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Wayne KO'd by boxing's old failings

SOMETIMES, Ali would joke about the punishment he'd taken. Earnie Shavers hit him so hard in 1977 that Muhammed blurted with beautiful bravado ``It shook my kinfolk back in Africa.''

Not content just to whistle as they pass the graveyard, fighters sometimes like to throw in a cartwheel or two for good measure. There's a terrible beauty in being able to take punches as well as throw them.

When Ring Magazine, page-for-page the world's most influential fight magazine, dictated earlier this year that Wayne McCullough possessed ``the hardest jaw in boxing,'' it was interpreted as a tribute to the Irishman's courage.

Anyone privileged enough to sit at ringside for McCullough's most recent fight, the 12-round thriller against world class Mexican Erik Morales in Detroit a year ago, will attest to the little Belfastman's resolve.

Frightening might be an equally appropriate adjective. McCullough had fought only once in the previous 12 months, an unimpressive points win over journeyman Len Martinez in his adopted home, Las Vegas, a few weeks earlier.

Clearly convinced that he was meeting a man coasting to the end of his career, Morales was stunned by the ferocity of McCullough's challenge for his WBC Super-bantamweight title.

Morales emerged a narrow points winner after 12 rounds but the darkening rings round the Mexican's eyes and the blood red bruises which grew on his cheeks told a different story. Once again, one lamented McCullough's sole shortcoming - if only he possessed a killer punch! Yet, amid all the stirring action in a phenomenal fight, one short passage is burned indelibly into the mind's eye.

Midway through the ninth round, McCullough suddenly bowed under the weight of Morales' punches. For a few split seconds that stretched into eternity, he was exposed to the full ferocity of the Mexican's guns. Bent low; eyes to the floor; his guard down, the Irishman seemed puppet-like as punches rained down on his temples.

He swayed slightly under each impact and I wondered about the thin filament of courage which kept him standing. It was an awful and an awesome moment.

Then, suddenly, McCullough sprang back to life, shocking Morales with the intensity of his counter-attack and forcing him back onto the ropes.

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But where had McCullough hidden for the previous few seconds? Had he visited that ``dark room'' which Ali had once described in Thomas Hauser's book Black Lights - a place made all the more real and chilling by the great man's current physical predicament.

That place where Briton Michael Watson spent several months before emerging into half-light; the place where American Gerald McClelland, another equally famous and tragic victim of boxing in the '90s, seems destined to stay forever.

MAYBE Wayne went somewhere else. A couple of years back, he told me of the time his cheekbone had been cracked and his eardrum burst by a punch from Jose Luis Bueno at the Point Depot. The impact was so great that it knocked him right back into his hotel room before the fight.

``I was sitting on the bed and even caught sight of nyself in the mirror,'' he said of this surreal flight. The very next moment, he was back in the ring once again; Bueno in front of him and, instinctively, the Irishman's guard was still up.

McCullough survived, winning on points, and another of the wars which litter his 26-fight professional career was consigned to history. Yet, cumulatively, have they exacted a far more grievous toll for the 30-year-old Irishman? This question inevitably arose this week after McCullough failed a mandatory brain scan, was refused a licence to fight at the Ulster Hall and had his future thrown into doubt.

At first glance, the British Boxing Board of Control must be complimented for the rigorous testing procedures they have put in place to protect the professional boxer. That and the extensive precautions taken at ringside in the wake of the Watson debacle, appear to suggest a more enlightened approach by those who administer the sport in Britain.

And men like McCullough, who are born to excel in a perilous discipline, must be afforded the opportunity to fulfil their sporting potential under the safest possible circumstances.

Yet, however delighted one may be at the opportunity to be able to debate this week's events with McCullough himself rather than over a hospital bed, serious questions must be asked about his treatment at the hands of the British Board, not to mention the disturbing discrepancies in the MRI scans in Belfast and then Dublin.

McCullough returned to the Royal Victoria yesterday and, not surprisingly, they stood over the findings of last Thursday week's scan, which indicated a ``two centimetre cyst'' in the boxer's brain. Yet, two days ago, there was no sign of that cyst in a scan performed in Dublin.

One's confidence in the Belfast equipment is not enforced by the story of another prominent Irish boxer, whose scan at the Royal Victoria showed a shadow on the brain yet there was no trace of this anomaly when he received a follow-up scan from one of the Republic's top neurologists in September, just six months later.

Either way, McCullough will seek exhaustive investigation of the matter when he returns to the US and, not surprisingly, his lawyer, Stewart Campbell, yesterday pledged that if those tests proved clear, then the fighter would take legal proceedings.

HOWEVER, the most astonishing feature of this week's events has been the off-hand way in which McCullough himself has been treated by the boxing authorities. It seems absolutely incredible that the fighter did not receive news of the irregularity with his brain scan until six days after it had been performed.

This was a problem so serious that when he was informed of it on Wednesday night, McCullough was told, in no uncertain terms, that his career was over! So why wasn't McCullough warned immediately? Blissfully unaware of the potential dangers he supposedly faced, Wayne sparred for 10 rounds the day after the MRI scan had been performed.

That he had to wait so long for news of his own medical condition is typical of the age-old, patronising attitude of those who administer the sport. All too often, the fighter is the last to acquire information directly affecting his welfare.

Vince Feeney is unlikely ever to forget the day he was dragged off a plane to Durban in December 1998, his challenge for the IBO Super-Bantamweight title scuppered by the news that he had failed an MRI scan. Only then did the Sligoman learn of an irregularity with a brain scan a year earlier. The Board claimed that they had informed Feeney's manager in London but why on earth hadn't they contacted the fighter himself?

Astonishingly, apart from a brief few words with Board officials after Thursday night's emotional press conference, McCullough has had no formal contact from the BBBC outlining the results of his scan and its consequences.

This disregard for McCullough's interests indicates that boxing is still beset by attitudes which contributed directly to its darkest and most dangerous days. As ever, those brave or even mad enough to take the punches are betrayed.

IABA gets funding

THE Irish Sports Council has restored full funding to the Irish Amateur Boxing Association, signalling an end to the dispute over the IABA's interpretation of anti-doping regulations, writes Karl MacGinty.

The boxing association has amended its anti-doping procedures. However, it is believed that the boxer tested positive for the steroid stanozolol at last January's Championships, but cleared because ``he had not knowingly or willingly'' ingested the substance, cannot be retried.

Clubs will be relieved that around £300,000 of grant aid for building work and new equipment can now come on stream.

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