Remembering the Shankill Samurai- 20 years on from his World title win

By Dermot Bolger

Writing this, it’s hard to believe that 20 years have since slipped us by. But slipped us by they have.

July 30 date marks a very significant anniversary on the Irish Boxing calendar, the crowning of Wayne McCullough as the new WBC world bantamweight champion.

Like a fine wine maturing with every passing year, it’s with greater appreciation that I look back on his achievement on the 30th July 1995. I don’t think it’s out of place to say that it was his greatest moment – amateur or pro. Just turned 25, with only 16 pro fights behind, he went to Nagoya, Japan, the home city of Yasuei Yakushiji, the then reigning champion, and turned in a magnificent performance to rip the title from its holder.

In some quarters people expected McCullough to become a World Champion after his stellar amateur career. But such transitions do not necessarily follow – many a fine amateur struggled to find the same successes in the pro game. If anything, the expectation can be a burden fighters could do without. When McCullough made the decision to go pro, he did so with the full weight of expectation from the media, his followers and his new backers.

Apart from Oscar De La Hoya, McCullough was probably the most sought after boxer following the 1992 Olympics. An all action fighting Irishman was a commodity most US promoters and managers would sell their Mothers for!

Very marketable, guaranteed to sell tickets, and more importantly get the backing from a TV Network. Throw in linking the kid up with a legendary trainer like Eddie Futch and the storyline made even sweeter headlines. Mat Tinley, the American TV Executive had to work hard to secure his services.

They didn’t hold back on moving Wayne’s career forward either– 11 fights in first 12 months as a pro saw him becoming the NABF bantamweight champion. For his 13th fight they gave him former world champion Victor Rabanales, who was in his early thirties and still had plenty to offer.

It was a tough fight, one that Wayne learned what it was like to do 12 rounds with seasoned world class operator. Two fights later, it was another former world champion, Fabrice Benichou in Dublin.

Benichou sportingly took the mic after the fight and told the crowd that McCullough would be a world champion for sure. Though now the no 1 contender for the WBC bantamweight title, McCullough accepted a step aside payment to allow the champion get in another defence in his hometown in Japan. He kept ticking over with a routine win over a tough Mexican scrapper, Geronimo Cardoz in March 1995. When the WBC ordered the match, it was expected that Tinley would win the purse bids and secure a home venue for McCullough. He got it wrong.

The Japanese won that battle and they made sure their fighter was going to have home advantage in a City that he was hero worshiped. And so it was set, July 30th 1995, Aichi Prefectural Gym, Nagoya, Aichi, Japan.

This was seen as a genuine 50 / 50 match up but a tall order none the less for McCullough. The fight was expected to go the full 12 round distance and Japanese fighters rarely lost points decisions on their home patch. The champ was an accomplished well rounded fighter. He had a good jab, reasonable power and was tall for a bantam at 5 foot 8 inches.

The champion was on a run of 21 straight wins and making the 5th defence of the title he won in 1993. To win, McCullough would need the performance of his life. His renowned courage, strength and work rate would need to notch up to new levels.

The arena was packed with 10,000 fans, McCullough’s followers numbered no more than 100. From the opening bell, McCullough set out his stall and laid out his template on how he was going to win this title. He was going to take it to the Champion. He set a fast pace and drove Yakushiji back at every opportunity.

In spite of having the shorter reach, it was Wayne’s jab that constantly found its target, coupled with three / four punch combinations at a time. Yakushiji struggled to get a foothold in the early rounds.

The Japanese hung tough though, and by the middle rounds was covering up better and getting off with his own combinations. The pace remained hard yet neither fighter never looked like folding. The crowd were quiter as the fight moved into its second half and not surprisingly the pace of the action had dropped.

Wayne was standing and trading more but his jab was still effective and punch output still high. Yakushiji waved to the crowd at the end of each session but he knew McCullough bossed most of the rounds. Both were showing signs of eye damage by the 10th round. The Champion landed some hard body shots but he was tiring and McCullough’s flurries were eye catching when he had his man on the ropes. Yakushiji showed himself to have a Champions heart by bossing the 11th as Wayne’s eye damage became more visible. He needed a big 12th too but McCullough had some impressive bursts before staying out of trouble for the final minute.

Both men knew who won but how would the judges see it? As is often the case in boxing, the scores we wide, varied and the decision split. The first card read 118-110 for McCullough, the second 116-115 for Yakushiji, the third and decisive card was 116-113 for McCullough. The Pocket Rocket had done it and deservedly so.

To this day, it remains one of the finest achievements by a boxer from this side of the world. He would go one to defend his title twice more before stepping up in weight to try and win a second title at super-bantamweight. Sadly there were to be no more glory days, though his heroic efforts endeared him even more to the boxing public the world over.

‘The Pocket Rocket’ may be out of sight now settled down in the USA, but when it comes to remembering Irish boxing legends, he will never be out of our minds. The 30th July is worth reflecting back on the day the world bantamweight championship became the property of Wayne McCullough.

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