On a mild Wednesday afternoon in March 1996, I sat in front a roaring log fire in an elegant drawing room of Luttrelstown Castle.
Opposite me sat Wayne McCullough wearing a tracksuit over a sweat-suit. Towels were wrapped around his neck like warm winter scarves. The central heating was also pumping full blast.
While I was perspiring, the WBC bantamweight world champion appeared calm and unruffled.
It was just days before his world title defence at the Point Depot against Jose Luis Bueno, a fighter from a rough part of Mexico City who had knocked out 20 of his 28 pro opponents.
For all the latest sports news, analysis and updates direct to your inbox, sign up to our newsletter.
The Mexican promised an upset and Bueno had form when it came to causing upsets.
He’d gone to South Korea and defeated the formidable reigning WBC world super flyweight champion Sung Kil Moon in front of home support.
Three months earlier he’d fought on the undercard when McCullough beat the previously unbeaten Johnny Bredahl in Belfast.
He knocked out his opponent in the fourth round that night and, having studied McCullough, was convinced he’d beat him.
"I would love to be looking down into the ring when I win the title on Saturday night so that I could see the look on my face," he declared in the lead up to the fight.
Bueno insisted he had done his homework and had consulted a previous McCullough opponent, Victor Rabanales.
"He has told me how to knock out McCullough," said Bueno. "He should not have disrespected me."
McCullough shrugged off the Mexican’s posturing, telling me: "He can talk all he wants. My fists will be talking faster than his. They can talk all they want. I’ve had that before and I know how to cope with it. It’s just me and him in the ring. No one can help him. He’s on his own."
Leaving no room for doubt, Wayne continued: "I love boxing. I enjoy stepping into the ring every time I go in. I enjoy doing it. I don’t worry about who’s watching. I just worry about the other guy and getting the fight over as quickly as possible."
As an amateur, McCullough had been schooled in Cuban ringcraft by coach Nicolas Cruz, who insisted that if hadn’t been for injury McCullough would have won gold instead of silver for Ireland at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
According to Cruz, Cuban Olympic champion Joel Casamayor Johnson confessed to him at the World Championships in Helsinki the following year: "If there’d been 15 seconds more he (McCullough) would have beaten me. I had nothing left in the tank."
McCullough was tough, fearless and possessed a granite chin.
In Luttrelstown, Wayne’s manager Mat Tinley reminded me how McCullough had fought the Olympic final with a broken cheek bone.
According to Tinley, Wayne instructed his coach: "Don’t you dare stop me. Don’t you dare stop the fight."
Casamayor, a southpaw, peppered Wayne with stinging jabs and left power shots. "I felt like I was being electrocuted with a live wire," admitted Wayne, whose shattered cheekbone caused blood to seep from the left eye socket in the third round.
McCullough won the final round but had to settle for silver.
In March 1996, every boxing fan and sports enthusiast in Ireland wanted to see Wayne McCullough in action against Bueno.
Ring magazine had featured McCullough on the cover with Mike Tyson, Roy Jones and Julio César Chávez.
Mat Tinley managed McCullough’s career with the zeal of a religious convert.
The former TV executive had secured McCullough TV coverage for all his 20 unbeaten fights and the Belfast fighter’s aggression had delivered the viewers.
The duo had been working together since early 1993 after Barry McGuigan had introduced them.
Curiously, Bono was first to suggest that Mat should sign the ‘Pocket Rocket’.
"Bono planted the seed," Tinley confirmed.
With the promise of a minimum of seven fights in the first year and guaranteed TV exposure, Wayne had relocated to Las Vegas where he trained in the Top Rank gym under the guidance of Eddie Futch, a legendary coach who’d trained alongside the great Joe Louis, and his assistant Thell Torrence. It was a formidable team.
The fight with Bueno promised to be a torrid affair.
Wayne had forced an early stoppage in 14 of his 18 pro bouts and Bueno had stopped his opponent in 20 of his previous 28 wins, so few people believed the bout would last its scheduled 12 rounds.
Given what was to develop over the next few days, Wayne’s avowed determination to hold on to his title had a chilling aura of prophecy.
"It took me a long hard road to get to the top and nobody’s going to take it away from me," he insisted that afternoon as we sat by the fire.
"No way. I’d have to die in the ring before I let a guy take it away from me. There’s no way this guy is going to beat me. He’ll have to kill me."
Wayne would later reveal that the day before the official weigh-in, he’d lost four pounds but was still over weight.
Before the weigh-in he had to lose another two pounds. It was a gruelling undertaking.
"I was so dehydrated that my lips were sticking together and I was exhausted," he admitted.
After the weigh-in, Wayne binged on chicken fillets and downed litres of liquid. He piled 16 lbs back on but was left feeling bloated.
"I felt like garbage," he said. And he had yet to defend his title.
He looked classy in the early rounds, landing some telling shots, but something strange had begun to happen.
McCullough’s normally chiselled features began to become indistinct. For a fighter renowned for his talent as a human shock absorber, this was unprecedented.
Both boxers dished out excruciating punishment. Combination punches smashed into each man’s face. Crippling bodyshots drove into ribcages. Livers and kidneys were subjected to repeated assault. Stinging jabs and crashing hooks were interspersed with vicious uppercuts. A full repertoire of punches was unleashed by both men. And still the boxers stood toe-to-toe, neither man giving way.
As the mutual aggression continued unabated, we witnessed courage beyond measure. Or was it a foolhardiness bordering on insanity?
When the final bell sounded at the end of the 12th round, the predominant emotion in the venue was one of relief. Boxing fans aren’t dumb. They know the hazards that come with this job.
That night, everyone was acutely aware they’d witnessed something that resembled a death duel.
Two of the three judges gave the bout to McCullough. He held on to his world title. The referee declared him the winner.
McCullough would later insist that he couldn’t remember the outcome when he woke the following day.
He remembered nothing that had happened from the third round onwards. Not even Bono coming to his dressing room and holding his hand in silent prayer.
On the journey to the hospital from The Point his minders kept shouting at him to keep him from slipping into unconsciousness.
His blood pressure was dangerously high. His eardrum was burst. The doctors said his body was in shock.
Some of his coaching staff believed he was going to die.
He survived and held on to his world title but Wayne McCullough would never box at bantamweight again.