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Mind Over Matter: The Story Of Duke McKenzie MBE

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Throughout British boxing history, there have been many fighters who have been labelled as legends, it is a word that gets thrown around ever so quickly in the social media generation, but what is the definition of a legend in boxing? Is it the titles they've won or the fighters they shared the ring with? The list is subjective, the debates are endless, but one man that certainly deserves the title of a British boxing legend is the three-weight world champion, Duke McKenzie MBE.

As one of seven siblings growing up in a household ruled by fear, Duke followed his brothers Clinton, Winston, and Dudley into boxing at the age of 13, and did his first sessions at the Sir Philip Game ABC Croydon.

"My dad never boxed at all and as a child, he actually discouraged me to go to the gym, so I had to sneak out! I got to the stage where I just wanted it, real bad. Lots of kids around me kept getting in trouble and I didn't want to go down that route."

His brother Clinton went on to turn pro and won the British, European and Commonwealth titles, so Winston, Dudley, and Duke had a tough act to follow.

Dudley was an outstanding amateur, winning an unprecedented eight national championships.

Duke said: "He was the one who got me into boxing. He used to ask me to do a few rounds. I got fed up with getting bashed, so I took it up.

It was not until he left Croydon for the Battersea Amateur Club that his career started to take shape.

"I've got an abysmal amateur record, probably the worst of any world champion, because at that point I didn't have the dedication."

"The professional ranks suited me better than the amateur ranks where my style was a little bit slow. To my amazement when I turned pro I actually started knocking people out."

Manager, Micky Duff signed Duke as a professional into his stable which also featured the former WBC super featherweight champion Cornelius Boza-Edwards. In 1983, Duke McKenzie, Micky Duff, trainer Colin Smith, and Cornelius Boza-Edwards went on a tour of America where Duke would gain some invaluable experience

“I had to beg Mickey Duff to manage me because he didn’t want to initially. He got me the fights. He was the master matchmaker.”

We just clicked straight away and I boxed everywhere Vegas, Los Angeles, Reno, and Mexico. At 21, I was fighting all these Hispanic guys and I really believed I had arrived."

Mickey Duffy & Duke McKenzie

Duke returned to the UK to fight for the British Flyweight title in his thirteenth fight against Danny Flynn in what was the first real acid test of his career.

“The fight against Danny Flynn was my first real test to gauge myself, as to where I was at, I’d been travelling quite a lot and was really well prepared for this fight.

"When I was in the USA, we were over at Johnny Tocco’s gym and there was Hector Camacho training. He’d come in, do a three or four-hour slot, and then disappear. Then Boza Edwards would train after that. Boza would walk out, and Edwin Rosario would come in, go out, and then Livingstone Bramble, Evander Holyfield, you name it.

McKenzie would go on to drop Flynn six times before the fight was stopped in the fourth round resulting in McKenzie picking up his first professional title.

Three fights down the line, McKenzie took on European flyweight champion “Champagne” Charlie Magri. McKenzie was also putting his British strap on the line against Magri, a former WBC flyweight champion.

“Charlie was the darling of British boxing at that period of time. I’d been written off by the press for being too young, naive, and not really ready. Again, I had to lean on my experience I had gained in America. I had sparred this guy called Juan Muriel from Puerto Rico, and he mimicked Charlie’s style really well, but he was much bigger and stronger than what I was used to, and there were days where he would just bash me around the ring, but the more time I spent in there with him, the more I was able to adapt, it was the perfect preparation ahead of the fight with Magri”

“That fight was a case of one fighter who was on the way up and one that was on the way down, Micky Duff’s matchmaking skills were genius”

McKenzie would go on to beat Magri after he retired in the fifth round, making him both British and European champion.

“Initially I didn’t dream of becoming a world champion but instead I dreamt about following my older brother Clinton and becoming British champion, and when I did that, I was more than satisfied. But when you win the British, you get an automatic European rating, and then when you win the European title, you get an automatic world rating, and then it all goes from there”.

It was not long before the unbeaten Croydon fighter won his first world title in October 1988, when late on in his 22nd fight he knocked out Rolando Bohol for the IBF World Flyweight title.

But McKenzie lost his belt on points in a gruelling Wembley clash with Irishman Dave McAuley on June 7, 1989, in what was a huge learning curve for him when it came down to making weight.

McAuley at the time held a record of 12-2-2 and had been on the deck seventeen times throughout his career, something which was taken for granted by Duke going into that fight.

“I thought I’d beat him because he couldn’t take a shot, but it was me that was there for the taking. I had a horrific time trying to make weight. I failed on the first attempt on the morning of the fight and had to go into a boiler room in Leicester Square, where the weigh-in was, and it took me over an hour to skip the weight off. I was drained. When I got on the scales Mickey Duff said, ‘Fuck me, lad. You look like a black pair of braces.’

“I thought McCauley would have the same problems in making weight because he was the same height and would fade at the halfway mark”

Ultimately it was not meant to be on that night and the effects of making the weight took their toll on Duke as he was beaten via a unanimous decision and lost his world title in the process.

“After the McAuley fight, I stayed up all night eating. It is a luxury for me to go to bed with a Ribena and a Mars bar. "

Following the loss to McCauley, the decision to move in weight was inevitable, but Duke didn’t just jump up one weight, he jumped up two weights to the bantamweight division

"To my amazement when I moved up to Bantamweight, not only was I strong enough to fight and compete against some of the World's top fighters, but I could eat and drink what I wanted."

Following two victories, McKenzie would challenge for the vacant European title in France against hometown favourite Thierry Jacob, a fight that to this day he believes was the making of his career

A career defining night against Thierry Jacob

“It was the toughest fight of my whole career, Jacob did things to me inside the ring that I could only dream about. Whenever I wanted to fight, he’d box and vice versa. He kept switching tactics on me. I learned more against Jacob than I did in my previous twenty-six fights. The tactics he used to beat me I adopted in every other fight I had thereafter”

McKenzie lost a unanimous decision to Jacob that night, whilst the Frenchman would go on to defeat Daniel Zaragoza to be crowned the WBC Super Bantamweight champion only eighteen months later.

Canizales vs McKenzie - The Ring Magazine

In 1991, Duke saw an unbeaten Gaby Canizales lift the Bantamweight title on television and immediately phoned Micky Duff to arrange the fight because he felt his own style was suited to beating the champion. At the weigh-in, legendary trainer Emmanuel Steward told Duke he stood no chance against his young champion, but Duke outsmarted and outboxed Canizales in Southwark to lift the WBO title on points in front of a worldwide television audience.

"After the Jacob fight, I realised I would never have a harder fight. And against Canizales, I won every round. I don't think I ever boxed as maturely as that night, I had to pace the fight so well."

After two defences and in a shock upset Duke was knocked out in the first round by Puerto Rican Rafael del Valle (12-0) but insisted that it was an illness that hampered his preparations for the fight leaving him physically and mentally drained.

“I had a bad cold about ten days before and asked Mickey to pull me out of the fight, but he reassured me this was a walk in the park. Basically, Del Valle came over and helped himself, and I got annihilated in the first round. That was it. The championship was gone.”

Following the loss to Del Valle, he made the decision to move up to Super Bantamweight, and in October 1992 won his third world title on points against another Emmanuel Steward trained fighter in Jesse Benavides.

"I beat Benavides on points when not a lot of people expected me too. I think that he had expected to come over and knock me out, but after the first few rounds, I knew that I could take his punching power. The fight was messy and as the rounds went on I could feel him tiring and that set me up really, I went on and became an unprecedented three-time World Champion."

At the time McKenzie was the first and only British or European fighter to do so and joined twenty-four other fighters which included Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, and Tommy Hearns

"I was so honoured to be mentioned in the same breath as those guys. That brought home to me what I had achieved."

In his first defence of the title, however, McKenzie would go on to lose to Daniel Jimenez on a controversial point’s decision.

Duke made the attempt for a record fourth world title at different weights by moving up another division, but he lost his only featherweight world title fight against Steve Robinson in Cardiff.

In his very next fight, Duke travelled back to France to take on the European champion Medhi Labdouni in an attempt to capture that record fourth title in as many weights, however, the decision would go against him that night, and it is the one fight out of his whole professional career that he felt was the worst night he had experienced.

“If you look back at that fight you can clearly see that I had done more than enough to walk away with the win, but it was that aged old problem of having the odds stacked against being in his home town and him being the champion.

When you ask me what my worst night in boxing was for me it was this fight against Labdouni, not because I lost but because I know deep down that I won”

Duke would go on to continue his professional career until 1998 before making the decision to hang up the gloves, when reflecting on his career and what he had achieved Duke said;

“How could I say I didn’t have a successful career, or I’m ungrateful, or I didn’t achieve what I wanted? It’s impossible for me to say that. I’m five-feet-seven, I’m black, I’m from Croydon, I never achieved anything as an amateur. To go on to say I’ve been a two-time British champion, a European champion and three-weight world champion is crazy.”

"All boxers in their career want longevity and they want to be remembered as being an outstanding fighter. I feel I have had that, and I'm proud of it."

In 2011, Duke McKenzie was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in the Queen's Birthday Honours List for his services to boxing in the London Borough, in a moment he recalls as one of his greatest

"To get that news that I was going to be awarded an MBE was one of the greatest moments of my life

it is up there with the best of them, the birth of my children and winning world titles"

Over the course of his professional career and following retirement Duke would be a regular pundit for the likes of Sky, BBC & ITV and has provided what we would call his “unbiased opinion” and would go on to say

“I have been around the sport long enough to know it inside out and I love to talk so when I go on the TV I like to think I provide my honest and unbiased opinion. People can smell bullshit a mile off, and if people think all you’re going to do is favour certain fighters or promoters then you are not going to get the work.

Duke would credit notable names such as Harry Carpenter, John Rawling & Paul Dempsey as a few of the most enjoyable names in punditry he has worked with over the years but one name that sticks out to many most recently is the stint with former world champion Prince Naseem Hamed who would go on to have an incredible moment when covering the George Groves vs. Chris Eubank Jr fight back in 2018.

McKenzie with Naseem Hamed & Mark Pougatch

“Naseem just speaks his mind, he speaks from the heart and just let's rip, when working with him it’s like good cop bad cop and when he let rip on Eubank Jr it had nothing to do with the incident between Naseem Hamed and Chris Eubank Sr in the late 1990s, Nas just said what he felt off that back of the performance he had witnessed”

In February this year, Duke made the grand opening of his new gym aptly named “Duke Box Gym”, but not a month later the UK was put into lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic that has swept the world, and Duke spoke about the impact that this has had on his business

“Like many other business owners the impact that it has had has been profound and the true effects of this are really yet to be known, however, I had a good client base that came over with me from my old place in Crystal Palace and I expect that after this is all said and done I expect people will be back to enjoy the experience of boxing more than ever”

The story of Duke McKenzie is a rollercoaster of emotions, and there are many tales that could have been retold, but the premise of this story is to highlight the fact that when the word "legend" is used when describing a British boxer, it can not be used lightly and in the case of the three-weight world champion who features in many top ten British boxing lists the word "legend" is a truly apt description of a very humble and caring man that lit up the British boxing scene throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

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