His status, too, has changed dramatically: the Belfast bantamweight has progressed from an Olympic silver medal to the World Boxing Council championship, which he took from Yasuei Yakushiji in Japan in July and defends against Johnny Bredahl, of Denmark, in the King's Hall, Belfast, on Saturday. He has made the grade with breathtaking speed. "I was a pro two years and five months when I won the title, though we took chances along the way. I fought Javier Medina for the North American Boxing Federation title inside 11 months, and that got me into the top 10, and then I fought Victor Rabanales [former WBC champion] last year when he was No 1."
Perhaps his biggest gamble was in allowing the Yakushiji fight to go out to purse bids, thus ensuring that he would be well paid but would have to go to Japan for his chance. Most fighters in his position would have opted for lower money in return for home advantage, but McCullough and his trainers, the revered Eddie Futch and Thel Torrance, were supremely confident that he could still get the payday (well over $600,000) and the title. "Yakushiji had a great jab, and we thought when we watched the tapes that it was going to give me a lot of trouble. But then Thel looked at the tapes closer and noticed that every time he jabbed he left his chin up in the air, and he didn't block a jab when you threw one back at him.
"In the first round I was beating him to the jab, two or three to one, and when I came back to the corner Eddie told me, 'Keep using the jab - it's working, so stay with it'.
"Yakushiji gave everything he had, really going for the knockout. He was a good champion, strong and tough and a stiff puncher, but the jab was in his face all the time and he couldn't cope. It was the most complete performance of my career, although of course I took a few punches too.
"I've still got a long way to go, and a lot of improving to do. I'll never be the perfect fighter, but I've learned so much. Eddie has taught me the old-style cross-arm defence, and I used that a lot against Yakushiji. They don't want to change my style, just to take out the things I was doing wrong and make me do them right."
McCullough has given a new lease of life to the 85-year-old Futch, who had decided not to take on any more fighters but admits he "fell in love" with the aggressive Belfast youngster when he was shown tapes of his Olympic performances. Futch, though, has had to compromise on one long-held boxing principle: women. The McCulloughs, teenage sweethearts who married by a Las Vegas pool, are inseparable. "Cheryl was with me in Japan," he said. "She's with me all the time, the only girl Eddie and Thel allow into the training camp. We came here to America, just the two of us, and we came as a team. They understand that."
She will be at ringside on Saturday when the champion fulfils his ambition to defend the title in the King's Hall. "I went to most of Barry McGuigan's fights there, and I want that kind of atmosphere for myself," he said. "McGuigan was my hero then, still is. I'd watch him and dream about being as good as he was, the way you do when you're a kid.
"Like him, I love the game. I'm hooked on it, and it's a big part of my life. I've been doing it for 17 years, and I'm only 25 now." But he is sharply aware of the dangers of his trade. "I know that if I step into the ring I might never come out again. It's happened to a lot of fighters, but I've accepted that and put it to the back of my mind. I don't go in the ring thinking I might get killed or I might get hurt - you can't think that way.
"I go in to win, by knock-out or stoppage or points, but that's all. I couldn't cope with anything else. This is a sport, a hard sport, but you shake the other guy's hand afterwards."Reuse content