BERKELEY – Paul Kenny has it going on – even at the age of 15.
There’s a clothing line. There was a stellar wrestling career at the Central Regional Middle School. A career at Christian Brothers Academy in the Lincroft section of Middletown Township awaits. His name is on the lips of Rutgers University and Penn State University.
And he has become a leading internationalist.
All he did was win the 48 kilograms title at the 2023 U17 World Championships in Istanbul, Turkey. If Kenny opted to compete in the U15 Division, he would have had to settle for a title in the Pan American Games. The 5-foot-2 Kenny has put opponents to the mat in numerous states, including Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Using athletic ability, smarts and determination as his passports, Kenny emerged successful in his maiden voyage overseas.
Competing on the first day of the men’s freestyle finals, he bested 2022 U15 Asian champion Yamato Furusawa of Japan. Kenny won by a 1-1 criteria decision. Neither wrestler scored a point with technique with both points coming from the athletes being unable to score on the shot clock. Kenny was put on the shot clock in the first period with his adversary leading 1-0 after the 30-second activity period. Furusawa was put on the shot clock in the second period with the point going to Kenny after the activity period. Furusawa could not score late and Kenny won the tiebreaker by scoring the final point.
Kenny was rolled with 0.4 seconds left in the bout. The match was stopped with 0.1 remaining. Kenny was awarded two points for holding his adversary on his back in the 105.6-pound weight class.
“It feels great,” Kenny said. “It’s a dream come true. I was real excited when I won. My family was going crazy. I was relieved, happy. I was so excited. My whole country was behind me. I had a lot of support. I got it done. Being a world champion is special. I am the best in the world right now. It’s crazy.”
Kenny said he expected tough competition in the championship match.
“My mental approach was to stay calm as I knew it would be a dog fight,” he said. “I knew he would come forward for the whole time and he did. The match was really boring. There was a lot of action, but there was a low score. My friend wrestled him in the semifinals and told me he was strong.”
“My whole country was watching me on FloWrestling and via streaming services. I did not get nervous. I knew I had to go in with my ‘A’ game and wrestle my best in the biggest tournament of my career.”
Kenny resorted to listening to what he termed “chill music” to keep his emotions in check during the bout.
“I kept my head straight,” he said. “I stayed calm and mellow. I did not really get crazy. I did not think of the worst that could happen. I thought of the best that could happen. I believe in myself. I know how good I am. This is not the end.”
Next stop for Kenny is the Super 32 Tournament at either 106 or 113 pounds in October in North Carolina.
“I want to keep succeeding and get better so that I can do good at the high levels,” Kenny said. “I thrive on doing good. I want to do more.”
There were four other Kenny victims.
There was Poland’s Oliwier Orzechowski, an 11-0 victim. There was Turkmenistan’s Azymberdi Ashyrgulyter, a 4-2 victim. There was Kazakhstan’s Yeraly Zhetpissov, a victim in 3:38. And there was Iran’s Sam Reza, an 8-8 victim on criteria. Last year’s silver medalist, who was on Kenny’s side of the bracket, lost early in this year’s tournament.
“I am always confident, very confident when I go into a tournament,” Kenny said. “I believe in myself and in my training. I was coached by the best. I trained with the best. I knew I was prepared.”
Kenny wrestled five matches over two days. He competed in four matches on the first day of the tournament.
“I had a lot of time to recover and make my body better,” he said. “I was a little sore when I woke up on the second day. My shoulders and legs for the most part were sore. Making weight was not extremely hard. I dug deep and found ways to win. There were a lot of tough matches. The kids from the foreign nations are different to wrestle. They don’t feel like Americans at all. Their hips are far back in their stances so it is harder to get to their legs.
“A lot are tall and skinny and long. They don’t look strong, but they are strong. In some positions like over under and throw they are more explosive and better than us Americans. I didn’t have to change my strategy because of my opponents.”
Kenny and his buddies flew from Newark to Germany to Turkey in approximately nine hours. They were delayed for about 90 minutes in Chicago on the flight home.
“Losing our bags on the way to Turkey was really bad as they were lost for two days,” Kenny said. “The difference in time zones was not terrible. After we lost our bags, the whole team had to borrow clothes to work out in. It was not a good situation. I was shocked. I did not know what to do. I borrowed the clothes of a teammate who did not check his bag. We woke up early in the morning to practice and to get used to the times we were to compete. I wanted to take a nap so bad, but I couldn’t. If I did, I would have been up all night.”
Despite the adversity, Kenny enjoyed the experience.
“It was amazing,” he said. “A lot of foreigners took pictures of me after I won. It was pretty cool. I love this team so much. It was great. Words can’t describe how great it was – and obviously winning.”
Kenny and his traveling party of his uncle, Ray Kenny, and teammate Zack Ryder, third at 80 kilograms, were in Turkey for six days. A GoFundMe page raised nearly $10,000 for the trip. Kenny’s family members who attended the tournament were his dad, Paul Kenny; brother, Sean Kenny, and grandmother, Kathleen Kenny.
Welcome Home Paul Kenny Night filled the streets of Berkeley Township. There was a parade of first responders, organized by an aunt, Jenny Kenny-Figueroa. Despite heavy rain, spectators turned out, lining streets while waiting to catch a glimpse of their idol from their motor vehicles. Some stood outside in the rain.
“I was surprised at the parade,” Kenny said. “I had no idea it was happening. I was happy to see that the whole town was behind me.”
“Our world champ is coming home tomorrow!,” Kenny-Figueroa said on social media. “He will be getting escorted by police and fire trucks to our house. We STRONGLY ENCOURAGE decorating cars, signs, lights, sparkles and American flags to show this young man how proud we are of him. We know this is a big ask, but this will mean the world to us and will be something he will NEVER FORGET! Let’s not forget he put BAYVILLE on the map. We’d love for everyone to show their support, welcoming him back home.”
A reception in Kenny’s honor took place at the home of Kathleen Kenny. Admirers dined on light refreshments. Several hours before his arrival, fans and relatives ages 2-12 waving American flags chanted, “P.K. P.K,” as they stood on the front lawn. An uncle, Dennis Kenny, arrived on the scene, hoisting a sign containing a picture of Kenny and drawing cheers in front of the home, decorated in support of Kenny and the United States of America.
The family’s pet, Honey, an old English bulldog weighing nearly 80 pounds, greeted fans at the home. Neighbors decorated their homes.
“I was excited and shocked, too, to see my family at the house,” Kenny said. “There was a tornado warning and still there were a lot of people at the house. They care about me.”
“I am very proud of him,” said his sister, Kailyn Kenny, one of the flag wavers. “He used to tackle me in the front room when he wrestled me. He is so exhausted from practicing wrestling. I am very, very proud of him. He worked really hard – from six in the morning until 10 at night. He went to Colorado (to the United States Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs) three times to train. He’s been wrestling since he was five years old.”
Another admirer is a cousin, Eddie Figueroa, 12. He’s a member of the Elite Wrestling Club in Jackson.
“Paul put a lot of time, dedication and effort in from early in the morning until early in the night,” he said. “Paul is very athletic. He does splits that I could never do. He is never out of energy. That is why he kept on going on in that scramble. He took a lot of private lessons and practiced. I am not real surprised he did so well as he puts in so much time and dedication to all he does. He loves the sport so much – more than a lot of kids.
“A lot of people play video games for fun. His hobby is wrestling. His sport is wrestling.”
There was a time when Kenny played baseball.
“He competed in it, but he did not attend the practices as he wrestled,” said Eddie Figueroa, a student at the Berkeley Township Elementary School. “He skipped the birthday party of his brother, Sean, so that he could make weight to compete in Turkey. I don’t think there was a day this summer when he did not practice. “
Noting his cousin represented Team USA and Team New Jersey, Eddie Figueroa said Kenny is the product of numerous coaches. He enjoys the support of the Scarlet Knights Wrestling Club and Triumph Wrestling. Every coach who helped him really helped him and it ended up paying off.
In a burst of admiration, Eddie Figueroa said, “My uncle, Ray Kenny, has trained Paul since he was five years old – Day One.”
Eddie Figueroa and others watched Kenny’s ascent to the top of the world on FloWrestling at 11 a.m. on a recent Saturday at Seaside Park’s Seaside Eatery, owned by family members.
“When Paul won, so many thoughts were in my head,” he said. “Everyone popped out of their seats and started crying. They were so happy for him. I sat there and definitely got teary eyed. I felt he was going to win. Because of the dedication and work he put in, he got to run around the mat with an American flag. It was crazy. My own cousin got the opportunity to be the best. He put Berkeley on the map. Paul is the first New Jersey wrestler to win a world title in his weight class.”
Bridget Moore, a cousin of the champ, praised his work ethic.
“He’s the hardest working kid I have ever seen,” she said. “So dedicated. Since he was a little boy, he was doing wrestling moves on the kitchen floor. His family’s garage was converted into a wrestling room. The Kenny kids are destined to be wrestlers. They just wrestle. It is just what they do.”
Kenny’s grandfather, Paul Kenny, died at the age of 72 last September. Kenny-Figueroa purchased a dog tag containing the face of Kenny’s grandfather. Kenny kept the tag in his bag throughout the tournament.
“He’s the reason I went out there and tried my best,” Kenny said. “I wanted to win this for him. I know he is really proud of me right now.”
“He was Paul’s biggest fan,” said Kenny-Figueroa, choking back tears. “This would have been crazy for him. He was Paul’s biggest cheerleader. Paul was his grandfather’s first grandchild and his grandfather saw so much. He would have been so happy. He was a sports fan in general. Even though my dad is not here, he is still absolutely around everybody.”
Despite social media, Kenny-Figueroa kept the parade and reception as surprises.
“I feel we are such a small town,” she said. “We all grew up together. We still live with each other. Paul set a goal and he achieved it. It is such a really great lesson. If you set a goal and work hard at it, you can achieve anything. Paul put in the hard work and dedication. He is humble. He worked really, really hard at it – that is why he is a world champion.”
Mom Petrina Kenny said, “He is very dedicated as an athlete. Great person. Humble. Very humble. Big hearted. Very family oriented as you can see. Great brother. Great son. Great student. Respectful. Never had problems with him. Hope it stays that way.”
Petrina Kenny said she streamed the championship match online.
“When he won, it was an overwhelming, emotional experience,” she said. “When he won it, I cried. To me, he is just my kid. I don’t think of him in any other way … just Paulie. All of his hard work paid off. For him to get there, he had to beat the best of the best. When he really wants something, he gets determined. He works out. He cuts weight. Even on holiday breaks, he works out. He competes all year round. He deserves it. He earned it.
“Paul is very strong. Naturally strong. When he tries something he likes, he is successful at it. He loves the one on one competitiveness of wrestling. Paul and his teammates support each other. They were crying when he won. Adults can learn from children. Adults get so jealous. Kids congratulated me when he won. His teammates and friends look at it as if they all won. Paul began competing at the age of five. He was pretty good at it back then. That is why he stuck with it.”
The fifth-seeded Kenny earned his trip to Turkey with two wins over second-seeded Gary Burnett of Ohio at the U17 World Team Trials, a men’s freestyle event at the South Point Arena in Las Vegas. It was six opponents up and six opponents down–a 4-3 semifinals victim was top-seeded Domenic Munaretto, the 2022 U17 World Champion – for Kenny, named the event’s Most Outstanding Wrestler. The tournament featured many of the nation’s best high school wrestlers.
Once upon a time Kenny finished his middle school career as a two-time division, two-time Ocean County and two-time O.C.I.A.L. Tri-County champion, helping his Mike Bischoff-coached Central team to the Blue Division title. He’s a Trinity Award Winner (WOW, Tulsa, Oklahoma Nationals and Reno, Nevada Nationals in the same year). He won the Trinity Award after capturing the Kickoff Classic, the Tulsa Nationals and the Reno World title. He’s a five-time New Jersey state youth champion. He competed on the New Jersey 14U Freestyle and Greco Roman teams that won the first-ever United States National Championships in the same year.
He won the Super 32 Tournament in 2017, 2019 (he was named its Most Outstanding Wrestler) and 2021. He looks forward to a productive career with CBA’s Colts.
“I am getting excited for the big moments,” he said. “I am real excited to wrestle on the high school stage. I can showcase my skills. I really want to win states next year in the spotlight.”