By Thomas Gerbasi
Being patient about anything at the age of 18 is a Herculean task at best. Now imagine being told that your professional boxing debut, the night you’ve always dreamed of – and in the big room at Madison Square Garden, no less – is not happening.
That was the test issued to former Irish amateur star Aaron McKenna on December 2, when Victor Eddy Gaytan was pulled from their fight on the Sadam Ali-Miguel Cotto undercard due to licensing issues.
On the day of the fight.
“Obviously, it was hard enough to take, but I just had to take it on the chin,” said McKenna, who got some good news almost as soon as the bad news was issued, as his promoter, Golden Boy Promotions, got him on their card a week later in Las Vegas. All was well again, if not for the fact that now he had to maintain his weight for six more days and keep his mind right on the way back to the west coast.
“I had to refocus myself and then just focus on that fight,” he said. “I had to get myself mentally back in shape, so I focused on that and didn’t worry too much about it.”
Yeah, he’s just 18.
“That’s part of the job that you’re in,” said McKenna. “You have to be ready for these things. This is boxing, anything can happen, so you have to be ready and you have to always stay in shape. Not too many people can say that they weighed in in New York and Vegas in one week, especially at 18 years old.”
This is true, and if you’re wondering, Mr. McKenna won that pro debut in Vegas, taking a shutout four-round decision over 1-0 Travis Conley. Now the journey has finally started and he can start looking ahead, starting with his Friday bout against Mexico’s Adolfo Caro on the Ronny Rios-Azat Hovhannisyan undercard in Costa Mesa.
“It’s good to get the first one over,” he said. “Now the next one should be a lot easier. It’s always good to have the first one out of the way and all I’m thinking about is training for the next fight and getting myself ready. I always stay in shape and always stay prepared for everything, and I’m just looking forward to my next fight.”
There is a buzz about the teenage welterweight, who made the long trip from County Monaghan to Southern California to evolve his craft. Note that I didn’t say learn his craft, as his amateur career proves that he did leave the Emerald Isle as one of the top talents in the sport. And that doesn’t just come from wins and medals, but from experience, and McKenna has plenty of it.
“Since I was six years of age, all I’ve ever been doing is boxing,” he said. “I’m a very experienced amateur with 161 fights, I’ve been to Russia six times, I’ve won European gold medals, European junior silver and last year in the mini-worlds I won a gold medal and beat a world champion in the semifinals. And I beat a Russian in Russia. I’ve had a lot of experience and I’m well used to it now.”
But to get to the next level in the pros, McKenna admits that he had to leave home to begin that quest. And Los Angeles was clearly the place to be for him.
“If you’re gonna make it as a professional boxer, here’s the place to make it,” he said. “America has all the top boxers, everyone comes to America, and you need to hit the big time here. And L.A. is the sparring capital of the world and boxing capital of the world. I’ve been sparring all over the place, sparring with Alexis Rocha in Santa Ana, and the other day I was sparring with Fabian Maidana. And that’s why I’m here.”
It’s the education you don’t see until fight night, and if it’s done right, you will see McKenna add new wrinkles to his game with each passing bout. He’s already seen the difference since making the move.
“Over here, they’re really good,” he said. “Everyone I’ve sparred here, they’re all over like 15-0 and very experienced, and you can tell the difference in the pro style. I’m learning a lot. You’ve got to find the shots and turn, settle down and let them go.”
It’s the next step for several of the finest Irish boxers, with Jason Quigley and Mick Conlan both spending time in the States before returning to Europe and Katie Taylor also opting to train in the U.S. Add in Paddy Barnes and John Joe Nevin, and it’s clear that the younger generation’s Irish Invasion is well on its way.
“Everyone in Ireland goes through the High Performance program,” said McKenna, whose older brothers Stephen and Gary have also left a positive mark on Irish boxing. “We were all in the same program – Jason Quigley, Michael Conlan – and we’re all doing well now that we’re in the pro game. The training is starting to show.”
And whether at home or abroad, these up and comers have their people behind them, with a mixed martial arts star showing them just what’s possible for them while representing their country.
“There are millions of Irish-Americans, so it’s very important to get the Irish behind you,” McKenna said. “The Irish fans are the best in the world, and it’s great to have them behind you roaring and cheering for you. It makes a big difference to have that crowd and atmosphere. Look at Conor McGregor and all the fans that he’s got. Half the world knows about him and everyone in Ireland’s behind him.
“That’s what I want,” he continues. “I want to be fighting in places like New York and Boston, where there are loads of Irish and to have them all behind me, big crowds cheering for me.”
If McKenna reaches his ultimate goal, that will be a done deal.
“My dream is to become a world champion and to be Ireland’s greatest ever boxer. This is what I want to do and this is what I love. That’s why I’m in the sport.”