Learning game for Irishman

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The Independent Online
Roy Jones, the man generally acknowledged as the world's best pound- for-pound fighter, had words of encouragement for Belfast's Wayne McCullough after the Irishman had been adjudged a split-decision loser to Mexican southpaw Daniel Zaragoza in a superb battle for the World Boxing Council super-bantamweight title here on Saturday night.

"McCullough lost this time but he's good enough to learn from the experience," Jones said. "He'll take what he learned from this fight, add it to what he has already - which is plenty - and win the rematch."

We may not have long to wait to see if Jones is as good a judge as he is a fighter: Matt Tinley, the TV executive who manages McCullough and promoted Saturday's thriller, said yesterday he had already agreed terms with the Mexican camp for a May rematch, in either Dublin or (more likely) Madison Square Garden.

McCullough's initial reaction was: "I'll never fight for the WBC again - I won 10 rounds out of 12 and was robbed." But once the disappointment fades, the lure of the rematch will be irresistible.

I thought McCullough had done enough to win, but two of the three judges gave the 39-year-old champion victory by 116-112, while the third official voted for McCullough by 115-114. Yet disappointment with the outcome must be tempered by admiration for Zaragoza, a supreme professional who, in his 20th world title fight, boxed with icy concentration and considerable skill.

He is basically a counter-puncher and as early as the second round his back was criss-crossed with rope burns. But he showed that he could stand and find when he had to, and - particularly in the middle rounds - his looping left hooks thudded against the challenger's head often enough to make the normally unstoppable McCullough give ground.

It was a fascinating match of wills and skills, and Zaragoza probably owed his victory to his work in the middle stages when, switching the pace up and down expertly, he had McCullough confused and looking at times the learner he still is after only 21 fights. This was Zaragoza's 64th, 31 of them involving championships at every level, and the gulf in experience showed in the contrast between the variety of the Mexican's work and McCullough's straight-line aggression.

By the time McCullough's youthful vigour reasserted itself in the seventh, he had, as his trainer, Eddie Futch, acknowledged, left himself with too much to do. We had expected Zaragoza to bleed early and spectacularly, as he has done in virtually all his championship fights, but instead it was McCullough who showed the first signs of battle when an accidental clash of heads left him with a nasty gash on his scalp.

Zaragoza, his lined and increasingly battered face a study in concentration, rallied to win the ninth and 10th, boxing beautifully behind his southpaw jab, but the years caught up with him in the 11th and 12th as McCullough, urged on by the crowd, who spent the last two rounds on their feet, swept him around the ring like a twig in a stream.

The result is a major blow for McCullough's hopes of a fight with the World Boxing Organisation featherweight champion Naseem Hamed, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. He will, as Roy Jones says, be a better for this experience and the fight was so relentlessly thrilling that, even in defeat, he has established himself as a highly marketable TV attraction. The Americans love a fighting Irishman, and they do not come more combative than the man from the Shankill Road.