Forgotten Legends: Kennedy McKinney

By: Steve Gallegos

Throughout the 1980’s into the 90’s, the Heavyweight division in boxing still hailed at the top; however in the early 1990’s a string of fresh new talent began to emerge in the lower weight divisions. Some of that talent included fighters like Johnny Tapia, Michael Carbajal, Kevin Kelley, Junior Jones and Orlando Canizales. They were little big men as they were smaller guys who packed a heavyweight punch. There was another member of that elite group that has long since been forgotten. He was former two-time super bantamweight champion, Kennedy KingMcKinney.

A very exiciting, hard hitting fighter with a iron will and chin, McKinney put the super bantamweight division on notice in the 1990’s. McKinney was a very good amateur who competed in many national tournaments. He represented the United States at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea in which he brought back the Gold medal in the bantamweight division. He turned professional in February of 1989 and would go 21-0-1 with 13 KO’s over the next 3 1/2 years. He would get his first crack at a world title when he faced South African Welome Ncita.

They met on 12/02/92 in a very small arena in Tortoli, Sardegna, Italy for the IBF Jr. featherweight championship. The early rounds were a back and forth war waged on the inside. In the middle portion of the fight, McKinney began to find his range with his right hand. He was setting up the right hand with his left jab and hurt Ncita many times in the sixth, seventh and eighth rounds. The pace picked back up in the ninth as both fighters had they’re moments.

In the 10th, Ncita would have his best round as he rocked McKinney and almost had him on the canvas. The 11th round was the best round of the fight as Ncita rocked McKinney with a combination. McKinney was hurt, turned his back and went down. It appeared McKinney had quit; however he got up and took the count. Ncita went in for the kill, landing hard shots to the body and head; however he punched himself out and McKinney once again found his range. Towards the end of the round while against the ropes, McKinney landed a flush right hand that put Ncita down and out. It was a tremendous ending to a great fight and McKinney was now a world champion. He would successfully defend his title five times over the next 15 months, two by KO including a majority decison win over Ncita in a rematch.

On 08/20/94, McKinney traveled to South Africa to defend his title against then unknown South African challenger Vuyani Bungu. It wasn’t McKinney’s night as Bungu controlled the bout with his crisp boxing en route to a convincing 12 round decision in Ring Magazine’s upset of the year. McKinney would take a year off from boxing and returned the in August of 1995 with an eighth round TKO over unbeaten John Lowey to claim the WBU super bantamweight title. This setup a showdown with future Mexican legend Marco Antonio Barrera.

Barrera came into the bout with an outstanding record of 39-0  with 27 KO’s and he successfully defended his super bantamweight title four times. They met on 02/03/96 at the legendary Great Western Forum in Englewood, CA for the WBO super bantamweight title. It would be the first main event on HBO’s legendary Boxing After Dark series. Earlier in the week at a press conference to promote the fight, McKinney got under Barrera’s skin by telling him that he couldn’t beat him and how dare he try to come in and beat him while calling him “Boy”. Barerra got upset and stood up and clocked McKinney with a right hand; therefore it was a very intense atmosphere going into the bout.

It was a pro-Barrera crowd that night and the Forum crowd booed when McKinney was introduced. The first round was all action as both men had their moments. McKinney was successful with his jab and was able to get in a couple of hard right hands. Barrera however was unphased as he landed hard shots of his own to the body and head while taking the round. The second round was more of the same as McKinney was able to weather Barrera’s vicious attack and stuck to his game plan by throwing his jab to set up his terrific right hand and had better success than the previous round.

The third and fourth rounds were much of the same as McKinney controlled the pace with his jab and right hands. He used his longer reach to his advantage by not allowing Barrera to get on the inside and his punch output began to increase. As the bout neared the midway point, McKinney elected to abandon his jab and go toe to toe with Barrera. Both men landed hard shots to the body and head and it was nonstop as the bell sounded to end the sixth. In the eighth, the tide turned in favor of Barerra as he landed a hard combination that put McKinney on the canvas. Barerra, known as being a great finisher went in for the kill landing hard shots and put McKinney on the canvas again. McKinney was able to get up and survive Barrera’s onslaught to make it out of the round.

Barrera continued to pressure McKinney in the ninth and would put Kennedy down again with an accumulation of punches. McKinney showed amazing heart by getting up off the canvas again and make it out of the round. McKinney regained the momentum in the 10th as he was able to land his right hand at will, stunning Barerra and causing him to back up. In the 11th, McKinney re-established his jab and he was able to land a hard flush right hand that buckled Barrera, causing his glove to touch the canvas; therefore it was scored as a knockdown. McKinney had the momentum going into the final round; however McKinney’s corner told him he needed a knockout.

In the early stages of the 12th, Barrera put McKinney down with another quick combination; however McKinney appeared to slip and didn’t feel it was a true knockdown. In either case, it was scored a knockdown. McKinney elected to stand and trade with Barrera, giving it his all. Barrera would put McKinney down with a hard body shot, however referee Pat Russell unusually ruled it a slip. McKinney was hurt and Barrera went in for the kill to put McKinney down with a straight right hand as referee Pat Russel stopped the bout.

Larry Merchant said it best, “A fitting end to a great, great prizefight“. It was a great way for boxing to start off 1996 and it was 1996’s “Fight of the Year”. Despite taking the brutal punishment, McKinney was back in the ring only three months later and won his next two bouts by decision, however the performances were subpar. 14 months after the sensational war with Barerra, McKinney was back in line for another title shot as he went back to South Africa to challenge Vuyani Bungu in a rematch, however he would once again come up short by losing a close 12 round decision. McKinney once again wasted no time and he was back in the ring only a month later as he won a unanimous decison over former world champion Hector Acero-Sanchez. He would win his next fight by TKO to set up another title shot. This time against super bantamweight champion “Poison” Junior Jones.

Jones was on a high as he was coming off of two big wins over Marco Antonio Barrera. He was in the top 10 pound for pound and was confident he was unbeatable at 122 lbs. They met on 12/19/97 at Madison Square Garden, New York City. It was the co-feature on a huge night headlined by “Prince” Naseem Hamed, who was making his American debut against Kevin Kelley. Jones was hoping to land that big money fight against Hamed and was very confident he would overpower McKinney. McKinney appeared to show Jones no respect by turning his back during the referee’s instructions. McKinney also said that Jones had a glass jaw and the fight wouldn’t go eight rounds.

Jones, an excellent boxer with a great jab and controlled the pace of the first two rounds. In the third round, Jones picked up the pace and put McKinney on the canvas with a good combination to the body and head. McKinney got up off the canvas and Jones went in for the kill, hoping to take his man out. In the middle of Jones’ onslaught, McKinney was able to land a hard right hand that buckled Jones towards the end of the round. Jones came out in the fourth, still dazed and winded from punching himself out. McKinney patiently began to stalk Jones, landing right hands at will. Within the last half minute of the round, both men threw right hands, however McKinney’s landed first and it landed hard, putting Jones on the canvas. Junior was able to get up, however he had nothing left and when the referee said fight, Jones then stumbled and fell forward, causing referee Wayne Kelly to stop the fight.

It was a great comeback win for McKinney and he was back on top as he was once again a world champion. “Prince” Naseem Hamed would score an impressive fourth round knockout of his own in the main event. McKinney came into the ring after the fight with his new title belt to congratulate “Naz”, hoping he could get that big money fight. Negotiations began for a mega fight between Hamed and McKinney and it was close to being scheduled for “Halloween” night, 1998 in Atlantic City, however Hamed elected to fight Wayne McCullough instead.

McKinney then decided to move up to featherweight to challenge WBC champion Luisito Espinosa. They met on 11/28/98 in Indio, CA and the winner of this fight was promised to get a shot at “Prince” Hamed. McKinney was coming off an 11 month layoff and the ring rust showed in the ring as he was destroyed in two rounds. It would be the end of Kennedy McKinney’s career near the top. He would go 3-2 from 1999-2003 before retiring with a record of 36-6-1 with 19 KO’s. Today he runs a boxing gym in Olive Branch, MS. He was a hard nose, blood and guts warrior who was right there in front of his opponent for every second of every round. Probably the most successful American super bantamweight of all time and he put the division on the map in the 1990’s. We hope to see him in Canastota someday.

Barrera vs McKinney

 

 

 

 

 

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