Taking smacks for a few bucks... Trainer Jon O'Brien using lessons from school of hard knocks to shape Paul McCullagh's professional career

Jon O'Brien (left) and Paul McCullagh junior have been working hard at the Champions Gym
Andy Watters

Paul McCullagh junior will have former cruiserweight Jon O'Brien in his corner for his professional debut on Sunday night. The Dubliner learned a lot from his time in the school of hard knocks and he is putting those lessons to good use. Andy Watters writes...

JON O'Brien was on a seven-fight winning streak when he hung up his gloves. Aged 30, he should have been coming into his prime as a cruiserweight but the Dubliner felt like he was going nowhere taking smacks for a few quid on small-hall shows.

A shoulder injury took its toll and he ended up fighting virtually one-handed. Even then he knocked a series of opponents out with a savage left hook but no-one seemed to notice and, even if they did, they didn't have the resources or the connections to do anything about. His big break never came and he bowed out with a 9-2-1 record.

"It was hard and it wasn't worth all the time and pressure," recalls the Dubliner.

"I wasn't getting the money. In boxing you have to give it all, or you don't give it at all and if I couldn't give it all I just thought I might as well walk away.

"I wasn't in it to be a journeyman, I was in it to be a world champion and if that wasn't going to happen for me, I just said: 'Good luck'.

"It was hardest time of my life. My father was dying of cancer and it broke me a bit when he passed away. He was at my last fight (in 2008) and then he died a couple of months later.

"To be honest, my head wasn't there and, with the shoulder injury as well, I just sat down with my family and said: 'It's time to walk away'. It was tough, I was getting on little shows, I wasn't making good money, you were having to sell tickets and it was a heartache, it was pain."

He'd started out as a pro with Brendan Ingle (the Sheffield-based Dub who masterminded the careers of Prince Naseem and Johnny Nelson) and then boxed out of Gleeson's gym in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge but it was a spell in Belfast, where he trained with the late Paul McCullagh senior (former coach of Dave 'Boy' McAuley at Barney Eastwood's Gym, father of referee Paul and grandfather of Paul junior who makes his pro debut on Sunday night) that had the biggest impact on him.

"I met Paul in America," O'Brien explains.

"We boxed on the same bill in the States and we never got paid. It was a heartache and he said to me: 'Jon, why don't you come back and train with my da in Belfast?'

"So I did and it was the best thing I ever did. They were like family to me, the McCullaghs. They took me in, looked after me...

"I really rate Paul senior a lot because I learned so much from him. I never lost when I was with him."

The bonds made in Belfast remain strong to this day. After retirement, O'Brien took all the lessons, all the experiences both positive and negative, from his career and poured them into the Champions Gym, his gym, in sunny Lanzarote.

Paul McCullagh junior (his former trainer's grandson) was a little two-year-old when O'Brien lived in Belfast. Eighteen years on and McCullagh, who makes his professional debut at light-heavyweight on Sunday night, is a strapping young man who stands 6'4". He's been training with O'Brien in Lanzarote since January and his coach predicts he will go on to become a world champion.

MTK, he says, has changed everything for boxers. In his day he scraped a living on undercards but nowadays emerging fighters like McCullagh junior are given opportunities he could only have dreamt of.

"You have to have a great team around you in boxing and MTK wasn't around in my time," says O'Brien.

"MTK are keeping lads busy, they're keeping them fighting and that's what you need; you need a good team around you. If you've good a good coach and you've got a good promotional team, the sky's the limit because they'll open the doors for you.

"I've been there, I've been through the heartache and pain and been around every wrong corner in boxing... I've done it all.

"I have been to the States and England and around the world fighting and I can pass that knowledge on to these young lads. I have a great bunch of lads now in the gym, I have a good stable and they're all there working hard with each other."

His stable includes Lee Reeves, Joe Laws and Cork fighter Steven Cairns. Laws (9-0) fights in Peterborough on Saturday night and McCullough gets his debut on Sunday.

"Paul is in brilliant nick," says O'Brien.

"He's ready for anybody. Yes, he's a big puncher but he can box, he can move... He can do everything, he has the package.

"We know he has the big punch but I want him to use it when he needs to use it. I've had him sparring with big names and he has hurt a lot of boys who are far more experienced.

"He has the potential, if he keeps his mind right and stays with me in Lanzarote, to be the light-heavyweight champion of the world and cruiserweight champion of the world. He could maybe move up to heavyweight too because the lad is 6'4" and he's only 20 years old, he's still growing and he's a big lump of a boy and he's not killing himself to make light-heavy.

"This kid is the real deal, he's coming from great stock in the McCullaghs."

AGAINST a background of 'thump-thump-thump' as he runs on the treadmill, Paul McCullagh discussed his hopes for a professional career that begins in England on Sunday night.

His four-rounder against Ryan Hibbert (1-7) will be the realisation of a boyhood dream for the Lanzarote-based, west Belfast light-heavyweight and he's been training for it since January.

McCullagh's debut was supposed to have been in April but Covid-19 scrapped that and then another show in August was also cancelled.

This weekend has been a long time coming but he's only 20, so time is on his side. Having said that, he'll be relieved to duck through those ropes at the Production Park Studios and give the boxing public a glimpse of his undoubted potential.

"I'm just doing the last bit of my shaking-out, I'm staying loose," says.

"I'm just excited now to get in and get my debut and get on the road."

He trains on the Spanish holiday island in the Champions Gym with Jon 'The Thunderbolt' O'Brien. The link-up means the wheel has turned full-circle because McCullagh's grandfather, also Paul, trained O'Brien during the Dubliner's days as a super-middleweight/cruiserweight.

"Twenty years down the line, I'm over living with Jon and when he boxed he lived in my home," McCullagh explains.

"I've know Jon all my life and we just clicked instantly when he started training me so it has been enjoyable."

A former Ulster Elite heavyweight champion McCullagh - son of respected referee Paul McCullagh senior - was a talented footballer and hurler before he decided to concentrate solely on the noble art.

"It's been a childhood dream to be a professional boxer," says McCullagh who spent time at Pete Taylor's Dublin gym sparring with EBU light-heavyweight challenger Tommy McCarthy and Jordan Reynolds in preparation for the fight.

"I was playing every sport under the sun. I was playing hurling and Gaelic for St John's and soccer and waterpolo and I just decided one day, here's me: 'I would like to join a boxing club'.

"There was a few big lads on the street who I was getting in fights with and I wanted to get the upperhand so I decided to go to a club and that's when I found out my family boxed because they'd never told me.

"Just from then I knew that this was what I wanted to do."

It might take a few fights for McCullagh to find his feet in the pro but he has the tools to be a success. He is blessed with natural power, was well schooled in the amateurs and is determined to "make a statement" on Sunday night.

"Everyone knows I can punch and I can box as well," he said.

"I didn't showcase that in my amateur days but I'm going to show people that I'm not a one-dimensional fighter and I can box just as well as I can fight.

"My main goal is to get to 10-0, I want to grow as a boxer and I'm only 20 years of age, so I'm in no rush. I want to progress step-by-step and take the big fights whenever I'm ready for them."

That's the future, but the first step is taking care of business against Hibbert on Sunday. After two previous disappointments, McCullagh has his fingers crossed that everything goes smoothly this time.

"To be honest it still hasn't sunk in that I'm making my debut this week," he said.

"The previous two have been cancelled and I've been training non-stop so it won't start to get real until it gets closer and I fly over. When I get this fight done-and-dusted I'm hoping to get one or two more before the end of the year."

LEWIS Ritson says the extra few months graft in the gym locked away with trainer Neil Fannon will pay dividends in the long run.

The Geordie puncher has felt the knock-on effects from the pandemic, which ruled out his planned fight with Miguel Vazquez twice, back in April and then again June, but he insists the extra preparation has taken his game to the next level.

“It has probably benefitted me more than most other fighters," said Ritson.

"It has really allowed for us to gel and work on other areas of our game. Rather than wondering when a fight date may drop, despite the cancellations we have always had an end date in mind which has allowed for me to stay disciplined and sharp throughout.

"I've been in the gym the full year training hard and staying ready for whatever happens next. The start of lockdown gave me a chance to slow the pace down a little bit and work on a lot more of the technical stuff.

"I feel like I've improved a couple of levels compared to how I boxed against Robbie Davies Jr. We knew that we would get a new date confirmed eventually, we just had to stay in the gym."

Currently ranked number two with the WBA, Ritson finds himself on the cusp of a shot at World honours and believes this Saturday’s Super-Lightweight showdown against former long-standing IBF ruler Vazquez, shown live on Sky Sports and DAZN, is the perfect bridge to the next level.

“If I bring my A-game, I’ll be too much for Miguel and will stop him. I think he’s probably a little bit on the slide whereas I’m still on the way up, so we’re meeting bang in the middle. This is the exact type of fight where I can gain more experience to move to the next step. He’s been there and done it. We know what he is all about and what he will bring.

"Beating Robbie proved I'm at that European level, now it's time to prove I can go to the interim world level stage with a good win against Vazquez. That will pave the way for more big fights.

"We never take anyone lightly and we definitely haven't taken Vazquez lightly. If I bring my A game, I'll have more than enough to beat him."

Ritson versus Vazquez headlines a huge night of boxing at the East of England Arena in Peterborough.

Savannah Marshall (8-0, 6 KOs) meets Glasgow’s former world champion Hannah Rankin (9-4, 2 KOs) for the vacant WBO middleweight world title, 2016 Rio Olympian Qais Ashfaq (8-0, 3 KOs) meets Salford's Marc Leach (14-1-1, 3 KOs) in a final eliminator for the British super-bantamweight title, Joe ‘Benwell Bomber’ Laws (9-0, 5 KOs) takes on Norwich's Rylan Charlton (5-0-1, 2 KOs) over six rounds at Super-Lightweight.

Meanwhile, Thomas Patrick Ward (29-0, 4 KOs) fights Thomas Essomba (10-6, 4 KOs) over 10 rounds at super-bantamweight and Catford's Ellie Scotney makes her professional debut against Bec Connolly (3-7) at featherweight.

LIMERICK lightweight Paddy Donovan will have a big step up in competition as he takes on former Southern Area champion Jumanne Camero on November 11.

Donovan (4-0, 3 KOs) will face Camero (10-6, 3 KOs) at Production Park Studios in Wakefield on Wednesday 11 November, live in the US on ESPN+ in association with Top Rank, and worldwide on IFL TV.

Donovan has looked superb in his career so far, racking up three knockouts in four wins, with the most recent of those coming in August when he needed just 91 seconds to earn a first round knockout victory over Des Newton.

He now turns his attention to Camero, who won the Southern Area lightweight title back in 2017, and Donovan is pleased about the step up.

Donovan said: "I’m really excited to be back in the ring, and especially on an MTK Global show. They always put on world class events with world class fighters, and that’s where I want to be fighting.

"Jumanne Camero seems to be a decent fighter with 10 wins from 16 fights and he will be my toughest challenge to date. My training is going really well and I’m feeling really good. I’m sure his style of fighting will bring the best out of me and I’ll put on one hell of a show come November 11."

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