Definitely different: Tyrone McKenna interview
John Angus MacDonald
Ahead of his showdown tonight with Lewis Benson, Tyrone McKenna talked in-depth to John Angus MacDonald about his desire for tough fights, why he doesn't cry robbery and much more...
Part of boxing’s appeal is its propensity for creating dramatic moments: a late knockout in a fight where the eventual winner was en route to a points defeat, the unheralded underdog pulling off the unthinkable upset and the long pause awaiting the announcement of the judges’ scorecards in a close contest.
Yet, the sport can be wholly predictable. Broadly speaking, fighters will spend the infancy of their professional careers learning their trade against durable journeymen who pose little threat.
Next will be a series of bouts that will, gradually, become increasingly difficult, with the odds firmly stacked in favour of the developing prospect. Promoters, managers and matchmakers will plot the route of least resistance towards a world title tilt. Any unexpected defeats will be followed by a series of soft touches; perhaps an Eastern European with a winning record but limited skill and less ambition, a confidence booster.
Tyrone McKenna is different. A starring role alongside Robert Carlyle and Gillian Anderson in the motion picture ‘The Mighty Celt’, a 6’1” light welterweight (or super lightweight as the sanctioning bodies insist on calling the weight class), a tall, rangy southpaw more comfortable at close quarters rather than living up to the stereotype of being awkward and a moustache that isn’t just for the month of November. Definitely different.
Once again, he is determined to take the road less travelled. Having tasted defeat for the first time in the pro ranks, back in June to the highly rated Jack Catterall, McKenna as eschewed a comeback against a hapless Hungarian in favour of taking on Lewis Benson tonight at the Emirates Arena, Glasgow.
Scotsman Benson was a decorated amateur with a long international career, who has lost only one of his 11 contests.
It’s a risk, but McKenna doesn’t see it that way. There wasn’t a hint of apprehension in his voice as he spoke to Boxing Monthly earlier in the week, instead he was relaxed and surprisingly upbeat for someone in the final stages of making weight.
“It seems like someone hates me,” McKenna said with a loud, infectious laugh regarding his matchmaking. “Someone out there hates me, and they are giving me hard fight after hard fight, but I love it, I love hard fights. I couldn’t get up for anything less than this.
“After the Jack Catterall fight, being at that world level with Jack Catterall, now I just want world-level names, I want big, big fights. Obviously, Benson isn’t a world-level name, but he’s still relatively big in the UK at my weight.
"After this, I want to push on to bigger names, I don’t want to be sitting [at] domestic level, I want to be pushing on and fighting massive names because they are the ones that get me up and have me buzzing. I want to be involved in massive fights.
“I got told: ‘This is your plan; you are going to fight Lewis Benson and you are going to fight such and such, then such and such, this going to be your way to a world title.’ It was all easy fights. I said: ‘I don’t want that.’
"After Lewis Benson, I want one of the top four in Britain: Terry Flanagan, Ohara Davies, I don’t want easy routes. I don’t want easy fights, they’ll bore me.”
It would be easy to dismiss such claims as hyperbole, many proclaim they’ll fight anyone, anywhere, but few do. McKenna’s actions lend credence to his statement. In five of his last six contests, he has boxed: the unbeaten pair, Sean Creagh and Jake Haney, for the BUI Celtic title, tough Frenchman, Renald Garrido, former English champion, Anthony Upton and, the aforementioned, Jack Catterall. Murders’ Row it is not, however, the opponents represent ambitious, progressive matchmaking.
Rather than being disheartened by defeat, McKenna (16-1-1, 6 KOs) was buoyed by his valiant effort against Catterall. Opening as the 18/5 underdog, the 28-year-old believes public expectations were low and that he exceeded them by ultimately coming within one point of his opponent on two scorecards (94-93, 94-93, 95-91.)
How close the contest was is made more remarkable given that McKenna found himself on the canvas twice, receiving a punch on the ground – for which Catterall was deducted a point – in the process.
“I think everyone doubted me before the Catterall fight,” he said. “I think they thought: ‘Fuck, that’ll be an easy one for Jack Catterall,’ but I’ve always known that I’ve got massive heart and massive balls – I think that goes a long way in professional boxing: fitness, heart and balls you need in professional boxing and I have a lot of it.
“I went out with the game plan just to box Catterall for the first four rounds, just keep him at range and I knew he’d tire out after a while, because he always does. Unfortunately, in the second round I got caught. I thought I was boxing well up until then. I was keeping him at distance and landing nice shots, but he landed a beautiful, beautiful backhand.
"I didn’t know where I was for a second. You know what, I got up and my head was clear straight away, even after the shot he hit me [with] on the ground, he hit me twice on the ground. I got up and felt ok.
“He didn’t really hurt me from then on in. It was more the body shots that put me down the other times. His power kind of faded as the fight went on and I got stronger. Even the first round, I was boxing him, jabbing away and he hit me with a backhand I felt it and went: ‘Wow, he has serious power.’ Second round, he dropped me, but see after the third or fourth round, his power went completely away.
“As you seen, I was going forward and mixing it with him then and he was hitting me with clean shots, but they weren’t affecting me anymore because his power does go after a few rounds, but he does hit like fuck for the first three or four rounds.
“I always start off slow and finish the fight strong and that’s what I did last fight. I was happy with my performance because I took him so close and he is a world class fighter and he did have me down a couple of times. I was happy with my performance. I just wish it was a 12-rounder, not a ten-rounder.”
Despite the competitive nature of the bout, and the advantage of the show taking place in his home city of Belfast, McKenna never contemplated that his hand would be raised once the scores were announced. Even with time to reflect and watch the fight back, his opinion hasn’t wavered: the right man won.
“I wasn’t really tallying up what rounds I’d won and what rounds I’d lost,” he recalled “I’d been knocked down twice – was knocked down three times but he got 10-8 rounds twice – I just thought: ‘You know what, I’m not going to win if someone has knocked me down twice.
"I didn’t think for an instant that I’d won. I’d never say: ‘Robbery.’ I respect the decision. I enjoyed the fight, I loved the fight. A lot of people have said: ‘I thought you had him,’ and stuff, but I got knocked down twice, I’m not stupid,” the jovial McKenna added with another laugh.
His upbeat nature ensured that the bitter disappointment of defeat didn’t linger too long in his consciousness. Instead he was able to draw positives from experience.
“No one gave me a chance and to go out and do what I done and bring it that close, if it wasn’t for the knock downs, I’d have won the fight, I was proud of myself,” he said.
“I did take it bad. I felt bad for about a week. I was annoyed about it and stuff, but looking back on it, I showed how good I am, and I deserve to be there. It might have been a fight too soon, but I’ve learnt a lot from it and I’ll bounce back. It’s not a hard defeat because of how good Jack Catterall is. I’m very happy guy, it’s hard to keep me down.”
Another comfort for ‘The Mighty Celt’ is that the fight was an entertaining one and that the fans in attendance and the viewers watching at home got their money’s worth. Despite his physical advantages which should dictate that he controls fights from distance, McKenna cannot curtail his instinct to stand toe-to-toe and trade shots. It is a quality he is acutely aware of, but not one which he has any desire to change.
“I always say: I am the new Paul Williams,” he said fondly comparing himself to the tall, southpaw former WBO welterweight champion. “I love high-pace fights, I’m 6’1”, but I love getting involved and fighting like I’m 5’7”, when I shouldn’t be, but I love it! I love fighting inside, pushing people and getting in the mix, throwing 100 punches a round. It’s my kind of fighting style. It’s something I love.
“I don’t want to be associated with boring fights, I don’t want to be someone who’s on the back foot all the time trying to run and move and be awkward. I want to be in the centre of the ring, hands up, throwing punches, like Paul Williams.
"If I have half the career Paul Williams had, I’ll be fucking happy. I don’t want to be known as a boring fighter, I love entertaining people and people saying: ‘Fuck, I loved your fight.’ My last fight with Jack Catterall, the crowd was insane, that wasn’t because it was boring, I was going at him, having a go and having a fight after being down a few times. The crowd respect that.”
If McKenna is the entertainer, he believes Benson is his antithesis. The Edinburgh native lost his unbeaten record on the same bill which McKenna lost his, suffering a decision loss to Johnny Coyle. While Benson would likely describe his style as elusive, McKenna has a different term for it: boring.
“I think he’s a very negative fighter,” he said. “I think he’s going to try and move and run to make things awkward and tie up. The way I see the fight going is: he’ll start fast, try and nick a few rounds then he’s going to tire out because he’s not going to be able to the handle the pace I’m going to set.
"The training I’ve been doing and the sparring I’ve been doing [has been] high, high intensity and high, high pace. I don’t believe he’s going to be able to live with it. I think he’s going to get stopped within seven rounds.
In the build-up, Benson has said that he obtained the upper hand when the pair last sparred. Unsurprisingly, McKenna refutes the claim. While accounts of sparring sessions from the fighters involved are about as reliable as the proclamations of a separated couple attributing blame to the other for their divorce, McKenna makes an impassioned case.
“He’s insane, I swear to God,” he said animatedly. “He also said he had Josh Taylor our of second gear, I highly doubt that. I don’t think many people in the UK would have Josh Taylor out of second gear. He’s either delusional or just a compulsive liar.
"You remember when you get beat up in sparring and I have never been beat up or been troubled by Lewis Benson. He’s too weak. I’ve sparred him before: he’s weak, he’s not that fast, he’s not that clever. He’s saying he’s got good footwork, but good footwork doesn’t mean just running around the ring, it means getting in and out quick and creating angles – he doesn’t do that. I’m just going to batter him.”
Like McKenna, Benson claims to have learned from defeat. He has promised that we’ll see a new, improved fighter on the night: fitter, faster, stronger. These statements are common place, but often fail to come to fruition on the night. McKenna – naturally – doubts his opponent, but is adamant, even if he faces the best version of Lewis Benson there ever will be, he will still be victorious.
“He’s saying he’s changing all this, changing all that and building an engine, but at the end of the day, he’s going to be the same Lewis Benson. You can’t change overnight. I don’t care who he’s been sparring. He’s saying he’s sparring Josh Taylor, that can’t be good for your confidence [laughs]. He’s going to be the same old Lewis Benson and I’m going to be too fast, too strong, too fit and too skilful for him.”