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‘The sparring sessions never end in tears. But sometimes they end in blood.’ The sibling rivalry of the McKenna brothers

Aaron McKenna
Tom Hogan/Hogan Photos/Golden Boy Promotions
Brothers Aaron and Stevie McKenna tell Matt Christie about sharing a ring with each other, with Vasyl Lomachenko and the advice they’ve received from Barry McGuigan

WHEN the coronavirus pandemic took hold and forced the vast majority of fighters to take a break from training, two young Irish brothers went to work on each other at the bottom of their garden.

“We’ve taken full advantage of lockdown,” 23-year-old super-lightweight Stevie McKenna told Boxing News about the sparring he’s enjoyed with his little bro, Aaron McKenna. “Where other fighters were struggling to train, we took advantage and have trained two or three times a day. We’ve not missed a session.”

Super-welterweight Aaron, who is 10-0 (6) and promoted by Golden Boy Promotions, added: “Nowadays it’s more technical sparring but it would always get heated when we were younger. My father would always have to tell us to cool it.”

Their father is Fergal McKenna. Years ago, he took his young sons, including third brother Gary, to Monaghan’s Smithboro Boxing Club which once honed the talents of a burgeoning Barry McGuigan. Fergal watched proudly as the trio developed a taste for the noble art and won under-14 national titles.

Within a few years, he was head coach at the club. Renamed Old School Boxing Club after a €35,000 Credit Union loan paid for renovations, the gym grew again into one of the most successful in Ireland.

Not content with that, Fergal turned the shed at the rear of his home into a fully equipped gym. He even put the old ring used by the likes of McGuigan and Rinty Monaghan from the Smithboro Club inside it.

The story continued at pace. Aaron, initially recognised as the most talented of the brothers, was scouted by Sheer Management in 2015. Within two years, Fergal and Aaron were based in Los Angeles before being joined by Stevie in 2018. Gary, meanwhile, became a PE teacher.

In February this year it was announced that Aaron and Stevie would be trained by Freddie Roach at the famous Wildcard Gym. They plan to return when the current situation eases.

“I’ve known Freddie since I was 16 and I first sparred in the Wild Card,” explained Aaron. “I enjoy it in America. I’m very lucky to be trained by Freddie Roach. Not many boxers get that opportunity.”

Both brothers have been blessed with sharing the ring with formidable talent. Last week, Barry McGuigan was on hand to watch over Aaron sparring with Anthony Fowler at the McGuigan’s Gym in London.  

“It was cracking sparring, Anthony is a really good fighter,” 21-year-old Aaron reported. “It was special to get Barry’s advice too because we come from the same amateur gym. I’ll be taking that advice with me. He told me to sit down more on my punches but it’s someone else to learn from – that’s the important thing for me now, learning.”

Stevie, 4-0 (4), can boast of an even better experience.

“There’s no doubt that Vasyl Lomachenko is the best I’ve shared a ring with,” he said of their sparring sessions. “He’s clever and naturally so gifted. But I more than held my own with him and that was before I’d even had my first professional fight.

“He didn’t say a lot afterwards except ‘Great work’.”

The brothers are consumed by boxing. It’s the last thing they think about at night and dominates their mind upon waking. In between, they dream of winning world titles and defending them on the same bill in Ireland.

“Like Aaron, I’m 100 per cent committed to boxing,” Stevie said with an audible smile. “We don’t do much else besides train, box or watch boxing. I’ve been doing it since I was eight years old. We do a bit of fishing too but it always comes back to boxing.”

The boxing brothers are lucky in many ways. Not least that in this new world finding its feet in the face of a pandemic they have each other to learn from. The respect between the brothers is striking but the sibling rivalry will always remain. “The sparring sessions never end in tears but sometimes they end in blood! We’re always trying to beat each other in whatever we do. Whether it’s sparring or running, we’re always want to come out on top,” chuckled Stevie before adding, “but we do get on really well.”

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