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'A loyalist flute band marched me down the Shankill after I carried the Irish flag. Where was the bitterness?'

Boxing opened Wayne McCullough’s eyes long before he carried the tricolour at Seoul ’88.

Irish Olympian Wayne McCullough.
Irish Olympian Wayne McCullough.

WAYNE MCCULLOUGH WAS in the lobby of a hotel in New York City on the afternoon of 29 April 2000, chinwagging before heading over to Madison Square Garden to commentate for Sky Sports on Lennox Lewis’ heavyweight world-title defence against Michael Grant.

Arturo Gatti, whose journey to boxing legend buzzed through MSG that same night, almost strutted straight past the Belfast man but must have spied him out of the corner of his eye.

He spun back and approached McCullough. ‘Do you remember me?’ Gatti asked him.

‘Yes I do,’ chucked McCullough.

They knew of each other, of course, because their names belonged in the same conversation: they had reigned as world champions simultaneously for a spell in the mid-to-late ’90s and even more pertinently, they were two of professional boxing’s most enthralling protagonists, fistic warmongers born on either side of the Atlantic but forged from the same metal.

They had learned as much long before they were famous, 12 years prior in the city of Derry.

“I was 17 and Arturo was 16-going-on-17 I think, but it was at a senior international between Ireland and Canada,” McCullough recalls.

“I remember they said this young kid Gatti was a hot prospect coming out of Canada and I was thinking, ‘Well, what am I?’

“I drove from Belfast to Derry for the weigh-in that morning, which is 70 miles. I drove home in the afternoon and back up to Derry again for the fight that evening. So, I’d driven 210 miles before I even fought him.

“I just remember, ‘boom!’, he came out in the first round, swinging. He was a strong kid — we both were, even though we obviously weren’t fully grown guys yet.

“But I clocked him with a left hook-right hand and gave him a standing count. Then, ‘boom!,’ he charged towards me again — he didn’t know how to go backwards; if you threw three punches at him, you’d probably hit him with five. That’s the type of guy he was. Same thing, another standing count. And then, next standing count, he’s going to get stopped [by the referee] so as I went after him again, the towel came in.

“The towel came in for a reason: he had a fight scheduled for two days later and if you pulled a guy out, he’d be okay to fight again, but if I’d have given him another standing count, he would have been out for 28 days or something.

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“I saw him afterwards, and bear in mind we’re just two kids at this point — no one knows who we are. And I said: ‘Would you like to change tops with me?’ I always did that: I loved to change tops with people. And he said: ‘Yeah, yeah! But I’m fighting in two days at the Europa Hotel in Belfast; are you coming to it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, actually!’ So we said we’d do it then.

“He comes out in the Europa Hotel, I don’t even know who he fought but he knocked the guy out!” McCullough laughs. “We changed singlets and the rest is history.”

wayne-mccullough-651988 Wayne McCullough representing Ireland in 1988. Source: INPHO

The late Gatti’s vest remains back home in McCullough’s parents house in Belfast, a priceless piece of boxing history but equally, a reminder of how the subsequent International Boxing Hall of Famer played a painful role in McCullough’s Olympic journey.

By the time their paths first converged in 1988, the teenaged McCullough had won Irish titles at four age grades, including Senior, within the space of nine months. He stopped every one of his opponents, most notably the Irish senior champion PJ O’Halloran in their national final. But the IABA boss men remained reticent to send such a young man to the Seoul Games that autumn. They put him in with O’Halloran again. McCullough stopped him again. They put him in with a Scottish kid. Stoppage. Then a Cuban. Same again.

Then came Gatti.

“And they still weren’t going to send me!” McCullough says. “Truth be told, I was disgusted. I probably had one of the best records ever: 12 knockouts in a row at that level? Come on.

“I weighed 105 pounds — seven and a half stone…soaking wet! I was five-foot-four, I hadn’t even grown into a man yet. But I was knocking people out, so why weren’t they going to send me? I’m thinking: ‘Okay, I get it, I’m 17, but I’ll be 18 by September. I might not win a medal but imagine the experience I’ll get? And next time around, I’ll be ready to go.’”

So it proved. His coach Harry Robinson eventually phoned him up: ‘You’re going, son! You’re going!’

After a training camp in Kerry, McCullough was off to Korea for what would be his first ever senior international tournament. He was chosen as Ireland’s flag-bearer for the Olympic opening ceremony. More on that later.

Also on Ireland’s boxing team for Seoul were Billy Walsh, Michael Carruth, Joe Lawlor, Joe Lowey, Paul Fitzgerald and Kieran Joyce. It was the second-time Olympian Joyce who, somewhere along the way, christened McCullough ‘The Pocket Rocket’, a moniker he would later wear throughout his professional career.

“We had so much fun. These are guys who became my friends. They were senior guys and they took me under their wing. They never took advantage of the young guy on the team — and I’d heard the jokes they played on other people, so let’s just say I’m glad they didn’t do it with me!

“We get over to Seoul, I’m in the Olympic Village, 18 years of age, and I’m seeing all these people… Sergey Bubka: he was a pole vaulter, and I loved to watch him back in the day. He’s there. You have Carl Lewis walking past you. Like, ‘What is going on here?’ I used to love athletics, track and field… I remember going to watch some of it, Daley Thompson, Sebastian Coe, and I’m thinking, ‘Holy smokes…’ And I’m star-struck by these people but I’m realising… ‘I’m here to compete as well!’

“There was a a restaurant open 24 hours serving different types of food from all over the world. The facilities were great, everything was catered for. You could stay in the village, eat, train and just never leave… But of course, being Irish, we were out in downtown Seoul, trying to haggle things down from 10 quid to five quid.”

wayne-mccullough-olympic-games-barcelona-1992 Source: © James Meehan/INPHO

When things eventually got serious, McCullough received a bye into the Round of 32 (there was no qualification in those days, meaning there were over 60 entrants in his light-flyweight division). He won his first bout against Fred Mutuweta, setting up a meeting with Canada’s Scotty Olson. The winner of their last-16 contest would go on to fight for a medal in the quarters. The far more seasoned Olson took it despite a rousing finish by McCullough.

“It’s funny, Scotty Olson — Scotty’s a good friend of mine, but he says he dropped me. He didn’t drop me,” McCullough says with detectable annoyance. “He hit me with a body shot that hurt me, but he didn’t drop me. It was a left hook to the body and I just kind of doubled over a little bit. I got a standing count but I never went down. And I just watched it last night for the very first time, I’d never seen video of it. He didn’t drop me, I knew I didn’t get dropped…and now there’s proof!” he laughs.

“But I remember Scotty spoke very highly of me in an interview afterwards, how tough I was. It was a learning experience. Disappointed? Yes, I was. But I got to carry the flag which was a big honour, of course. There was a reason why I was supposed to be there.”

The official motto for the Seoul ’88 was ‘Harmony and Progress.’ During its curtain-raiser, a Protestant teenager from the Shankhill Road, one of the most predominantly loyalists areas of Belfast, carried the Irish tricolour through Seoul Olympic Stadium. It remains one of the proudest moments of McCullough’s career.

He was born at home on Percy Street in 1970, the original family house situated about a hundred feet away from where a section of ‘peace wall’ was erected a year prior to separate his loyalist/unionist neighbourhood from a nearby republican and nationalist Catholic equivalent. The McCulloughs later moved to the Highfield estate in the outer Shankill area.

Up as far as 1988, Wayne was a regular Shankill kid. He used to collect wood for the 12th of July bonfires from two, three months out. When it came to the celebrations, he marched to the fields like everyone else. For a time during his youth, he worked in a junior orange lodge.

“Growing up in Belfast and seeing the wall in front of you as a kid, you’re thinking, ‘We hate them ones on the other side, and they hate us,’” McCullough says. “It’s automatically put in your head. ‘Why do we hate them? We dunno, but we’re going to throw stones at each other’ — as if it’s a normal thing.

“But I started boxing when I was seven and we’d go to the Falls Road: there might be a drinking club, a fight card, some music at the end of the night. And then they would come to Shankhill — and there was never, ever any hassle.

“I fought for Ireland and I was proud to fight for Ireland. I fought for the country probably 40 times, I fought for Ulster (Northern Ireland) probably a dozen times as well. And people say to me, like, ‘Why did you not fight for England?’ And I’m like, ‘Because I’m from…Northern Ireland? It’s called Northern Ireland. And I want to fight for Ireland, because that’s where I’m from.

“I won my first Irish juvenile title at 14. I kept winning, 15, 16… And once I got on the national team, I’m traveling the world with these guys and making friends with them. I’m seeing they’re the same as me and I’m the same as them.

“When they asked me to carry the Irish flag in Korea — Pat McCrory asked me, I can still see it as if he’s right here: we were in my apartment and he said, ‘They’ve asked you, because you’re the youngest member of the team, to carry the flag.’ He said: ‘Go away and think about it.’ And I’m like… ‘I’ve nothing to think about.’ I did it because I wanted to, because I was fighting for Ireland.

And I heard rumblings of trouble back home and stuff — that maybe I shouldn’t do it. My family got [warned]… But when I went back home, there was nathin’… What actually happened was I got brought from Highfield Estate, I got met by the Shankill Road Defenders Flute Band, they marched me down the Shankill — I was on a bus; bear in mind I didn’t even get a medal — and do you know where they had the celebration for me? At the Rangers supporters’ club. A loyalist flute band marched me down the Shankill to a loyalist social club to have a party for me — a great night — after I carried the flag for Ireland. Where was the bitterness? The papers didn’t report that much, you know what I mean? Probably because it was something good!

“Growing up in Belfast”, McCullough continues, “people might ask, ‘What religion are you?’ And my answer to that would be: ‘Why?’ But they just want you to label yourself: orange man, green man… Why? ‘The border’… The Battle of the Boyne was fought south of the border! A battle between an Englishman and a Dutchman — in Dundalk! — determining the future of Northern Ireland, of Ireland,” McCullough laughs. “Seriously?

“A short story: my wife is from East Belfast and I used to cross over every night to see her — but I had no car when I met her, it was just after the Commonwealth Games.” (McCullough won gold for Northern Ireland in Auckland in 1990 and carried the Northern Irish flag during the closing ceremony, “although nobody ever talks about that!”).

I used to get the bus into the city centre, walk across City Hall and hop on another bus. One night, as I was coming home after seeing her, a bunch of guys started yelling at me. “You! Come over here!” And I knew what I was going over for; there was probably no point in me running because there were too many of them. I was going over to get a beating. They were all Catholic guys, understand that. It was dark but I knew. But once I got within, say, 10 feet of them, they’re like… ‘Holy crap! Wayne McCullough!!!’ For that second, I wasn’t a Protestant, I wasn’t a Catholic. I was Wayne McCullough.
And listen, as young kid, Falls Road, Shankill… You know what you are. You have to. But my daughter was born here (in America). And when she was maybe 10, 12, she turned to me and my wife and she said: ‘Daddy, Mummy, am I a Protestant or a Catholic?’ And both of us just laughed because we thought, ‘How innocent is that?’

“Even right now, I’m looking out at my back garden,” McCullough muses from his Vegas home. “And from when she was a kid, my daughter has this little miniature house — it’s pretty big, like: it’s about 10 foot high, maybe eight foot by eight foot wide. But she was born here and she has the American flag flying outside the front door of the wee house.”

WhatsApp Image 2021-07-24 at 00.28.49 The playhouse belonging to McCullough's daughter, Wynona, in their Las Vegas home.

After Seoul ’88, the 18-year-old McCullough was hellbent on turning pro. He began training in Barney Eastwood’s gym, sparring the likes of Dave ‘Boy’ McCauley, Paul Hodkinson and Fidel Bassa. However, his coach Harry Robinson implored him to wait until he was fully grown before ditching his amateur vest, to aim instead for the Barcelona Olympics of 1992 by which point he would still be only 22.

McCullough stayed on, for a couple of years initially. He was growing in height and weight, and won Commonwealth gold up at flyweight in 1990, boosting his potential commercial appeal as a pro halfway through the Olympic cycle. The IABA eventually stumped up £500 a month — £250 into the hand, £250 ‘put away’ — to keep him amateur for ’92. (There would later be a six-month battle to collect the ‘put-away’ money).

After the Commonwealths, the still-growing McCullough — two inches taller and a stone heavier than he had been for Seoul — moved up to bantamweight. He took bronze at the now-defunct but then-prestigious World Cup. Unlike the European Championships, World Championships or Olympics, losing semi-finalists had to square off for bronze at the World Cup, and McCullough earned £1500 prize money for his troubles — “although that was also money that the IABA held back from me for a long time,” he laughs.

By ’92, because of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there were suddenly umpteen more national boxing champions. To avoid overcrowding in tournament brackets, an Olympic qualification process was established for the first time. McCullough went to Germany in April ’92 and won four fights in four days to book his ticket to a second Olympics.

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“Because I’d gotten bronze at the World Cup, I was favoured to get at least a bronze at the Olympics. At least a bronze. And that did bring pressure even though I knew I was capable of it. But at the same time, it comes down to the draw, y’know what I mean? It always comes down to the draw.

“…And of course, I get one of the hardest draws possible,” he laughs.

My first fight was with Fred Mutuweta (Uganda), who had become my friend. I fought him in the Olympics in ’88, I had to beat him for bronze at the World Cup… But at that point, we had become pen pals! So, in ’92, the draw comes out, and we get drawn against each other in the first fight. I saw him in the Olympic Village, we walked up to each other and we actually both just put our hands up as if to say, ‘What are the chances?! Again?!’ And I really thought he was gifted enough to to medal if he had been on the other side of the draw.

McCullough saw to it that Mutuweta’s campaign ended in the round of 32, earning the slightly easier prospect of facing Iraq’s Ahmed Abbood in the last 16. In victory over Abbood, he damaged a muscle in his arm on which he received treatment for the next three days. He initially feared he would be forced to withdraw before ploughing onto his quarter-final with Nigerian southpaw Mohammed Sabo, who had won Commonwealth gold up at bantamweight in 1990 when McCullough had triumphed a division below at flyweight.

McCullough advanced at Sabo’s expense, setting up a semi-final with North Korean Gwang-Sik Li.

boxing-barcelona-olympic-games-1992-bantamweight-division-final-wayne-mccullough-v-joel-casamayor McCullough with his Olympic silver medal. Source: PA

Li had beaten Bulgarian world champion Serafim Todorov in his own quarter. (Todorov incidentally went on to become the last fighter ever to beat Floyd Mayweather when they met at the Atlanta Games four years later).

McCullough and Li waged war. The Korean cracked the Irishman’s cheekbone in three places, damaging facial nerves which never fully recovered: McCullough still feels the odd tingle 29 years later. But it was he whose hand was raised over Li’s after three rounds or savagery, advancing to the final against Cuba’s Joel Casamayor.

“I mean, Casamayor’s semi-final opponent from Morocco was pulled out after two minutes with an arm injury. So he had barely broken a sweat in his semi whereas I was going in with my own arm injury and my face busted. But there was no chance on Earth that anybody was taking me out of that final.”

Casamayor won the first two rounds, McCullough roaring back in the third but unable to reverse the arrears. He was also unable to box for six months upon arriving home an Olympic silver medalist due to the facial damage he had accrued in his semi-final with Li.

“I lost to a guy who went on to become a legend, a professional world champion too, which makes it a bit easier. So does that the fact that every Irish person who was, say, 10 or older at the time, remembers that Olympics and the celebration afterwards. When Michael won gold and I won silver, it was one of the best Olympics Ireland has ever had.

And what’s funny is I watched Michael Carruth’s final from a drug-testing room. I was sitting in the drug-testing room with Casamayor, both of us trying to pee while our two team-mates are fighting in their own final. There was all these different types of drinks, even beer and stuff, because you’re dehydrated afterwards — but you could not leave that room until you had peed. I just remember both of us were sitting there, both of us watching the final, looking at each other as if to say, ‘Pfft, this is a close fight as well.’

“But what’s amazing is that I presumed that’d be it, y’know? That I’d just never see him again. I was turning pro and it’s different with Cuba, he was their number-one guy as far as ’96 — he probably would have gotten double gold.”

boxing-barcelona-olympic-games-1992-bantamweight-division-final-wayne-mccullough-v-joel-casamayor McCullough and Cuba's Joel Casamayor. Source: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

Instead, in July 1996, McCullough and the rest of the boxing world learned that Casamayor and light-heavyweight team-mate Ramon Garbey had fled a training camp in Mexico on the eve of the Atlanta Games. They sought asylum at a border crossing in San Diego, with Casamayor eventually moving onto Las Vegas, by then the adopted hometown of the Irishman he had bested in their Olympic final four years prior.

“We were at a fight card, out the back somewhere the first time we saw each other,” McCullough recalls. “It was like we were friends for life. It was just, ‘AHHHHHH!’ Hugging each other, ‘holy smokes.’ He didn’t understand much English but I knew, ‘Hola, como estas, amigo’ so we managed.

“And to this day, every time we see each other, we always give each other a big, big hug. My friend has a gym here, City Boxing, and Joel actually trains fighters out of that gym. We’ve remained close, he’s a lovely, lovely guy. And then, in 2019, the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame inducted us on the same night for our professional boxing careers. We were two of nine fighters who got inducted that night. What are the chances of even that, you know? Olympic final together, both professional world champions, and both of us inducted on the same night.”

day-19-olympic-torch-relay 1992 Olympians Wayne McCullough and Michael Carruth carrying the Olympic torch through Belfast before the 2012 London Games. Source: PA

Casamayor’s wasn’t the only unlikely friendship McCullough struck up in the aftermath of the Barcelona Games. Upon his arrival back in Belfast with his Olympic silver medal, the only politician to congratulate him — formally or otherwise — was Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, who wrote him a letter.

“I’m not sure he was my local representative for the Shankhill Road,” McCullough laughs. “I was…gobsmacked.

“But you see Belfast boxers like Paddy Barnes getting MBEs — Member of the British Empire. (Barnes accepted the award in 2015 but later expressed his regret). “I always joke with my wife, not that what I did with the flag in ’88 was a giant leap for mankind like the Americans going to the moon or something — I did it because I wanted to; but nobody’s ever considered me for an MBE.

“It doesn’t bother me but the politicians on…let’s just say ‘my side’: seriously, I’ve never had anything from them. Do I need them to? No, I don’t. Maybe there’s bitterness in their bones.

“In the boxing world, I saw something different. I opened my eyes.”

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