Tyrone McKenna v Lewis Crocker (SSE Arena, Saturday, live on DAZN)
Big fights and big occasions are nothing new to Tyrone McKenna. ‘The Mighty’ Celt’ has experienced domestic derbies and has clashed with the best of the 140lb division including current world champion Regis Prograis and Jack Catterall - the man who could and should have got the nod against then-undisputed champion Josh Taylor.
But this one feels a little different. Although Saturday’s meeting with Lewis Crocker is not the main attraction, for many of this attending and tuning in on DAZN, it has gripped the imagination.
It is certainly the biggest Belfast derby since the late Hugh Russell and Davy Larmour battled twice in the early ‘80s and with that brings an added edge.
Career progression is the main priority for the victor on Saturday, but so is local pride and McKenna feels his past experiences of such meetings will stand to him when the opening bell rings.
“I don’t feel the pressure,” the West Belfast southpaw insists.
“I fought Anto Upton from Belfast, fought other Irish fighters in Darragh Foley, Sean Creagh, Jake Hanney and was supposed to fight Phil Sutcliffe, so I’m well used to this.
“I’ve also fought some of the best like Prograis, Ohara Davies and Jack Catterall, so I’ve been in massive fights. He hasn’t, so it’s all new to him and I don’t know how he will take it. Will he crumble under the pressure?
“Going out in front of 10,000 people will be another new experience for him. This is his first real test. We don’t know how good Lewis is as he has never fought anyone.
“He doesn’t know if he can take a big shot or what he is going to do when it gets into the trenches. You can train and spar all you want for this, but when you get into the centre of the ring with eight-ounce gloves on in front of a massive crowd, how are you going to react? We don’t know what way Lewis is going to take it, whereas I’m tried and tested in big fights. When it gets tough, I grit my teeth and go for it. Maybe he will rise to the occasion, but we know I will.”
Those defeats to Catterall and Davies came in tight decisions, whilst he was stopped on a cut against now WBC champion Prograis - albeit being well behind on the cards.
He has also been down before, but never knocked out and indeed, his win over Jose Felix - the man whom stoped Gary Cully in Dublin in May - saw him rise from the canvas after he has previously dropped the Mexican - proof he took carries enough pop in his shots.
The suggestion is that Saturday is simply a case of the powerful Crocker facing a warhorse in McKenna, but the West Belfast man believes he has been in with more powerful and has questioned whether the Sandy Row man will be able to stay with him when he takes his best and responds with fire.
“People are saying Lewis Crocker hits too hard for me,” he acknowledged.
“I’ve been in with some of the hardest punchers in the world and never been knocked out. I’ve been knocked down, but I’ve always got up as I’ve never been dramatically hurt.
“To have been in with those big punchers and not been stopped, then people saying Lewis Crocker will stop me is absurd. If that’s what he is basing it (confidence) on, he will need a new game-plan.
“I hear things like ‘Tyrone is a powder puncher’ but I know I can hit hard. But it’s not that: It will be the pace I set, bringing him into a fight he’s never been in before will be his problem. I don’t know if he’s ready for that.”
McKenna was due to face Italy’s Nicholas Esposito for the vacant IBO belt in September, but the entire card was scrapped by the Boxing Union of Ireland.
Although greatly disappointed, there was an upside as he went straight into this camp in good shape and that allowed him more time to work on boxing rather than fitness.
That engine will be a key to victory, he predicts, but so too will his knowhow of the big occasion and being centre stage on a night when the lights will shine brighter on both men.
Of course, he hods the advantages in terms of height and reach, but standing and boxing his way through a fight has never felt natural to him and he insists it will be another night of blood and guts, a test of who wants it more.
“Even if I wanted to double-bluff (and box), it never happens,” he said with a chuckle.
“With me it’s going to be a war, standing in the centre of the ring and trading leather, so this will be no different. This is the best I’ve felt in terms of fitness and engine, so I may as well use it.”
The mind games are certainly well underway and 33-year-old McKenna knows what the days and hours ahead of the opening bell can bring.
He is someone who enjoys the big build-up and is not shy when it comes to the verbals, suggesting he has already got to his city rival.
But that all goes out the window once the bell rings and in the end, the prize for the winner will be a huge step forward and although McKenna insists Crocker would not represent the best win of his career, acknowledges just what it would mean.
“I think I’ve beaten better than him,” he stressed.
“Because this is Belfast versus Belfast, it’s a huge fight with a lot of pride at stake and pressure, so it will mean a lot to get this win as it sets me up for massive fights. I haven’t fought in year and a half so I have to build the momentum again and remind people why they come to a Tyrone McKenna fight.”