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Best I Faced: Wayne McCullough

Fighters Network
Wayne McCullough celebrates after stopping Johnny Bredahl in the eighth round for the first defense of his WBC bantamweight title. Photo by Michael Cooper/Getty Images.

Wayne McCullough celebrates after stopping Johnny Bredahl in the eighth round in December 1995 — the first defense of his WBC bantamweight title. Photo by Michael Cooper/Getty Images.

Wayne McCullough, one of the most successful Irish boxers of all time, was dubbed “Pocket Rocket” because of his incredible workrate and was known for possessing one of the best chins in boxing; he was never on the canvas in his career.

He was a gifted amateur, going 308-11, appearing at the 1988 Olympics, winning gold at the 1990 Commonwealth games and taking a silver medal as a bantamweight at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. The man he lost to was future two-weight world champion Joel Casamayor.

Following the Olympics he couldn’t box for six months because his cheekbone was fractured in three places; to this day he has no feeling on the left side of his nose. After several offers to turn pro the plan was for him to work with former Sugar Ray Leonard coach Janks Morton. However, McCullough’s Olympic performance had caught the eye of the late, great Eddie Futch.

“Eddie Futch was 82 years old, he had Riddick Bowe and Mike McCallum and he wasn’t going to take anyone else on because he was 82,” McCullough told “My manager let him have a look at me from the Olympics and he said he said, ‘That kid has it, he’s going to be a world champion.’ So when he brought me over here I was star-struck with Eddie Futch.

“Every time I went to a fight, everybody would look at Eddie and I’d be like, ‘He’s my trainer.’ I was so proud of him being my trainer. The guy was an encyclopedia of boxing. He used to sit down and tell stories for two, three hours. I spent hundreds of hours with Eddie and the stories he told were unbelievable; right back (to) when he sparred Joe Louis.”

The pair quickly gelled and McCullough moved through the ranks rapidly.

“It was all down to Eddie, every fight was a learning curve, he said do this in a fight, do that in that fight. I was knocking everybody out in my first 12 fights except one guy. He made me do certain things in fights just to get experience. I went up against guys I was supposed to beat so I can do different things.

McCullough vs. Harrison

McCullough vs. Harrison

“If you watched the first 12 fights you could see the progression and how I’d got better every fight. I tried to perfect certain things.”

McCullough credits his 13th fight, against Victor Rabanales, as the one that gave him the confidence to see what Futch already knew: “I remember saying to my wife after that fight, ‘I’m going to be world champion for sure because this guy is as tough as anybody.‘ That’s the first time I said professional boxing is such a tough sport.”

Four fights later the Belfast-born fighter traveled to Japan and beat reigning WBC belt holder Yasuei Yakushiji by split decision. It is the only time a British or Irish fighter has won a world title in Japan, and McCullough says it was his proudest moment.

“People always say the Olympics but I always say (winning) the WBC (bantamweight) belt,” he said. “To go to Japan and fight (and beat) Yakushiji in his backyard. I think that’s my proudest moment because I went against all the odds and came back with the belt.”

In his first defense he stopped Johnny Bredahl. In his second, McCullough went life and death with former WBC 115-pound titlist Jose Luis Bueno from Mexico. He struggled mightily with the scales and admits to making weight “the old fashioned way, train every day and starve yourself. He says he could barely walk, hardly open his eyes and put on 15 pounds after the weigh-in.

“After two rounds I don’t remember anything. I said, ‘Please God, get me through this fight.I didn’t have any memory until the next day,” he said. “I went to hospital and my wife tells me the story: In the dressing room after the fight Bono (from U2) gave me his glasses because I had two black eyes. He held my hand in the dressing room and kept saying how tough I was.

“I almost collapsed and went to the hospital. I don’t remember it to this day. I woke up the next day and I didn’t even know if I’d won the fight. Bueno couldn’t even get to the airport, his body was busted up. We killed each other for 12 rounds.”

The struggle became too much and he abdicated his throne and migrated to junior featherweight.

The proud Irishman met WBC 122-pound belt holder Daniel Zaragoza in early 1997, dropping a hard-fought, razor-thin split decision that he contends he should have won.

McCullough vs. Hamed

McCullough vs. Hamed

Three fights later he faced Naseem Hamed and although McCullough lost a decision, he showed once again that his chin was one of the best in boxing.

His next major challenge was WBC 122-pound kingpin Erik Morales, but the Mexican proved to be too big and strong, turning back McCullough’s valiant attempt by winning a unanimous decision.

While he attempted another comeback he fell into the darkest period of his career. The BBBofC stopped McCullough from fighting in 2000 and it’s still something that rankles him.

“For two years I stopped fighting,” he said. “I can’t to this day understand why they stopped me. I proved with every doctor in the world – even their own doctor had cleared me.

“Robert Smith (Current secretary of the BBBofC) was the guy that helped me in the end, and I got my license back. Certain things happen in your life and they’re hard to accept. I was told I was going to die with one blow to the head by a promoter and there was no evidence. It was tough for my wife and daughter at the time.

“I wasn’t worried about my career, I was worried I might bang my head. It’s the way I was told, it was an emotional time and was hard to get any answers. I found out I had a small cyst and was probably born with it and it was not related to boxing. They stopped me from fighting and didn’t show me the report for 15 months. I’ve nothing against the British Board, they’re one of the best commissions in the world.”

Wayne McCullough w familyAfter almost three years away from the sport, McCullough signed with Frank Warren and returned to action. Three wins put him in line to face WBO featherweight titleholder Scott Harrison. McCullough lost a wide decision but once again showed considerable guile.

He wasn’t finished, twice unsuccessfully challenging Oscar Larios for the WBC 122-pound title before bowing out in 2008, with a record of 27-7 (18 knockouts), after he was stopped by Juan Ruiz.

Today McCullough, 45, lives between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. He trains fighters at the gym owned by former 2008 British Olympian Tony Jeffries in Santa Monica. He is married to childhood sweetheart Cheryl and has a daughter, Wynona, who is a singer, going by the stage name of Wy Mac. In 2005, he released his autobiography, “Pocket Rocket: Don’t Quit.” caught up with McCullough and spoke with him about the best he faced in 10 key categories.

Erik Morales:
He came out to knock you out and when he fought me he’d knocked nine guys out in a row. He listened to his corner after the first round when they said back off and box. He could punch, he could fight and he could also adapt and box as well. He could change in a fight if he had to and win a fight on points. Other guys have one plan and if plan ‘A’ doesn’t work they don’t have plan ‘B.

Morales: Morales had a good jab, he was the type of guy who would set everything up with a jab. He’d jab, jab and bang to the body, jab, jab and right hand to the head and then a jab to keep the distance. So it probably has to go to Morales.

Naseem Hamed: I think Naseem Hamed was the type of guy who depended on his defense. Against me he said he was going to knock me out and couldn’t do it and he ran. He’s hard to hit so you have to consider that good defense because you couldn’t really hit him. If a guy’s running away from you how can you hit him? You can’t really tell if it’s his defense or not. Out of everybody he probably did have the best defense.

Victor Rabanales:
That’s a hard one too. Some of the Mexicans have tough chins, you hit them and they look at you so you hit them again and they look at you and then you hit them with a body shot and they crumble.

I know Morales stopped (Daniel Zaragoza) with a body shot. I believe to this day I won the fight. I remember hitting Zaragoza with a body shot in the second round and he cried like he was crying for his mommy! I thought I had him. He just grunted and I thought it was over and then the bell came. I reckon if there was another 30 seconds I could have stopped him.

The Mexicans, they’re all tough – Zaragoza, Morales, Jose Luis Bueno. I didn’t take any easy fights coming up, I took tough fights against Mexicans.

Rabanales really did have a concrete chin. That was my 13th fight and his 50th fight and he was a former champion, No. 1 in the world. I hit him with everything and he hit me with everything too. That was the first time in boxing I lost a round. When I hit him in the chin he didn’t go anywhere. I remember looking at him and he had metal teeth! Every time I hit him it didn’t even faze him, he just kept coming and coming.

Wayne McCullough (L) battles then-WBC junior featherweight titleholder Erik Morales in October 1999. Morales successfully defended his belt by a unanimous decision. Photo by John Gichigi/Getty Images.

Wayne McCullough (L) battles then-WBC junior featherweight titleholder Erik Morales in October 1999. Morales successfully defended his belt by a unanimous decision. Photo by John Gichigi/Getty Images.

The biggest puncher was Erik Morales, pound-for-pound. From the first round until the 12th round he punched just as hard. The first round he hit me hard and the 12th round his punch didn’t diminish, he still kept the same intensity throughout the fight. He was really the hardest puncher for sure.

Hamed was strong, he had physical strength. He said to me when the fight was over, ‘You’re super strong.‘ Strength and punching power are two different things. The only guy to hurt me was Victor Rabanales. I think Hamed and Morales didn’t hurt me to the point where I was wobbling. Hamed was strong but Morales was pinpoint, he’d put a shock down the left side (of your body) every time he hit you.

Hamed, I could see his punches coming; I didn’t think Hamed was fast, I could see everything coming. Morales would hide his right hand with his jab. Nobody stood out as having fast hands. I think Morales gets it because he hid his right hand behind his jab. I’d probably give it to him.

Hamed: I would say Hamed because he ran! I told him at the press conference, ‘What is going to happen when you hit me on the chin I’m still standing, what are you going to do? and he just ran for 12 rounds! I actually had blisters on both of my feet running after him. I called him on four or five different times, ‘Lets fight.He definitely had the fastest feet.

Daniel Zaragoza:
Zaragoza for sure. He could adapt to anything. Just the years he fought – even at 40 years old he was still fighting and winning world championships. I’d give it to him.

Scott Harrison:
Scott Harrison for sure. I was never really a featherweight, I moved up to fight Hamed and back down (to 122 pounds) to fight Morales. That was five years after I fought Hamed. On fight night the guy was just bigger, (at) the weigh in we were the same. I put on two or three pounds and I think he put on maybe 20 pounds. Scott Harrison for sure. Hamed was strong, his strength was unbelievable too but I remember in the interview after I said Scott Harrison was the strongest.

Erik Morales for sure, definitely. We became good friends after the fight. He hit me with good shots and I laughed at him. Every time he sees me he goes, ‘You’re loco, you’re loco.‘ He always calls me Crazy Irish man. The man could box, he could punch, he moved around. At 122, 126 were his best weight classes but when he started moving through the divisions, when he fought at 140 and 147 I don’t think he belonged there at all. Overall, Erik Morales was definitely the best for sure.

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