Back from the Brink: The Story of Wayne McCullough
“[In] 1996, I was WBC [bantamweight] champ of the world . . . people think because you’re sitting on the top of the world, you’re happy as can be, and they think, why would you be depressed, you’ve got everything. They don’t realize the pressures of being at the top.”
Wayne “The Pocket Rocket” McCullough reveled in every high you could get in boxing, from the amateur ranks to the pinnacle of professional boxing. With those highs, however, the Irishman also experienced the lowest of lows: depression and suicidal thoughts.
“At that time, my manager wasn’t treating me so well, I had a few problems like that and, in your head, you’re thinking, ‘Is it all about money?’ I sort of slipped into depression. My wife didn’t even know it; it wasn’t an overnight thing; it was like a six-month thing. I’d defended my belt in Dublin, I remember, in March ’96, and after that I was really slipping, slipping, and slipping [further into depression]. It came to a point . . . people talk about killing themselves, I never told anybody. I just slipped away into the depression . . . and it came to a point where you’re planning things in your head and planning what you’re gonna do. It comes to a point where you’re not scared anymore; then it comes to the point where [you think] ‘I can do this.’”
A man who had achieved his life ambitions, a man who had it all, was now looking for a way out. A way out of this world. A way out of his “perfect” life.
“The night I was gonna do it [commit suicide] was the night my wife, who sleeps like a brick . . . she woke up and she’s seen me stood there with a rope in my hand. She never wakes up. She realized then what was going on. It’s a sad situation, and people say you’re selfish but they don’t understand; you’re not being selfish; you’re thinking you’re better off not being alive because you‘re going to make everyone else around you unhappy. I thank God every day that my wife came down that night because she saved my life. I believe in God, and I’ve got good faith in God, I believe he sent her down because, as I say, when she sleeps, she doesn’t wake up.”
It all started for a young McCullough in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea. Having qualified for the Olympic Games at the age of seventeen, McCullough was on his way to stardom. The boy from Shankill Road, the “ghetto,” was about to be on one of the biggest stages of them all, and as a flag bearer for his country.
“I was the youngest member of the team, and they asked me to do it. I had just turned eighteen. That was thirty years ago; I can’t believe it. I remember it like it was yesterday. People try to bring the politics in from Belfast, the religious divide. They tried to turn sports into politics. Look, I’m a sports fan; I was honored to do that, but the media tried to stir up the politics. They tried to, but it didn’t happen.
“I grew up in the Shankill road; that’s very much a Protestant area, and when I came back from the Olympics, nobody had a problem with it. They had a party for me, so it goes to show, when it came to sports, people came together. It’s just the media like to try to dig into a thing and make a mountain out of a molehill. It didn’t happen of course. People knew what I did then, I carried the flag for sport, and I was in the Olympic Games, you know what I mean, how many kids get to go to the Olympics, never mind get medals. It was an honor to do it.”
It wasn’t until the 1992 Olympics, however, that McCullough would taste success. He collected the silver medal in Barcelona, two years after winning a Commonwealth Games gold medal.
In 1993, McCullough decided it was the right time to go professional, and he teamed up with Eddie Futch, the man who trained Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and Larry Holmes. It was under Futch that McCullough would achieve his lifelong ambition: to become the WBC world champion.
“As a fifteen-year-old kid, my dream was to be the champ of the world, and I wanted to be WBC champion. No disrespect to any other belts, but I’d seen Muhammad Ali with that belt, and all-time greats—Joe Frazier, guys like him. I just liked the green and gold belt, and I knew as a fifteen-year-old that I had to get something in the amateurs to get a contract to turn professional and my goal was to get a medal at the Olympics. . . . I was going pro right away, no matter what. That was my stepping-stone to getting a good contract and going pro. As soon as I turned pro, I told my manager at the time that I wanted to be fighting for the WBC belt, that’s the only one I want to fight for. It was a dream going to Japan. It was difficult. I was the only guy to go there and win a belt [until very recently when fellow Irishman, T. J. Doheny won the IBF super-bantamweight world title in Japan] so I was honored to go to Japan and take the belts from [Yasuei Yakushiji] in his own backyard. I did it.”
McCullough was unfazed by heading into unknown territory because of what he had dealt with throughout his amateur career. Nothing would deter McCullough.
“Going to any country and fighting somebody in their backyard is always difficult. The only good thing is, I traveled the world as an amateur, so I got to see different countries, fighting guys in their backyard, beating guys in their backyard, or getting robbed. I guess again I’d seen the politics of the sport then.
“Going to Japan, I remember the BBC was doing a documentary on me, following me for like four years, and they interviewed me before the fight, and I was like, ‘This is my gold medal, more or less. I’d missed the Olympic gold nothing’s going to stop me, I faced great guys along the way, and I beat them, and this guy’s a great fighter too, but nobody’s going to take this away from me.’ When I beat the guy, I beat him wide on two scorecards, but then one judge gave it against me. I got the decision. It was a dream come true to be the champ of the world and be the WBC champ.”
Although unfazed, McCullough suffered from other pressures that come with being at the top of his trade.
“You do have pressure, and I can deal with most pressures, like flying around the world to fight in people’s backyard didn’t bother me, but depression is a different sort of thing. It’s different for everybody. A lot of people cry out about it, but if you get depression and are going to kill yourself if somebody doesn’t find you, you’re going to kill yourself. You’re gonna do it.
“I understand some people do say they’re gonna do this or that, but my belief is that you come to a point that you’re not scared of doing anything and that’s the time you’re going to do it. You’re not gonna sit down and say, ‘Oh, I’ll do it next week.” No, the night I was gonna do it, I wouldn’t have been here. I’ve seen other celebrities say, ‘Oh, I tried to kill myself,’ three or four times. You don’t try to do it. If you’re in a real depression the night you’re going to do it is the night you’re going to do it unless somebody finds you. The real people who are depressed do it, and that’s why I’m reaching out to people. The help is there. If my wife hadn’t come out that night, I wouldn’t be here.”
During a professional career that spanned fifteen years, McCullough found himself in a five-year feud with “Prince” Naseem Hamed.
“Hamed fought on my undercard in 1993, in Dublin. He was just starting as a pro, and it was my eighth fight. People were talking about maybe in the future we’ll fight each other. Along the way, I kept more or less asking for the fight, but it never happened, but then I remember in 1998 I fought a guy that he had knocked out in one round, a former world champion . . . Juan Polo Perez. and I went ten rounds with this guy and looked like garbage. I was going through a promoter problem before the fight and my mind wasn’t focused, but it was a blessing because the year before that Hamed fought in Dublin against [Manuel] Medina, and I flew over for the fight because he had said something about my wife being scared of me fighting him. So I confronted him and told him I don’t care what he says about me but don’t bring my family into it. He knew then I wasn’t scared of him, and the fight never happened for a year. A year later, I fought that guy [Juan Polo Perez] and the next day, I got the call to fight Hamed. My wife woke me up and asked do I want to fight Hamed; I was like, ‘Yup.’ Didn’t even know what the money was, I didn’t care about the money. They looked at that [Juan Polo Perez] fight thinking I was done, so that was a blessing.
“We did the build-up. I did a press conference like two months before with HBO in New York, and he had the media believing that he was going to knock me out. I worked for the media. I was like, ‘What about that guy makes you believe he’s going to knock me out?’ I’ve never been hurt, never been down, never even looked like going down. I’ve been hit by some legitimate guys and never been moved. But they [the media] believed it, the only thing I said to Hamed was when you hit me you’re gonna run from me. He laughed at me and said he was gonna knock me down at 2:32 of the third round or something. I remember the fight. The first time he hit me I put my hands up and smiled at him. For twelve rounds he ran away from me. It was a build-up, where people believed the hype. Hamed was a great fighter, of course, but that night I told him he was going to run from me and he did run from me. As they always said you can’t beat the corporate; he’d signed an HBO deal, and all the commentators except “Big George” Foreman were all pretty biased, to tell you the truth, and they were calling shots that were missing. The punch checker proved them wrong. They said that Hamed threw more punches than me, which is a complete embarrassment.
“That night was an experience because I was a nobody and, going into the fight, Hamed he was going to blow me away. I’d been to the Olympics twice, I’d traveled the world, and I fought tough guys. Hamed wasn’t going to move me I knew that in my mind. Of course, afterward, the excuses for Hamed were jet lag. Well, I remember even back then he flew by Concorde in a three-hour journey, it took me fifteen hours to get there from Vegas. They had me on two flights, and I had to drive up to Atlantic City, so they tried to mess with me in every way possible and it didn’t upset me; it didn’t bother me at all. They tried to play mind games, but where I came from in Belfast growing up, you were a man before you were ten years old, so nothing was going to faze me. I’ve experienced life and death situations, and they’re trying to mess with me? I just kept laughing at it.”
It was the “Prince” who won a unanimous decision that, to this day, is a loss the Irishman disputes. “I can’t even believe it, twenty years ago. I can still make the weight no problem. I’m still at fighting weight. Do you think Naseem can make weight? Haha.” McCullough manages to hold in his laughter for a moment. “For a catchweight [rematch] I’d have to stop training for like a year to do that.”
Tyson Fury is one of the latest high-profile sportsmen to speak out about mental health and his personal troubles. These two men met during Fury’s training camp for his bout against Deontay Wilder, a fight for the WBC world title belt.
“I met Tyson when my heavyweight got to spar him in. He was nice to me, but we didn’t talk about mental health; he probably doesn’t know what I’ve been through. People have mental health and depression—they turn to drink, alcohol, drugs, that’s another form of depression, too. I thank God I didn’t turn to that. Tyson Fury, I’d love to sit down with him because I’ve been to that door and he’s been to that door where he turned to drugs, and I turned to end my life. It’s the same sort of situation, where he beat [Wladimir] Klitschko and was the lineal champion of the world. It’s got to be a lot to do with that. It’s pressure, pressure, pressure.”
McCullough faced similar circumstances.
“I had the Olympic success, I had the commonwealth success, so I had tasted success before I turned pro, and then you’re the champion of the world. When you’re hot, you’re hot; when you’re not, you’re not. I was hot in 1990, then in 1992, then you’re starting all over again [as a professional]. Then, all of a sudden, you’re world champion as a professional, and you have people all around you. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had good people around me since day one, but I’ve had people around me who want to borrow some money, and when you give them some money, you’re not borrowing them money because you never see it again. That’s just part of being a boxer and part of being an athlete or a celebrity or whatever.”
The WBC continued to play a big part of Wayne’s life even after retirement; they named him a WBC peace and goodwill ambassador.
“After my fight in 2005 against Oscar Larios, Mauricio Sulaiman, the president, approached me, and at the time they loved me. I’m still the only fighter from Ireland to win a WBC [world title] belt in the history of boxing. He just made this role for me for peace and goodwill in sports around the world. Since that time, I think Klitschko has been made ambassador, too. It’s more or less being a role model for kids, to talk to kids to keep them off the streets and to let them focus on boxing.
“You don’t have to come from the ghetto to do boxing . . . People have the belief you have to come from the ghetto to be a real fighter, you don’t, because all the former world champions of the past and present—their kids are not coming from the ghetto because we made a better life for those kids. If you come from Beverly Hills, does that mean you can’t fight? You reach out to all the kids, the ones that live in the ghetto, ones who are living in rich neighborhoods, and maybe they can have a career in boxing whether they’re rich or poor. We try to keep them off the streets whether you’re in the ghetto and doing drugs; you could be a rich kid doing drugs as well do you know what I mean? It’s not just working-class people there are drugs everywhere.”
The WBC ambassadorial role, along with McCullough’s becoming a trainer, has kept him in the sport that made him. A luxury many are denied.
“When it’s all said and done, most boxers don’t end up still involved in the sport, and it’s like 90 percent of the fighters have to go working again because they didn’t make enough money to live off, so they try to start from scratch and get a day job, then their faculties are gone, a bit punch-drunk, and over here [in America] they can end up in the streets. It’s a different ball game over here.
“Boxers tried to start a union years ago, but there was no kind of support, if you ask me. If they started some kind of union for boxers, pensions for boxers—it can happen, they have them in football, American football, basketball, and other sports. Boxing generates big money. If the promoters set up a pension scheme for when boxers retire, at least they could then retire when they’re young still and have some kind of small income coming in. But they don’t have that, and it’s unfortunate. As I say, 90 percent of boxers end up not making that much money. Until boxing gets that sort of help boxers will just end up broke, on the streets or end up punch-drunk doing whatever.”
Shortly after Tyson Fury revealed his struggles outside of the ring, he claimed the sport he grew up loving was his savior, and it’s what he now literally lives for, a feeling McCullough doesn’t reciprocate. The former world bantamweight champion believes that boxing could’ve been instrumental to his mental health issues.
“Mental health is a tough thing. Maybe boxing, the hits on the head helped me to become depressed. People get depressed without getting hit on the head, I get that, but maybe it made it a little easier for me to get depressed, I don’t know. Even though I’ve never been knocked out before, maybe getting hit in the head gives you some sort of damage on your brain. I don’t know. Maybe it does.
“I’m a fighter; I had three hundred and eighteen amateur fights; I only lost eleven. I probably knocked out over one hundred guys. I had thirty-four pro fights, I lost seven, knocked out eighteen guys. I never touched a canvas in my whole career in the gym, as an amateur or as a pro. But I got hit up in the head training for fights, in the fights, and because I’ve never been knocked out, I never went to the hospital after a tough fight. There are certain fights I’ve been in where I’ve won, but my mind felt foggy, as if I was in fog for a few days.
“There has got to be some damage to your head that messes with your brain balance. It’s got to do something. I’ve always been checked out by doctors, MRI scans, and I’ve always been clean, but I’m not saying there’s still no damage in there. There are other fighters who do get knocked out I believe will have more damage, and that might lead to depression. I don’t know, I’m not a doctor, but if they did a study on this maybe they’d find something. Maybe there’s a drug that can prevent people from getting punch-drunk or dementia stuff like that. Thank God I didn’t get that stuff, but there’s got to be some sort of help out there for boxers.”
McCullough seems to have defeated most of his demons. These days he lives in Las Vegas with his lifesaver, Cheryl, whom he married in 1993, and his daughter, Wynona, who is an aspiring singer. McCullough is keeping himself occupied with coaching fighters, and he was recently inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame. But McCullough knows no matter how happy you are, it can all change in the blink of an eye.
“Back then, I didn’t talk to anybody; people have reached out to me since then. I’ve helped people, and I want to help as many people as I can. Just because you’re an Olympic medalist it doesn’t mean you’re the happiest guy in the world. People realize now that if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. It’s a problem people have, and most people take their life because they don’t reach out and talk to people. I just want to say that anybody reading this interview, they can reach out to me at any time, because I’ve been there, done that, and I don’t want to go back there! I’m there for anybody.”