By Thomas Gerbasi
Go west, young man. They didn’t tell the McKenna brothers, Aaron and Stevie, just how far west, but ultimately the lads from County Monaghan in Ireland found their way to Southern California to chase boxing glory far from the Emerald Isle.
That means no hometown celebrations for St. Patrick’s Day, but if they have their way, the sacrifices made today will bring them back to Ireland in the near future not as budding pros, but as contenders or champions on the verge of international stardom.
“Hopefully when Aaron or me are fighting for a world title, we can get a big show back home,” said the 22-year-old Stevie. “It would be brilliant. The main goal would be to fight in Monaghan, our hometown, for a world title and it would be unbelievable, a dream come true for both me and my brother. We’ve trained so hard for this and that’s the goal and where we want to be.”
Given their amateur success, it’s a goal within reach on paper, just like it is for any prospects with talent and the pedigree that comes with a combined 283 wins. It’s like spring training in baseball; everyone has a clean slate and the same chance to get to the World Series. But as the season goes on, the haves are separated from the have nots, and it’s the same thing in boxing.
Right now, the 19-year-old Aaron already has six bouts under his belt since turning pro in December 2017, winning them all, and the buzz is growing about the “Silencer.” How so? Well, hip-hop star Kendrick Lamar watched him spar late last year before showing up ringside for the youngster’s second-round knockout of Abel Reyes.
That’s buzz. Yet don’t expect the soft-spoken teenager to get too star-struck by such matters. In fact, if you want to get him excited, just ask him who he’s worked with since moving to the States.
“I’m really enjoying myself over here in America, and the training I’m getting over here is top class,” said Aaron. “Every gym you go to, you get great sparring. I’ve been sparring people that have been world champions or have fought for world titles, so the sparring I’ve been getting is good. I’ve sparred with Amir Khan, Sergey Lipinets, Maxim Dadashev, Alexander Besputin. You couldn’t beat that.”
You couldn’t. Well, unless you check in with older brother Stevie.
“I was sparring with (Vasyl) Lomachenko and Jose Zepeda the last couple months, so everything’s going brilliant,” said Stevie, who expects to make his pro debut in April. “I’m really settling down on my punches and I’m going well and I’m more than ready for my debut. I’m looking forward to getting in there and doing the business.”
“It was an unbelievable experience,” said Stevie. “Even before your debut fight, going to spar with him, you couldn’t get better. He’s the best fighter on the planet, so I learned a lot from him. Even what he was doing in the ring – his feinting, his speed, his footwork, everything – it’s unbelievable, so it was a great experience. I hold my own with anyone I go in with and I did really well with Lomachenko as well, so I’m doing well at the minute.”
But the best work the two get may very well be with each other.
“We both train real hard together and in training we’re competitive with each other and we push each other on,” said Aaron. “Sometimes it can even get a bit heated, but it’s good.”
“We both push each other on, so when we go in the gym and we’re sparring, we just go at it and do our best,” adds Stevie. “Sparring’s going well at the minute, so I’m looking at how well he’s doing and I want to be doing the same when I make my debut, so everything’s going good at the minute.”
Stevie does admit to getting a little antsy, though, when it comes to joining his little bro in the pro game.
“Every day I go into the gym, I’m learning new things and working on new things with my coach, Courage (Tshabalala),” he said. “But I’m ready to burst at the minute. I’m ready now and I think now is the perfect time. It’s been hard to watch Aaron going to fight, but I’m looking forward to it as well.”
Stevie’s time will come, though, and once he gets his feet wet in the punch for pay ranks, he will join his brother, Katie Taylor, Mick Conlan, Jason Quigley as the leaders of the new Irish Invasion that has captivated the sport over the last couple years.
“It’s the perfect time,” he said. “I’m 22 years old and the pros are the place to be at the minute. In the amateurs, you can go and try to qualify for the Olympics and get injured or something, so it’s not worth the risk. The pro game is the smarter move at the minute. All the top lads are turning pro, and it’s booming. It’s brilliant to see Ireland doing so well now. Over the last ten years, there wasn’t much happening, but now it’s really booming with all the top amateurs turning pro, and it’s great.”
As for Aaron’s schedule for 2019, he’s got an ambitious plan, which isn’t surprising given how he’s looked in the ring and the gym thus far.
“I like to be kept busy because I’m training in the gym all the time, and in your early years in the pro game, you have to be kept busy,” he said. “So since the pro debut, I’ve improved and my coaches are pushing me hard in the gym and I’m seeing the benefits of it, so the hard work’s paying off and I’m looking forward now to a busy year ahead. I want no less than six fights and I want to be fighting for titles at the end of the year or early next year.”
Titles in a year’s time? Those are fighting words, but you get the impression Aaron means every one of them, so if that phone call comes…
“Yeah, definitely I’d take it,” he laughs. “Once my team and coaches know that I’m ready for that title fight, I’ll be more than ready, so I’m looking forward to this year. It’s gonna be great.”
Double that notion for the McKenna lads.