'I will win by boxing clever': Jack Cullen interview
Photo: Karen Priestley
Lancashire middleweight Jack Cullen speaks to Oliver McManus ahead of Saturday's English title showdown with Jack Sellars...
Talking to me over the phone, there was a sense of anticipation in the voice of Jack Cullen. An understandable eagerness, borderline childish excitement, for fight night to arrive.
On Saturday he will have the first title fight of his career when he faces Jack Sellars for the vacant English middleweight title - and he can't wait.
A scheduled contest with Reece Cartwright, the previous champion, was pushed back to the May date before Cartwright's sudden career break from the sport owing to unfortunate personal circumstances. Sellars, a Central Area champion, steps in but the change in opponent has done little to dent Cullen's optimism.
“I’ve taken it on the chin," he tells Boxing Monthly. "It’s out of my control and it’s not like Reece has bottled it, because I’ve still got to go in there and get the win. There’s always something that seems to happen with my fights, injuries, last-minute replacements, so I’m used to it by now. If I’m honest with you I don’t really think about who I’m fighting, I wanted that English title and Steve delivered it so that’s my priority - it was never personal with Reece and it won’t be with Jack.”
The career trajectory for Cullen, who only turned professional in 2016, hasn’t always been immediately obvious. Truth be told, for most of his formative years, the lure of professional boxing never even crossed his mind. Taking up the sport aged 15 to “pass the time with a bit of fun”, having previously been involved with racing motorbikes, he became immediately hooked. Seventy-three “apprenticeship” fights would follow before he debuted on 22 October 2016 - an occasion, he says, that more than lived up to expectations.
“That was amazing. I always say I can’t top that, in terms of the event, but all of my fights have kept that buzz going. I find that I used to get nervous a lot before fights and I still do but I’ve been able to channel that into a buzz, as I say, so I can turn it into adrenaline and thrive off it. I enjoy getting in the ring after all of the training, all the sacrifices, I walk into that ring and I showcase my skills in one big release. Nerves are always good thing, I think anyway, otherwise you’ll get complacent and cut corners.”
Managed by Steve Wood, he has been advanced at a quick pace with 16 fights in 30 months. Influenced, admittedly, by the fact he is a high-profile ticket seller, Cullen has embraced the opportunity to become a full-time professional and commit to maximising his ability. This desire to “put all [his] eggs in one basket” came to the fore last year when he took part in ‘Ireland’s Last Man Standing’, an Ultimate Boxxer-style tournament.
“I had a fight the Saturday before and I stopped the lad [Alistair Warren] in the fourth round. Pretty much straight away afterwards Steve just said “do you want to fight next week in Ireland?”. I jumped at the opportunity. I was sparring Chris Blaney [who Jack fought in the semi-final, winning over three rounds] the week before to get him prepared. He, like most of the guys, had been getting ready for it for months - training specifically for those three rounders - whereas I’d spent most of my time preparing for eight rounds with Alistair Warren!”
Wins over Nick Quigley and Chris Blaney would see Cullen advance to the final of the competition, aired live on TG4, where he faced Roy Sheahan. Sheahan had been fast-tracked specifically for this competition with the 34-year-old making his debut merely a month beforehand.
“I had ten minutes to prepare for that fight, they were never letting an English guy win the whole competition, but that was the risk I took. You were getting 25,000 euros for winning the fight and it was an opportunity to fight against some good names. The loss hasn’t held me back, it’s actually taken the pressure of me a little bit because now I’ve not got an ‘0’ to lose. I was back in training pretty much straight after and we cracked on from there.”
Following on from his whirlwind visit to Ireland, the Tommy Battle trained fighter racked up four further victories in 2018 with Harry Matthews, Emmanuel Moussinga, Alistair Warren and Tomaz Bezvoda coming up short. Matthews was the only opponent to hear the final bell. Three stoppages in the final half of the year saw confidence rise for 'Little Lever’s Meat Cleaver' who credits a “belting work-rate” for the dismantling of his counterparts, something he’s picked up from the very best.
“I’ve been sparring Callum Smith and that’s been class because you literally can’t ask for anyone better. He’s the number one at super middleweight so sparring someone that’s bigger than me - and this is before the weight cut, obviously - it’s telling me a lot about the shots I can take and how well I can hold my power. It’s not just the power, though, it’s the speed of his feet and, mentally, how fast he is to react and that, rather naturally, is rubbing off.”
Rubbing shoulders with such a supreme talent has not only helped in the ring but also when it comes to visualising potential future success. Cullen told me that when he’s sparring with Smith, he dreams of fighting in such illustrious venues as the O2 and Madison Square Garden. For now it’s the comfortable surroundings of the Bolton Whites Hotel, situated in the Macron Stadium, that he calls ‘home’.
“My favourite place to fight, at the moment, is the Macron Stadium, I have been at the M.E.N (now Manchester Arena) but I fought far too late and there was no-one there. I’m not a big fan of Oldham Leisure Centre, I’ll be honest with you, a lot of my friends like to drink and watch the fighting at the same time and that’s not possible at Oldham so it’s a bit unfair.
"I guess I’ve got used to fighting quite late, to be honest, I’m always on late with Steve but I’d love to be on TV at some point. I’ve got the support from Little Lever, everyone knows who I am over here, so I can do the tickets - that’s not an issue - and Steve is telling me he’s got something big coming up, hopefully more exposure.”
Under the assumption Liam Williams won’t be hanging around for too long at British level, Cullen is keeping an eager eye on the status of that Lonsdale belt. With a desire to push on for bigger things and the full support of Steve Wood behind him, he explained why now was the time to double down.
“I’ve learned that you’re only in this game for so long, I think that’s dawned on me, so I need to grab this opportunity whilst I can. People tell me I’m still young but, the way I see it, I’m exactly the right age for these fights. You always learn but those days of development are behind me and it’s time to start winning the titles.”
This ‘second phase’ of Cullen’s carer all starts on 11 May when, if all goes well, he will crowned English champion. On a run of three straight knockouts, his confidence is as high as it has ever been and the young middleweight is assured he’ll be classy enough to see the job through.
“I will win by boxing clever, listening to my corner and being first to the punch. I’m not going out there thinking I’ll knock him out but if the shots are flowing and I’m hitting a good rhythm then he’s going to get stopped. I know I’ve got a great work-rate and I’m fairly big for a middleweight so the power behind my shots is tough to take. Then I’m going to pop round my mum’s for a nice Sunday roast.”