BACK in February 1993, I flew from Belfast to Los Angeles, fought on the 23rd, and then on the 24th I came to Las Vegas. That was 28 years ago and I have lived here ever since.
I never thought I would stay but I did. I was actually the homebody on the Irish (amateur) team. Whenever we went away on a trip, I couldn’t wait to get home again. I thought Belfast was the whole world, I really did. I travelled the world as an amateur but I always wanted to go back to Belfast.
I was young when I left Belfast. My wife was only 19 when we came here and we were just dating still. We didn’t know one person here. But we stayed in America and it was here I met and learned from the great Eddie Futch. Eddie had seen me box at the ’92 Olympics and my manager at the time asked him if he would take me on. Eddie was 82 years old and was training Riddick Bowe and Mike McCallum but he decided to take on both me and Montell Griffin, who boxed at the same Olympic Games. That’s why I ended up in Vegas. Under the guidance of Eddie, I was unbeaten in 19 fights as a bantamweight and won the WBC bantamweight title in 1995.
When I went to Japan to fight Yasuei Yakushiji for that WBC title, I didn’t know I was going to be the first boxer from Britain or Ireland to go to Japan and win a championship. Nobody told me. It was only when Rendall Munroe later fought over there that I heard about it. They said on TV, “Rendall Munroe is trying to become the second fighter to do it after Wayne McCullough.” I said to my wife, “Was I the first? I didn’t even know that.”
I beat Yakushiji unanimously that night but they gave me a split decision. They had a Korean judge who scored against me but the two American judges gave it to me. I knew it was going to be tough. If you watch the first round, he hit me with a right hand and I just thought, Right, here we go, this is going to be a long night. I pushed him and pushed him, and went to his body a lot, and it was, as expected, a gruelling fight. Yakushiji was a tough guy. This was the fifth defence of his title. It was also not only in his home country but in his home city.
Eddie had me prepared properly for that fight, though. You talk about toughness, he got me four sparring partners who were all tough and I had to push through in sparring. By the time we got to Japan the hard work was done.
The Japanese fans were quiet until the last two rounds. In the last two rounds there was almost this roar that went up and up and up and I got shivers down my spine when I heard it. Eddie just said to me, “Pop that jab, move around, pop that jab, he’s going to come on strong.” He did come on strong but I wasn’t in any trouble or anything. I just picked him off. My face was pretty swollen up after the fight, which tells you what kind of fight it was. But the crowd – his crowd – were really respectful afterwards.
My first defence of the title was against Johnny Bredahl and that took place at the King’s Hall in Belfast, which was unbelievable. My first fight in Belfast was in ’93. I fought a small fight there against Conn McMullenn, the Irish champion, and won in three rounds. It was my first fight back after the Olympics and it wasn’t a big venue, so the crowd wasn’t so loud.
I went to Dublin two months later and sold out within five minutes, probably because a lot of my amateur career was spent down there. After that, the Belfast people were like, “Well, we need to see you here again.” So, after winning the [WBC] title in Japan, I said my first and second defences would be held in Belfast and Dublin.
The atmosphere the first time I fought in Belfast was disappointing but, when I returned for that first defence against Bredahl, it was out of this world.
My first loss as a pro came at super-bantamweight against Daniel Zaragoza. Until the day he died, Eddie Futch thought I won that fight. It was actually my last fight with him by my side. It would have been nice to have secured another championship with him.
I thought I won the fight, too, by the way, but it ended up being a split decision in Zaragoza’s favour. It was the ‘Fight of the Year’, so probably should have led to a rematch. But Zaragoza is a Hall of Famer, so there’s no shame in losing that.
Victor Rabanales was the only guy to hurt me in my career but I wouldn’t necessarily say he hit the hardest because getting hurt by him had more to do with my own inexperience than anything. If we’re talking about a guy who hit hard for 12 rounds, that’s Erik Morales. Erik hit me in the first round and I felt the shock of it go all the way down my left side. And in the 12th round he was still throwing punches like that.
[Naseem] Hamed was strong. He had a physical strength which was fantastic. But his first words to me when we hugged in the ring after the fight were: “You’ve got super strength.” I had to have that really because if you don’t have that one-punch power, you need that strength to not allow your opponent to shove you around or dominate you. You need to be able to hold your own and gain their respect.
I think I’d rather have a good chin and good strength than one-punch knockout power. With strength and a good chin, I knew I could push opponents and test them. I knew I could go with them throughout the fight and be there at the end. I had that assurance. Any stoppages came with accumulation, or left hooks to the body, and that was fine by me. Also, as a bantamweight I was 19-0 with 14 knockouts, so I must have been doing something right.
I told Hamed at the press conference that when he hit me, I would still be there. And I was. After that, after realising I would be, he danced around for 11 rounds and won the fight that way.
Morales, though, didn’t change when he knew he couldn’t hurt me. He was still trying his hardest to knock me out in the 12th round. He had that guts and glory thing about him. Although his face was busted up, and he had been ready to quit in the ninth round, he still wanted to get me out of there.
Hamed was fighting in the main event that night against Cesar Soto and I remember going into Morales’ dressing room after the fight and seeing him horizontal on a massage table wrapped in a big, thick jacket, shivering. It was normal for me to have a tough fight, so I just said to him, “Are you okay?” He stood up and then took off his tracksuit jacket and gave it to me. I’d never had anybody do that for me, so I took mine off and gave it to him in return. That was respect, I think. He’s since said I was one of his three toughest fights.
My last fight was a defeat against Juan Ruiz in 2008 and it was a fight I never should have taken. In fact, if Eddie Futch had been alive, I’d have never taken a fight when injured. He would have just said, “I’m pulling the fight,” and I wouldn’t have questioned him.
But at the time I didn’t have anybody. I was on the doctor’s table a week before that Ruiz fight and unable to move. I had injured my back in training and it was so bad I could hardly walk. I called the late Dan Goossen [promoter] from the doctor’s table and said, “Dan, I can’t do this fight next week.” But what I got back was the old saying from the promoters: “Well, this is going to be your last chance.” My wife was sitting there and saying to me, “You’re not fighting,” but in my head I thought I had to go through with it.
When I got to the Cayman Islands, I realised why Dan had said that. The place was full of English and Irish people. It’s a tax haven, the Cayman Islands, and they’re over there splashing their money. There was no American crowd at all. It was all English and Irish and at that point I said, “That’s why this b*****d wanted me out here fighting.” He didn’t care about me. We got along, Dan and me; I did my first fight with him and I did my last fight with him. But I couldn’t even walk when I got there. My back was taped up until I left the dressing room.
I was winning the fight against Ruiz but it was tougher than it should have been. I gave it two or three rounds, then just couldn’t do it anymore because the pain was so bad. It was the hardest thing in my life. The toughest thing ever. I realised then that Dan wasn’t my friend. The truth is, if he was my friend, he wouldn’t have let me take that fight. His brother was working the other guy’s corner, too, by the way.
After the fight I took the microphone and told everyone that could be my last hurrah and I thanked them all for coming out. I didn’t want to make excuses at the time, or take anything away from my opponent, but I should have been nowhere near a ring that night.
Some fighters get to a point where they are in the ring and they can’t do anything – not because they have an injury but because they can’t pull the trigger anymore. With me, I didn’t experience that. But maybe it was a good thing I didn’t experience that because usually by that stage you have gone past the point of no return. Usually at that point you are there for the taking and your chin might have deteriorated along with your speed, your timing, and your reflexes. That’s when it becomes dangerous.
I never really came out and said I was totally retired but I’m 50 years old now, so that part of it has kind of taken care of itself. I can still get out there and run and train every day but the only people I spar are clients; just novices who wants to feel what it’s like to get hit. Eddie Futch, when I came here, was over 80 years old and working out every day. So, if he could do it, I have no excuse. It’s funny, when I first got the chance to sit down with Eddie, I remember just being in awe. The day after my first fight in Vegas we were sitting in a restaurant and I hardly said a word. I just sat there like a little choir boy and kept thinking, Wow, this guy is my coach.
Everywhere I went, no matter where it was or who I was fighting, people would see Eddie Futch in my corner and it did something to them. Opponents would s**t themselves before they even fought me.
He had a masterplan for every fight and he was tough. He did it his way. I knew I could learn from him, and perhaps become a coach in my own right one day, and Eddie was more than happy to take me under his wing.
Having him there was like having a hot water bottle on a cold winter’s day back home. It was comforting. He gave me confidence as well. Going into the fight, in the dressing room, he would tell you what we were going to do. You would sometimes stand there and think, Okay, how am I going to do this? But you also knew you had prepped so much in the build-up that it was automatic.
Eddie once took part in a documentary called Rocket on ITV and in this documentary they asked him about his 20 world champions and he said, “Wayne McCullough rates up there in the top five.” I was watching it and was absolutely gobsmacked. I couldn’t believe it. This was a man who worked with Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Michael Spinks, Riddick Bowe, Don Jordan, and those guys. Once he said that, it was there forever. And it made me so happy. He wrote me a letter before he passed away and in it he praised me for how I listened to him. He told me I would make a great coach and signed it. I’ve got it on my wall. He also gave me a 1938 New York Golden Gloves pin.
I’m the only fighter out of all the fighters he trained who received a letter from him and, for me, that was like getting a college diploma. When you see all these different people becoming coaches who don’t have a clue, and have either never boxed or never worked with other great coaches, it really hits home. I learned under the great Eddie Futch and he even wrote me a letter. You don’t get a better endorsement than that. Anyone can put a towel over their shoulder and call themselves a coach.
Eddie was the reason I became champion of the world and when he died in 2001 I was still close to him. I believe he was the greatest trainer of all time. But he was an even better person. He cared about the fighter and didn’t care about money. If you can be like that, you are worth your weight in gold in a sport like boxing, because far too many coaches don’t care about their fighters and just throw them in there to make money. That’s when you get fighters and coaches falling out. That’s when you get punch-drunk syndrome. He was a small guy, Eddie, but he used to spar Joe Louis, who liked using him for speed. He once even compared me to Henry Armstrong, who is my favourite fighter of all time. If he compares me to him, I’ll take it any day of the week. I tried to fight like the old-school fighters and Eddie Futch made sure that I did.