All in the Mind: Duke McKenzie Looks Back

Great Britain's Duke McKenzie celebrates after winning the WBO Super Bantamweight Title from American Jesse Benavides (r) on points. (Photo by Sean Dempsey - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

“Me and my brother Dudley left home when I was fifteen. We had quite an abusive, vicious father, and we had to get away. Our dad was a West Indian guy, and it was his way or no way. He was quite violent—not necessarily to me, but to Dudley, verbally and physically. We planned it one day in 1979. Dudley was off to the world junior championships, representing Great Britain in Yokohama, Japan, but, before he left, we plotted our escape. We packed a load of stuff into a bag, and when dad went to work one day, we disappeared and never went back.”

McKenzie looked up to his brother as his inspiration, and he continued to follow, listen, and absorb everything Dudley said over the coming years.

However, as one of seven siblings, young Duke was hardly a standout scrapper. “I had five elder brothers who were all stronger and a sister who never boxed but was a black belt in judo. It was a bit embarrassing because she used to throw me all over the place.”

McKenzie was thirteen when he laced the gloves up for the first time. “My inspiration at that time was Clinton, because he was the first of the brothers to start boxing. Clinton’s best friend, when he was at St. Christopher’s school in Croydon, was a guy called Frankie Lucas. Frankie was Southern Area middleweight champion, boxed Tony Sibson for the British title, and was a rugged, hard-hitting middleweight. Frankie introduced Clinton to boxing; then, when he started, Winston started, Dudley followed, and eventually I went.”

McKenzie recalled his first amateur contest. “Back then, they were called gym shows. I think I was about fourteen, maybe a bit younger. I was petrified. When you are young, and your brothers have all been so successful, you want to be like them. That can put a lot of pressure on you, and it did to me.”

Despite winning his first amateur fight, McKenzie’s form was far from impressive. “I had sixty-five amateur fights and won about thirty. At one point, I think I lost twelve fights back-to-back. I have the worst amateur career pedigree of any professional world champion. Only thing I won was the NABCs [National Amateur Boxing Championships]. If you won that, you won a scholarship to go to Holland for two weeks. That was a brilliant experience. I went over with top boxers like Errol Christie, Chris Pyatt, Tony Adams, and we all got on really well. That’s when things took a different turn for me.”

McKenzie turned professional on November 23, 1982, at the age of nineteen. Before his twentieth birthday, he had already clocked up five wins, all by stoppage. Interestingly, in his first eight fights, five were in the US. “I had to beg Mickey Duff to manage me, because he didn’t want to initially. He got me the fights. He was the master matchmaker.”

While stateside, McKenzie shared a room with future WBC world super-welterweight champion John “The Beast” Mugabi, renowned for being a very tough character in the ring. “Mugabi was a funny guy. Always smoking and joking. He was rubbish at running, but he’d work hard in the gym but, as you know, he was a massive puncher. Finding sparring for Mugabi was a hard thing to get, never mind fights. John could also be very lazy, but George Francis, his coach, would always get the best out of him.

“John was really good friends with Cornelius Boza Edwards, and it was always me, Corny, John, Boza, and a few others training. We were always down at Johnny Tocco’s gym in downtown Vegas, which was like a hub of boxing. That was a real hotbed of raw, pure, world-class talent.”

On June 5, 1985, with ten wins and no defeats to his name, McKenzie fought Danny Flynn for the vacant British flyweight title. “That was my first real test to gauge myself, in terms of levels. Because I’d been traveling quite a lot and was really well prepared for this fight. You’ve got to imagine: in Johnny Tocco’s gym there was Hector Camacho training. He’d come in, do a three- or four-hour slot, then disappear. Then Boza Edwards would train after that. Boza would walk out, and Edwin Rosario would come in, go out, and then Livingstone Bramble, Evander Holyfield, you name it. I was like a kid in a sweet shop watching all these great champions working out, getting a buzz just being around them. From the minute I started my workout in the morning, I was there until 10 p.m. It was a surreal, unbelievable experience. One I’ll never forget.

“So when it was time for the Flynn fight, mentally, I was more than ready for the test. That was my first twelve-rounder, at the Royal Albert Hall, and everything worked out pretty well.” Flynn suffered six knockdowns and the contest was stopped in the fourth.

Three fights and eleven months later, on May 20, 1986, McKenzie took on European flyweight champion “Champagne” Charlie Magri. McKenzie was also putting his British strap on the line against Magri, a former WBC flyweight champion. “Charlie was the darling of British boxing back then. I’d been written off by the press for being too young, naive, and not really ready. Again, I drew on my experience I had in America. I had sparred this guy called Juan Muriel from Puerto Rico, and he mimicked Charlie’s style really well, so going into that fight I was on point.

“This fight was my first real test against a world-class opponent. If I’m being perfectly honest with you, though, it was a case of one fighter on the way up and the other one on the way down. Mickey Duff was a genius.” Magri retired in the fifth.

McKenzie won his next six fights on the bounce, including two defenses of his European crown, before facing IBF flyweight champion Rolando Bohol on October 5, 1988. “It was never a boyhood dream of mine to become a world champion. My dream was to follow my older brother Clinton and become British champion, and when I did that, I was more than satisfied. But when you win the British, you get an automatic European rating, then when you win the European title, you get an automatic world rating, and then it all goes from there.

“I’d been waiting to fight the WBC flyweight champion, Sot Chitalada, for about eighteen months. It didn’t materialize for different reasons, so we refocused our attention to the IBF. If I’d have fought Chitalada, I would have had to fight up in Thailand or somewhere in Asia. Then Mickey said he could get me a world title fight in the UK. My reaction was one of total disbelief.

“So, they get the Bohol fight at Grand Hall, Wembley, London, and it’s a bout I’m never going to forget. I had plenty of doubt going into the fight, but Dudley was confident for me. He was my big brother, mentor, and life coach. On the morning of the fight, I’d been crying through fear, nothing else.

“Dudley got to my house about six that morning because he was so excited for me. He knocked on the door and, when I opened it, he said, ‘Little Man’—which is what he called me—‘what’s the matter?’ I said, ‘The fear of defeat, but, moreover, the fear of getting knocked out is starting to get hold of me.’ He took both my hands, put them on his face, and said, ‘There’s nothing to fear but fear itself. You can’t taste, you can’t smell, you can’t see it. The only way you can control it is by talking yourself into the fight. You’ve got to take the fight one round at a time.’ And that’s pretty much what I did. It was a surreal emotion being crowned world champion.” McKenzie stopped Bohol in the eleventh round.

After three successful defenses of the IBF world flyweight crown, McKenzie lost against Dave McCauley on June 7, 1989. The Northern Irishman held a deceptive record of 12-2-2. “I quite clearly underestimated him, given the fact that he’d been on the deck seventeen times, prior to me fighting him. Three weeks before the fight, and this isn’t an excuse, it’s a fact, I was in Barbados with my brother Dudley, as his best man, because he was getting married. It was ninety-degree heat every day, and although I was running every day, weight wasn’t coming off because I was drinking and eating as normal. Everyone, especially Mickey Duff, were telling me not to go. Don’t take your eye off the prize sort of thing.

“When I came back for the McCauley fight, I thought I’d beat him because he couldn’t take a shot, but it was me that was there for the taking. I had horror stories to make weight. I failed on the first attempt on the morning of the fight and had to go into a boiler room in Leicester Square, where the weigh-in was, and it took me over an hour to skip the weight off. I was drained. When I got on the scales Mickey Duff said, ‘Fuck me, lad. You look like a black pair of braces.’ I was so drawn and drained.

“I thought McCauley would have the same problems in making weight because he was the same height and would fade at the halfway mark. In the first round, he hit me with a good shot and all I kept thinking was, ‘I’ve got eleven more rounds. I can’t let this guy knock me out.’ I went into survival mode. I had a few moments in the fight, but I was done. No word of a lie, that defeat came as a relief. Making eight stone had become the bane of my life.”

McKenzie won two fights, then moved up two weight divisions to challenge Thierry Jacob on September 30, 1990, for his European bantamweight title in Calais, France. “The Jacob fight absolutely made me. I would class that fight as the hardest I’ve ever had, by a mile. That fight, I experienced so many different emotions, both inside and outside of the ring. Some of the strokes they pulled out there in France were unbelievable, but the fight wasn’t with the crowd, the referee, or the judges, the fight was with Jacob and he was outstanding that night.

“I watched many of his fights and have been to Calais several times to see him since. Every time he sees me, he says, ‘Duke, you were the hardest boxer I ever boxed,’ and I always reply the same. The way he beat me was classic and classy. He did things to me I could only dream about. Whenever I wanted to fight, he’d box and vice versa. He kept switching tactics on me. I learned more against Jacob than I did in my previous twenty-six fights. The tactics he used to beat me I used in every other fight I had thereafter.” McKenzie lost a unanimous decision, while Jacob went on to beat future hall of famer, Daniel Zaragoza, eighteen months later to be crowned WBC world super-bantamweight champion.

Not one to dwell on the loss, McKenzie won his next three fights in four months all by stoppage, before taking on WBO bantamweight champion Gaby Canizales on June 30, 1991. “A few hours after the Jacob fight, Mickey Duff pretty much tucked me up in bed and said, ‘I’m going to bring you back. The only thing that beat you was inactivity [McKenzie had been out of the ring for ten months before Jacob], so we are going to keep you nice and busy. We are going to get you a world title fight, and it will be in the UK.’

“He got me four fights . . . with the fourth one being against Canizales. He delivered as he said he would. I was so pumped for that fight. Boxers talk about how on their night they could beat anybody—well, that was my night. Just for that one night only, I believed I could beat anybody. Training went well, making weight went well, and I was so fit and couldn’t have made any excuses.” McKenzie went on to win every round on two judges’ scorecards and eleven on the third.

After two successful defenses of his newly acquired world strap, McKenzie surprisingly came unstuck against Rafael Del Valle (12-0 at the time) on May 13, 1992, at the Albert Hall in London. “I had a bad cold about ten days before and asked Mickey to pull me out of the fight, but he reassured me this was a walk in the park. Basically, Del Valle came over and helped himself, and I got annihilated in the first round. That was it. The championship was gone.”

Five months later, on October 15, 1992, McKenzie made a risky decision to move up to super bantamweight and take on Jesse Benavides, the reigning WBO world champion. Benavides had only lost once in thirty-six outings and was a big puncher. “I looked at that fight as my last fight. I kept saying to myself, ‘I’ve got to leave everything in that ring.’ The difference between me and Benavides on the night was that for him, it was just another payday, especially against a guy who had just been knocked out a few months before. Also, he was bigger, stronger, and a southpaw.

“After about the third or fourth round, once I’d taken his best shot, he realized he was in for the long haul and that he couldn’t just come over and stop me. He’d gambled on knocking me out, but I’m sure he hadn’t gambled on the fight going twelve rounds, because he was tired by the ninth. At times, the fight was a little bit messy but, tactically, I was on point. I was tying him up, pulling him around and jabbing his head off. I had it two rounds up going into the tenth round, then in the eleventh, he quite clearly tripped over my foot, but it was classed as a knockdown because I was throwing punches, and he’d fallen over. The referee made that a 10-8 round, and I stepped on the gas . . . at the end of the fight, they’ve crowned me world champion.”

Beating Benavides put McKenzie into the record books. “Even now, looking at that achievement, I realize I’m in such a privileged position. To be the only English fighter to win world championships in three weight divisions is quite an elite place to be. I’m incredibly proud and very grateful for everyone who helped and supported me along the way to achieve this. I have people who love me and look up to me in my family, and when my kids are all grown up, and they have their own kids, someone will ask, ‘Is that your grandad? He did that?’”

Six months later, on June 9, 1993, McKenzie lost the WBO title to Daniel Jimenez. “I don’t really have an excuse. I’d like to say the preparation wasn’t right, but I lost. That’s it. The better fighter won.”

On December 18, 1993, McKenzie won a title in a fourth weight division, stopping John Davison in the fourth round to become British featherweight champion. “Davison gave me a bit of stick before the fight, and I was never one for bad-mouthing an opponent, so beating him gave me a nice sense of satisfaction. As far as moving up goes, that had become the norm for me. In fact, I’d say moving through the weights gave me longevity in my career. Dudley used to say to me, ‘You’d make a better bantamweight than you would a flyweight.’ Then when I moved up, he said, ‘You’d make a better super-bantamweight than you would a bantamweight,’ and so on! I always believed I could compete at featherweight domestically, even when I was at flyweight, but being perfectly honest with myself, not because I lost to Steve Robinson [October 1, 1994, ninth-round stoppage], because Steve was a good, solid world-class operator, but I never really believed in my heart of hearts that I was a world-class featherweight.”

After the Robinson fight, McKenzie had to deal with a far more tragic loss when his brother Dudley committed suicide at the age of thirty-three. “The wheels were starting to come off in my life by then. I’d lost my brother, was going through a divorce, lost my home. I’d lost everything and was pretty much homeless. I wasn’t skilled at anything workwise, so boxing was the only thing that kept me sane at that point.

“My brother still lives in me, Monday to Sunday. I have four other brothers who I love dearly. Clinton, for example, has been more like a dad to me than an older brother, but me and Dudley had such a unique relationship, and I’ve never had another relationship like that with another man in my life. I feel quite robbed with him not being around. There’s a hole in my life which I’ll never be able to fill. I’ve stopped trying to fill it and now found coping mechanisms to deal with it.”

McKenzie lost two of his next five fights, including another bash at European featherweight honors, which ended in a points loss to Frenchman, Mehdi Labdouni. His last fight was on March 28, 1993, and he retired with a record of 39-7. “How could I say I didn’t have a successful career, or I’m ungrateful, or I didn’t achieve what I wanted. It’s impossible for me to say that. You could only write a book about it and even then it wouldn’t be believable. I’m  five-feet-seven, I’m black, I’m from Croydon, I never achieved nothing as an amateur. To go on to say I’ve been a two-time British champion, a European champion and three-weight world champion is crazy.”

In addition to running his own successful boxing gym, McKenzie is now also a very active ambassador for the mental health charity, MIND. “Whatever is going on in your life, good, bad, or indifferent, you have to find a little bit of courage and find somebody you can really confide in. I’d say, nine out of ten people are going through something in their life which they don’t have the answer for. I’m not saying these people are suicidal or desperate, I just mean, people have so much pressure on them today that they really don’t know which way to turn. If you don’t talk to people about your problems, you won’t find any answers. Men, generally, we tend to suppress the emotion, because we don’t like talking about feelings. But when you do open up, it’s a lot easier to find what you are looking for.”

Royalty even came knocking on Duke’s door when Princes William and Harry, and the Duchess of Cambridge Kate, took part in a pad session with McKenzie. It was the future heir who made the biggest impression. “Definitely William. He enjoyed the pad work. He’s a bit of live wire, that one.” McKenzie continued. “It’s so important for people at that level to be supporting people with mental health because they are so inspirational. This is the royal family. We are not talking about the Mayor of Croydon; these are people who are known the world over. To have them engage with MIND and spread the word is magical.”


About Paul Zanon 30 Articles
Paul Zanon has written eight books, with almost all of them reaching the number-one bestselling spot in their respective categories on Amazon. He has co-hosted boxing shows on Talk Sport and has been a pundit on London Live Boxnation.  He is a regular contributor to Boxing Monthly and a number of other publications. Paul is member of the British Boxing Writers Club. Paul is the author of The Ghost of Johnny Tapia, published by Hamilcar Publications. Connect with Paul on Twitter.