Michael McCarthy looks back on the career of Kevin McBride, a boxer that shot to world fame after he knocked out Mike Tyson.
The late 1980’s and early 1990’s was a period of unprecedented success in Irish sport. From 1988 to 1994, the Irish soccer team thrilled the nation by qualifying for, and performing well at, three major tournaments. During the summer of 1992, while the football team failed to make the European Championships in Sweden, the Barcelona Olympics came along to occupy the sporting nation. At the Olympics, the Irish boxing team stole the show. Welterweight Michael Carruth took home Ireland’s first Olympic gold medal in 38 years and Wayne McCullough completed the one-two combination by capturing silver at bantamweight.
Both Carruth and McCullough became instant household names in the aftermath of their Olympic success. “The Pocket Rocket” would go on to enjoy an excellent career in the professional ranks, although Carruth’s professional career never really took off. However, there was also a giant on that Olympic boxing team lurking in the shadow of the medallists, a giant who would go on to make boxing headlines all of his own.
Kevin McBride was born in Clones and had just turned 12 when “The Clones Cyclone”, Barry McGuigan captured the WBA world featherweight title in 1985. If McGuigan became a hero in Ireland, he was something approaching a God in his native Clones. But surprisingly, the young McBride was bitten by the boxing bug 3 years before Clones had a world champion. As a professional boxer, McBride stood at 6’ 6” and weighed north of 250 pounds but as a 9 year old kid with a speech impediment, he first turned to boxing as a means to protect himself from school yard bullies.
Ten years later, the 19 year old would qualify to compete at the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona. Unfortunately, his Olympic dream did not end in glory. McBride was comfortably beaten in his opening bout which left him free to enjoy the remainder of the games.
Whilst McBride was basking in the glow of Barcelona’s Olympic sunshine, some 4,400 miles away the man with whom his career would be inextricably linked was locked up in an Indiana prison cell. It would be impossible to predict at that point how their careers would evolve and how or when their paths would eventually cross.
McBride returned home from the Olympics very much one of the forgotten men of the boxing team. Quite rightly, Carruth and McCullough commanded the headlines. Whilst both medallists would turn professional amidst a blaze of Irish media frenzy, McBride’s professional debut was somewhat lower key. An uninspiring 6 round draw with Gary Charlton at the Broadway Theatre in Barking, east London marked McBride’s first outing in the professional ranks. The unremarkable performance set the tone for a career as a journeyman.
McBride was the quintessential journeyman heavyweight. As children, many of us dream of becoming professional athletes. But we all dream of being superstars, nobody dreams of becoming a journeyman. And yet, few sports would survive without the contributions of those who accept supporting roles. The men and women content to be the bass player in the sporting band, confined to sharing the stage with stars and rarely the focus of attention. But, particularly in boxing, the careers of even the biggest superstar are built on the backs of the journeyman. And occasionally a journeyman can be catapulted into the limelight.
McBride shared the ring with numerous heavyweight contenders including; Axel Schulz, Andrew Golota and Tomasz Adamek. He has also appeared as a supporting attraction on the undercard of notable fights such as Lennox Lewis’ upset loss against Oliver McCall at Wembley Arena in 1994.
His career has seen him grace some of boxing’s most celebrated venues. Ask any aspiring professional boxer where they’d like to fight. The Las Vegas Strip and New York’s Madison Square Garden will most likely be number one and two. McBride has fought at both, as well as appearing at The Point in Dublin, Belfast’s Ulster Hall, the famous York Hall Bethnal Green and Wembley Arena. He has fought in California and Berlin and just about every boxing outpost in between.
In January 2002, a 5th round stoppage defeat at the hands of American prospect DaVarryl Williamson appeared to confirm McBride’s status as a man destined to play out his career in the shadows. However, that defeat marked a turning point. McBride would win his next seven fights, all inside the distance.
After being knocked out by Danny Williams in 2004, Mike Tyson took almost a year out of the ring before deciding to make a comeback. Tyson’s handlers were looking for a marketable but beatable opponent. They knew that McBride, with his Irish background and his recent run of knockout victories, could be sold to the public despite regarding him as an easy opponent for Tyson.
And so it came to pass that the career journeyman McBride found himself sharing top billing with the former champion, the last true superstar of heavyweight boxing, Mike Tyson.
The fight itself was a sad and forgettable affair. Despite his usual pre-fight bravado, Tyson was a sorry shell of his former self, the explosive energy that marked his ascent to stardom had long since dissipated. After 6 uninspiring rounds, the former “Baddest Man on the Planet” had nothing left to give to the fight, or the sport. He quit on his stool and retired from the ring.
McBride was suddenly big news. He appeared on the back pages of newspapers the world over. In Ireland he briefly became a household name, even making an appearance on The Late Late Show. There was even some talk of “The Clones Colossus” challenging for the heavyweight title.
McBride, perhaps understandably, was keen to enjoy his moment in the spotlight. The downside of enjoying his sudden star-status outside the ring was that he failed to capitalise on the momentum gained from beating Tyson.
Despite the fanciful talk of title challenges, McBride would not return to the ring for 10 months after beating Tyson. He won on his return but then lost his next three fights. By that point, his fifteen minutes had expired and McBride found himself back where he had started – a journeyman.
His career began to peter out. Contender Mariusz Wach knocked him out in the 4th round of their 2011 meeting ending McBride’s career in the ring. As a whole, McBride’s career could be compared to the album of a one-hit wonder, generally unremarkable but notable for one hit single. In this case – “I Beat Tyson”
It is easy to sneer at McBride’s claims to have beaten Tyson. The man he beat was clearly not the phenomenon who took the sport by storm almost 20 years earlier. But the fact remains that Tyson’s career was ended that night at the MCI Centre in Washington, D.C.
Tyson belongs in the upper echelon of globally iconic sports-stars along with the likes of Pele, Michael Jordan and Muhammed Ali. When the story is told of Tyson’s boxing career, you can pick and choose your starting point; the first time he laced up the gloves, his first meeting with Cus D’Amato, his amateur career or even his first professional fight.
What you cannot choose is when his career ended. The extraordinary boxing career of Mike Tyson ended that night in Washington and it was Kevin McBride that ended it. Nobody can take that away from McBride. Nobody can airbrush him out of boxing history. Now retired from the ring and raising his young family in the Irish-American neighbourhood of Dorchester Massachusetts, McBride will always have that little piece of boxing history.
Michael McCarthy, Pundit Arena.