McCullough points way to a fairer future

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The Independent Online
WAYNE McCULLOUGH, the Belfast super-bantamweight who failed in his bid for Daniel Zaragoza's World Boxing Council title in Boston last weekend, would do well to study the example of Larry Holmes, 21 years his senior and still going strong. The fiery Irishman spends his energies in the ring with the profligacy of a sailor on shore leave, while Holmes, in this matter at least, is frugal as a nun. That is why McCullough's career is likely to be short, while the 47-year-old Holmes, who challenges Brian Nielsen in Copenhagen on Friday for the bargain-basement International Boxing Organisation title, could carry on at this level until he is 50.

Scoring from ringside, I thought McCullough's sheer persistence and work- rate had been enough to earn him victory over the Mexican southpaw, another of boxing's remarkable veterans, but two of the three judges disagreed and left the challenger crying bitter tears and muttering darkly about corruption and conspiracy. By midweek, when tempers had cooled, he apologised to the WBC, no doubt with an eye on the rematch which he hopes they will sanction in New York or Dublin in May.

It is no more than he deserves for a sterling effort in a fight which, for sustained pace and excitement, is unlikely to be bettered this year. Zaragoza, in his 40th year, boxed with nerve and defensive artistry to confuse the challenger, who wasted too many of the middle rounds flailing punches against Zaragoza's gloves and shoulders. When the years finally caught up with the 17-year veteran in the closing stages McCullough all but swamped him, and Zaragoza, his face a mass of cuts and swellings, was hugely relieved to hear the final bell.

Scoring fights is a subjective science, in which one man's opinion is worth as much or as little as the next, but even so I was astonished to find my card (116-113 McCullough) a full seven points adrift of the two officials who voted for Zaragoza by 116-112. Many of the rounds were close, particularly those won by Zaragoza; the sort where everything depends on personal interpretation, on whether you favour the heavier single blows of Zaragoza or the busy, bustling aggression of the challenger.

But McCullough won his rounds decisively, doing everything but floor his man in the 11th when the battered and bleeding champion was hammered around the ring and needed all the vast experience accumulated in 20 world title fights just to survive. Maybe it is time to revise the way fights are scored, so that verdicts might more accurately reflect what actually happened. At present, the rules require that the winner of a round receive 10 points while the loser gets nine or, if a knockdown has been scored or the other man has been vastly superior, eight points.

In practice, however, officials will only award a 10-8 round when a knockdown has been registered, and will otherwise simply record it as 10-9. Thus there is no distinction made between a narrowly won round, as so many of Saturday's were, and overwhelming rounds such as McCullough produced in the 11th and 12th. A 20-point system would allow more flexibility: McCullough's two big rounds could have been scored 20-17 (the 11th) and 20-18 (the 12th) while Zaragoza's rounds would most have been 20-19.

The loss, McCullough's first in 21 fights, will test the Irishman's ability to learn from experience. Roy Jones, acknowledged as the world's best pound for pound fighter, believes he will gain enough from defeat to win a return fight, and he's probably right. Rounds 11 and 12, when McCullough finally mastered Zaragoza's style, were in effect the first two rounds of the rematch.

Points are likely to be disputed in Copenhagen on Friday also, since Holmes's style often makes his fights difficult to score. He works in 20- second bursts, hoarding his energy, and will be content to roll on the ropes for the rest of the time as the unbeaten but limited Dane batters at a well-protected target. The show was sold out two months ago and that level of support should carry Nielsen to a points win. Holmes, who insists he boxes because he loves the money too much to retire, will damn the officials, bank his substantial cheque and move on to the next pay day.