TYRONE McCULLAGH has angrily hit back at criticism directed his way by Sky Sports Boxing pundit, Johnny Nelson who predicted the Derry southpaw won’t go any further in The Golden Contract featherweight tournament.
Despite easing his way into the semi-finals following a dominant victory over late replacement, Razaq Najib at the iconic York Hall on Friday night, McCullagh didn’t manage to impress former world cruiserweight champion, Nelson or Sky Sports commentator, Matthew Macklin at ringside who questioned his ability to progress in the competition and his punching power.
However, ‘White Chocolate’ felt he deserves more respect for putting his career and unblemished record on the line by moving up a weight division and entering the tournament which offers a two year, five fight ‘golden contract’ for the overall winner.
“I’ve 13 pro fights and entered a competition where I’ll be fighting major title holders and ex-world title challengers,” McCullagh tweeted in response. “In Nelson’s 13th fight he fought someone making their debut (and their ONLY fight) so if I don’t progress any further like he insisted I wouldn’t, so be it. But some respect would be nice. I’ve taken a risk. I’m in the semis and I plan to win it,” he declared.
The skilful WBO European super bantamweight champion was the first man to make it into the last four of the lucrative competition which earns the winner a six figure deal.
And despite a five months absence from the ring, he controlled the fight from the first bell against the Sheffield fighter and produced a classy, fleet-footed display to stretch his unbeaten professional record to 14-0, with the judges scoring McCullagh’s quarter-final 97-93, 98-92 and bizarrely 96-94 in his favour.
“It was comfortable,” he agreed. “Initially I was a bit disappointed with my performance but then I was speaking to people and they were all delighted with it so I’ll have to watch it back.
“Getting the win, as always, was the main thing and I’m delighted to be in the semi-finals. I’m just one step away from the final now and it’s a massive opportunity and I’m going to try and win my next one as well.”
Macklin - a founding member of Mack The Knife Global - agreed the elusive McCullagh won the fight at a canter but claimed, if he was to get any further, he would need to be more aggressive.
“Not everyone you fight is going to be as easy to hit as Najib. I’d like to see him drive in some power shots and work the body,” said the former middleweight.
“I do feel, McCullagh, as he moves forward to the semi-finals and the final if he gets there, his lack of power and lack of willingness to stand, plant his feet and drive in some hard shots might see if become unstuck as he goes in against better opponents.”
When asked about the criticism from pundits on the night who questioned his punching power and why he didn’t attempt to go for the £5,000 knockout bonus in the latter rounds when Najib looked fatigued and void of ideas, McCullagh said getting into the next round was the only thing on his mind.
“I thought I won nine rounds,” he said. “I stepped off it on the ninth on purpose to regroup a bit but I thought I won nine rounds out of 10. Fair enough, they’re questioning me but if I’m winning the fight comfortably like I thought I was, then what’s the point in throwing caution to the wind? I know the angle they’re coming from against the more powerful lads but if I can make them miss then power won’t come into it.
“You’d rather get into the semis than go for the knockout bonus and get knocked out yourself. And if you end up going the whole way then the knockout bonus won’t count for much,” he stated.
There was some top fights on the night with his friend James ‘Jazza’ Dickens, British champion, the impressive Ryan Walsh and Commonwealth titlist, Leigh Wood joining McCullagh in the last four which is scheduled to take place early 2020 but the Derry southpaw isn’t overly concerned about who he gets in the next round.
Whoever he gets, he promises they will see a much improved Tyrone McCullagh when he next steps back in the ring. “I’ll start thinking about the opposition a week or two down the line.
"Whoever I get it’s going to be a tough fight but I’ll relish it. I was never in trouble against Najib. I was always in control. Maybe I could start tweaking a few things to conserve my energy better. I don’t need to be wasting as much but I’ve got a long while until the semis, I don’t think they’re until February or March, so I’ll start working on stuff in the gym and hopefully there will be an even better Tyrone come the semi-finals.
“I’m over the moon. I’m through to the semi-finals which was the main aim and I’m one step closer to the contract. It made the last 10 or 12 weeks worth it. I missed out on four holidays this year because of boxing but these are the type of sacrifices you have to make.”
McCullagh who is trained by Danny Vaughan at MTK Scotland could potentially meet the experienced, ‘Jazza’ Dickens, his former stablemate at MTK’s gym in Liverpool who is trained by Danny’s father, George. It’s a match-up which could cause a bit of tension in the Vaughan family but McCullagh reckons it will be strictly business should the pair be drawn together in the semi-finals.
“Boxing is boxing and it’s a business at the end of the day. If I have to fight ‘Jazza’ then so be it but we are mates and it wouldn’t be nice for Danny to go up against his father I don’t think. It might cause a bit of awkwardness but at the end of the day we’ll get it on and there will be no bad blood at the end of it.”
McCullagh’s ringwalk was worthy of opening the Sky Sports coverage as he entered to the familiar sound of ‘Raglan Road’ fading into ‘Teenage Kicks’ by Derry’s Undertones. And his good friend, Belfast super lightweight, Tyrone McKenna accompanied him dressed as a giant panda with McCullagh wearing his panda-draped shorts in support of the endangered bear.
He highlighted the plight of the native Chinese bear so well this week that he’s expecting a call from the World Wildlife Federation with an offer to be an ambassador.
“I haven’t heard from them yet but I’m expecting a message asking me to be their ambassador or something like that,” he laughed.