McCullough wins the popularity stakes

 

In a boxing career liberally sprinkled with performances of great skill and pluck Wayne McCullough has never earned the plaudits of his supporters as surely as he did on Saturday night.

At the huge Atlantic City Boardwalk Convention Centre he turned in a display of great depth to reduce Prince Naseem Hamed to the status of an ordinary mortal. And in doing so forced him to go the 12 rounds for only the second time in his unbeaten career.

At the end of the bout some thought that McCullough might have pulled off an unlikely victory, but the three judges were in no mood for sentiment and gave Hamed a unanimous endorsement.

Yet it must be said that their scoring of the bout in favour of the Sheffield WBO Featherweight champion leaves an awful lot to be desired.

Most of the experienced ringside observers were content to give Hamed a narrow victory; but the judges scoring ranged from four points to six and then to eight - a margin which McCullough himself described as "ridiculous".

On a night when two west European boxers faced each other before an American public, McCullough won the popularity stakes hands down. In a sense it is wrong to described this as an American crowd, because the majority in a crown of 8,000 were vocally in favour of the Belfast man. This was because most of the crowd were Irish and they gave Hamed a hostile reception as he came into the ring in a cloud of smoke, with loud Hallowe'en explosions reverberating around the vast auditorium.

Boos greeted him all the way and his back flip somersault over the ring ropes was jeered by the crowd, many of whom were bearing Irish tricolours and chanting songs more reminiscent of the heady days of soccer success under Jack Charlton.

At the end the judges all plumped for the reigning champion. Judge Nelson Vasquez from Puerto Rico gave Hamed a vote of 117 to 111, Clark Sammertino scored it 116 to 112; but it was the local New Jersey man, John Stewart, who shocked many with a 118 to 110 verdict that seemed to bear little relationship to what most had believed they had seen.

There can be little doubt that Naseem had won; but his frequent pre-match forecasts that he would end the fight early were found to be merely empty boasting of the type which has earned him his arrogant reputation.

It is no exaggeration to say that Naseem has made more enemies than friends after this, his second appearance in an American ring.

Veteran observers are finding it difficult to find a good word to say about him, for he has antagonised almost all of those with whom he has come in contact. Brendan Ingle, the trainer and the man mostly responsible for spotting Naseem's undoubted talent in the first place, has been labelled a Judas even though he still works Naseem's corner with his two sons Dominic and John.

The ironic twist here is that Ingle, himself is a native Dubliner, who has made his home and career in Sheffield, where Naseem of a Yemeni family, grew up.

The rather disappointing crowd of just over 8,000 in a hall with a capacity of close on 15,000, were well aware of these contradictions and the tensions inside Naseem's corner. Many, however, were fearful that Naseem's forecast that he would end McCullough's career, might come to pass.

McCullough had been told by Naseem to prepare for an early exit and a possible last appearance in the ring. There was never any real sign that this forecast would prevail, however. After a shaky opening round McCullough gave as good as he got, although Naseem was clearly dismissive of his efforts to dictate the fight.

He danced and he grinned and he cavorted; but McCullough continued to come forward and although he caught the champion with a neat right cross to the head, in the third round, it was clear at this stage that we were in for the long haul.

McCullough continued to seek the initiative by constantly driving forward; but it was Naseem who was landing the better and more telling punches and obviously scoring heavily with the judges in doing so.

Around the middle of the fight there was a growing sense of unease that McCullough was making serious demands on his reserves of strength. He was not getting a proportionate award for his efforts and as Naseem's histrionics became ever more apparent, McCullough began to show signs of frustration. He managed to remain cool, however, in the face of Naseem's unsporting approach and this was greatly to his credit and earned him the plaudits of the crowd.

In the ninth round Naseem's taunting grin turned to a grimace as McCullough scored with another splendid right to the head; but Naseem seemed to realise the need for caution and in Rounds 10 and 11 he laid a strong foundation for victory.

The announcement that the champion had retained his title was greeted with sustained booing. Sadly some of McCullough's supporters probably the worse for alcohol, allowed their disappointment to spill over and some were drawn to the attention of the police, who hustled a number of people away when the result was announced.

It was the margin of victory which caused most comment. There can be no doubt that McCullough once again earned himself the admiration of the boxing public on both sides of the Atlantic, and he was in a buoyant mood afterwards with no talk of retirement; but a promise to return to the fray in the spring.