Boxing: Hamed's ego still intact

Pre-fight jibes aside, the champion may well have found an opponent too brave to survive
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A PROBLEM for the promoters of tonight's contest between Naseem Hamed and Wayne McCullough in Atlantic City for the World Boxing Organisation featherweight championship is that the public have not been encouraged to imagine a memorable contest.

Despite McCullough's repeated assurances that he will give Hamed a hard fight, the champion's natural power dominates assessment. "Three rounds or earlier, depending how I feel," Hamed said cockily after weighing in on the New Jersey shore yesterday.

The delay in getting Hamed here did not help but it is his professional record of 28 knock-outs in 30 consecutive victories that explains why there has been no rush on the box office or from television subscribers. "We believe that the Prince (Hamed) will become the most exciting figure in American boxing," Lou Di Bella of HBO said to an assembly of media representatives gathered on Thursday.

Truth is, however, that you can stroll along the boardwalk and not hear the contest mentioned. Yesterday's edition of the nationally-circulated USA Today did not give it even one paragraph.

Hamed is screened from this apparent indifference by his ego. McCullough pays it no mind. "Let him do all the dancing around," he said, "maybe making all that fuss will burn off his energy".

It occurred to the promoters that interest might be quickened by touting Las Vegas-based McCullough as a representative of Irish America. With this in mind they arranged for Irish tricolours to be draped around the weigh-in platform. McCullough ordered their removal.

This goes back to the advice McCullough was given by one of his idols, the former featherweight champion Barry McGuigan. Like McGuigan, his boxing wardrobe bears no national statements. "McGuigan told me about the trunks," McCullough said. He said: "Everybody knows you are Irish. You don't have to wear green. Just wear white." When McCullough enters the ring it is not to a national anthem but the music of Irish rock band, U2.

People who worry about the challenger do so because they fear he may be too brave for his own good with an upright boxing style that looks made for Hamed's destructive power. "Trouble is that Wayne has so much heart that he could take too much punishment," the Las Vegas trainer, Hedgmon Lewis, said.

When McCullough got past Gwang Li-sik of Korea to reach the 1992 Olympic bantamweight final in Barcelona he fought with a triple cheekbone fracture. "After that fight my face was swollen but I didn't think anything of it. I was in the Olympic final and that was the only thing that mattered."

At the pre-fight examination before the final, the Olympic doctors failed to detect McCullough's injury. "They just did a normal examination," he said. "They would only have found it if I told them. I didn't.''

In the second round of the final against Joel Casamayor of Cuba, who outpointed him for the gold, McCullough felt that his face had been exploded by a jab. Blood filled his left eye. "I couldn't see for about 30 seconds. Nothing," he said. "If you look at the tapes you see me trying to fight with one eye closed. After that, every time he hit me it was like an electric shock."

At the end of the round the Irish team's Cuban trainer failed to talk McCullough into quitting.

Eddie Futch, the great trainer who worked with McCullough before retiring at 85 two years ago, has never come across any boxer who puts more into his preparation. "I've been around fighters a long time, but I've never seen anyone like him," Futch said. "We often had to tell him to cool down. He tends to work too hard. I've never seen a boxer so busy. I didn't mind him fighting like Henry Armstrong; I just didn't want him training that hard.''

On July 30, 1995, with Futch in his corner, McCullough won a hard-fought split decision over Yasuei Yakushiji in Tokyo to become the World Boxing Council bantamweight champion. "It took a lot of courage," Futch recalled, "especially as Wayne was no longer comfortable at the weight."

McCullough's loss to Daniel Zaragoza when fighting for the WBC super- bantamweight title in January last year left him with a serious jaw injury and led to 15 months of inactivity that almost stretched into retirement.

Going up even further in weight against a devastating puncher justifies the anxiety that is being held out for him, but McCullough claims to know a way of frustrating the champion's unorthodox attacks. "He's not going to have things all his own way," McCullough said when we spoke earlier this week. "He's got power for sure, but what will happen in his mind if it doesn't bring the result he's looking for. If I'm still there and holding my own after five or six rounds you could be looking at a worried champion."

McCullough's trainer Kenny Croom said: "Wayne musn't fall for the feints Hamed uses and get lured in. We've worked on mixing things up, making Wayne more wary than is natural to him but still being aggressive. Hamed doesn't throw combinations, it's rarely more than two punches at a time, so it should be possible for Wayne to avoid the big shots."

The suggestion that Hamed's form could have been effected by disturbances in the camp that have relegated his mentor, Brendan Ingle, to a minor role in preparation, has no substance.

Much as people feel for the Irishman, much as they would delight in an upset, there is only one way of looking at a contest Hamed reckons to win whenever it suits him. It is that an identikit of the champion's perfect opponent would look like Wayne McCullough.