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Michael Nunn: The fighter who had it all – for a while

How great was Michael Nunn?

It was 30 years ago this summer (July 28) when Nunn, a gifted boxer/puncher of the highest order, defeated Frank Tate to win his first world title: the IBF middleweight crown. Five retentions followed, before Nunn was shocked by 20-1 outsider James Toney in 1991. But how great could the slippery southpaw have become had things turned out differently?

Nunn was certainly a fighter who once seemingly had it all. The Davenport, Iowa southpaw was a tall, athletic, naturally gifted and hardworking boxer; one who was being referred to at the time of his ninth-round stoppage of Tate as a future great. Back in the mid-1980s it was rumoured how even the legendary “Sugar” Ray Leonard was reluctant to face the peaking star.

But Nunn, who turned pro in December of 1984 and who would eventually be trained by Leonard’s former trainer, the great Angelo Dundee (having acrimoniously split from Joe Goossen in ’91) , never lived up to his promise; despite capturing an eventual total of two world titles at different weights and challenging for a third. And today, it’s fair to say how only hardcore fans remember him.

An unbeaten sensation, really, when he sparkled against the likewise undefeated Tate in Las Vegas, Nunn soon began to reportedly hang around with “the wrong people.” Sure, Nunn, aged 26 and at his peak, looked awesome in starching the talented and usually durable Sumbu Kalambay in just one-round in his second title defence, but things began to slowly trickle downhill for him after the win over the Italian.

Safety-first points wins over Iran Barkley and the naturally smaller Marlon Starling left fans feeling bored and disappointed, and a May, 1991 TKO loss to new bad boy James Toney ended Nunn’s reign in what was a real upset at the time (Nunn being stopped in the eleventh-round and in his hometown to boot).

It was around this time that Nunn allegedly began to get into drugs; Cocaine being the substance he is said to have begun taking and was later caught distributing. It was kept under wraps at the time, and Nunn even had success up at super-middleweight, when he beat Panama’s Victor Cordoba to annex the WBA 168-pound strap – a title Nunn retained four times. But the superstar Nunn was expected to become in 1988 never appeared. And now he never would.

A weight-drained Nunn was caught up with by the late Steve Little, a big underdog going in, in London in early 1994. Out-pointed, Nunn’s belt was gone, and with it all remnants of his hopes of regaining his earlier prestige. Two more title challenges did appear for Nunn – one at 168 against Frankie Liles (LU 12), the other up at light-heavyweight against Graciano Rocchigiani (LS12) – but his status now was a far cry from the one he held when legends Leonard, Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran were his potential foes.

Carrying on when much past his best, Nunn last fought in 2002. Then the curtain was unceremoniously dropped for good on his once ultra-promising career. Reportedly caught dealing Cocaine and sentenced in January of 2004, Nunn, then aged 40, was sentenced to twenty-four years in prison. It was a tragic end to a once glittering career.

Today a free man (and it must be said that the sentence that was handed to him, and the time he served, was incredibly harsh) Nunn never ended up where he was supposed to end up. For today he should be enshrined in The Hall of Fame in Canastota, not remembered as another close to great fighter who languishes on the ‘What if’ list this sport sees growing and growing with each passing year.

Nunn retired with a 58-4(38) record. The only man to ever stop him was Toney.