Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Jack Magowan: Brave, but Wayne was no McGuigan

Last year Jack Magowan and Wayne McCullough went head to head. Today Jack reflects on Wayne's retirement

Boxing was his altar, his career, his life. He was the bravest of Irish warriors, as good as any fighter could be without being one helluva fighter, as the legendary Liebling would have said. He had a big heart and courage to burn, but hung his chin out to dry.

Wayne McCullough has now retired, happily not a day too soon. He will be 38 next month, ten years older than Barry McGuigan was when he quit the ring, wisely aware, it seemed, that the longer a man fights professionally, the greater the risk of ending up with his wits scrambled. And that's a long-established neurological fact.

It was in his first contest for three years that the Pocket Rocket finally burned out.

Let's not try to sugar-coat it. This was the night in which a battle-weary McCullough grew old before fans' eyes, then, his face cut and bruised, retired himself after six hard rounds of a fight he might have won.

His legs were like lead, he told colleague David Kelly, "and the snap and sharpness wasn't there any more. I've always said I'd know when it was time to go, and this is the right time!"

By then, the genie had gone from Wayne's near-empty bottle. It wasn't so much that he ran out of miracles. He had none to start with, and looked washed out and painfully ineffectual.

To be honest, Wayne had been peering down the same dark tunnel for some time.

Eddie Futch, then the sage of boxing, had been his coach and trainer when history was made with a gallant world title win in Japan, but I wasn't alone in thinking that Eddie, then over 80, wouldn't be around long, and neither he was after the champion lost all in defeat against an over-the-hill Zaragosa in Boston.

Most McCullough fights were brass-knuckled 'wars', and this was no exception. He was sure he had won it, but good judges knew better. It was a contest in which Wayne stopped too many punches with his face, and too often repeated his mistakes rather than learn from them.

Good defensive boxing is a poetic art, but against guys like Hamed, Morales, Larios (twice) and Scott Harrison, he was all fists and risk, but little finesse, and paid a cruel price. Against world-beater Harrison, he fought like he was born to suffer, and was whipped to a souffle.

Sadly, fate was never much kinder to McCullough outside the ring. Imagine his look of hound-dog gloom when, on the eve of his first Belfast fight in five years, a routine MRI scan revealed a tiny cyst near his brain, leaving shocked officials no option but to axe the contest and take away his licence.

Nobody argues with the findings of three prominent neurologists, but Wayne did. He flew home to Las Vegas for a second opinion; then had another in Dublin before being told what he wanted to hear - that he was in no real danger, and could safely box again.

Convinced?. Not the British Board's medical team, some of whom (not all) still feel that for this lion-hearted Ulsterman to have continued boxing was a mistake. Any brain trauma, however slight, must be a cause for concern, they argued.

McCullough's muscle-cell chemistry was clearly different from that of most fighing men.

To see Warnock or Gilroy or McGuigan at work was to watch a cat patrolling his jungle home, patiently waiting for the chance to strike. Wayne, however, charged at the mountain with a demonic zeal, face first and fearless, everything about him brimming with honesty and courage.

Few champions I've ever known had a greater appetite for discipline and the gym, or fought with such animal drive and unbreakable will, but there was something missing from the McCullough repertoire. While he had a sound chin, and held back fatigue as if at gunpoint, he was never a big puncher, and too easily hit himself. A damaging puncher, yes, but never a knock-out puncher in the mould of Gilroy, McGuigan or Warnock.

How will Wayne (27 wins, seven losses) rank in a rota of Ireland's all-time great champions? On a scale of one to ten, he was arguably a 'seven' fighter who raced up Everest, but failed to reach the summit!

Jack Magowan's top 12 choice of Irish boxing's all-time greats:

Jimmy Warnock, Freddie Gilroy, Barry McGuigan, John Caldwell, Rinty Monaghan, Jackie Quinn, Dave McAuley, Jim 'Spider' Kelly, Tommy Armour, Steve Collins, Wayne McCullough and the Spider's son, Billy Kelly

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