TYRONE McCULLAGH eased his way into the semi-finals of The Golden Contract featherweight tournament with a unanimous decision victory over Sheffield's Razaq Najib at the iconic York Hall in Bethnall Green.
The skilful southpaw was the first man to make it into the last four of the lucrative competition which earns the winner a six figure, five-fight deal with a top promoter following the conclusion of the event in nine months time.
McCullagh's quarter-final was the first of the night on the Sky Sports televised bill and despite a five month's absence from the ring, he controlled the fight from the first bell against the Englishman and produced a classy, fleet-footed display throughout 10 dominant rounds to stretch his unbeaten professional record to 14-0.
And while the 29 year-old believes he must improve his performance for the semi-finals next year, he was happy to have got the first fight out of the way.
"It was a tough fight," said McCullagh. "I thought I controlled the most of it. I was a bit inactive this last year or so. That's only my second fight since this day last year. It's good to get the ring rust off and I think I won most of the rounds handy enough. I'm pleased enough with the performance but there's more to come."
The ringside judges scored the fight 97-93, 98-92 and 96-94 in McCullagh's favour but the Derry man arguably should've been awarded a shut-out victory such was his dominance over Najib.
And he believes he can go all the way in the tournament.
"I wouldn't be in it otherwise," he insisted. "I definitely have aspirations of winning it and definitely want to get to the final. I'd like the performance to be a lot better than it was tonight but I think that's down to a bit of inactivity and I'm going to stay active now and keep myself going."
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.
The awkward southpaw controlled the fight from the first bell against late replacement, Najib who accepted the fight at the final hour after McCullagh's original opponent, Mexican Carlos Aurelo took ill and was taken to hospital. Aurelo was, however, present at ringside during the fight.
McCullagh made a composed start to the fight, keeping Najib at range with his nifty footwork and superior technical ability. The 25 year-old Sheffield fighter was the aggressor during the early stages but McCullagh was dismantling the Englishman's questionable defence at will, picking him off at range with his jab and swift combinations.
The elusive 'White Chocolate' showed impressive movement as Najib chased him around the ring with little success. McCullagh landed a lovely one-two cleanly and another left straight during a tidy opening round by the Derry man.
Najib continued to apply the pressure but McCullagh looked sharp and was picking his shots at will. He landed a beautiful executed left uppercut and followed it up with with an overhand right which caught Najib on the temple.
It might not have been overly pleasing on the eye but McCullagh was getting the job done and there was a cumulative effect of his rapid-fire shots with a slight cut opening up above the left eye of Najib going into the fourth round.
Again Najib was eating McCullagh's stiff jabs as the Derry man continued to put the rounds in the bank. It really was one-way traffic as the Glen Road native landed another quick one-two through the leaky defence of the Englishman in the fifth.
Najib was forcing the pace throughout but was playing into the hands of White Chocolate who was cruising to victory, frustrating the crude Englishman who was coming forward to no avail.
Najib began to look weary at the end of the eighth round and while McCullagh took a tumble after landing a solid left hand to the head while on the backfoot, he was caught on the ropes and the referee ruled no knockdown.
The final rounds were just as dominant for the Derry man as he kept Najib at range but the ringside judges felt the fight was slightly closer as he took the win 97-93, 98-92, and 96-94 to keep his perfect pro record intact and showing he's a real contender for the prestigious title.