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The Fighter, the  movie about boxer “Irish” Mickey Ward’s battle to a world title, earned seven Oscar nominations and continues to rake in the money at the box office. 

Yet his story pales in comparison to that of a real Irish fighter, Wayne McCullough, the former world bantamweight champion, who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles during a long and eventful career, during which he was never stopped or knocked down.   

  Wayne, known as the Pocket Rocket, encountered bombings and shootings in his native Belfast, crooked managers and promoters, controversy over the Irish flag, a problem with the Northern Irish national anthem, a mis-diagnosis of a brain cyst which kept him out of boxing for two years and, through it all, he fought wherever and whenever he could, taking on all comers and winning fans around the world for his dogged, relentless attacking style. 

  It’s quite a story. Born in Belfast’s Shankhill Road in 1970, he was brought up amid sectarian violence when boys either joined the UDF or the UDA — Protesant gangs —or went to the gym. He opted for the gym and forged his amateur career in the face of prejudice and bias against a Protestant fighting in the mainly Catholic sport of boxing.

He won a silver medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics but was excoriated by critics for carrying the tricolor flag of Ireland.  He moved to America and turned professional where he won the world title. But his problems mounted outside the ring where he was paid by bounced checks, swindled by his then manager-promoter out of $750,000 and two days before a homecoming fight in Belfast was refused a licence to box by the British Boxing Board of Control because doctors found a cyst on his brain. One blow to the head would kill him, he was told. 

  He returned to the U.S., did the rounds of 15 doctors, who assured him that the cyst was not on his brain and not dangerous so, after two years, he was licenced to fight again in Nevada. He returned to Belfast and fought there for the first time in seven years to a rapturous reception. After more problems with management, his wife Cheryl took over his career. His last fight was three years ago when he was 37. A few days before, he injured his back while sparring and could hardly walk. He wanted to postpone the fight until he was fit but his then-promoter insisted he went through with it. 

Amazingly he was ahead on two judges’ scorecards when the injury forced him to quit after six rounds.  

Five years ago Wayne McCullough was named the World Boxing Council’s first Ambassador of the World for Peace and Goodwill in Sports. 

There’s plenty more…so if any filmmakers out there are looking for a rambunctious, rowdy, heart-warming story they couldn’t do better than contacting the Pocket Rocket.



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