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The education of the McKenna brothers

Aaron McKenna
Tom Hogan/Golden Boy/Getty Images
The McKenna brothers set to show off their LA apprenticeship in Redditch. Steve Bunce tells the story

NOBODY has ever found where the rainbow lands in the boxing wonderland of Los Angeles. But plenty have gone in search of the holy spot. Boys and men have looked, fresh from planes and far from home, their life in a bag; a gum shield, protector and gloves. Perhaps a religious item for a bit of luck and a reminder of faith. Aaron McKenna was just sweet 16 and looked younger when he arrived in Los Angeles. He is only 21 now, still looks just 16 and he is firmly part of the Los Angeles boxing dream team. His brother Stevie is with him and their father, Fergal, now.

Aaron is unbeaten in 10 fights as an American professional boxer, fighting out of Freddie Roach’s Wild Card gym and a long way from his County Monaghan home. He is also a lot closer to the type of dream that all boxers have, but so few chase with the same dedication and sacrifice as the two McKenna boys.

“It’s unbelievable just to have Freddie there in the corner,” said Aaron [pictured above]. “We both grew up watching him in big fights with Manny Pacquiao. And now he’s in my corner. It’s an inspiration.”

All the great fighters had their boxing heroes on their bedroom walls and some, years later, finally got to work with them and even fight them on occasion. Boxing is a fairy tale business, it really is, even if the final twists are often a bit dark, a bit grim for fun.

This Friday the two brothers fight on a Redditch Mick Hennessy show live on Channel 5; the Covid lockdown put a temporary end to life in LA and life in Freddie’s Wild Card facility. They returned to their Irish home, trained out back in the garden under Fergal’s care. There will be a return to LA and the short 20-minute drive to Roach’s fight and guts factory. The rainbow for boxers in California, in many ways, might just end in the car park outside that famed retreat.

“Freddie is a great man,” said Fergal. “He wants to die in the ring, doing the pads with one of his boxers. In his gym he is in total charge. Nobody can lace up the gloves for sparring, only Freddie. Nobody can give them water, only Freddie. I’ve never seen anybody so dedicated, so committed in my life – this is his life, his passion.”

Aaron was just 18 when he had his first professional fight in California, alone in a boxing wonderland with his father, both on the same isolated mission. I have no idea how the kid slept at night, the excitement must have been quite overwhelming. He was working in a gym filled with mystical boxing icons, the greatest names from his entire life had been in that ring, in that space. Their pictures were on the wall – he was a teenage kid living a dream in Hollywood, even if it is the wrong part of Hollywood. I’m not sure there is a ‘right’ part of Hollywood.

“LA is a tough spot to live in,” added Fergal. “There is all the glamour and all of the other stuff that you think about. The sun, the sea, the celebrities. But we are in almost constant training camp. One will be fighting, one will be helping. It’s not glamorous then, not when it is just camp after camp after camp.” They lived for a time a few blocks back from the Pacific ocean in Santa Monica. It might not be glamour, but it is certainly not County Monaghan.

The pair have met stars on the street and traded punches in sparring sessions with dozens of big names. Stevie did some rounds with Vasyl Lomachenko before he had even had a pro fight. Anatoly Lomachenko, the fighter’s father and trainer, put Stevie on the scales to check he was the weight he claimed. The Lomachenko attention to the tiniest of detail, and their serious, no-laughter approach, impressed Fergal. Incidentally, both brothers are tall, slender and deceptive at their weights.

Fergal and Aaron went to LA when the kid was 16, did a deal with Sheer Sports and there was an early plan to turn him professional across the border in Mexico, fighting at 16 or 17, fighting like so many Mexicans have when they were still boys. “I never liked that idea,” confirmed Fergal. Stevie joined later, is 23 now and unbeaten in five with five ending quick. He went 73-seconds on a Hennessy show in September. If pictures of the two brothers were in black and white they would look like contenders from the Fifties, scraping a living in dive-bar shows. Throwback, used too often, definitely applies.

“I knew LA would be a great place for an apprenticeship,” insisted Fergal. And it is in a strange way.

“At the start we visited a few gyms, had a look and did some sparring; Manny Robles and Buddy McGirt and then Freddie’s” said Fergal. “To walk into Freddie’s is so special. We had seen it so often in films, seen Freddie training Manny there. All those great films before fights and then we were there.”

An invite down to the special private gym followed. That’s the sign that you have arrived at Roach’s gym. “Freddie and the boys have a real connection. He loves the way they fight – it’s the old style, the style from the 70s and 80s. They have the right attitude for Freddie.” The downstairs gym is not for the public or the weak.

So, boxing life in California has been like boxing life anywhere, just with palm trees and extra traffic. There have been fights after midnight as the floater in remote venues and then long, long car journeys back to their home. Fights with tough, tough flat-nosed hard men with tricky records. The sparring is fierce and private. All good, all learning.

“This is the apprenticeship, the way it should be,” added Fergal. “Serious camps and hard sparring with the best fighters. That is how a young boxer learns. The harder fights will come and that is when we will see the best of the boys.”

They go back to the West soon, all three of them, and their apprenticeship will continue.

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