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Hitman ready to strike again

By David Hennessy

“I can’t wait for it,” Monaghan boxer Stephen McKenna says of his super-lightweight battle with Kris Pilkington this Saturday night. The fight will be a UK debut for undefeated McKenna who is now based in LA and trained by Freddie Roach. Roach is widely regarded as one of the best boxing coaches of all time and has trained fighters like Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya, Wladimir Klitschko, Manny Pacquiao and Irish fighters such as Steve Collins, Wayne McCullough and Bernard Dunne.

Known as ‘the Hitman’, Stephen has won all of his first four professional bouts by knock-out.

Viewers can watch the bout on Channel 5 on the undercard of Samir Ziani’s European Super-Featherweight title defence against Alex Dilmaghani.

“He’s a tough fighter. I’m really excited for this fight, especially fighting back close to home for all my UK and Ireland fans get to see me live in action. I want to really show everyone my skills, I want to convey what I have been doing in America.

“Everyone’s going to be watching back there, everyone’s buzzing they get to see me in action. My fans are excited for it. When I’m fighting in America, they are watching the streams in the middle of the night so it’s good now I’m fighting so close to home. It’s great to be back.”

Stephen returned home in March to see out the crisis with family.

Stephen with his brother Aaron and trainer Freedie Roach.

“I’m back here preparing for this fight. I came home the start of the lockdown so I’ve been home since the middle of March. I’ve been back here training at my home gym at the back of my house with my dad and my brother.

“It’s good to get back home for a while. I’ve been constantly training away. Since I came home, I haven’t missed a session. I’ve been getting ready, staying ready and now that this fight has come up, I’m more than ready to go in. I’m 100% and I’m raring to go.

“It’s been really exciting so far with four knock-outs to my name but I just want to improving every fight and just getting better and better. I want to keep pushing on. I want to keep going up those rankings. This fight’s another stepping-stone.”

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Stephen has finished three of his opponents inside the first round with only Argentinian Gonzala Carlos Dallero surviving into the second.

Does he expect to finish his bout this Saturday against 32-year-old Pilkington with another knock-out? “If the knock-out comes, yeah. I’m ready.”

Stephen comes from a very strong boxing family. His brothers Gary and Aaron have also represented Ireland at international level winning medals. All three brothers have been trained by father Fergal who trained alongside Barry McGuigan.

“My Dad was a fighter himself and it was bred into us. Ever since I was really young, this has been a dream of mine. I first walked into a boxing club when I was eight years old with my dad and my two brothers.

“When we started out, dad built a gym at the back of our house so we grew up all our lives training with each other, sparring with my two brothers so it’s been an exciting journey.

“My Dad has worked with me and my brother the whole time. He’s put a lot of hard work into us and he’s always there for us so we’re doing well.

“We were all Irish champions at the one time. We were very competitive with each other growing up and we still are competitive, especially me and Aaron, we’re always trying to beat each other. It’s great to have a boxing family.”

Although Gary has now become a PE teacher, Stephen’s younger brother Aaron is also an exciting prospect with a record of ten victories from his first ten fights.

A standout amateur with a career record of 155 fights and only 24 losses, Stephen won the Irish Under-18 youth title, multi-nation bronze in Russia, Commonwealth Youth Gold in Samoa, European youth silver in Poland and was crowned Irish Elite Senior Champion all in one year. Before moving to Los Angeles in 2018, McKenna had been training with the Irish Elite team at the High Performance centre in Dublin.

Of the expectation and excitement that is building around him since he emerged into the pro ranks with four straight knock-outs, Stephen says: “It feels good, I stay 100% focused no matter what. When I’m in the gym I’m not letting anything distract me. I’m 100% committed, I’m training 2-3 times a day. It’s great to have the support we’re getting and I’m getting. I just have to stay focused and go in there and win.

“They love my style of fighting (in America). Being Irish as well, they love to see an exciting Irish fighter and that’s what I bring to the table. Both me and Aaron are exciting fighters and they’ve taken to us, US fans.

“This is an entertainment business so you have to put on a show for everyone, make people want to watch you so I want to bring as much excitement to this game as possible and win world titles.

“Within the next two years, I want to be pushing for world titles. I’ve been in the ring with great fighters. I’ve been in with Jose Ramirez, Lomachenk. It’s been great experience for me getting to share the ring with these fighters so once I step it up I’ll be ready for them guys whenever the time comes. I’m going to keep focused and just focus on winning and keep going up those rankings.”

Stephen mentions he has been sparring with Jose Ramirez, the champion of the weight he fights in. Stephen wants to go up against him again with belts on the line.

“Down the line, I’d love to fight him. It would be great. Jose Ramirez is a great fighter, he’s the unified champion so once I get up to that level and the fights start to come, I’ll be ready. It would be an exciting fight I would love to get in the future.”

Stephen is also a fan of other sports, following Liverpool FC and playing GAA well into his teens.

“I’m a big Liverpool fan so I usually go over to Anfield every year, try to get to a game when I’m home at Christmas. Me and Aaron

“We’re also big GAA fans. We used to play GAA when we were younger and we played right up until under-16 level.

“We were really good and then once the boxing got really serious we just took a step back from it. We used to do both so we were extremely fit growing up.”

Did the rough and tumble of Gaelic games harden him up for the ring? “GAA is tough so I’d say it played some part.”

Watch Stevie McKenna live on free-to-air Channel 5 on Saturday 5th September.

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