Boxing

Barney Eastwood and Dave Boy McAuley pay tribute to the late, great coach Paul McCullagh

Coach Paul McCullagh, who passed away suddenly on October 22, was central to the success of Eastwood's Gym in Belfast throughout the halcyon days of the 1980s. Owner Barney Eastwood and world flyweight champion Dave ‘Boy' McAuley recall a decent man whose work ethic and know-how brought glory to what was then the most successful boxing gym in Europe. Andy Watters writes…

Trainer Paul McCullagh pictured outside Eastwoods Gym. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Andy Watters

THE Belfast boxing family united in grief after news filtered home that Paul McCullagh had died suddenly while on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje on October 22nd.

A boxing man to the core, he came from a family steeped in the best traditions of the noble art and graduated from door man to coach at Barney Eastwood’s world famous Castle Street gym. 

His father Francis ‘Keeler’ McCullagh was a renowned fighter and his brother Fra went unbeaten as a light-heavyweight in the early 1980s. 

Today Paul McCullagh jnr carries on the family tradition as a respected referee and his son Paul is an emerging heavyweight at Belfast's St John Bosco ABC.

Paul senior’s involvement with Eastwood’s Gym began when he took a job as a doorman at the Eastwood Bookmakers shop in Castle Street. 

He already had a keen interest in the sport and was soon drawn to the bam-bam-bam-bam of gloves hitting pads in the gym upstairs.

Training Dave 'Boy' McAuley

Before long he was soaking up training techniques from the coaches and fighters who converged there from around the world and before long he was in the gym more than the bookies, preparing Dave ‘Boy’ McAuley to dethrone champion Duke McKenzie and win the IBF flyweight title in 1989.

McAuley, who made five dramatic defences of the belt over the next two years, will be one of many familiar faces from the world of boxing at McCullagh’s graveside at Milltown Cemetery on Thursday.

“Paul played a big part in me becoming a world champion,” said the Larne native.

“At the start he was there with Bernardo Checa and then John Breen came in. 

“Paul was a very good trainer who took no nonsense and he was a guy that I had a lot of time for.

“He got you very fit for every fight and he was very knowledgeable. 

“In the gym in the afternoon he would have busted your ass. 

“Sometimes you can take your foot off the pedal and take things easy but that guy didn’t give you a minute’s rest – we arrived in the gym at 12pm and left at half-four and those were four and-a-half hours of intense training.

He pushed you to the limits

“I was involved in a lot of tough fights and you needed loads of reserves to get through them so if it hadn’t been for Paul pushing me so hard I wouldn’t have got through them. 

“There were things you had to do and he made you do them, he pushed you to the limits, which is the only way to do it, it’s the only way to get fit for a fight.

“You need somebody to push you to the very last drop and I owe him, Bernardo and John Breen quite a bit.

Barney Eastwood and Dave Boy McAuley have paid tributes to former coach Paul McCullagh

McAuley hung up his gloves in 1992 and since then he had seen his mentor McCullagh occasionally at Belfast fight nights or when the big man dropped into The Halfway House hotel for a chat.

McAuley added: “He’ll be missed, there’s no doubt about that.”

He was a good learner

Barney Eastwood last met Paul and his brother Fra when he invited them along as his guests for a fight night in the Europa Hotel in Belfast in February. 

His association with the McCullagh clan goes back over half-a-century and ‘BJ’ said: “I could only say the highest things about Paul and his family.

“The whole family: his father, his brothers and his son… They were great family to work with.

“It was a tragic end for him. The last time I saw Paul and Fra, I invited them to come to a pro show in the Europa and they came along and enjoyed the night.

“Paul was picking out one of the boxers and going over his faults and he was looking at another guy and pointing out some of the things he was doing well. 

“We were having a yarn about that.”

Boxing doyen Eastwood, the man who managed McAuley and Barry McGuigan to world titles in a golden era for Belfast boxing, recalled a man who soaked up information on his transition from doorman to cornerman.

“He was always interested in the boxing and spent a lot of time in the gym with the pros coming and going,” he said.

“The whole family had a great interest in boxing and his son Paul jnr would have made it as a pro if he had stuck at it.

“Paul was a good listener and he was a good learner and he picked up a lot of things from fighters and trainers we had coming in from all over the world – from Panama, New York and England. 

“He would have taken it all in and he put a lot of it into practice and we had John Breen and Bernardo Checa and originally Eddie Shaw who was a great trainer.

“Through all that Paul became very, very knowledgeable about boxing, he was a great coach and he was close to them all in the gym, particularly Dave Boy.

“In all the big fights he was in a very senior position with Dave, getting him ready and telling him what he would and what he wouldn’t do and all that.”

In boxing, anything less than everything you’ve got just doesn’t do and McCullagh understood that. 

'Everything had to be done correctly'

Eastwood recalls a man who matched his fighters’ commitment, minute for minute and hour for hour.

“He was a serious guy, if he was training a fighter he was training him and everything had to be done correctly,” he said.

“He wouldn’t have taken any oul nonsense – the fighter was there to learn, to be trained and to do his work. And if he wasn’t putting it in Paul would have said: 'There’s no point in me wasting my time’. 

“That was the attitude of the trainers that we had but Paul would have been very, very strict whereas the likes of John Breen would have taken a few excuses.

“Paul would have said: ‘If you want to do it I’ll work with you, if you don’t forget it’. 

“He had the Eddie Shaw mentality, Eddie was like that it was: ‘If you want to drink well go out and drink and don’t come back here’.”

Paul McCullagh will be laid to rest at Milltown Cemetery, Belfast on Thursday after 10am funeral Mass at St Luke’s Church, Twinbrook.

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