Boxing

'I booked two flights to come home to see her but they were both cancelled': Paul McCullagh jr pining for home after family heartache

Paul McCullagh jr has had more on his mind than boxing as he waits to make his professional debut after leaving the amateur ranks behind at the turn of the year. Picture by Mark Marlow
Neil Loughran

EVERYWHERE he turns, Paul McCullagh jr sees little glimpses of paradise. Whether it’s the sea and sand that stretches out in the distance, or the imposing mountains heading high towards the heavens, the big-hitting 20-year-old sometimes has to pinch himself as he surveys the beauty that surrounds him.

Yet, while Lanzarote is the place he now calls home, his heart has never yearned more for Belfast. On June 13 the McCullagh family lost one of its pillars when Paul jr’s aunt Lisa died at just 47 after a short battle with cancer.

There have been plenty of times since relocating to the Canaries in January when the going has got tough, but nothing compared with this.

“I booked two flights to come home to see her before she passed but they were both cancelled,” said McCullagh jr, who hasn’t been able to return home as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It was very tough not being able to get to be there for my family. That’s the worst part. It’s not normal to be so far away when something like that happens. I’m still here now, I’m just waiting on flights into Dublin from Lanzarote so I can get back, hopefully in the middle of July.

“It’s been hard being stuck out here the whole time.”

McCullagh jr knew he was taking a leap into the unknown when he decided to turn his back on a promising amateur career to pursue long-held pro ambitions at the start of the year.

Granda Paul was a highly-respected coach during the glorious era at Eastwood’s Gym in the 1980s and ’90s, while his dad – also Paul - quickly established his own credentials in the ring and is now coaching young fighters around his refereeing career.

Boxing is in the blood, but so is family, and the decision to base himself so far away wasn’t an easy one. McCullagh jr lives in an apartment beside the home of coach Jonathan O’Brien, a former Irish middleweight champion, and has been made to feel like a part of their clan.

Yet while he has no regrets about his decision to relocate from Belfast, it has been tougher than anticipated at times for the up-and-coming light-heavyweight.

“I’m here seven months now, and this is the longest I’ve ever been away from home… I didn’t think I was a homesick kind of person. To be honest, some days I’d just be down because I’ve none of my family around me; there’s days you just want your family because I don’t know many people out here.

“You have up days and down days. My coach and his wife and their wee son, they’ve been so nice to me, I couldn’t have asked for better. There’s a few guys I train with in the gym who are nice people, but I only see them during training hours.

“Yes, I’m living the dream to a certain extent but people don’t see the long days when you’ve been in the gym for a couple of hours, doing a six mile mountain run at night time on your own. Your mind starts to play tricks on you. People only see the stuff you want them to see I suppose.

“But this was my decision and I know it was the right one for me. I didn’t think Belfast was the best place for me to turn pro because I wanted to get away from all distractions. My granda always told me if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right so I wanted to go away from home and have a go at it here.

“It’s a different world out here, so relaxed, the sun, it’s a great way of living. I truly believe Belfast wasn’t the place for me to turn pro or to live. I’ve always wanted to move abroad and do something different, something on my own.”

The pandemic has delayed McCullagh jr’s debut, as he had been due to appear on a show at the Europa Hotel on April 24. But he is taking the positives from being forced to play the waiting game, the Dave Coldwell-managed banger instead honing his skills under the eye of O’Brien.

“I was flying, really looking forward to it. I had a load of people getting tickets off me but, to be honest, it was a blessing in disguise because it gave me more time to settle into the pro ranks and work on more things.

“I have a lot of improvements to make and I can feel how far I’ve come already since I’ve been out here. It’s the most dedicated I’ve been, and now I’ve more time to work on things.

“I’m hoping to get out in July but, looking at it realistically, September might be more likely. When the time comes, I can’t wait to get in the ring and show what I can do.”

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COACH Tony Dunlop believes the second half of James Tennyson’s career will far surpass the first – starting in Eddie Hearn’s back garden on August 1.

The Poleglass banger will defend his British title against Welshman Gavin Gwynne in a bout that was originally scheduled for May 9 before falling victim to the Covid 19 pandemic. Instead, it will take place at Matchroom HQ as boxing slowly works its way back after a long lay-off.

It is just over 18 months since Tennyson came up short in his world title challenge against slick American Tevin Farmer, but he has bounced back in hugely impressive fashion with inside-the-distance victories over Garry Neale, Brayan Mairena, Atif Shafiq and Craig Evans.

And, having moved up from super-feather to lightweight, experienced coach Dunlop believes the 26-year-old is headed back towards the top.

“I wasn’t one bit surprised, I knew Tennyson would bounce back. He has a lot left in the tank.

“I had told him the fight before the world title fight to forget about doing junior lightweight, he couldn’t do it no more. He should’ve been lightweight.

“If he’d been comfortable at the weight I’d have been confident he would have beaten Farmer. He was fighting at a weight he shouldn’t have been fighting at. Once he lost to Farmer, he moved up and now he’s just a complete fighter.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if James Tennyson goes on to become champion of the world. The second half of his career is going to be far better than the first half. Physically, he wasn’t that mature after turning pro young, he had the weight problem, now he’ll probably end up at light-welterweight in a year or two.

“Tennyson’s just getting stronger and because he turned pro young and wasn’t burnt out in the amateurs, he’s very fresh and his dedication and his lifestyle mean he’s improving every day.

In the years to come you’re going to see a different guy.”

The fight with Gwynne – whose only defeat came to fellow Welshman Joe Cordina - will throw up a different kind of test, with no crowd there to create any sort of atmosphere at the first of Hearn’s Fight Camp series in August.

Dunlop doesn’t believe the lack of spectators will have any bearing on Tennyson’s approach once the first bell sounds, expecting ‘The Assassin’ to stalk his opponent from the off regardless.

“In Las Vegas, Madison Square Garden, all the young champions coming up end up boxing at five or six in the evening when the arenas are empty. I remember watching Erik Morales in Las Vegas early on and there was nobody in the crowd at all.

“In one of James’s last fights he was on very early and the place was empty. It’s not a bother on him, in all honesty. It’s like a street fight up an alleyway – once the first punch is thrown, nothing else matters.”

Meanwhile, Irish featherweight champion Eric Donovan has landed a huge opportunity as he will also box on an upcoming Fight Camp card.

The 34-year-old former amateur star, who has had a frustrating year, will move up to super-feather to face Commonwealth super-featherweight champion Zelfa Barrett on August 14.

That fight will be the chief support to Felix Cash versus Jason Welborn, and affords Donovan the chance he has been waiting for to showcase on skills away from Ireland.

The Athy native Donovan has a perfect record in the pro ranks, and won the Irish 126-pound title against Stephen McAfee in March 2019. ‘Lilywhite Lightning’ has fought and won three times since but against low-profile opponents, with Barrett the sternest test he will have faced to date.

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IT remains unclear whether Katie Taylor’s much-anticipated world title dust up with Amanda Serrano will take place any time soon following a social media spat involving both fighters and their respective promoters.

After years of talks and speculation, the pair were due to finally share the ring in Manchester on May 2, only for the coronavirus outbreak to put that showdown on the backburner.

Taylor-Serrano was slated for the same bill as the heavyweight clash between Dillian Whyte and Alexander Povetkin, which has now been rescheduled for August 22 – behind-closed-doors at Matchroom HQ.

The Bray woman will definitely defend her undisputed lightweight championship on that bill, but against whom remains to be seen. Taylor is not normally one for calling out opponents on social media, but in a Twitter post she implored Amanda Serrano to agree to the match-up that promoter Eddie Hearn dubbed "the biggest women’s fight of all time".

“We both signed contracts, all financial barriers have been removed and any training/travel issues are the same for both of us as I'm also training in the US,” she said.

“No more excuses, this is a fight to elevate the sport. August 22 is our time to make history. You in?”

Hearn insisted the plan remains for the 2012 Olympic gold medallist to face off against her Puerto Rican rival on that date.

He said: "It's the absolute plan to do Taylor vs Serrano. Both fighters have signed binding contracts to do that fight.

"She was written to with the new date under the full terms of the contract that she signed. That is the contract we will enforce and expect her to honour.

"We gave her warm-up fights, vacant world title fights to make sure that she fights Taylor. Do as you promise."

Hearn confirmed he had been in touch with Delfine Persoon in the event the Serrano fight falls through, and that would also attract huge interest after Taylor narrowly edged to victory over the Belgian police officer in New York last year.

"Katie will be in a big fight. She is ready for a defining moment. Your promoter [Lou Di Bella] will confirm that we confirmed in writing the new date and that you would be paid the full amount that was in your contract," Hearn told Serrano.

"Yes there were two date changes due to a slight global pandemic. You have eight weeks no excuses.

“We know our position, we are eight weeks from the fight, you have been training throughout and train in the same State as KT. Katie took your purse reduction because she wants legacy. There is no reduction for you - we hope to see you for a great moment for the sport."

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