Boxing: Cruel truth which boxers are always last to know

From that elevation you can look out across the valley and imagine what Merthyr was like before the onset of a terrible depression: the searing blast of insatiable furnaces; the ceaseless cascading spew of molten waste cooling to form sullen escarpments on the hillsides; bleak ridges of grey-black slurry brooding over the landscape; withering hardship - the Devil's place, Merthyr was.

Merthyr was the home of my friend, the late Eddie Thomas, who held the welterweight championships of Great Britain and Europe before shaping the careers of such notable figures of the ring as Ken Buchanan, Howard Winstone and Colin Jones. I mention Thomas because, for all his natural toughness, he understood the perils inherent in fighters going on past their time.

He would not, for example have countenanced the contest undertaken at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas last weekend when Wayne McCullough failed in a second attempt to win the World Boxing Council super-bantamweight title from Oscar Larios, the fight ending after 10 rounds on the insistence of the ringside doctor.

In March 2003 McCullough, who is based in Las Vegas, failed to win a round on any of the three official scorecards when challenging Scott Harrison for the World Boxing Organisation featherweight championship, and spent three nights in hospital.

That in itself was disturbing enough. More so was the decision not to pull McCullough out after taking a beating in the eighth round and the quite extraordinary behaviour of his wife and manager, Cheryl, who chose to ignore pleas entered on her man's behalf.

"By the end of the eighth, it was so clear that McCullough wasn't going anywhere, that I told her to end it," the promoter Frank Warren said. "She just smiled and said, 'He's a warrior'. I couldn't believe I was hearing that from a woman watching her husband being taken apart."

For the first four rounds of last weekend's contest McCullough held his own, attempting to prove he could not only withstand Larios' punches but walk through the attacks to deliver hurtful blows of his own. It was a high-risk strategy against an opponent who possessed distinct advantages in height and reach. By the seventh round, Larios had assumed complete control.

Watching the fight on television at his home in Cardiff, the president and former chairman of the British Boxing Board of Control, Lord Brooks of Tremorfa, winced. When McCullough's boxing licence was withdrawn four years ago on the evidence of an MRI scan, the Ulsterman produced a body of specialist opinion to prove he was running no greater risk than any other professional fighter. "Because it left us again with the threat of legal action we had no option but to let McCullough fight," Brooks said.

The board had a similar problem when it withdrew the licence of Barry Jones, who held the WBO super-featherweight title in 1997 and 1998. Subsequently reinstated, Jones was stopped from boxing after an eight-round loss to Acelino Freitas in 2000. "The issues raised are always complex," Brooks added. "For fighters at championship level there is a lot of money involved and the board has to think seriously before imposing restrictions that take away a fighter's livelihood. On the other hand safety is of paramount importance."

McCullough, the WBC bantamweight champion between 1995 and 1997, when he came under the influence of the great trainer Eddie Futch, has lost all five attempts to regain a version of the title.

Thomas always held firm in the belief that fighters have to be protected from themselves. "They are invariably the last to know," he once told me. "Sometimes they are so determined to go on that they simply won't accept the truth. Boxing isn't a game. It's a dangerous business."

Some time after his relationship with Buchanan came to end, Thomas watched from the back of the hall as the former world lightweight champion staged a comeback forced by financial imperatives. "It was one of the saddest things I'd seen in boxing," he said. "He was being made to look ordinary by a man who once wouldn't have been able to lay a glove on him." McCullough's battered features last weekend prompted only one thought. Retirement. Now.

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