Tuesday 17 October 2017

Ring

AS the class of 2012 gear up for their assault on amateur boxing's ultimate prizes in London, it seems difficult to believe that it's now 20 years since Dubliner Michael Carruth and Belfast native Wayne McCullough entered the ring in Barcelona with the hopes of the nation on their shoulders.

It was Saturday morning, August 8, 1992, and the country rose in hopeful anticipation of gold medal glory -- cautious hope, because both men faced highly formidable Cuban opponents in their respective finals, perennial thoroughbred pugilists at the Games.

McCullough, a 22-year-old Protestant from the Shankill Road who had carried the Irish Tricolour in Seoul four years earlier, went in against future professional great Joel Casamayor in the bantamweight final.

Though highly fancied at home, injury took its toll on the man known as the 'Pocket Rocket' as the gold medal slipped painfully from his grasp.

"I won a tough fight in the semi-final, but I broke my cheekbone and I still have no feeling there to this day. I didn't know how serious it was at the time because you just carry on with adrenalin and all the emotion.

"They were thinking of taking me out of the fight, but I fought on even though I was losing. Nothing was going to stop me from fighting," says Wayne all these years later.

Nonetheless, that sort of dogged determination would stand Wayne in good stead for a glittering professional career that was to follow and he maintains a strong sense of pride in that early achievement.

"People still come up to me and say I could have won that fight, but it wasn't to be. I got a silver medal so I'm happy enough with that and can't complain.

"People always remember the Olympics and where they were at the time. People still say to me that they remember exactly where they were watching that fight. It seemed like the entire country was watching."

A 19-year-old kid from Los Angeles by the name of Oscar De La Hoya won lightweight gold for the US in-between, before Irish eyes turned to 25-year-old Carruth, contesting the welterweight final against the rangy and formidable Juan Hernandez Sierra.

This time there was to be no near miss, as, astutely guided by his father and long-time coach Austin and Cuban trainer Nicholas Cruz Hernandez, the dream turned to reality for Carruth, still Ireland's only Olympic boxing champion.

"We played a good game of chess. I knew Juan Hernandez quite well, he was a tall and stylish southpaw. So I let him come into my range and used my right hand to pick him off.

"I didn't use my left much because it was broken. It helped that there were a few hundred Irish in there who cheered if there was even a hint of a punch landing from me," says Carruth of the bout, which he won 13-10 on points despite suffering a harsh three-point penalty for alleged holding.

"There was an initial shock when I got on that podium but I always wanted to compete at the Olympics and ultimately win it. To do it with my own father in the corner was just amazing too."

Veteran broadcaster Jimmy Magee, who was ringside, commentating for RTE Radio, said: "I've been covering boxing for many years, and though we'd had great success before, I had never got to see us take an Olympic gold medal and on that day it happened.

"We had won medals before, but this was something special."

After returning home to much fanfare and adulation, national-hero status secured, reality returned and both boxers soon had to turn their attention to the future and making a living in the professional ranks of the sport.

McCullough made the move stateside to train under legendary cornerman Eddie Futch, who boasted heavyweight great Joe Frazier among his list of previous world champions.

It was to prove a smart move for the Belfast man, who became a world champion just three years later, winning the WBC bantamweight belt by beating Yasuei Yakushiji in Nagoya, Japan.

His legendary chin would later see him go the distance with big hitters Prince Naseem Hamed and Erik Morales.

"Having the medal was great but it didn't change my life in the financial sense. You are certainly not set for life after winning an Olympic medal.

"I always wanted to go pro and then the money comes with that if you are successful, but I just always loved boxing," says Wayne, regarded as one of the true nice guys of professional boxing.

"I had to make a living for my family so I needed to take the offer. I came to Las Vegas and my whole life changed then, but it was a great move for me. It was amazing to go and train with a great trainer in Eddie Futch and with world champions. Any young fighter would have taken that opportunity."

The glory that McCullough achieved as a pro never quite happened for Carruth, however, who signed with English promoter Frank Warren and based himself on home shores.

He walked away from fighting professionally in 2000 with a respectable record of 18 wins from 21 fights, but without a world title to his name.

"I'd have regretted it all my life if I hadn't given it a go as a pro, and there weren't huge options for me anyway. You didn't make any great money as a celebrity in Ireland at the time.

"I lost out to a dodgy decision in a WBO world title fight which I definitely won.

"In my last fight, my dad took me out of the fight because it was going wrong. I was dehydrated and going badly and the father -- rather than the coach -- took over and got me out of there," he reflects.

More importantly, though, both men have their physical health intact.

Life has come full circle in a sense. Wayne has also boxed clever outside the ring, now training young fighters in Vegas as well as working with the UFC and taking on punditry work for US network Primetime and a column for Sky Sports.

His 14-year-old daughter Wynona, he says, is the big focus for him and his wife Cheryl. An up-and-coming singer, Wynona played as a support act for Westlife on their recent Farewell tour, and hopes are high of her making her way in the industry.

For Michael, his work as a development officer with the Irish Amateur Boxing Association, and as a coach with his own Drimnagh Boxing Club, allows him to build the foundations for future success on the greatest stage and carry on the pioneering coaching done years ago by his late father Austin.

"I'm doing what I love doing. I'm happy with where I am and with what I've achieved. This is how it goes, life's a cycle. So it's up to us to carry things on now, coaching the kids and hopefully producing good young boxers who can then represent Ireland as well."

He'll also be breaking down the action from London on RTE television, and has high hopes that Ireland's impressive boxing medal haul of 12 will increase again.

"Katie Taylor has her father in her corner this year as well and has a big chance, but I think -- with a bit of luck -- the five lads can do well too and we could come back with two or three medals," he says.

"Boxing has always been a big strength for us in the Olympics, so hopefully it will be that way again this time.

"I didn't win the Olympic gold to be the only one to do it. We need to start producing more gold medals. I'll always have the accolade of being the first to win a boxing gold, but I certainly don't want to be the last."

And the pair were reunited for another special moment recently as the Olympic torch moved from north to south across the Border, McCullough passing it on its way to Carruth -- two proud boxing men from two different communities united by sport, still with that enduring and unbreakable bond.

"Wayne is a friend first and foremost, one of my closest friends in boxing and always will be. We always came together representing Ireland, Protestants and Catholics together, just like the rugby. The religious divide had nothing to do with us. There was never ever a case of any animosity," says Michael.

"When we represented Ireland together, we never cared about the religious divide. People came together in boxing," says Wayne.

Irish Independent Supplement

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