want to make it to the top you have to put the work in.”
It’s been said on many occasions, If you want to make it in boxing, you have to make it in America. While relocating at such a young age may deter some fighters, Stevie, like with most things in his life, took it all in his stride.
“Aaron moved to LA a year before I did and after I watched him in his pro debut I just wanted to move out there,” Stevie adds. “You can’t be in a better place than America and the Wild Card Boxing Club, if you’re a pro fighter.”
When doing the rounds in the American gyms, a seeming baptism of fire awaited him in the form of world-rated star and internet sensation Ryan Garcia. Surprisingly for many except the steely, confident Irishman, the baptism of fire was truly felt by the heir apparent to the Canelo Alverez throne.
“We were in Manny Robles gym and I was asked if I wanted to spar Ryan, so I jumped at it,” Stevie remembers. “It was meant to be six rounds, but he jumped out after four. I beat him from one side of the ring to the other. He has a cowardly style of fighting. Once you put it on him, he doesn’t want to know. Back then I was only an amateur, it would be a hell of a lot worse for him now and if we did ever meet again, I would have no problem in knocking him out.”
The phone was then passed around again. It was Golden Boy Pomotions star, Aaron “The Silencer” Mckenna (10-0, 6 KOs), a man who has rarely tasted defeat inside the squared circle. One of the few men to have claimed victory against him in the amateurs, was a certain Devin Haney and even that was a contentious decision.
There are fighters who find boxing comes as easy as talking. There’s an effortless grace whenever a combination is thrown, or a punch is evaded. The 21-year-old oozes class. However, there is a cold, calculated mentality attached to him.
“I’ve always been like that ever since I can remember,” he confides. “When I knock my opponent down, I make sure they know I’m ready to pounce. I’m a big Mike Tyson fan and I would study and study his fighting style.”
When speaking to Aaron you would be forgiven for thinking you’re talking to a quiet shy man, hence the “Silencer” moniker. Yet, there is a fire sparking his spirit that can be sensed when he speaks.
“I stay focused all year, I never get sick of training, I always stay disciplined,” he imparts. “I think it comes from my dad who came from a karate background. He taught me and my brothers early on the importance of being disciplined. When he was coaching, he was never late for training. He would always say, ‘If you show up late it shows you’re not that disciplined.’ So, we make sure we are always early no matter what we do.”
Even though the small, rural town of Monaghan is a world away from the whirlwind of LA, life is no different for Aaron. Now instead of listening to the greats he idolised as a kid through a headphone speaker, he now stands before these stars soaking in every bit of advice.
“It was an amazing experience when I first met Oscar [De La Hoya], he’s a genuine guy, he’s been at most of my fights and he always wishes me luck and gives me advice,” Aaron reveals. “I am also learning so much from Freddie. You know straight away his class as a trainer. He lives and breathes boxing, he’s always the first in and the last out of the gym. There’s no better man to be in the corner with you than Freddie Roach, his achievements speak for themselves.”
Familiarity breeds contempt and this Friday night, for the first time in many years, the two brothers go back to fighting on the same show. With the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic forcing the family back to Ireland, the world-class sparring they have been accustomed to in the States is not as easy to find.
“We are used to sparring the best in the world but luckily we have a good relationship with O’Rourke’s Boxing Gym who are based in Dublin,” Aaron says. “They have great fighters over there who have given us tremendous sparring. Friday is going to be a great night for everyone, especially back home in Ireland. It’s the first time me and my brother have fought on a pro card. We want to put on a great show. I want to get as many fights as I can before I go back to America. I’m expecting 2021 to be a massive year. I have my eye on WBO [super-welter] champion Patrick Teixeira so I will be looking to claim my first world title.”
Boxing is such a gruelling, often thankless profession. They say luck can play a major part in making it to the top of the sport. The Mckenna family have never needed to rely on luck. Every training session which rips through their body and every crushing blow taken, chisels and moulds them into who they want to become. They are not here to make up the numbers, they have been prepared for greatness from an age that is hard to fathom to the average person. For them, sharing the ring and winning against the best in the world is just the culmination of another mile notched up in the jeep.