By Jay Mwamba
LAS VEGAS — You have to go back to the heart of Belfast, to an austere Protestant area called Shankill Road, to trace the roots of Wayne McCullough’s toughened soul.
It was a bleak neighborhood 29 years ago when a brickmaker’s wife gave birth to her third son, and almost three decades later, its prospects seem no brighter.
"It was a hard upbringing," McCullough recalled recently from half a world away in Las Vegas.
"They were fighting everyday and there were no jobs or anything. That’s what Shankill’s like."
McCullough would learn to fight too, both literally and figuratively, but for all of Ireland. "I’m Protestant, but when I fight, I fight for everybody. I don’t fight for the Protestants. I just fight for everybody. It doesn’t matter what religion you are or what color you are," he stressed.
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This Friday night, McCullough returns to the ring in Detroit, against Mexican banger Erik Morales in a scheduled 12-round match for the World Boxing Council (WBC) super bantamweight championship and a $275,000 purse.
On a trip to Belfast a few years ago, McCullough went back to Shankill with trainers Eddie Futch and Thell Torrance, two grizzled African Americans with their own inner-city experiences. They were rattled, he said.
Boxing was by no means an escape from the hardscrabble existence for the future world bantamweight champion. He was a reluctant warrior at first, cajoled at age eight to a makeshift gym in a disused indoor army shooting range by his two older brothers, and hating every moment of it.
McCullough preferred cross country, field hockey and soccer, at which he excelled at Spring Hill Primary School.
"Soccer was my number one love then," McCullough remembered. "I was a goalkeeper for the school team up until I was 12. Then I started to play in midfield."
But he was still hanging around the gym and beginning to get into boxing. He’d made his amateur debut at eight and stopped his first opponent in the second round of a 48-pound contest. A three-year hiatus would follow before his next bout.
"I couldn’t box legally until I was 11. That’s when you get your medical book in Ireland," he explained.
The early days
It was the early 80s then, but the Spartan conditions under which McCullough trained and fought at the Albert Foundry Boxing Club were a throwback to the old bare-knuckle days.
"We used to fight without mouthpieces, no headgear and small gloves. There was no electricity in the gym. No heat. In the winter nights, we had a generator providing light, but still no heat.
"Buckets of water would ice up, and you’d put on three or four track suits just to get a sweat. That’s how I trained for the (1988) Olympics, and up until the (1990) Commonwealth Games."
McCullough was 17, a four-time national champion and riding a 14-fight knock out streak when he qualified for the All-Ireland team to the Seoul Olympics. He lost to Canadian Scott Olson in the pre-quarter final round in the light flyweight division. The experience, however, proved invaluable.
"It was good experience because it was my first major international competition."
It would pay off two years later when McCullough, still a light flyweight, struck gold at the Commonwealth Games in New Zealand, the first boxer from Northern Ireland to win a gold medal at the so-called "Club" Games since his hero Barry McGuigan 12 years earlier.
McCullough’s gold medal paid off in other ways, too, back home. "Because I got the gold medal, the government put in electricity and heat at the gym." The year was 1990.
By the time the 1992 Barcelona Olympics came along, McCullough, then under the tutelage of Cuban trainer Nicholas Cruz Hernandez, was a bona fide amateur star. He’d won a bronze medal from the World Cup in India the year before and had been undefeated in Ireland since 1989.
He was 21, going onto 22, with some 200 fights under his belt. By his count, he’d lost no more than 10, including a few bad decisions.
"I had over 100 knock outs, and they say I can’t punch," he quipped, noting the biggest knock against him as a prize-fighter. The Olympics would be his last hurrah in the amateurs. His performance in Barcelona would define his career way into the pro ranks and earn him the moniker "Pocket Rocket."
Throwing punches in bunches, McCullough scrapped his way into the bantamweight final where it took the skills of the future Cuban defector Joel Casamajor to deny him the Olympic gold medal he’d so craved.
Even with Michael Carruth the toast of Irish boxing after his own gold medal victory in the welterweight class, McCullough’s silver consolation was widely applauded. No boxer from the North had won an Olympic silver medal in 40 years.
After Barcelona, the Irish Amateur Boxing Association asked McCullough to stay amateur until the 1996 Games in Altanta. The fighter’s response was an emphatic no. "I was never going to stay amateur for another four years. I was 22 years old and not willing to delay my professional career," he said.
Instead, he signed a professional contract with Denver television executive Matt Tinley who hired the venerable Eddie Futch, regarded as one of boxing’s greatest trainers, to develop Ireland’s next world champion.
McCullough and his fiancee Cheryl, who’d first watched him win the Commonwealth medal on TV and then sent him a fan letter, relocated to Las Vegas.
His pro start was meteoric. He was North American Boxing Federation (NABF) bantamweight champion after 10 fights, and World Boxing Council champion after 17. The latter, after winning a decision Yashuei Yakushiji in Japan on July 30, 1995.
Then the "Pocket Rocket" hit turbulence. Despite two successful defenses of the WBC crown, McCullough was struggling to make the 118-pound weight limit. He decided to relinquish the title altogether and pursue the super bantamweight (122-pound) belt.
He met 38 year-old Mexican Daniel Zaragoza in Boston on January 11, 1997 for the WBC title, but lost a split decision against the cagey veteran. It was his first defeat in the ring in nearly five years.
But even before the loss, Wayne’s world had been far from cordial. Differences with his manager and promoter Matt Tinley had surfaced that would sideline McCullough for 15 months.
"I believe I was treated unfairly," McCullough said, reflecting on the worst period of his career. "I wasted 15 months of my life. It set me back. I could have had four fights."
When the dispute was resolved, his wife Cheryl, whose pugilistic baptism was watching her future husband win Commonwealth gold on the telly, emerged as McCullough’s manager.
She showed as much fight on the business side of the much-maligned sport, as her husband did in the ring, quickly earning a reputation for toughness in Las Vegas, and all the attendant sexist epithets.
"I’m not in the business of managing fighters," Cheryl emphasized. "I’m only in the business of managing Wayne. I won’t continue when he retires."
She’s done a pretty good job so far, for a person whose only previous work experience was as a clerical assistant in a Belfast hospital.
She nailed McCullough’s world featherweight match with Naseem Hamed in October last year for a purse of over $500,000, and negotiated Friday’s clash with Erik Morales for $275,000, minus training expenses.
The fighter himself is pleased as punch with his new manager. "She’s been called the worst name because she’s too smart," McCullough said.
Should McCullough upset Morales on Friday, Cheryl will become one of the most powerful women in professional boxing.