30 years ago today, the great James Toney won the first in a number of world titles. A 22-year-old Toney, trained by the masterful Bill Miller, traveled to Michael Nunn’s hometown of Davenport, Iowa to challenge the unbeaten southpaw for his IBF middleweight belt. 28-year-old Nunn, who was making the sixth defence of his title, was perfect at 36-0. Nunn was a massive 20-1 betting favorite.
The two had more than a little bad blood between them, with Nunn taking offence at Toney’s trash-talk. “Second To” Nunn vowed to punish Toney, stating how he would “enjoy punishing this guy.” What followed was a superb technical fight between two master boxers. Nunn, tall, fast-handed and possessing immense self-belief, some would say arrogance, stood and boxed with Toney. Nunn romped to a lead on the cards, his combination punching getting the better of Toney.
But this fight proved to be, as the saying goes, a fight of two halves. Toney, 25-0-1 coming in, was relentless, refusing to grow discouraged despite dropping round after round. Nunn, trained by the legendary Angelo Dundee, was seemingly too far ahead to lose his title. It was Miller’s turn to push his fighter with a soundbite Dundee would have appreciated. “You’re losing it, son. You’ve got to press him even more,” Miller told Toney in the corner, later adding how, “we’re running out of rounds.”
Toney refused to panic, insisting all the way that he would get to Nunn, that he would make the score cards redundant. By the final third of the fight Nunn was appearing to show signs of fatigue. Toney, snarling and starving hungry, kept coming and coming. Toney ramped up his attack in the 11th. Initially missing wildly, to the extent that “Lights Out” swung and missed and fell into the ropes, completely off-balance, Toney then found his target. Toney tagged the defending champ with a right to the head. Then, foolishly, Nunn dropped his hands.
Toney crashed in a snapping left hook to the jaw. Nunn, who was laid out on his back, never saw the punch coming. Nunn beat the count but Toney would not be denied. A right uppercut jarred Nunn, followed by a right that landed on the back of Nunn’s neck. Nunn was draped over the ropes, hurt bad, his reign close to over. Nunn got himself back into position, where he was welcomed by two more right hands. Nunn went down again and this time the fight was stopped, the towel coming in from Nunn’s corner.
Toney had overcome a big points deficit, he had never stopped believing and he had ripped the title from a very good, close to great champion in his own backyard. The James Toney era had begun. In many ways, Nunn’s career never fully recovered. Still, Nunn would fight on, winning the WBA super-middleweight title and he was never again KO’d in a fight. For Toney, further nights of glory would follow, with “Lights Out” giving us fantastic displays of brilliant boxing in fights with the likes of Mike McCallum, Iran Barkley, “Prince” Charles Williams, Vassiliy Jirov and others.
Looking back now, it’s astonishing to think Toney was such a whopping, great outsider against Nunn.