When Wayne McCullough talks about boxing, he talks about blood and guts, about the importance of having a thick skull, about being a ruthless warrior in the ring and giving the fans what they want.
He also talks about how the sport saved his life.
McCullough, who has lived in Las Vegas for nearly 12 years, grew up in a poor section of Belfast, Northern Ireland. He recalls bombs going off in his neighborhood, innocent people suffering, the deadly detritus of what the Irish call The Troubles -- the violent conflict between Catholics and Protestants that can be traced back for centuries.
"When I came to America, I'd work out in gyms with a lot of fighters who came from bad neighborhoods," McCullough said. "They thought I was some rich white kid, until I told them where I came from. I'd say, 'That's the real ghetto.' "
McCullough feels a deep connection to his homeland, but is dubious about the peace talks of recent years.
"They say the violence is going away in Belfast," he said, "but at night, the ghosts come out to play."
Some of his friends from the old days, McCullough said, became members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, the violent Northern Ireland loyalist paramilitary group.
"We still say hello," McCullough said, when he's back visiting. "But I'm thinking, 'That could have been me.'
"It was boxing that got me out of it. Boxing saved my life."
It has been more than nine years since McCullough won his first world championship fight, beating Yasuei Yakushiji in Japan for the WBC bantamweight title, and nearly eight years since his first loss, a split decision to hard-hitting Daniel Zaragoza for the WBC super bantamweight title.
McCullough has not held a world title since, although he has fought in memorable championship bouts against the likes of Naseem Hamed and Erik Morales.
Now, working under new trainer Freddie Roach and having signed a contract with Goossen Tutor Promotions, McCullough is laying the groundwork for a return to the championship ranks.
After 18 months of inactivity, McCullough, 34, returned to the ring on Sept. 23 and stopped overmatched Mike Juarez in the second round at the Pechanga casino resort in Temecula, Calif.
His next fight is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 9, also at Pechanga, against an opponent yet to be announced. After that, McCullough plans perhaps two more tuneup bouts, then, if all goes well, a championship fight next summer at either featherweight (126 pounds) or super bantamweight (122 pounds).
"George Foreman came back to win a heavyweight title 20 years later," McCullough said. "I'll win mine 10 years later."
McCullough, who hooked up with Roach in the summer to prepare for the fight against Juarez, said the partnership is already paying dividends.
Roach, one of the finest trainers in the game, was a calming influence in that fight after McCullough sustained a cut from a head butt in the first round.
"I remember going back to the corner feeling blood," McCullough said. "But Freddie was very cool about it. He said to just go back out there and knock the guy out. That was just what I needed -- someone to give me that kind of confidence."
McCullough and Roach have known each other since 1993 and needed little time to become acclimated to each another.
"Everything clicked," Roach said from his Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles. "Training has been going very well, and everything's right on schedule. I'd like to see Wayne get at least two more fights under his belt, then we'll make another run at the title."
Promoter Dan Goossen's relationship with McCullough goes back to the fighter's professional debut at the Reseda (Calif.) Country Club in 1993. The two have had an on-again, off-again affiliation since.
"I go back many, many years with Wayne, to his first pro fight, which we promoted," Goossen said from his office in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "No matter how close I am to Wayne, if I did not have complete confidence that he is able to achieve another championship, I would recommend to him, as a friend, that he give up the sport. ...
"By the first quarter of next year, or by summer, I feel very confident we'll get him another title shot."
McCullough cherishes his reputation as one of boxing's toughest competitors -- "the granite-chinned Belfastman," the European press calls him -- and says his Irish roots have a lot to do with it.
In 31 fights -- 27 wins, 4 losses, 18 knockouts -- McCullough has never been knocked down. The Ring magazine once honored him for having the best chin in boxing.
"People say to have a good chin, you need to have a thick neck," said 5-foot-7 McCullough, long known as the "Pocket Rocket."
"I have an average neck, but I have a thick skull, actually, like Julio Cesar Chavez."
McCullough likes to draw a parallel between himself and other Mexican fighters as well -- such as Morales, who outpointed him in 1999 in a super bantamweight title fight.
"He's one of those Mexican fighters who likes to war it out," McCullough said. "The Mexicans have the reputation for being warriors, for going all out, but the Irish are the same way."
Another fighter McCullough admires is "Irish" Micky Ward, the junior welterweight from Lowell, Mass., best known for his three fights against Arturo Gatti and for his predilection to bleed on command.
"I love the old-time fighters, and Ward's like the old-time fighters, with the blood and guts," said McCullough, an advocate for the return of 15-round championship fights. "With those guys, you know they're going to fight their hearts out every time and give the people what they want."
Although McCullough says Morales is the hardest puncher he has faced, he says his toughest fight came against Victor Rabanales, a Mexican bantamweight, in Atlantic City in 1994.
Before McCullough went on to win a unanimous decision in his 13th pro fight, one shot from Rabanales briefly knocked McCullough out on his feet.
"He hit me, and for a second I thought I was watching TV back in my hotel room," McCullough said. "I recovered well, but that was the fight that made me think professional boxing was a tough sport."
McCullough trains primarily in a gym he constructed in the garage of his home in a well-appointed Summerlin neighborhood. It's half a world removed, in every way, from the mean Belfast streets where he began boxing at age 8.
Though McCullough sometimes spars with former featherweight champ Kevin Kelley, his constant companion in the gym is his wife and manager, Cheryl, who guides him through the rigors of a workout as a recording of a U2 concert blares over the sound system.
A witty quipster, McCullough shifts gears easily to reveal a thoughtful and serious side. McCullough, who has applied for U.S. citizenship and hopes to achieve it next year, declares an abiding love for this country, and speaks of how grateful he is that he's able to raise his 6-year-old daughter, Wynona, here.
Although he was concerned about the divisive nature of the recent elections, McCullough said he supports President Bush and the American invasion of Iraq. He speculated that if the Irish
fought a full-blown war in 1690, perhaps they could have reached some kind of definitive conclusion rather than having violent episodes linger ever since.
"Or maybe Belfast just hardened me," he said.
Only with some prodding, though, will McCullough address the most painful segment of his career: a medical scare four years ago that proved unfounded but led to a 27-month layoff.
In 2000, the British Boxing Board of Control canceled a McCullough fight scheduled to take place in Belfast after an MRI revealed a cyst near his brain. Subsequent testing in the United States and Europe determined that it was a water cyst (rather than a blood cyst), that McCullough was probably born with it and that he was in no more danger in the boxing ring than any other man.
"I really don't know what went on, the way the British board let me hang like that," McCullough said. "I was cracking up (mentally), thinking if I got hit in the head I was going to die."
Although McCullough said he has since been cleared by more than a dozen neurosurgeons, and was licensed to fight in Nevada for a comeback bout in 2002, he figures the interruption of his career cost him at least $1 million in purses.
"It was two years of my career I can't get back," McCullough said. "It was a bad time, but it's behind me. My head's clear now. I've got a new trainer, a new promoter, new confidence. I'm looking ahead."
For McCullough -- currently ranked No. 10 in the featherweight division by the WBC -- that could mean a title fight in 2005 against 126-pound champ Injin Chi or 122-pound champs Oscar Larios or Israel Vazquez.
It could mean big fights in Las Vegas, or Dublin, or the Irish-American strongholds of Boston or New York.
Goossen said he has no doubt McCullough will find what he's looking for.
"There are very few stars in our business," Goossen said, "and let's face it, Wayne McCullough is a star."
Las Vegas Sun, Nov. 16, 2004