Day of the underdog
John Byrne profiles Kevin McBride, the man from Clones who beat Mike Tyson
Kevin McBride's trainer Pascal Collins walked into Mike Tyson's dressing room. The former heavyweight champion of the world was relaxed and smiling. "Tyson was perfectly calm, actually," says Collins. "Before a fight, a member of the opponent's team has to sit in the dressing room to make sure no funny business goes on. I went in. He showed me his hands before he put the gloves on. He was a thorough gentleman."
On paper, Tyson had little to fear from the man Collins was coaching. Kevin McBride was a 32-year-old, six-foot-six Monaghan man who had never beaten a boxer of note in his 13-year professional career. He never trained properly in his life. He looked overweight at the weigh-in. He was to be fodder for Tyson, an easy pay cheque, a boxer poor enough to make Tyson look good again.
"McBride's résumé raises serious questions about his ability to pull off an upset. In fact, he looks to have been handpicked to boost Tyson's confidence," said the New York Times.
Outside, around 15,000 Tyson fans were in the MCI centre in Washington, roaring for "The Baddest" to obliterate the Irish no-hoper.
Collins walked back into McBride's dressing room.
"Tyson's hands are shaking, he's frightened," he told McBride.
"He's chewing gum, and his nerves are gone. He's lost it. You've got him scared."
"Of course none of it was true," said Pascal Collins afterwards. "We only told Kevin that he was scared as a confidence trick."
But maybe it worked. Maybe it was the six weeks of intense training – the hardest of McBride's career – and the sports psychologist/hypnotist that Collins and co-trainer Goodie Petronelli had used to give their man some self-belief. Maybe it was the fact that the 38-year-old Tyson was smoking too much dope and drinking too much to ever dominate the ring the way he used to.
In any case, six rounds into the fight, Tyson was exhausted. He'd been aiming to knock-out McBride quickly before his ebbing fitness slowed him down, but the "Clones Colossus" used his weight well and kept Tyson at bay. Everybody was surprised that McBride even had a game plan. He was never known for his boxing brain.
When Tyson's legitimate weapons stopped working, he tried other ones. Boxing below the belt, twisting McBride's arm, biting his nipple, head-butting him. But McBride kept close, and began to inflict damage as Tyson got desperate.
"We knew Tyson was in trouble when his leg shook," says Collins. "In the fifth, he hit him with a combination that he made famous himself, what we called the Mike Tyson combination – a right hook to the body followed by a right upper-cut."
Finally, as McBride leaned into Tyson towards the end of the fifth, like a bear on its hind legs, Tyson fell. He didn't come out for round six.
"I said to the world that I was going to shock the world and I did," said McBride. He had defied his critics, and now he is lined up for a fight against WBA champion John Ruiz. He is, he claims, "a contender, not a pretender".
But even after beating Tyson, the pundits focused on his personality, not his boxing skills.
"Kevin McBride is a big, strong, likeable fella... very quiet," says boxing pundit Mick Dowling. "But he's only ever been notable for his size and strength, not for his boxing ability. None of his colleagues and his friends would have thought that he would ever beat Mike Tyson.
"But the thing is it wasn't Mike Tyson he fought – it was a battered, tired fighter, not the Tyson of old. When you look at Kevin's boxing record, it tells you an awful lot about where Tyson is now. I thought Tyson would have enough in him to explode something on his chin, but it didn't happen.
"It's been put around that he's now a contender to win the world title. He's not."
Kevin McBride was born in Clones, Co Monaghan, on 10 May 1973. His father, Kevin Sr, was "a pretty tough man", says Kevin Jr, but they weren't a boxing family. He grew up in Cherry Park, a housing estate, with three brothers and three sisters. It was his unusual size that marked him out as somebody who might have some success in the ring.
"I got my first knock-out when I was nine years old", he says – in a spar with a fifteen-year-old neighbour.
He joined the local Clones boxing club, and when that folded, he moved to the nearby Smithborough club, where his met his first coach, Frank Mulligan.
"Kevin had great loyalty towards Frank," says Gerald Lynch of Smithborough. "He put great trust in those around around him, perhaps too much. He stuck with Frank longer than some people thought he should have."
At age 18, after only six amateur wins, McBride became senior amateur super-heavyweight champion of Ireland. He represented Ireland in the 1992 Olympics. But his relaxed attitude worked against him.
"I first came across Kevin McBride in Drogheda about 14 years ago, when he was training with the Olympic team," says former world middle-weight champion Steve Collins, a friend of McBride. "I walked in and saw this huge, monster of a lad on the punch bag. But he was so laid back, so relaxed that I said to him, 'Do you not realise what you're training for, how big this is?'"
McBride was in good company that year. Michael Carruth won gold, Wayne McCullough got silver. But McBride was dispatched easily in the first round. He still enjoyed himself. "It was a great experience, it was great to fight for my country, to wear the Irish vest."
He turned professional later that year. His coach from Clones, Frank Mulligan, stayed with him. But then McBride moved to London, and was taken on by manager Frank Moloney. The two Franks did not get on. Mulligan was dropped.
McBride won most of his fights over the next decade. But he became disillusioned. He wasn't matched against quality opponents, and got no closer to his dream of a shot at a world title.
"Frank Moloney and his team didn't take Kevin seriously," says Steve Collins.
"They didn't really put that much work into him. It would have had something to do with his temperament. He wasn't pushy, he was so laid back, he'd just go with the flow, so it never really worked out with him over there. Nobody believed in him, his talents were ignored."
Around 1998, his father became ill with cancer. McBride had a fight against a British boxer, Michael Murray, who had lost 17 of his previous fights.
"Before that fight, I was told my father was dying of cancer and that I shouldn't fight, but I wanted to fight him to prove a point. But I lost, and my father died a couple of months later.
"I came back from England after a loss, and soon after I'd also lost my father.
"I put the Olympic medal that I got for fighting in the Olympics in my father's coffin. And every time I go to fight, I say a wee prayer to my father, and surely he's up there, ringside, watching me."
Stagnation followed. He fought only once in 1999, was inactive in 2000, fought twice in 2001, and then seven times over the next two years, losing once.
"I've had some ups and downs," he says. "But I respect the losses, because they make you appreciate the wins."
Then he called on Steve Collins.
Collins says: "I met Kevin a few years ago, and he was disillusioned, he was frustrated. His career wasn't going well. So I hooked him up with some guys over in the East Coast – Pascal my brother, Marty Ward, a builder and publican with a strong Dublin accent who put on some fights for him, and of course Goodie Petronelli, who trained Marvin Hagler."
McBride enjoyed a redemption of sorts in the US, both personal and professional. He met an Irish-American woman called Daniel with whom he now has an eight-month-old daughter called Danielle. And he began to train properly.
"Kevin never trained for a fight seriously before," says Pascal Collins. "When we first got him, he'd skip sessions, he'd be missing days.
"Six weeks before the fight, we would talk while running. I asked him what intimidated him about Tyson. We told him he was bigger than Tyson, stronger, and he was seven years younger. We used every angle to reassure him. I was like a broken record. We made him listen to positive affirmation tapes."
But as well as all the psychological gimmicks, God is important to McBride.
"I don't go to mass every week, but I go as often as I can. And every night before I go to bed, I kneel down – I'm a tall man, you know – to put my shoes under the bed and I say a few prayers. And when I get up again in the morning, I kneel down to get the shoes and I say a few more."
Regardless of whether McBride ever beats an opponent of similar stature to Tyson, he'll at least be in a position to make some money now that he's famous. And he'll be remembered for his warm, generous character.
"He's a gentle giant. He actually thanked Mike Tyson when they got in the ring," says Pascal Collins. "He wasn't being smart. He was just grateful to have another pay day."p