Paul McCullagh jr shows boxing is in the blood after emotional night at Ulster Hall

Paul McCullagh jr with his dad, also Paul, after Saturday night's first round stoppage win over Noel Donnelly at the Ulster Hall. Picture by Mark Marlow
Neil Loughran

IT wasn’t hard to see what winning an Ulster elite title meant to every fighter who had their hand raised at the Ulster Hall on Saturday night, but it might just have meant that little bit more to Paul McCullagh jr.

The St John Bosco light-heavyweight stopped Noel Donnelly towards the end of the first round to claim the 81kg crown – 40 years after his great uncle Francie McCullagh did the same, the first of a three in-a-row of light-heavyweight titles for the Immaculata man.

But Saturday night’s victory was tinged with sadness that his grandfather Paul, Francie’s brother, wasn’t there to see him do the business on such a big stage.

Paul McCullagh died while on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje back in October, the 72-year-old trainer’s passing coming as a shock to the boxing community.

His son Paul, a former Irish champion, pro boxer and referee, helps train big-hitting teenager Paul jr at the Bosco - alongside Gerard McCafferty - and there was a tearful embrace between father and son outside the ring.

“It was very emotional,” said McCafferty.

“Even in the changing room, big Paul was very teary, thinking of his da and wishing his da had been there. When Paul junior won, he was just delighted for him.

“In fairness to Paul jr, he was very cool and calm before. He knew what he had to do, he felt this was his time.”

Standing at 6”3 and with dynamite in his fists, McCullagh could be set for a big future in a game that is clearly in his blood.

However, McCafferty admits they are unsure yet whether the 19-year-old will enter next month’s Irish Elite Championships, where reigning champion Joe Ward starts as the overwhelming favourite.

“We’re debating whether to move him into the Irish elites or whether to let him mature a wee bit more. We’ll see,” added McCafferty.

“I take him on the pads in the club and that wee lad just hits very hard. Anybody who’s going to come forward and stand toe to toe with Paul, they’re in for a hard night. The McCullaghs were all renowned for being big punchers and Paul’s no different.

“Over the last three or four months his preparation has been brilliant. He went to America, three fights three wins, went to Spain, two fights two wins. He fought in a couple of other wee tournaments so his preparation was first class.

“Less than two years ago he was 110 kilos. From then he has started upping his training and you can see the difference now.”

McCafferty has fond memories of a teenage Tyson Fury doing a couple of sessions at the Bosco gym, and says there are some things McCullagh can learn from the ‘Gypsy King’ in terms of goal-setting and self belief.

“I watched a few of his spars and, comparing the two of them, Paul shows a lot more promise at 18 years of age – he has a lot more skill, a lot more power. You name it, he’s got it.

“But you can’t forget that Fury’s 6”7, and the one thing he had even then was great willpower and focus. He knew what he wanted to do and he’s done it. That mental attitude is a huge thing in boxing, and that’s what we need now.

“We’ve sat down with Paul and told him he needs to map out his future, where he is now to where he wants to be. If you don’t map it out, you’re never going to get there.

“That’s one thing about Fury, I can remember even then – he was saying ‘I’m going to be world champion’. People were laughing at him, saying he’s a big header, but he’s backed it up.”

JP Hale and Colm Murphy produced the fight of the night at the Ulster Hall on Saturday, and they will do it all again in the Irish U22 Championship final at 56kg on Friday night. Picture by Mark Marlow


THE crowd at the Ulster Hall instinctively rose to its feet as soon as the final bell sounded the end of Saturday night’s thrilling featherweight showdown between JP Hale and Colm Murphy.

Two of the top emerging talents in Ulster boxing served up a fight befitting of the grand old venue, and has already been acclaimed as one of the best amateur bouts it has seen in some time.

And this Friday night they do it all again in another final – this time at the National Stadium in Dublin, the Irish U22 56kg title at stake.

Already it has the makings of an incredible rivalry. Star’s hard-hitting Hale has a box office style, showcased in some fashion during the first round when he dropped Murphy with a stunning right hand over the top.

The St George’s teenager, a Commonwealth Youth Games bronze medallist, was rocked to his socks but got straight back up, surviving another heavy shot to the midriff before the end of the first.

But Murphy’s supreme conditioning is possibly his greatest asset, and he came back into it in a close second before seizing the initiative in the third, landing eye-catching combinations as Hale tired.

The two have sparred countless rounds up at the Ulster High Performance centre in Jordanstown, and the warm exchanges that followed were a clear demonstration of the mutual respect that exists between the pair.

It would be unfair to expect similarly spectacular affair on Friday night and, even though it was Hale who had his hand raised, both will travel to Dublin confident of victory.

Hale knows he has the power to hurt pretty much anybody in that weight class, while Murphy will be wary of getting caught flat footed again, and will fancy himself to outwork his opponent the longer the fight goes on.

Another intriguing bout awaits and, if it’s half as good as last Saturday night, it is the fans at the stadium who will be the winners.

Also back between the ropes on Friday is Jack O’Neill, who defeated Ederney’s Rory Baird in the light-fly final to take his first Ulster Elite title. The Corpus Christi man is up against former 2-0 professional boxer Regan Buckley.

Even though she lost, Caitlin Fryers showed exactly why she is so highly-rated in Abbotstown during her Ulster final fight with Carly McNaul.

Her fleet of foot and clever counters caused plenty of problems for McNaul, but the Commonwealth Games silver medallist just had the edge in strength and experience to get the nod from the judges.

Fryers faces Ryston’s Niamh Early in the 51kg U22 final, while Cavan’s Thomas Maughan is up against Kevin Sheehy (St Francis’s) in the heavyweight decider.

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