Boxing: Veteran's verve a vibrant test for McCullough

Harry Mullan, in Boston, assesses the fighting Irishman's world title challenge
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The Independent Online
Rafael Mendoza, who has guided the World Boxing Council super- bantamweight champion, Daniel Zaragoza, throughout the 39-year-old's extraordinary career, keeps assuring us that each fight will be his last. "Before every fight," he says, "I tell him: `This would be a good fight to go out on' but every time, around about the eighth or ninth rounds, he will say: `Rafael, I have a new plan. I'm going to fight one more time.'"

The consensus of opinion among the boxing fraternity gathered in Boston for Zaragoza's 20th world title fight tonight against Ireland's Wayne McCullough is that this "one more" will be one too many, that the still substantial remnants of the skill which has made Zaragoza a four-times world champion will not be enough to hold off an eager and ambitious 26- year-old who has already won one championship - the World Boxing Council bantamweight belt - and strongly fancies his chances of a second.

"He's tough," McCullough acknowledges laconically, "but I'm pretty tough too."

He would deny it of course, but much of his positive thinking probably derives from Zaragoza's propensity to bleed, usually during the referee's instructions. The champion's face is like a map of the rivers of the world. He is a strange looking individual, with the wizened and lined face of a much-abused garden gnome transplanted on to the body of an athlete.

Zaragoza himself offers the best analysis of the qualities which have carried him through such a long career, covering one reign as WBC bantamweight champion and three as super-bantamweight king. "I may not be the best fighter in the world," he says, "but I am the most stubborn." He may bleed copiously in every fight, but is immensely reassured by the presence here of the WBC president, Jose Sulaiman, who has chosen to come to Boston rather than travel to Nashville where the much higher-profile WBC light- middleweight champion, Terry Norris, defends his title tonight, hours before Zaragoza enters the ring at the Hynes Convention Center. It would require naivety on a staggering scale to believe that Sulaiman, a Mexican, has not had a quiet word with tonight's referee about the implications of being panicked into a hasty stoppage when his compatriot starts to bleed.

However, tonight's contest will not, I believe, be decided by skulduggery or conspiracy. Zaragoza is a fighter of genuine and undisputed quality, who has never once boxed in a title fight in his homeland but has still managed to win 12 and draw three of his 19 world title fights in places as scattered as Korea, Italy, America, Japan and France. That takes class and courage, not luck, and McCullough is right to accord the battle-scarred veteran such deep respect.

McCullough has built his career (20 fights, 20 wins) on relentless aggression and a punch rate which would have made Joe Frazier, himself a protege of McCullough's trainer, Eddie Futch, seem workshy. The fiery Irishman is likely to be too young and fresh for the veteran, particularly now that he is freed from the struggle of making the bantamweight limit of 118lbs at which, until the first bell sounds tonight, he still holds the WBC championship. "Wayne is tough early and he's tough late," says assistant trainer Thel Torrence in a vivid description of his man's style of pressure- fighting.

Even great champions - and Zaragoza surely deserves that description - get old sometime, and tonight should be his turn. "It's the passing of the baton," says McCullough's manager, Mat Tinley. "This is a farewell party for Zaragoza."

Nice scenario, but has anyone told Daniel?