McCullough's reward may be a rematch


Wayne McCullough came, saw and was conquered. He didn't deserve to win, nor did he deserve to lose by the margins announced by the ringside judges. But all that is academic this morning.

On Saturday night here McCullough turned his career into a viable and vibrant thing once again. He took Naseem Hamed to a place he had been only once before: McCullough took him the distance. And, for his trouble, he earned respect and the more tangible reward of a promised rematch. That should take place in the spring on the Irish side of what boxing promoters call The Pond.

On a night when the beery partisanship of a less-than-capacity crowd heavily favoured the Irish boxer, the main story-line was more downbeat than had been expected. Instead of pyrotechnics, we got a quiet lessen in courage and concentration.

Prince Naseem Hamed arrived in the ring by means of an amateur theatrical production, strutting through a polystyrene graveyard. Much dry ice and scarcely a dry eye in the house with the laughter.

For his part, McCullough, variously taunted and derided in boxing quarters for the influence of his wife, Cheryl, on his dwindling career, announced that it would be an evening of defiance by arriving in the ring to the tune of U2's (She Moves In) Mysterious Ways.

None of the Hallowe'en terrors which had been forecast by foe and commentator alike were visited upon McCullough. Most of those close to ringside feared for the Belfast boxer's health if his opponent found his range, but the third round, which Hamed had singled out as being potentially decisive, came and went with McCullough still in good shape, and the fight found its character.

For a time, as Hamed danced and taunted with his princely arms dangling nonchalantly by his sides, there existed an eery sense that he was biding his time before issuing one cobra strike which would connect McCullough with the canvas. It never came. As the fight matured, Hamed's style became more orthodox. By the last three rounds the champion was working hard to clock up the points.

"Early on he was talking to me all the time," said McCullough, "then, when we got past the sixth, he just wasn't talking at all."

Hamed's silence was the toll of respect which McCullough earned after a performance in the early rounds when he took several of the patented uppercuts which have toppled other fighters but stayed standing.

"He's got a hard head, man. And a big heart," said Naseem Hamed. "I just said to him, `You're doing well, you're doing well, why not come and hit me?' "

Why not indeed. McCullough made for a study in ferocious concentration through those early rounds in particular. Gloves up in an orthodox defence, his face looked red and a little puffy from the first bell almost, and, when the crowd were lulled, those at ringside could hear his breath loud and fast as he snorted like a horse with the effort.

Through it all Hamed stayed fractionally out of range, keeping his hands low, swaying, shuffling and showboating while he flicked away with stinging jabs.

If there is romance in the brutal business of boxing it was here. With defeat apparently pending, McCullough's crouched stance, furrowed brow and relentlessly brave march forward distinguished him as the brave sapper yomping through the minefield. Duly, his opponent taunted and teased and spread his peacock feathers.

You knew McCullough was unlikely to win but you rooted for him not to lose. His Belfast song of defiance was long and lovely.

Afterwards, Hamed offered the view, wrapped in his trademark gabby arrogance, that McCullough and The Prince was a bout which only he could win. Stripping away the disrespect, he had a point.

McCullough's punches, though they looked plentiful, were mostly wispy, and the more he tired the fewer he landed. Hamed scored heavily practically any time the fighters came in close and tangled.

In the aftermath of the decision there was much bellyaching and booing from the beer-flushed Irish contingent in the hall, but the McCullough camp were at best low key in their views about the verdict.

The realistic view of a fight like Saturday night's is that when any challenger takes on a meal ticket fighter like Naseem Hamed he is going to have to stretch him on the canvas before those who own and promote the meal ticket will concede defeat.

Given McCullough's long layoff from serious fighting and his lack of the big punch, a rematch on improved money is a victory of sorts. That rematch was tentatively scheduled for the spring by all the main players in Atlantic City on Saturday night. Whether it happens, however, may depend on the whim of somebody who was absent.