Best I Faced: Duke McKenzie
Duke McKenzie wasn’t the most talented fighter in his family, let alone the world. However, he succeeded through hard work and persistence and became one of only three British fighters – sandwiched between Bob Fitzsimmons and, more recently, Ricky Burns – to win world titles in three weight classes.
McKenzie was born on May 5, 1963, the youngest of seven boys and one sister.
“Growing up in 103 Birchanger Road, South Norwood, (South London) was probably some of the happiest times of my life,” McKenzie told RingTV.com, “when you’re in a family who were as close as we are.
“My dad ruled us with fear and discipline. My dad was a typical West Indian: ‘My way or no way.’ He instilled me with certain morals.”
Of his brothers, five boxed. However, things were a little embarrassing for McKenzie as a youngster.
“I couldn’t even beat up my sister,” he said chuckling. “My sister was a black belt in judo.”
Eldest brother Clinton followed a friend Frank Lucas – who later, as a pro, fought Tony Sibson for the British middleweight title – to the gym and things quickly snowballed for the other brothers.
Each had his own success. Clinton boxed at the 1976 Olympics, losing only to Sugar Ray Leonard. Dudley was prolific in the unpaid ranks, winning eight national titles. However, Duke enjoyed none of the notoriety of his siblings.
The youngster wasn’t overly bothered on winning; he just wanted to join in and be a part of what his brothers had started.
When Dudley’s pro career didn’t work out as he’d hoped, he put all his time and energy into Duke. “Dudley was my role model,” he said. “We were more than brothers. If Dudley told me I could beat King Kong or Mike Tyson, I’d have believed him.”
It wasn’t until the tail end of Duke’s amateur career that he was able to win the South East ABA Championship and become London champion. All told, McKenzie had 67 amateur bouts, winning 29.
There was no interest from the major promoters to turn him pro but, like he would show in the ring, he wouldn’t take no for an answer and was very resolute. Finally, Mickey Duff agreed to work with him.
On November 23, 1982, McKenzie turned professional at Wembley Arena, on the same card as future opponent Charlie Magri, a young Frank Bruno and also his elder brother Clinton.
Over the next couple of years, he made his way through the ranks, sometimes appearing in America, all of which was a huge boost to his fledgling career.
On June 5, 1985, McKenzie graduated to domestic level, impressively stopping Danny Flynn in four rounds.
Almost a year later, the younger, fresher McKenzie – who’d prepared in America, with high-class sparring, including shadow-boxing with the late, great Edwin Rosario – relieved former world titlist Magri of his European crown, forcing Magri to retire between rounds midway through the contest. McKenzie openly admits it was a classic case of one fighter on the way up and another on his way down.
McKenzie took his title on the road, retaining it in Italy and winning several non-title bouts before Duff worked out a deal to bring IBF flyweight beltholder Rolando Bohol to London in October 1988.
McKenzie used his skills to frustrate the Filipino before getting the stoppage in the 11th round.
“It was such as surreal feeling for me,” McKenzie explained. “I can remember the emotion going into the fight and certainly after the fight. I had near enough a breakdown because I’d gone from being a nothing and a nobody to being crowned a world champion. I’d been invited to Stringfellow’s (nightclub), Buckingham Palace, on chat shows. You’re living a celebrity lifestyle and I wasn’t ready for it.”
After stopping Tony DeLuca early in his first defense, McKenzie was surprisingly outpointed by Dave McAuley by close but unanimous decision.
“I took McAuley lightly,” he admitted. “That’s a slight on me not him ’cause he prepared for me like that was his last fight. My brother Dudley got married two weeks before and I was his best man in Barbados and it was 90 degrees everyday. I came back a week before the fight and I was a stone overweight, not because I hadn’t been training but because it was so hot and I’d drunk a lot of fluid.
“I’d watched the Hilario Zapata fight and Zapata bounced (McAuley) off the canvas. I didn’t think he had a chin. I thought it was easy work. To my surprise, it wasn’t.
“He had me hurt in the first round and I thought, ‘F**k, the championship’s gone.’ For the next 11 rounds, I thought, ‘If the championship’s going, I’m not getting knocked out,’ and I go into survival mode. He’s lived it, slept it, walked it and talked and walked away with the championship, so I’ve got nothing but admiration for him in that respect.”
After losing his title, McKenzie tried to fight at 115 pounds but still didn’t feel strong, so decided to reinvent himself up at bantamweight. Two comeback wins later and he was matched with Thierry Jacob for the vacant European title.
The French paymasters won the rights to host the fight, so McKenzie traveled across the channel to face the Frenchman in his homeland of Calais.
As the away fighter, McKenzie and his team had to put up with the usual shenanigans, which included being picked up and driven around Calais for four hours at 100 miles-per-hour, even though his hotel was only 15 minutes away, given 3:00 a.m. hoax calls.
McKenzie and his team entered the partisan arena of around 10,000 Jacob fans.
The first half of the fight was fairly even. However, the Frenchman stole a march in the second half of the fight and seemed to have the fight in hand in the championship rounds. McKenzie was on the canvas for the first time in his career late on and had to show considerable resolve to last the course. It would stand him in good stead for the rest of his career.
“At the end of the 11th, after being decked, I got up and went back to my corner and I sat down and I’m ready to jack it in,” he explained. “My head’s gone down and I’m thinking, ‘F**k it; I’m not getting up.’ I had nothing left.
“Mickey Duff lifted my head and said, ‘McKenzie, grit your f**king teeth and show some character. Go back out there and fight. You can win this.’ Denny Mancini gave me a really good pep talk. He kept saying, ‘You can win this,’ whether the fight was lost in their eyes and they knew I’d lost on the scorecards ’cause, bear in mind, I was in his backyard. They gave me the mental strength to get through the next round.
“Mickey Duff said, ‘If you don’t win this round, you’ll be eating dinner by candlelight for the rest of your days. You need to go and fight.’ I lost the 12th round. He was hurting me in the 12th round but I was adamant I wasn’t going down. I managed to survive the last round. I lost a decision.
“That was the first time, after a fight, Mickey Duff sat me down and put his arm around me and spoke to me and said he’d bring me back. I think, on that night, I showed him I had the character to fight hard, to dig in when I had to, not quit when I wanted to and I showed him, in that fight, I could win another world championship. To his credit, he did bring me back. That was the hardest fight I had.”
The fight was a learning curve and, over the next nine months, McKenzie was able to put that experience to good use before facing Gaby Canizales for the American’s WBO bantamweight strap, in what he feels was his best performance of his career.
“I showed what I learned from Jacob against Gabe Canizales when I won the WBO bantamweight championship,” he said proudly. “The same tactics Jacob beat me with, I then used to beat Canizales. I set a really quick pace and, ’cause he couldn’t nail me, I slipped, blocked and, if he hits me with one, I hit him with four. I just outbox him for 12rounds. He never got near me.”
McKenzie won a shut-out decision on all three scorecards.
He turned back two challengers, notably Mexican puncher Cesar Soto, who later won the WBC featherweight strap. In May 1992, McKenzie met unknown Puerto Rican puncher Rafael Del Valle and was stunningly dethroned in 116 seconds.
“It was a surprise to everyone including me,” McKenzie said ruefully. “It just happened. Del Valle had unusually long arms and he throws a straight left and I walk into it and, when I go down, I don’t know where I am.
“For three weeks after that fight, I can’t leave my house. I’m embarrassed to the point I don’t want to see or speak to anybody. There was no stone unturned going into the fight. There’s no excuse.”
With most writing him off, it was surprising when, just five months later, he was matched with WBO junior featherweight kingpin Jesse Benavides. At the time, Benavides was under Emanuel Steward’s tutelage, was well-respected in boxing circles and was expected to put the final nail in the coffin that was seemingly McKenzie’s career.
To his enormous credit, McKenzie whipped himself into fantastic shape and knew he had to win to remain a viable commodity. The two fought on near-even terms for much of the contest that took place at Lewisham Theatre in South London.
“Luck played a massive part in that fight,” he said with a chuckle. “In the 10th round, I throw straight left. I throw a right hook. The right hook just glimpses him but I’m on his toe and he trips over. The referee (Mariano Soto) gives it a 10-8 round. So, in my mind, I’m going, ‘I’m one round up with one round to go. If I win the last round, one of the judges is going to give me this by two rounds. That happens, the other gives it to me by three rounds. The other judge, who probably had my glasses on (laughs) gives it to me by seven rounds.’ I wanted that fight so badly, much more than he did. He underestimated me and that’s what cost him the championship.”
He would lose his title to Daniel Jimenez by majority decision in his next fight. McKenzie then stepped up to featherweight, unsuccessfully challenging Steve Robinson for the WBO title in October of 1994.
McKenzie’s life spiraled out of control. He was going through a divorce and also lost his brother Dudley. At this point, he was destitute and fought sparingly over the next couple of years, finally retiring in 1998, with a record of 39-7, 20 knockouts.
Thankfully, over the subsequent years, McKenzie was able to get back on an even keel.
McKenzie, now 54, married wife Lesley last October and has three children from his first marriage. McKenzie runs the Duke McKenzie Fitness Centre in London and has also helped Mind, a mental health organization for the past 10 years. He remains involved in boxing as a commentator for ITV and was awarded the prestigious MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in 2011. He graciously took time to speak to RingTV.com about the best he fought in 10 key categories.
Thierry Jacob: Thierry Jacob had the best jab. That was actually my best punch, I used to think I could do pretty much anything with it. He matched me in that department and then he ended up out-jabbing me in the fight so it was a real eye-opener for me personally because if I threw one, he threw two, if I threw three he threw four, he always answered me in every department. The jabs were particularly hard punches they were just repetition, one after another, after another.
Orlando Maestre: I boxed a guy called Orlando Maestre in about my 12th fight, over 8 rounds at the Royal Albert Hall, I don’t think I landed a clean punch on him, I never caught him on the chin, I was hitting shoulders. Best defense I’ve ever come across. He had a better defense than most world champions. I think he was a bit of a journeyman, in that he came over here and there was only ever going to be one winner but the amount of punches I threw in the fight, I was probably outpunching him four shots to one. Couldn’t hit him with a bag of sand. Typical Mexican, slipping shots, blocking shots, decent footwork, the way he moved his hips, shoulders and his head, I became very, very frustrated after about four rounds. I was quite fleet footed, I was very fit and young so I could maintain the workrate and pace. I couldn’t quite nail him and became more and more frustrated and Mickey kept saying, ‘Be calm, you’ll catch him in the end.’ but I never did and the end of the fight although I got the victory, I think morally I was quite dejected, ’cause the fight didn’t happen the way I wanted it to work out.
Jesse Benavides: When I fought for my third world championship, he had really quick hands and he had great balance. Benavides was a Kronk fighter, Manny Steward fighter. He was very, very rounded. Very solid jab and speed behind the jab and a thinker like me. I think the difference between me and Benavides on the night was – and what I think got me the victory was – that I just wanted it more than he did. I think he’d seen my career and seen I’d lost the bantamweight championship and for him it was a formality, he was the next big thing in the Kronk. He thought it was going to be a walk in the park. On fight night, he was coasting for a few of the rounds and I could sense that made me up my game and I wasn’t out-jabbing him but I was outworking him. When I look back now and I reflect on that fight, there was a lot going my way.
Jacob: Again, I’d have to go back to Thierry Jacob. That fight was fought at what I can only describe as a frenetic pace. That has to be a fight where really in terms of workrate and movement. He had really, really good feet to go with the hands to go with the stamina. A very, very rounded athlete at that time. He had good footwork, another southpaw, who was able to lose me, if I had him backed up in the corner he’d switch on me and go from left to right, as an evasive move not as a attacking move. It’s a hard move to counteract.
Cesar Soto: Soto was a young hungry fighter. He was starving when I boxed him for the championship. I caught him with some real clean, good solid right hands. I wasn’t a big puncher but I was a solid puncher and I hit him with some solid shots from both hands. Soto was easy to hit and when I look back at that fight had it not been for his chin I’d have probably had him out of there because I hit him quite often, quite cleanly in that fight. I was able to old man him out of the fight. I catch him with a lot of clean shots and he just keeps coming after me and he hounds me and chases me for 12-rounds but he didn’t have the skill factor to beat me. He went to be WBC featherweight champion and boxed Naseem Hamed. And went the distance with Hamed. Hamed was a big puncher and if Hamed couldn’t get him out of there, it’s no surprise I didn’t.
Benavides: He trapped and kidded me. He’d feint with shots, he’d show you a straight right and hit you with a left hand or show you the left and hit you with a right hook, or show you an uppercut and hit you with a straight left. He was quite cute. Again, like I say he’d set traps for you, you had to be on your game all the time. Benavides was the kind of guy who was a good thinker, I could think quick on my feet – which I did in that particular fight – that fight became a battle of wits as well as a battle of attrition. He’d set traps, some I’d walk onto. He caught me with some good right hooks. From a southpaw perspective he’d show me the straight left and snap the right hand back over.
Soto: Head-and-shoulders above everybody else in terms of physical strength. Just never stopped coming. Even when you’d get into clinches, he’d grab hold off you, hold you with one hand and hit you with you with the other hand. Couldn’t push him back. Couldn’t keep him off me. People used to ask me why I run going backwards and I’d say, ‘eight out of 10 guys I ever boxed where physically stronger than me.’ my forte was just being a good all-round boxer. I think what beat him in that fight was he was relatively inexperienced, so his brute strength where he thought he could physically out-muscle me, it wasn’t enough. Had he had eight or 10 more fights it might have been a different story.
Soto: No doubt, physically strong, hit hard, really good hooker but he was easy to read, if he hit you with one hook you knew there was another one coming. He’d always hit you with a double left hook, if he caught you with one to the head, he’d switch it to the body, so you knew it was coming. I learnt from Marvin Hagler, if you don’t want to be hit with bodyshots you wear a big protector. Hagler’s protector was up to his naval [Laughs]. I had a big protector on that night because he threw lots of bodyshots. He gained my respect in the fight and as the fight unfolded, I had to be on point everywhere I went ’cause he’s on me all the time. Some fights you can take a round off, I couldn’t do that in that fight. It was 12-rounds of competitive action.
Jacob: That guy, he punched me from pillar-to-post. It was the kind of fight where for six rounds I was in the fight, he just boxed with me, he wasn’t trying to beat me. We set a really quick pace, in the seventh round he switched tactics and in the seventh he started planting his feet more. He’d look busy doing nothing, he’d look busy all the time. When he went on the attack he’d always plant his feet and sink in two or three hard shots and put his head in, hit me with an elbow, he hit me so many times I know it’s a cliché but I thought I was surrounded. The tactics Jacob used to beat me in our fight, I used in every fight afterwards, setting a quick pace, keeping a tight defense, not trying to knock guys out but throwing lots of shots and just staying busy.
Benavides: Was what I call the perfect pro, good handspeed, good footwork, good chin, good stamina, good record. Everything about that boy was good but again they underestimated me. My mindset was this is my last fight, there won’t be another one after this. My mindset was I’m going to leave it all in the ring. Benavides mindset was I’d come for the paycheck, meaning all he had to do was show up. I was prepared to leave everything in the ring. That was the difference in that fight.
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