Often forgotten is the Mississippi native's tumultuous rise to the top long before the Barrera fight, which featured about as many well-documented hurdles as is it did highlights.
A ranked player in the amateurs since the mid-80's, McKinney became well-known for his work ethic, and steadily placing in the US Amateur Championships a few years in a row. McKinney then earned the right to represent the US at bantamweight in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, beating future champion Junior Jones in the Olympic box-offs, and avenging previous losses in the qualifiers.
Despite Kennedy winning gold at 119 lbs., much of the talk following the Seoul games centered around Roy Jones Jr.'s highly controversial decision loss to Korean fighter Park Si-Hun. Regardless, McKinney still experienced a period of celebrity status upon arriving home.
Kennedy signed with Top Rank and moved to Las Vegas before turning pro in February 1989. In the first 20 months of his career, McKinney went 5-0-1, but hit the boxing drama trifecta by having his license yanked for failing a drug test, going to rehab and getting arrested and charged with attempted kidnapping.
Avoiding more serious trouble, McKinney continued to fight on the undercards of bigger events and headline smaller shows in Vegas, often fighting while in rehab programs and well above the junior featherweight limit. Still, he stayed busy, compiling a record of 21-0-1 (13) in his first 3 years as a pro, decisioning former super flyweight champ "Sugar Baby" Rojas, and stopping former super bantamweight champ Paul Banke in March of 1992.
Following the win over Banke, McKinney again found himself skipping out on training and staying away from the gym, forcing his trainer Kenny Adams to pull him from his meeting with former super bantam champ Pedro Decima on the undercard of Evander Holyfield vs. Larry Holmes in June 1992.
Shelved for another 6 months, McKinney would take aim at Welcome Ncita's IBF super bantamweight belt and challenge the South African in Sardegna, Italy on December 2, 1992.
Born in East London, Welcome Ncita was reportedly not entirely interested in South Africa's rich fighting history, favoring soccer over boxing as a young man from a poor family.
Ncita was encouraged to focus on the sweet science by his trainer Mzimase Mnguni and father, however, and ended up doing well on the local amateur scene. In March 1984, at 18-years old, Ncita turned pro in Eastern Cape, South Africa, earning a 4-round decision over Vuyani Mngxaso.
Campaigning at flyweight, by his 12th fight, Ncita had captured both the Cape and South African flyweight titles from veritable veterans Frazer Ndzandze and Johannes Joe Miya, respectively.
"The Hawk" stayed local, for the most part, defending the South African flyweight title 3 times and racking up non-title wins over opposition that couldn't deal with his busy style. For his 3 consecutive defenses, Ncita was presented with the coveted "Old Buck" championship belt - a unique belt proposed and designed by the distillers of Old Buck gin in 1977.
Ncita then took his show on the road. Following his third title defense, he fought in Panama, the US and Italy in addition to his native Eastern Cape, going 6-0 with 5 stoppage wins as he rose in weight. The IBF ordered their bantanweight champion Fabrice Benichou to face Ncita after the latter's first 3 wins at 118 lbs., and the South African lifted the title from the Frenchman in Tel Aviv, Israel by way of unanimous decision in March 1990.
Shortly after winning the title, famed trainer Manny Steward briefly took the 24-year old under his wing and brought him to the Kronk Gym in Detroit. Whether his time in Detroit helped much is unclear, as Ncita earned stoppage wins in his first 2 defenses against relatively weak opposition. His third defense in February 1991 against Colombian stylist (and former titlist) Bebis "Sugar Baby" Rojas ended controversially, with Ncita winning a split decision in a fight many felt he lost.
Rojas' team petitioned for an immediate rematch, but Ncita managed to stay busy with a tough decision win in the US over Hurley Snead before his second fight with Rojas in September. Welcome reportedly won more convincingly this time around, defending his title for the 5th time.
His 6th successful defense was a points win over experienced Jesus Salud in Italy, bringing his record to 32-0 (15), setting up a scuffle with rising contender Kennedy McKinney.
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