Boxing

Wayne McCullough inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame

Wayne McCullough and Naseem Hamed get to grips with each other during their WBO featherweight title clash in Atlantic City
Andy Watters

Wayne McCullough was inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame in Las Vegas last Saturday.

As an amateur, McCullough won silver medal for Ireland at the Barcelona Olympic Games and gold at the Commonwealth Games. As a professional he won the WBC bantamweight title that he’d set his sights on as youngster when he dethroned Yasuei Yakushiji in 1995 in his Japanese backyard and went on to star in some unforgettable scraps with the likes of Erik Morales and Naseem Hamed. Andy Watters spoke with Belfast’s ‘Pocket Rocket’…

“If you look in the dictionary, under 'Tough Irishman', you'll find a picture of Wayne McCullough”

Boxing commentator Larry Merchant

WAYNE McCullough looked like the other skinny little hopefuls when he first followed in the footsteps of older brothers Noel and Alan through the doors of Albert Foundry ABC on the Shankill Road.

He might have looked the same as his mates but his coaches soon realised he had something special. Everybody did.

Blessed with rare balance and natural timing, McCullough threw punches like they are meant to be thrown. He worked on his feet and on his fitness, he skipped rope and shadow boxed and set his mind to conquering the world.

“I was seven years old when I started,” he explained.

“My eldest brother Noel won a trophy and when he brought it home – it was about three inches big – I was like: ‘I want one of them’ so I went down to Albert Foundry.

“Back then I was playing football at school and doing cross-country running and I went to boxing and I thought: ‘Oh…’ It just came naturally to me.

“I went to the gym for about six months and trained. Back then Davy Larmour was in our gym and he used to bring you in and move round the ring with you, it was good. Barry McGuigan used to come up sometimes too.

Wayne McCullough was inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame on Saturday

“I stood at the back of the gym, jumping rope and shadow boxing and just watched. I learned just by watching. After about six months I had my first fight. I fought this guy who’d had a couple of dozen fights and I knocked him out in two rounds.

“I knew I was better at boxing than I was at other sports. I thought: ‘I could do this’ but it wasn’t until I was 15 that I started taking it really seriously and decided I could make a career out of it. I decided I wanted to do it for the rest of my life and my first goal was to win an Olympic medal – of any colour – and then turn pro and be a world champion.

“I was out running in the mornings and my friends thought I was nuts. When I was 15 I told them: ‘I’m going to be WBC world champion, that’s the one I want’.”

Of course he achieved both his goals. There was a silver medal from the 1992 Games and then, in 1995, he stood triumphant in the Aichi Prefectural Gym, Nagoya with the WBC bantamweight belt around his waist.

Over 40 years on from his first night at Albert Foundry, McCullough sat among his peers at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas last Saturday night.

He was part of a star-studded line-up of former world champions that included Leon Spinks, Bernard Hopkins, Mike Spinks, Ronald ‘Winky’ Wright, Floyd Mayweather junior and senior and Joel Casamayor – the man who beat him in the Olympic Games final in 1992.

“The Barcelona Olympics were 27 years ago. I look back on it and think: ‘27 years? Dear Lord!” he says with a laugh.

“I’ve lived in Las Vegas now longer than I lived at home but every time I go back to Belfast I say: ‘I’m going home’ and then when I leave I say: ‘I’m going back home’. Vegas is home from home now.

“To be inducted into the hall of fame in this city, the boxing capital of the world, was great. This city has adopted me, I know a lot of people over here in Nevada and Las Vegas and they welcomed me with open arms from the beginning. To be inducted here is an honour.”

These days McCullough trains fighters, celebrities and ordinary Joes alike at his Pocket Rocket gym in Vegas. One day he’d like to run a stable of Irish fighters in his gym so he can pass on the knowledge he gained throughout a 15-year career that was shaped and moulded by the expert hands of the late great Eddie Futch.

“Back when I was turning pro, there was nothing going on in Belfast,” he explains.

“Barney Eastwood was coming to the end and Frank Warren was just getting started. Mickey Duff wanted to sign me up but there wasn’t much happening and then I got an offer to come to America.

“Two words stood out to me: ‘Eddie’ and ‘Futch’. I couldn’t believe he was willing to take a guy like me on! He was a guy who had trained legends! Leaving Belfast was hard for me – it was really, really hard - and the only thing that kept me over here for the first three years was Eddie.

“He was 82 years old then and he was training Riddick Bowe, heavyweight champion of the world, and Mike McCallum, three-time world champion, was in the gym too.

“Without the training I would have left the next day, I really would. Every day in the gym with him was priceless.”

McCullough dethroned Yasuei Yakushiji in his Japanese backyard in 1995 to win the WBC bantamweight title and knocked out Jose Luis Bueno in Dublin in his first defence. Johnny Bredahl was beaten at the Kings Hall too before the Pocket Rocket made the decision to move up to super-bantam and over the next five years he tangled with boxing’s elite; never once taking a backward step.

There were famous duels with Mexico’s Daniel Zaragoza and Erik Morales and England’s Naseem Hamed at Atlantic City before he switched his attention to featherweight and a crack at Scotland’s Scott Harrison.

He challenged for a second world title six times and lost on points each time. He deserved better, every fight went the distance and instead of taking the belts he sealed a reputation as one of the toughest men on the planet.

He was fearless, relentless, unstoppable and was never put down throughout an illustrious career at elite level that ended in June 2008 when his batteries finally ran out. He retired on his stool six rounds into a fight against Juan Ruiz.

“I’m just a guy who gave it everything,” he says.

“Win or lose, big fights or small fights.”

Now he’s a Hall of Famer too. Not bad for the lad from Albert Foundry.

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