by Glynn Evans for Boxnation:
Judgement day looms for highly touted Northern Irish featherweight Marco McCullough on Saturday.
The 24 year old from the Shankill Road in west Belfast earned rave reviews last season by stopping Limerick’s former European super-bantam boss Willie Casey in nine, then schooling Slovakia’s previously unbeaten Martin Parlagi over ten, to snare the Irish and WBO European titles respectively.
But the heat gets cranked up a level this weekend when the classy box-fighter squares off with Russia’s former IBF super-flyweight king Dmitry Kirillov in a quality ten rounder at a purpose built stadium in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter.
The 10-1 prospect will not only profit from valuable exposure, he knows that another comprehensive victory will propel him right into the mix for British, Commonwealth or even European title contention.
Catch the whole promotion – headed by Carl Frampton’s challenge to IBF super-bantanweight champion Kiko Martinez and also featuring top Irish prospects Eamonn O’Kane, Jamie Conlan, and Conrad Cummings – live and exclusive in the UK by tuning into BoxNation, the Channel of Champions, from 7pm on fight night.
Recently boxing writer Glynn Evans interviewed the amiable young Ulsterman to gather some background information.
Name: Mark Oliver McCullough
Family background: I’ve two younger sisters. Our Stacy boxed for a couple of years and was Irish champion. But she’s the one with the brains in the family and she stopped to go to university. My uncle Tommy Waite was British and Commonwealth bantamweight champion (2000).
Today, I still live with my parents on the Shankill Road. I’ve no children yet.
Trade: I work in maintenance.
Nickname: ‘Marco’. When I first went to get licensed as a pro, there was another pro boxer called Mark McCullough so I had to change.
What age did you become interested in boxing and why? I tried karate from the age of five but was always interested in boxing, always watched the big fights. My Uncle Tommy (Waite) first took me to the boxing gym when I was 11 or 12.
What do you recall of your amateur career? I only ever boxed for the Cairn Lodge ABC on the Shankill Road, west Belfast. I was coached by my Uncle Tommy and big Stephen Kirk who won a bronze medal in the heavyweight division at the world amateur championships (Budapest 1997).
I had between 50 and 60 fights and lost about a dozen. I won All Ireland titles at Juvenile, Intermediate, Under 19 and Under 21 level, plus an Ulster Senior title. I was due to face Carl Frampton in the final but Carl withdrew to turn pro.
In my first senior year I lost in the Ulster Championships to Carl, when I was about 18. He won one round clearly but the others were all pretty even.
I must have boxed internationally about 20 times at multi-nations and the like. I got to the final of the European Union championships in Serbia which was a pretty big thing at the time; probably the highlight of my amateur career. I got beaten by Michael Maguire from England who was a very good boy.
Unfortunately, I had a bad injury to my right hand which really disrupted my senior career. I couldn’t really spar and was in and out of competition. It knocked my confidence back a bit. I’d like to have known what I might have achieved as a senior without the injury.
Why did you decide to turn pro when you did? Once the injury cleared, I just decided I needed a new start. I’d been training and sparring alongside pros, like (British and European light-welter champion) Paul McCloskey, at John Breen’s gym above a bar in Belfast City Centre. The pro game seemed to suit my style.
Tell us about your back up team: I’ve signed a promotional deal with Barry McGuigan’s Cyclone Promotions. I’m managed by big John (Breen) and coached by him and (ex British and Commonwealth light-welter champion) Eamonn Magee.
John’s gym is the only proper pro gym in Belfast. John’s a really nice fella. We got along immediately and he treats me like a son. Eamonn, of course, did it all as a fighter himself. He’s a very smart coach; sees wee things nobody else notices. He’s also a brilliant laugh. The gym’s always more lively when Eamonn’s about.
There’s a guy called Matthew Spiers at the David Lloyd gym in Belfast who sorts out my strength and conditioning sessions two or three times a week. He also helps with nutritional advice.
What’s your training schedule? Which parts do you most and least enjoy? I train every day, sometimes twice a day. I tend to go to John’s new gym at six o’clock at night plus on the weekends. Sunday we put the sweat suits on and go for a six or seven mile jog. That’s our recovery day.
My daily schedule usually begins with some stretching and jogging on the spot to warm my body up. We seldom use the (punch) bags. I’ll start my camp doing a four round pad session with John and gradually build up to about eight rounds per session. After pads, I’ll shadow box for nine minutes, skip for 15, then do some supervised sit-ups.
Once I’m into hard training, I’ll spar most days. For this fight, I’ve had some quality sparring with Paul Appleby (Edinburgh’s ex British featherweight champion), plus Jamie Conlon and Michael Conlon and a few top amateurs. They get me sharp.
Sparring is what I most enjoy. That’s what really gets you into shape. I least like the S and C sessions. They never get any easier and kill my legs.
Describe your style? What are your best qualities? I’m an orthodox boxer with good skills. However, on fight night, under the lights and with all the crowd screaming, I can get drawn into a fight too easily. That usually ends up with John bellowing at me!
I’ve a nice right cross and left hook but probably don’t use my jab enough. The opponent I’ve got for Saturday is a boxer so he should suit me, allow me to shine.
What specifically do you need to work on to fully optimise your potential as a fighter? I mainly just need more experience, more pro rounds to get me ready for title level.
What have you found to be the biggest difference between the pro and amateur codes? The amateurs were a rush. The pros are far slower. You’re able to think more and the quality of your shots counts for more. In the amateurs, some just flick the target area.
Who is the best opponent that you’ve shared a ring with? Talent wise, it’s probably wee Michael Conlan (the 2012 Olympic flyweight bronze medallist and 2014 Commonwealth Games bantamweight champion). He’s very smart and both his speed and work rate are phenomenal. He goes flat out for three rounds and it’s difficult to stay with him. He’s very guarded about his future, whether he’ll join the pros or stay amateur.
All time favourite fighter: Marco Antonio Barrera. He could box, brawl, do it all. And he was so tough.
All time favourite fight: The Barrera-Morales trilogy. I thought Barrera won them all but Morales usually got the decision. Great fighters, really well matched.
Which current match would you most like to see made? It still has to be Pacquiao-Mayweather. Mayweather wins pretty easily. He’s got better skills.
What is your routine on fight day? I don’t set the alarm but I usually wake up early, on edge. I try the best I can to carry on with everyday life, perhaps take a walk or go shopping but the fight constantly comes back into your mind.
I prefer to be left alone. I won’t watch boxing, just normal TV, but every couple of minutes I’ll spring up onto my toes and start shadow boxing around the room. I can’t help myself!
So many hours before my fight, I’ll eat chicken and pasta. Once I land at the arena, I get nervous. I’m constantly shadow boxing and hitting the pads in the dressing room. The nerves stay with me until I’ve got the fight under control. Afterwards, I’m usually too tired to celebrate. I’ll watch the other fights then go straight to bed.
Entrance music: It changes every time but the one I like best is by Eminem. Sorry, I can’t remember the name of the track.
What are your ambitions as a boxer? Like every other young boxer, I dream of becoming a world champion one day. Aim for the sky. The money and women will naturally come after!
How do you relax? Maybe a bit of shopping or by going out for a nice meal. I used to watch a bit of Irish League soccer.
Football team: Manchester United. I’ve been over to Old Trafford a couple of times.
Read: Not much; the papers and Boxing News sometimes.
Music: I like a bit of dance music. It helps with the training. I’m definitely no dancer.
Films/TV: I like action and comedy films best. Probably my favourite films are ‘Sin City’ and ‘Transformers’. I don’t get much time to watch tele but it’s usually ‘The Only Way is Essex’ or ‘Geordie Shore’ because that’s what the missus insists on watching.
Aspiration in life: To be able to sit comfortable later in life, with a world title belt on my wall for me to admire!
Motto: You only live once. Enjoy it.