Boxing: McCullough in the line of John L Sullivan

Harry Mullan reports from Boston on a world title fight for a popular Irishman
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The Independent Online
Wayne McCullough is assured of a warm welcome when he dips through the ropes here tomorrow night to challenge Mexican veteran Daniel Zaragoza for the World Boxing Council super-bantamweight title.

This city has always cherished its Irish fighters, and the man from the Shankhill Road is merely the latest in a long line which starts with John L Sullivan and embraces an assortment of Celtic heroes from Jim Maloney, who had three heavyweight bloodcurdlers with Jack Sharkey in 1924-25, to Kevin Finnegan, who twice battled Marvin Hagler in 1978. And, of course, there was the most successful exile of all - Dubliner Steve Collins, who learned his trade in Hagler's gym so well that he subsequently won two World Boxing Organisation titles.

But Sullivan, the old roistering hard case, remains the definitive fighting Irishman, even though it is close to a century since his last contest. Boston was his home town, as it was for so many of the sons and daughters of the emigrants who fled the Great Hunger, and the town still echoes with his footsteps.

Boston was designed for hansom cabs and pedestrians, and it is still possible to retrace Sullivan's steps along Concord Street, where he first went to school, or to the Dudley Street Opera House where he found his true vocation on the night when he went on stage in response to a challenge from a touring brawler called Scannel and, donning gloves for the first time, knocked the unfortunate pug into the orchestra pit.

Sullivan's mother had ecclesiastical ambitions for the boy, but dreams of a dog collar were quickly crushed by John's immediate success in the ring. After beating the Tipperary man Paddy Ryan to become bareknuckle champion of the world, Sullivan cashed in on his popularity by opening up his own saloon. He made a mortal enemy of Queen Victoria by inviting her son Bertie, the Prince of Wales, to "look me up any time you are in Boston and I'll see you are treated right".

Sullivan's excesses were eventually curbed by his second wife, Kate Harkin. He renounced the drink so enthusiastically that he was much in demand as a temperance lecturer but the reformation came too late: he was already afflicted with the sclerosis which killed him in 1918. James J Corbett, who had taken his title in the first gloved championship fight, wept at his funeral.

Kevin Finnegan, London-born of Irish parents, had a gory evening here in 1978 when he took on Hagler in the Boston Garden. Hagler, a frightening shaven-skulled black man, was loathed by the essentially racist Boston establishment. Finnegan, always cut prone, sustained the worst wound of his career in the early rounds, a split on the cheekbone which required almost 50 stitches to close.

"It felt as if I had been hit with an axe," he told me at the time. But being the battler he was, he fought on for round after bloody round, until finally at the end of the sixth, he spotted from the corner of his one functioning eye the Commission doctor climbing the ring steps to inspect the injury.

Kevin composed what remained of his face into an appropriate expression of disappointment and indignation, fully expecting the doctor to say, "Sorry Finnegan the cut's too bad the fight's over". Instead he leaned over and muttered in Finnegan's ear: "Kevin you can lick this son of a bitch. Give it one more round."

When the blood starts flowing tomorrow night, as it assuredly will given Zaragoza's gory history, the Mexican need not expect such encouragement against an Irish opponent.

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