With his elusive, catch-me-if-you-can style, you might say Tyrone McCullagh has already mastered the art of social distancing. 

Having gained kudos in defeat against the battle-tested Ryan Walsh in their Golden Contract semi-final in February, McCullagh is ready for another run at the big fights once the shadow of Covid-19 moves away from sport and life in general.

As a trained NHS nurse specialising in mental health, the quicksilver featherweight from Derry understands the stresses involved in these trying times better than most. McCullagh is now focused fully on boxing, rather than nursing, but when discussing the impact of the Covid-19 on his career and others, he is mindful of the wider issues. 

“People’s mental health is [naturally] going to take a battering with being cooped up so long. Especially elderly people who aren’t able to get out so much, get out for their routine, even out for a walk. It’s going to be tough,” McCullagh told Boxing Social.

“Even people who are in the job of mental health, [it] doesn’t mean they are immune to it. Anyone can suffer. At the start, everyone was panicking because it seemed like the media were constantly putting up worrying facts. Although the UK death toll has been terrible and every life lost has been an absolute shame, it [felt like it] was predicted to be a lot worse. The way the UK government has handled it has been absolutely shocking, but if you elect clowns expect the circus, I suppose. 

“Where I live in Derry, thank god we weren’t too badly affected there and there’s not one case left in our local hospital, which is Altnagelvin, so [even though] it was tough I am just glad it wasn’t as bad as expected. But I have heard of a lot of people working long shifts wearing PPE, run down and understaffed. The worst thing is a lot of it could have been avoided. They should have listened to the advice they were given from the start, many lives could have been saved, I believe.”

One of the final acts of boxing before Covid-19 intervened was MTK Global’s thrilling Golden Contract semi-final event where McCullagh endured the first defeat of his career after a late surge by British champion Ryan Walsh.

Boxing away from home against a sturdy, long-term featherweight of proven quality, there was a disparity in natural size and seasoning for McCullagh who had moved up from super-bantam in search of opportunity.

McCullagh (left) impressed with his clever boxing in the first half of his 10-rounder
against the steely Ryan Walsh. Photo: Scott Rawsthorne for MTK Global.

But there were encouraging signs. For the first four rounds, McCullagh picked Walsh’s pocket with his stellar movement and clever boxing. From the fifth, Walsh overcame his frustration to gradually squeeze the space from the ring before scoring official knockdowns in the sixth and ninth rounds as McCullagh dug in grimly under sustained pressure.

“I’m over it now. I took it pretty bad at the time,” reflected McCullagh. “I was very disappointed, naturally. But looking back now a good few months have passed, I think I done myself proud. In my opinion, I won the first half of the fight. I’m not saying I was hard done by, by any means. He deserved to win with the knockdowns and that. But here was a lot of positives to take from the fight and I’ll learn from it.

“The first four rounds I was thinking this was too good to be true. I even thought I nicked the fifth. The experience just told at the end,” he said. “He landed that punch in the sixth, which obviously hurt me and put me down and, once he landed that, he knew from experience that he was going to take over the fight and I sort of went into my shell a bit. I went into survival mode instead of still trying to win the fight.

“I’m not going to dwell on it too much, but I don’t think the second knockdown was a genuine one. He did hit me clean, but he grabbed me and wrestled me to the ground a bit. I didn’t think the referee was going it give at the time, but the [timekeeper] started counting outside the ring and gave a knockdown. I’m not saying it definitely wasn’t, but I didn’t think it was. You’ve probably seen them given before.

“Taking all things into consideration, I wasn’t too far off. So, there is a lot of positives to take from it. I think the experience I gained from that fight alone will stand by [me] more than my previous 14 fights.”

McCullagh (left) stood firm late on as Walsh pushed for a stoppage in the closing stages.
Photo: Scott Rawsthorne for MTK Global.

Many would have folded under Walsh’s late onslaught yet McCullagh (14-1, 6 KOs) proved his fighting mettle to be equal to his guile and unorthodoxy. “I’ve never been hit like that before. I was hurt a few times in that fight, but I was just saying to myself there is no chance I’m not seeing that final bell. I wasn’t getting stopped,” he said firmly.

After the loss, manager Jamie Conlan called McCullagh to explain that the Walsh defeat was hardly a career obituary and meaningful fights remained in the future. His supportive words were the first step on McCullagh’s path to acceptance. 

The Derry stylist has since come to terms with that loss, but may now perhaps test the waters back at 122lbs. “I’ve been toying with the idea of going back down. I just need to speak to Jamie, my manager, and Pete [Taylor], my coach, and see what they think,” said McCullagh. “It just depends on what fights are offered and what’s best for me really.”

McCullagh (right) may move back down to 122lbs if opportunities present themselves.
Photo: Scott Rawsthorne for MTK Global.

After previously training at MTK’s facilities in Liverpool and Glasgow, McCullagh is now back home in Ireland, training with the highly respected Peter Taylor at Dublin’s Colosseum Gym. 

“It is brilliant to be with Pete. I worked with him a bit in the Irish High Performance Team as an amateur. So he knows how to get the best out of me and what I like,” enthused McCullagh. “There’s a great buzz about the camp with Tyrone [McKenna], big Tommy [McCarthy] and all the other lads, and the craic is good. I love being down here.

“It’s been really tough [training during Covid-19]. Me and Tyrone [McKenna] were ready to start back after the [Golden Contract] semi-finals and then, literally as we were heading down to Dublin on the Monday, the area was locked down and we’re still not back to normal. We’re doing most sessions outside when we can. We’re staying in like a student hall, which has a gym thankfully, so we’re doing the rest of our sessions in there. So during lockdown, all I was doing was getting out [on] runs really. It will be a tough road back, but I’ve got time on my hands because I think all the fights in Ireland have been cancelled until after August anyhow.”

With MTK Global set to pit its vast stable of fighters against one another in its excellent ‘Fight Night’ series, McCullagh could meet a familiar face next though names have yet to be discussed. 

“Not at the minute. I know they were planning on getting me out on the show that was booked for the end of July in Ireland,” he said. “But that’s been scrapped, now I think the show in August in Ireland has been scrapped as well. Unless they get me over to England or somewhere, it’s probably looking like September some time.

“I’ve said to people, now I’ve got over [the loss], if I don’t tweak a few things and learn and come back better it will be an absolute shame. I believe I won potentially five rounds out of the 10, some say six [against Walsh], the judges didn’t see it that way so I need to tweak my style a bit and not be on the move as much.”

The slick McCullagh may move a little less in the future, but he’s hopefully moving on to better times.