EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: TYRONE McKENNA – IN LOVE WITH THE GAME 

Signing-on at the Job Centre isn’t an activity that leaves you beaming with pride.

The long walk down a beige corridor that may have been painted white twenty-years ago, following a normally-angry woman, all in order to talk her through my ’employment diary’ once every fortnight was embarassing.

In Glasgow, after leaving University, I was broke. One Christmas I was so broke I bought gifts using Wonga loans (that they may be expecting back, at some point). But I wasn’t alone in a City that has its own issues with employment and a reliance on government funding.

I tried various jobs after finishing education, turned up for shifts and left them, knowing I’d never return. West Belfast’s unbeaten light-welterweight Tyrone McKenna (15-0-1, 6KOs) had found himself in a similar situation. A victim of his own indecision and the distractions of a misspent youth.

“I’m not a man that’s known to keep a job for any time over three weeks. I’ve had about sixteen jobs! All lasting about two-to-three weeks, so I don’t think I’d be doing too well.”

“I’ve got two kids, I’m trying to provide for them and when you’re on the dole, it’s very hard. You’re training ten weeks and then you’re getting a fight and getting (paid) barely pennies for the fight. After that, once you get paid, the next day it’s out of your hands because you owe it all out for the camp.”

We chatted openly about the hardest aspect of professional boxing only a week-or-so after Jono Carroll opened up on his financial struggles in a tremendous piece in the42 with Gavan Casey. McKenna could relate, remembering his own battle for recognition and the purses he felt he deserved. He signed with management giants MTK Global after his ninth fight, but told me about the state of his income when the call came.

“When I came home, I had no manager and I wanted to sign with MTK. They (MTK) said to come over and they’d have a look at me. I didn’t have the money to get a flight so I had to sell; my XBOX, the games, my tablet and jewellery even to get that flight over to MTK and show them.” 

He continued, “I had ONE sparring session. I sparred like fuck to make sure they signed me, thankfully they did!” The sacrifice and the opportunity, in equal measure.

Tyrone told me that now, he was happy with how things were going. The involvement of MTK had meant his earnings were much-improved and the shows he was boxing on were far greater in profile. He recently fought Renald Garrido on a big bill in Belfast for Matchroom (broadcast on Sky Sports) and could find himself featuring on BT Sports moving into the new year.

In the beginning, he had fought on Belfast’s Small Hall scene, with shows featuring up to twenty fights and rarely the atmosphere he had now become accustomed to. It’s easy to forget how purses for fighters are split, naively assuming that a man paid a fee, takes home that fee. Especially in the ticket-obsessed culture of the Small Hall, boxer’s can find themselves struggling.

“On the Small Hall shows, you’re handed a bucketload of tickets. You sell them all. You’ve got to pay fees, like your other coaches fees, the other fighter and the food or hotel and flights. The running of the show costs money as well. All of that and at the end of the day, getting paid yourself comes later.” 

“Because you haven’t sold as many as you should have. You’ve only covered the opponent and not yourself or sometimes I’d fight for £100 or for free sometimes because you can only cover their costs. That would dishearten a lot of people.”

I didn’t get the impression that Tyrone would be disheartened easily… by anything. He was chilling out on a Friday afternoon, enjoying his downtime and preparing to travel to New York for this weekend’s superfight between Vasyl Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux. Countryman and friend Michael Conlan, also features on the bill. A trip we had in common, we speculated on the outcome of the main event, a delight for boxing purists.

Growing up in Belfast, as with most other cities, the boxing circle is one that envelopes its participants. Attending amateur contests, fighting one another or training alongside each other meant the fighters from the City who made it to the paid ranks were almost brothers-in-arms. They understood what it had taken to get so far, overcoming obstacles of their own along the way.

“I grew up in West Belfast, born in 90′ so it was at the tail end of the struggles so you did see a lot of bomb scares and British soldiers with guns up and down the street and stuff. There isn’t a kid in West Belfast that hasn’t stepped into a boxing gym. Basically, I joined the club at eight-years-old and if you’re good you stay, if you’re shite you leave. Fortunately, I was good!”

“Paddy Barnes, the Conlan family… everyone in boxing knows everyone. It’s just good to go through all the amateurs with the boys and everyone is pro now, we’re even under the same team, me and Paddy are on the same coaching team. You always feel like you’ve got mates and it’s good to go through everything with them and be on the big shows with them. It’s like a big family now!”

Northern Irish boxing is booming with names like: Frampton, Burnett, Conlan and double-Olympic bronze medalist Barnes fronting their assault on both domestic and international titles. McKenna isn’t far behind and had hoped to make his mark on the light-welterweight scene with a massive win over Tommy Coyle.

Tommy Coyle, a hard-working and established professional from Hull would have been McKenna’s biggest test. Coyle carries a lot of power, but has found himself coming up short against the slicker boxers in the division.

The Coyle v McKenna clash had been one I was looking forward to, with the Belfast man on his way up the rankings and Coyle looking to retain his relevance despite four career defeats. Sadly, injury to the Englishman disrupted the contest and despite rumours of other reasons for cancellation, the fight has yet to come to fruition. I wondered if Tyrone was angry at the pullout or had his own view on the reasons behind it?

“Fuck, I don’t know. There’s loads of rumours that fly about when something like that happens. Tommy Coyle was pulled out and you get told ‘Oh, he’s not been training!’ or he’s pulled out for different reasons but, I think Tommy Coyle is a man of his word. He’s not a guy that would pull out unless he was injured or he couldn’t fight. It’s unfortunate, cos I think it was gonna be an unbelievable fight and hopefully it can happen next year.”

Other names we juggled during our conversation had also fought recently and were also ranked ahead of him. One thing I quickly understood was his lack of caution around building his ‘record’. Tyrone McKenna wants big fights and entertaining ones, always. He shared his opinion on;

Ohara Davies – “I’d like one with Ohara Davies! Everyone is calling him out now they’ve seen Josh Taylor batter him but do you know what? He’s a big puncher! After I watched him and Josh I thought, fuck he’s terrible, he is a novice. But then I watched him against Tom Farrell… fuck me. It should have been stopped in the first round.”

Josh Leather – “Maybe someone like Josh Leather, I’d like someone like that. I watched him up against Glen Foot and he showed a lot of weaknesses in that fight so that’s a fight I’d love to get. I was shocked! I thought Josh Leather was gonna kill Glen Foot! Next thing you know, Leather’s on the ground.”

“If I could pick three fights next year they’d be; Tommy Coyle, Josh Leather and Ohara Davies. That would be a brilliant year for me.”

A fight with Ohara Davies seems simple enough to make, as does the re-scheduled bout with Tommy Coyle. Another fight I was surprised we never touched on was with Jason Easton, himself a tall and rangey boxer with an IBO belt of some variation. Easton sits at number five on BoxRec’s British ranking and for me, could prove a winnable fight for McKenna on a televised show next year.

As we fantasised about his future and the fights that may or may not lie ahead, I wondered what wound Tyrone up about boxing. The money was tough, he’d told me that already, but if he could change one thing about the sport, what would it be?

“Fuck. I’m a lover of the sport for fucksake!” He laughed, before carrying on. “You know what? I hate seeing when boxers are getting stroked from a manager or a promoter for money or anything like that. There’s people out there, without naming any names, that should be well off! They’re not getting paid the right purse or they’re getting lied to and that’s what frustrates me.”

“Boxers aren’t the highest-educated people, none of them in the sport have went to University so, boxers can get the wool pulled over their eyes. It’s a working-class sport. We aren’t the smartest sport in the World, getting your head punched off, you can’t be, so these educated men are coming in and they aren’t the ones taking punches. It’s hard to change it.”

He thanked MTK again for changing his own outlook on the sport, crediting them for turning some amateur ability into title contention. The family-type vibe at MTK was the most impressive thing about the outfit he told me, strangers helping each other out and managers continuously looking out for their fighters best interests without a need to profit themselves.

Where would Tyrone McKenna of West Belfast be without boxing? His wit is razor sharp. I was enjoying our conversation and found myself laughing time-and-time again at his turn of phrase. That Irish, jovial nature shining through. I wanted him to do well, for his kids and his family. For Belfast and all of Ireland. For his friends and fellow teammates or coaches. It seemed to me that Tyrone already was doing well, for himself. Maybe that is what was most pleasing.

“Before boxing, I was living wreckless. Partying, drinking, doing stupid shit. Before, I was boxing and getting paid buttons so I thought, fuck it, I don’t really care. Two weeks before the fight I’d go out drinking or eating shit. It’s given me stability and happiness. I’m loving life at the minute. I’m just looking forward to the future!”

Written by Craig Scott

@craigscott209

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