Tyrone McKenna was born to entertain.
Movies are where audiences began to take notice of McKenna. When he was a teenager, his school was brought into the public eye thanks to an Irish production called The Mighty Celt, a 2005 release starring Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty, Trainspotting) and a fourteen-year-old Tyrone McKenna. He played the role of Donal, who develops a liking for greyhound racing thanks to his special connection with canines. “Tyrone McKenna shines in an engaging Irish movie . . . it’s a small picture certainly, but a thoughtful and engaging one,” The Guardian wrote in their review of the film.
Looking back on his time hustling for the role of Donal, the (18-1-1, 6 KOs) super-lightweight told Hannibal Boxing: “They went to all the schools in West Belfast and picked who they thought would be good for the roles. They picked all my friends and didn’t pick me, but I said, ‘Fuck it, I’m going for it.’ There was two thousand kids, and every week they’d call you back if they wanted you, and after about ten call-backs there was four people and finally, I got it. It was a big movie.”
Now all grown up, McKenna is in the midst of a boxing career that continues this Friday night in Ulster Hall against Dubliner Darragh Foley—a good old-fashioned North-versus-South encounter—which will be shown on ESPN+ in America and on iFL TV’s YouTube channel in the UK. The twenty-nine-year-old southpaw hails from West Belfast, stands at six feet one, loves to have a scrap, and sports the kind of features that wouldn’t have looked out of place working as one of Nucky Thompson’s crew in Boardwalk Empire.
Although the acting bug remains in McKenna, full concentration, for the time being, is on creating a real-life Hollywood ending in the squared circle. But once the gloves are put away, McKenna aims to be back in front of a camera without someone wanting to knock him out.
“I’d probably wait until my boxing career is over,” he said. “Boxing is something you have to fully commit to. You have to give 100 percent, that’s what I believe. You can’t work. Some people would go do part-time jobs when they train, but I don’t believe you can do that. You’re either in, or you’re out. Acting has taken a back seat, but I’ll probably return to it after my career is over because in acting you can even be fifty years old and be working, you can’t be that old in boxing unless you’re Bernard Hopkins.”
Boxing, films, showbusiness . . . a combined trio that gels well. Boxing is the hurt business, but it is also the entertainment business. Pre-fight we are treated to theatrics that wouldn’t look out of place in a soap opera, come fight night an arena can be lit up by a fighter’s entrance alone. Last Saturday night we were treated to such an occasion thanks to Tyson Fury’s tribute to Apollo Creed in Rocky IV.
“Boxing is acting,” said McKenna.
“It’s all a big act. All the mouth, all the joking around, showboating; everything about boxing is acting and that’s how you get the fanbase, get people talking, and I’m very good at it, but obviously, you have to be very skilful as well.”
As to the latter, McKenna’s boxing skills need to be utilized more, an opinion shared by himself and his new trainer, Danny Vaughan. “You can’t go out blocking with your face basically, and that’s what I was doing the past few fights because I love it.”
The height, the reach, the jab, the stance . . . tools that McKenna tends to neglect because of his love for highlight-reel violence. It might be an Irish thing; it might have been built into him when he began treading the boxing boards in North Philadelphia. A journey that was initially centered around his moving to America with no intention of turning himself into a professional fighter.
Fighting on America’s East Coast, promoted by Tom Moran, McKenna amassed a record of 5-0 before returning home. The experience sounds bittersweet when McKenna reflects.
“You fought one month and didn’t fight for another six months, but the experience was great,” he says. “Fighting in America, journeymen are a completely different level, and they could win domestic titles here (in the UK), so you learn a lot more in America and very quickly. I picked up a lot of things in Philadelphia but coming home, joining MTK (Global), my career finally took off. I was near retiring when I came back from America because I just wasn’t happy with what was happening. Once I joined MTK, started getting on TV with fights, building my record, getting good fights and obviously fighting for my first title and headlining my first show (on Friday).”
Boxing in Philadelphia can only lead to chat about what it was like in the kind of gyms where no one gives a damn what you achieved with a vest on living in a country they don’t know a lot about.
“Basically, you go in the gym and no one knows who you are or what you’ve done as an amateur. You have to earn their respect, especially in Philadelphia. The sparring is more like wars. It’s like what you see on TV, they’re all around the ring banging the canvas, and you’re in a serious war every day, but you do learn a lot. You’re sparring world-class opposition every week. And the coaching there . . . they know what they’re doing over in America. I think it was probably the best way to start a career, getting thrown in at the deep end with world-class spars and learning the trade there.
Ray Robinson, Julian Williams, Matt Korobov (during his camp for the Andy Lee fight) and Jaron Ennis are just some of the names that McKenna traded shots with Stateside. McKenna also fought Carl Frampton as an amateur, grew up with the likes of Michael Conlan, Paddy Barnes and Frampton himself, as part of the Irish squad which launched careers that will be talked about in Belfast for years to come.
A win over Foley on Friday night will give McKenna a top-fifteen ranking with the WBC. It’s a small step on a road trying to be a part of an Irish invasion of America led by the likes of Katie Taylor, Frampton, and Conlan, with recent world title challenger Jono Carroll and more all hoping to get another crack under the bright lights filled with the razzamatazz that, as a sport, only boxing can offer.