Safe haven of boxing gyms is vitally important says light-heavyweight Paul McCullagh Jr

Paul McCullagh junior takes on Antony Woolery in Bolton on Saturday night
Andy Watters

BOXING gyms have always been a safe haven in which kids from different backgrounds can mix and work together. When set against the distressing backdrop of the recent rioting on the streets of Belfast, providing that neutral space has never been more important.

Paul McCullagh junior, who takes on Antony Woolery in Bolton on Saturday night in his second professional fight, is based in the McCullagh Boxing Club in Dunmurry. He says proudly that the gym is a “happy place” in which sectarian barriers disappear and are replaced by the positive goals of “learning and discipline”.

“Kids come to the club from both sides of the community, it’s a cross-community gym,” he explained.

“It’s good to get the kids off the street and keep them busy and they’re doing good work. It’s great to get people mixing and moving forward.

“It’s vitality important because, in this day and age, it’s all about moving forward, not staying in the past and that’s one thing about boxing – whenever you go through the doors of a club, everything else is forgotten about.

“For that hour or two, it’s just about boxing, it’s a happy place really where everybody mixes together and it’s just about learning and discipline. That’s the beauty of boxing.”

Light-heavyweight McCullagh, ‘the Irish Drago’ (a reference to his resemblance to the Russian character Ivan Drago from the fourth Rocky movie) stopped Ben Thomas on his professional debut last October.

Wolverhampton slugger Woolery – who mixed it with London prospect Isaac Chamberlain in his most recent outing - will be another worthwhile test of McCullagh’s undoubted potential.

“It’s a good fight and, like my debut, I’m not going in against some guy who’s been sitting on the sofa,” said MTK prospect McCullagh.

“He’s a game opponent with a 50-50 record, so it’s going to be a test for me in my second fight but I’m looking forward to it and I’m going to showcase what I can do and I think people will be impressed with the win that I’ll get on Saturday night.

“I’m not going out to try and knock him out or anything, I’m just going out to box and get the win because that’s the most important thing. When you’re boxing and not looking for the knockout, that’s when it comes, so I’ll go out and work behind the jab and just box.

“The opponents are better for fights on TV and I think it’s a blessing in disguise because, down the line when I have to make the step up, I think that I’ll get there quicker than I would if I was fighting journeymen who aren’t going to give me a tough fight. So I think it’ll work out better for me in the long run that I’m fighting a decent level of opponent already.”

Since his debut, McCullagh has swapped his Spain training base for the familiar surroundings of the Dunmurry club where he is training with his dad Paul senior, a former stand-out amateur who is now a respected trainer and referee. Like all father and son relations, Paul joked that they have “up and down days” but he is confident that his dad will get the very best out of him.

“I’m doing similar stuff to what I would have done with my grandfather and it took a few weeks to get used to the training which is the best training out there – it’s tough going but it’s good for me and I can feel the difference,” he said.

“My dad has been around the block himself.

“He has been all around the world and he’s fought the best in the world. He fought for Ireland and he beat the Cubans and all so he knows boxing and how to put it into coaching – he can see great shots and he’s good at reading the game so I’m very confident in him.

“It works better for me because I can give that extra one per cent and I know that my daddy has my best interests at heart.

“He’s doing everything for me, he’s not doing anything for himself and I know there is a trust there between us and he’s not going to try and rip me off or anything. I have belief in him and I can give him that extra one per cent when the going gets tough.”

ARMAGH has been an area of untapped potential in boxing terms but Keady’s Sean Duffy and Belleek middleweight Fearghus Quinn are intent on changing that.

Duffy grabbed his chance to shine a month ago with a classy display that was too much for Paul Holt and he backed it up with a confident post-fight interview. Former Orchard county footballer Quinn is perfectly capable of following suit when he gets his third professional fight in Bolton on Saturday night.

‘The Mighty Quinn’ kicked off his pro career with a pair of impressive points victories last year and that experience should stand to him as he prepares for the next hurdle in his fledgling career.

“It was difficult for management teams to get boxers out with all the restrictions so to get out twice last year was great,” he said.

“To get boxing on Sky Sports was great experience and to get a couple of wins against decent opponents (Robbie Chapman and Scott James) was good so I was happy and I’m looking to build on it now. I’m hoping to be out more regularly this year and get a few fights under my belt to gain experience.

“I know what to expect now in terms of fighting behind closed doors and having to go over and quarantine – I’ve done it twice, so it’s good to have that experience.”

Queen’s University graduate Quinn showed no signs of nerves on his promising debut. His punch-output barely dropped over the six-rounds against the much more experienced Chapman and he looked as strong at the final bell as he had at the first.

“I would always have thrown a lot of punches – that’s the way I fight,” he explained.

“Gerry Storey (coach) has got me in good shape so I’m able to keep that up over the longer rounds. I always knew I’d be able to keep that going but I suppose you never know until you get in there so it’s good to have those couple of six-rounders behind me. I know I have the engine for it and, going forward, it’s nice to know you can do it.”

A keen student of the game, Quinn watches current and former fighters with an eye on their style and the tools that made them successful. Not everything that worked for them will work for him, but he’s always on the lookout for something he can add to his own armoury.

“You can never learn enough in this game,” he said.

“For every fight you are looking to improve, it’s a constant thing. I want to improve with every fight and I will be improving with every fight – you can never know enough and there are things you learn from previous fights that you can implement for the next fight.

“I watch a lot of boxing from different eras. I look at old fights and fights now. I would watch a bit of everyone and there’s always stuff you can pick up from all the greats of the game and try and take it on board.”

Quinn’s debut was originally scheduled for the Ulster Hall but the bill was cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. With some sort of normality in the offing now, he is looking forward to being able to box in front of his fans on home soil.

“The likes of Carl Frampton has led the way and, when you’re younger, you look at the big nights he had in Belfast and that’s where the desire comes to be at that level yourself,” he said.

“Definitely, it’s something I would hope for but at this stage it’s just about improving in every fight, getting the experience and trying to get better. Hopefully, some day, I’ll be involved in the big shows on home soil myself and hopefully the Armagh people will get behind me and pack the place out!”

CONOR Benn wiped out Samuel Vargas inside the opening round to retain his WBA Continental Welterweight title at London’s Copper Box Arena last Saturday night.

In a performance that evoked memories of his father Nigel’s heyday, 'The Destroyer' lived up to his name as he took just a minute and 20 seconds to progress to 18-0 with a dozen knockouts, sending out a brutal warning to his welterweight rivals.

The unbeaten 24-year-old unloaded a torrent of spiteful shots that left Vargas reeling on the ropes, prompting the referee to swiftly wave it off, and Benn quickly expressed his desire for a big domestic clash with Amir Khan.

“I train hard for it,” said Benn.

“Again, you’re talking levels. It shows the level I’m at. Errol Spence, Danny Garcia, Vergil Ortiz, Amir Khan – nobody banged him out like that. First round, first round! He came and he was game. He took my belt off me in the week and I had a little stare down with him.

"He was telling me he was ready to fight, and he was talking a good game. He said I had no power. It’s irrelevant because a lot of people can talk. My shots were landing flush. You could tell they were hurting him. When I first hit him it landed swiftly and I thought, ‘right, this is going to be a much quicker night than I thought’.

"I’ve been working on my power with my strength and conditioning coach Dan Lawrence. We’ve been working with Tony, endless hours. First to arrive last to leave. He’s always pushing me. I told you lot I’d knock him out in the first round. I was cool, calm and collected. I work so hard.

"Give me Amir Khan. I know he's too busy on reality TV. If he wants it, he can have it. I can deal with pressure. I can cope with it. I can live with it, no problem. I'm ready for the top dogs - Shawn Porter, Adrien Broner? Forget the word prospect, I ain’t a prospect no more.”

TONY Dunlop-trained former international rugby player turned heavyweight boxer, Nick Campbell got his professional career off to a flyer by taking out Petr Frohlich in two rounds on Saturday night.

The 31-year-old from Glasgow displayed his strength and power as he unloaded a succession of thudding body shots in the opening round.

Frohlich crumpled to the canvas after clubbing shots at the start of the second and referee Robert Williams mercifully waved it off following another flurry of punches from the Mark Dunlop-managed 'Glasgow Warrior'.

“I like to try and stay humble, I expected to get rid of that guy to be honest with you,” said Campbell, who sparred with Tommy McCarthy in preparation for his debut.

“I know he’s not been knocked out many times in his losses and he’s tough. He took some shots there. I’m pleased with how it went. I put him down once and then the referee jumped in and stopped it.

"In my opinion it was the dream debut. Making my debut on a stage like that after everything that happened in the past year is something that I’d have never of dreamed of. I’m just buzzing to be here and to be talking to you. I’m happy with my performance. I went in there and I had a high work rate. I was just trying to display the things we’d been working on in the gym.

"I can’t thank my team enough for all of the hard work they’ve put into me. They’re the best team around in my opinion. All of the people that have been singing my praises, that was for you, so thank you.

“I’m a bit older than most people that make their debut, but I feel young. Every fight that I have is a step further than people thought I could go. I’m just here to prove people wrong and work hard.”

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