By Oliver McManus @OliverGMcManus
With the clock counting down until Marco McCullough hits 30 – on November 22nd – the Northern Irishman is acutely aware that now is the time to start pushing on.
The phrase “I’m nearly 30, I’ve got to give it my all” became, almost, a mantra throughout our conversation. Whilst McCullough insists his love for boxing is as strong as it has ever been, he is also realistic about how suddenly circumstances can change. Eager to remain at the top of his game for years to come, he fights Declan Geraghty on May 17th in a “must win” contest.
“He’s done a lot of talking saying what he’ll do to me and I think he’s talked his way into the fight. We’re both at a crossroads and it’s a great fight to make, easy fight to make. I was hoping to be able to push on past him so, to me, it was a bit of a step-back but he’s kept on talking so I signed the contract. It should be a good fight for the fans, that’s for sure. There’s no doubt he’s a good fighter but he talks too much.
He’s a great boxer but he seems to blow up after four, five rounds. I don’t know if it’s fitness or what it is, in those opening rounds he looks world class but after the halfway stage his tank is empty. I still think he boxes very amatuer, quite bouncy, and we’re expecting that to stay the same.”
The fight, at Ulster Hall, will see the winner claim the IBF European title and enter the Top 15 at super-featherweight – within touching distance of a challenge to Tevin Farmer. Opportunities aplenty will open up for the winner but the man that loses faces the daunting task of resurrecting their career.
“To be honest, I don’t know what happens for the loser. It would be a hard loss to come back from, for either of us. Declan hasn’t done much, he’s fought two good fighters in James Tennyson and Jono Carroll and lost to both of them so I don’t know where I’d go if I lost.
I’ve always tried to get straight back into training after my previous losses, see what went wrong, and try to learn from them as quickly as possible. I’m nearly 30 now, I can’t just put this fight in the box marked ‘learning curve’, I need to be more specific about what I’m doing and I think I’ve got the team around me to make sure I am.”
That ‘team’ have had a noticeable impact on his style of fighting, not only in stepping McCullough up to super featherweight but in ensuring he takes proper care of his body. Based out of Ormeau Road, the 29 year old explained to me the reasoning behind his link-up with Charlie Toland in 2016.
“I was with John Breen at the beginning of my career and he was a very traditional trainer so my body started to feel like an old man very quickly, especially with all these young guys coming through. I’m now with Charlie (Toland) and I was his first professional fighter. I took my loss (to Isaac Lowe) quite bad so I just went to his gym, kept my head down, and worked the bag.
He’s a very smart trainer, he offered to help me out and he helped me screw my head back on. It’s very different to what I was used to, John Breen is a very good coach but I was getting too many aches and pains when I was with him.”
The Pain Was Horrendous
Reflecting on the influence of that partnership, McCullough highlighted his win over Ruddy Encarnacion, in his last fight, as an example of that newfound adaptability.
“I’ll always do anything to win and sometimes I get involved in too many wars but that’s what people want, I suppose. I thought I started off very fast in that fight, in the sixth fight he caught me with a body shot and made me slow the pace down. I was in complete agony and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to finish the fight, the pain was horrendous, but I’ve rewatched it and we couldn’t see the punch that did the damage. I was in pain for a good couple days after. They’re (the fights) meant to be boring from the start but as soon as I get punched in the face I can’t help but get involved!
I think because of his age people might be overlooking that win, he’s a real quality European level fighter. From the outside view he’s took a lot of losses, he is getting on, but he’s not an opponent you can just walk through.”
A ten round fight of the year contender that saw both fighters dropped, McCullough was rewarded with the IBO International belt around his waist. The manner of his performance was one that the Shankhill fighter hoped would push him on to bigger titles. Encarnacion was mandatory for the EBU title held by Samir Ziani so, surely, that could be on the horizon?
“That’s what we hoped, but you know what boxing is like, we thought by beating him we’d then surpass his mandatory. Perhaps too much common sense for it to be true. I would love to have the British title, to be honest, or the European title. Of course I’d love a world title crack but a win against Declan puts me in a good position for a fair few belts so I’ll be open to offers. Very rarely have I ever said ‘no’ to a fight but when I have it’s always been because of niggles or something like that.”
McCullough has found himself hitting a nice stride with four wins on the trot and looking a completely different fighter to that we saw lose to Ryan Walsh.
His upturn in fortunes coincides with the return of big-time boxing in Northern Ireland, spearheaded by MTK Global. Life in the spotlight hasn’t always been the kindest to the former All Ireland youth champion.
In only his second professional fight he was granted a slot on a Sky Sports Fight Night, against Dai Davies. A fighter far better than his record suggests, the Welshman caused a minor upset in out-pointing McCullough 39-37. The experience, however, is one that prepared McCullough for the realities of professional boxing.
“That was hard on me, I really took it bad. I still believe I won but, the thing is, I was fighting in a leisure centre in my first fight (against Eddie Nesbitt) and then I got thrown onto the undercard of Paul McCloskey, on Sky show, and I shied away a wee bit. I didn’t know what to expect and I couldn’t box I should have been able to, I was frightened if I’m honest with you. I felt like I was thrown into the deep end, I was a wee scared boy, but I obviously didn’t know how I’d respond so it would have been foolish to turn the opportunity down.”
Campaigning at featherweight until the back end of 2017, his move up to super feather has seen him sporting a rejuvenated figure and the difference of those mere five pounds is heaven and earth, he told me.
“I thought I could make featherweight no problem but Charlie (Toland) broke his leg the day before we went out to fight Ryan Walsh and it stressed me out. My body was holding a lot of water because of that and it was a pain to get it off, nothing went to plan but it gave me the idea to move up and see how I feel.
Usually I’d be chipping weight off on the morning of the weigh-in but I haven’t had to do that since moving up, it gives me an extra day recovery and it makes me wonder why I didn’t do it earlier in my career. I’m enjoying it a lot more, there’s not the stress of worrying about making weight.”
We’ve Bunked Together
The “Indian Summer” starts with this intriguing contest against Declan Geraghty, where animosity has brewed seemingly from nothing. The debacle began with an iFL TV interview last year in which Geraghty called out the former WBO European champion but it all came out of the blue, as far as his opponent is concerned.
“I didn’t really understand where this all came from. My dad watched that iFL interview, phoned me and said “if I was sitting beside him, I’d have fucking hit him”. We boxed together a couple times as an amatuer, we’ve bunked together, he always seemed a decent lad so I’m not entirely sure what’s got his back up. It’s confused us all but he’s got to back it up now, he’s talked too much.
The 29 year old explained to that this “isn’t about beating Declan Geraghty, his name doesn’t mean much to me, but about the doors it could open”. A ranking within the IBF sets McCullough up nicely for a potential bout with Jono Carroll, something he said he wouldn’t shy away from, or, who knows, a shot at Tevin Farmer’s world title. More immediately, though, he’ll be looking at spending time with his family.
“I’ve got a holiday booked for after the fight, the last few years my wife’s birthday has actually fallen in the middle of camp so we’ve not been able to celebrate properly but we’ll go abroad with our wee girl in the summer. My girl is fifteen months so she doesn’t really understand what I do but I keep telling the missus that it’s all worth it, in the long run.
We’ve got our own house, it might not sound much, but it’s all because of boxing and that’s all I want, really, to give us a good life where we don’t have to worry about money. If I can set my little girl up for a head start, as well, then that’s a bonus.”