Greatest Hits: Michael Nunn
This feature originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of The Ring.
FOR A BRIEF PERIOD IN THE LATE 1980s AND EARLY 1990s, MICHAEL NUNN WAS THE NO. 1 MIDDLEWEIGHT AND AMONG THE POUND-FOR-POUND BEST
Michael Nunn is a special version of boxing’s “what if” story. He had success, winning titles in two divisions, but his supreme skills suggested that even more would’ve been possible had he been more consistent.
Nunn was born in Davenport, Iowa, on April 14, 1963. He was one of four children raised in a single-parent family.
“I grew up on the streets; I was a street tough. I was always fighting,” Nunn told The Ring of his early years. “It was tough for me. I had a mother who did everything to take care of me, lead, teach and guide me, but growing up in the neighborhood, I was hanging out with a lot of street toughs. That’s why I was a tough guy – the way I was raised and came up.”
His older brother Willie noticed that Michael was never far from trouble and encouraged him to attend the Davenport Boxing Club. There, the 11-year-old Nunn learned the nuances of the sport under the guidance of Alvino Pena.
“When I went, I loved boxing. I was so talented,” Nunn said. “Alvino thought I had boxed before, because of the level of my talent. He told me I’d be a world champion. … I never thought of turning professional; it was just something fate led me to. I was born to box.”
Nunn, who won three consecutive Iowa Golden Gloves titles, had aspirations of making the 1984 U.S. Olympic team in the 156-pound division, where he had a rivalry with Frank Tate, who had bested him in two out of three encounters. However, he was advised to move up to the 165-pound division for the U.S. Olympic Trials. Nunn did so and fell short, losing to eventual 1984 Olympic silver medalist Virgil Hill. He exited the amateur scene with a record of 168-8.
Nunn moved to Los Angeles and hooked up with the Goossen brothers – promoter Dan and trainer Joe – ahead of his pro debut in December 1984. Based at the Ten Goose Boxing Gym in Van Nuys, the Quad Cities native learned his trade fighting almost exclusively out west, winning 30 straight fights before facing old rival Tate, who had won the vacant IBF middleweight title that was stripped from Marvin Hagler prior to the undisputed middleweight champ’s showdown with Sugar Ray Leonard. Nunn walked away with the belt after a ninth-round stoppage.
It was a dream scenario that Nunn had foretold his mother years earlier.
“I wanted to perform for my mother; I always told her I was going to be a world champion,” he said. “I used to tell her I’m going to fight at Caesars Palace and I’m going to win. That was always one of my goals. To knock Frank Tate out July 28, 1988, in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace, that was like my crowning achievement for me and my mother.”
Nunn made five defenses of his crown, one of which was a thrilling one-punch demolition of Sumbu Kalambay that earned The Ring’s inaugural Knockout of the Year award in 1989. However, he struggled against a pair of former welterweight champs in Marlon Starling and Donald Curry in 1990.
All the while, Nunn craved a superfight that he felt his talent deserved.
“They were always close,” he said. “I had a contract for $7 million to fight Roberto Duran, but Duran chose not to fight me. That’s not on me. I respect him and Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler. I just wanted to test my skills against those legendary fighters. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to do that.”
Next up for Nunn was a long-awaited hometown defense against unbeaten but unheralded challenger James Toney in May 1991. The two met in a fight dubbed “Rumble on the Riverbank” at the John O’Donnell Stadium in Davenport.
Toney was listed as a 20-1 underdog and lost most of the first 10 rounds in front of a sellout crowd. However, Toney rendered the scorecards moot when he landed a massive left hand in the final minute of the penultimate round. The punch put Nunn on his back, and the finishing follow-up was just a formality.
“That was probably the most devastating defeat,” Nunn lamented. “I was ahead in the fight and I got a little careless and he took advantage of it, and I give him all the props in the world. James was able to do what champions do and capitalize. It was his night.”
Nunn decided to move up in weight and met Victor Cordoba for the WBA super middleweight title in September 1992. Nunn edged the Panamanian in a hard-fought split decision. Not content with the nature of their first fight, he agreed to face Cordoba in a direct rematch four-and-a-half months later and won a more conclusive unanimous decision.
After three successful defenses, he headed to London to share an event with WBC counterpart Nigel Benn, hoping to set up a unification fight in the second half of 1994. Nunn faced gatekeeper Steve Little. However, things didn’t go according to plan. Nunn had to get off the canvas in the opening round, struggled afterward and lost the title by split decision.
“It was a pretty bad performance from me,” Nunn said. “I wasn’t at my best, but there’s no excuses.
“With me losing to Steve, it derailed [a fight with Benn]. But I still think we should have fought, because I think it would have been a great fight for the ages. I think it would have been a very interesting fight, the boxer versus the puncher.”
Little lost the title to Frankie Liles in his first defense, after which Liles defeated Nunn via unanimous decision in Quito, Ecuador, in December 1994. (It might be noted that in the 10 months between facing Little and Liles, Nunn took an interim fight for which he weighed in at 195 pounds.)
Over the next couple of years, Nunn stayed active and worked himself into position to fight for the vacant WBC light heavyweight title against Graciano Rocchigiani in March 1998. Although Nunn gave a good account of himself, he lost a split decision.
Nunn (58-4, 38 knockouts) finished his career with six wins, fighting for the final time in January 2002.
On August 6, 2002, Nunn was arrested after buying one kilogram of cocaine from an undercover FBI agent at a Davenport hotel and was later convicted of conspiracy to distribute the drug. He served 16½ years of a 24-year sentence before being released on February 6, 2019.
“I don’t really want to discuss that,” he said before talking about his life today. “There’s no doubt about it, there’s been changes. It’s beautiful being out with my family and friends, just getting back to life. It’s better to be out here than be behind the wall, and I want to capitalize on all the great opportunities I have before me. I’m enjoying life.”
Nunn, now 58, isn’t married but has five children and several grandchildren and lives in Davenport.
Here’s what he had to say about six of his most memorable nights in the ring:
July 28, 1988, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas • Titles: IBF middleweight
“It was definitely a big fight for the both of us, due to the fact we fought three times as amateurs – he beat me twice and I beat him once. I felt like fighting at 156 as an amateur, but the United States Olympic boxing committee asked me to go up to 165 because they were clearing out for [Tate] to win at 156. They had Emanuel Steward in their corner, but I came from the streets of Davenport and just fighting; I wasn’t planning on being a professional fighter, but due to the grace of God I was able to. Those guys were already structured in the pro ranks from the amateur ranks after them winning the Olympic gold medal. Frank Tate and all the guys who came from the 1984 Olympic team, they were already programmed to be professional fighters: in the right structure, the right coaching, money behind them and the right people. He was the 1984 Olympic champion and he was a good middleweight champion. I think I should have been on the Olympic team at 156. I had a chance to straighten it out, but I said like Dan Goossen used to say, ‘They may have the gold medal, but I was a gold nugget.’ [Tate and I] met four years later, and I knocked him out and I destroyed him. We’d already fought three times previous; there was no fear. Frank was a good fighter, he’s a friend of mine, but I thank them for giving me the opportunity to fight, because they tried to evade me. By me being the number one contender, [they were willing] to give me money to delay my championship fight. I’m a fighter. I want to fight the world champion. The money looked good, but I figured once I beat the world champion, the big-money fights would come. He had to be forced to fight me; I became the mandatory challenger and they had to fight me. It was a good fight, but it was not competitive. I was the boss until I stopped him – I was quicker than him, faster than him; I landed the most punches; I was leading on all the cards. This was the second-to-last 15-round championship in boxing. We prepared in Big Bear, California. I celebrated the win with my mother and family and my manager Dan Goossen and great trainer Joe Goossen. A lot of people from my community, they flew out to support me.”
Result: Nunn TKO 9
March 25, 1989, Hilton Hotel, Las Vegas • Titles: IBF middleweight
“It was sad; that’s a part of boxing. I should have been the WBA middleweight champion as well, knocking Sumbu Kalambay out in a minute, 28 seconds of the first round. The championship belt would have been great, but it’s OK. [Editor’s note: Kalambay held the WBA title but was stripped by the sanctioning organization for taking the Nunn fight instead of facing its mandatory challenger, Herol Graham.] The world saw me destroy him. Just let the guys fight and let the winner be determined by who wins inside the ring. But with the politics of the sport, there’s always the outside influences. With me knocking him out in a fashion like that – you’re fighting great fighters; these guys are coming to fight; they have the mindset to win, like I wanted to beat them – they wanted to beat me in the same fashion. Fortunately, I was able to get the right punch off to get him out of there. Through the training camp, Joe Goossen had prepared me to fight 30 rounds. This kid had never lost to an American middleweight. He beat Mike McCallum and Iran Barkley, so I figured his mindset, he thought he d beat me too.”
Result: Nunn KO 1
August 14, 1989, Lawlor Events Center, Reno, Nevada • Titles: IBF middleweight
“Oh my God, one of the toughest guys I probably ever fought. He was so much physically stronger than me at that particular time; I was a middleweight and this guy looked like George Foreman come fight time after the weigh-in. Iran was a brawler. He was very physical, very strong and a tremendous puncher, probably one of the hardest punchers I ever fought. And as far as strength, he was probably one of the strongest middleweights I ever fought. He tried to intimidate me; he’s a typical New Yorker. That’s what guys from New York do. I never allowed him to intimidate me with my great condition and my physical abilities to evade the power he was trying to put down on me. I utilized my boxing skills and boxed around him and stayed out of harm’s way. He landed some very devastating punches in that fight; in 12 rounds, you’re going to get hit. The thing about it was Bob Arum would always tell me and Dan Goossen we would fight Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns. That was the last fight we did with Bob Arum. There was some internal stuff going on. I should have been fighting guys like Leonard, Hearns, but they kept playing games. But they had an internal disagreement.”
Result: Nunn MD 12
April 14, 1990, Mirage Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas • Titles: IBF middleweight
“Marlon was a good friend of mine. Marlon was a very tough guy for a little man. I commend him and give him a lot of respect. You have to remember, he came up to the middleweight division to fight me. He was the welterweight champion; he gave up a lot of weight to fight me. I was the bigger guy. He was really never a threat, because I was the bigger guy and he couldn’t hurt me. He fought hard and he fought with a lot of tenacity. He wanted to go 12 rounds, because if you look through the middleweight division when welterweight champions move up and fight the middleweights, they usually got knocked out. If we go back to the great Carlos Monzon, he knocked out Jose Napoles. It was great [Starling] was able to go the 12 rounds. He didn’t get hurt. He’s a good defensive fighter, but he was never a threat. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Result: Nunn MD 12
October 18, 1990, Palais Omnisport de Paris-Bercy, Paris • Titles: IBF middleweight
“He’s another good friend of mine. It was a real good fight. He had been the welterweight and junior middleweight champion and was trying to become a three-weight world champion. What he was fighting for was big, too. Donald Curry was a great fighter; at welterweight he was dynamite until he lost to Lloyd Honeyghan. Donald was a very good fighter, good puncher, very consistent and very dangerous. His manager, Akbar Muhammad, was good friends with Dan Goossen, and I remember when I turned professional back in the day, Donald Curry was the welterweight champion and I was a middleweight upstart, so [Muhammad] said in a few years we’re going to put these two guys together and see who was the best. Dan Goossen used to think I was the best, and Muhammad used to think his fighter was better than me. It was kind of funny. And about four or five years later, we had the chance to fight and I stopped his fighter in 10 rounds. I got the opportunity to fight in front of the Europeans; it was beautiful. The people in Paris treated me and my team so well. It was a phenomenal night. Jean-Claude Bouttier, who fought Carlos Monzon in the 1970s, took care of us when we were in France. He was a true gentleman. He took care of us for the two weeks we were in Paris. It was kind of weird, but to get some European exposure … to create some firestorm to maybe have a fight in London, I think Bob Arum and Dan Goossen were trying to get me a fight with Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank.”
Result: Nunn KO 10
January 30, 1993, The Pyramid, Memphis, Tennessee • Titles: WBA super middleweight
“The first fight was very close; they gave it to me on a split decision. Angelo Dundee is a legendary trainer; he was impressed that I wanted to have a rematch with [Cordoba], because it was such a good, close fight, but I wanted to beat him more decisively. I wanted to give him a rematch and beat him more dominant the second time around and show him I’m the superior fighter. The [first] fight was super close because he knocked me down in I think the 10th round; he hit me with a straight left hand that put me on my butt. I got up and came on strong, but it was still a real close fight. I was pretty fortunate to get the decision. I felt it was my duty to give the man a rematch. The second time, in Memphis, I beat him hands down. I wanted to show him I was a much better fighter than the first time around. He was hungry and wanted to redeem himself as the champion he was, because he was tough as nails, a good fighter, and I have a lot of respect for him. I made better adjustments as far as my conditioning; I got in better shape. I was in good shape, but I knew I had to be in superior condition.”