The middleweight battle pitting Michael Nunn vs. Sumbu Kalambay was expected to be a competitive, fast-paced, entertaining chess match between elite performers when they met on March 25, 1989.
Nunn was the supposed heir to Sugar Ray Leonard, a cocky, lightning-fast southpaw who’d enjoyed a monster 1988, earning “Fighter of the Year” honors. Kalambay was the smooth, skilled, crafty pro who’d handed the “Body Snatcher” himself, Mike McCallum, his first pro loss.
The undefeated Nunn was a slight betting favorite, but neither he nor his fleet opponent were known as punchers.
Fight fans watching Michael Nunn vs. Sumbu Kalambay at the Las Vegas Hilton and on HBO settled in for what was expected to be a long night of world-class boxing. What they got was arguably the most brutal knockout of the decade.
Nunn, then 32-0, came into the fight as the hottest young property in boxing. After winning his first three fights of 1988, he won the IBF middleweight title from fellow undefeated Frank Tate that July. It was a pick’em fight going in, but Nunn showed no doubt as to his superiority, dazzling the former Olympic gold medalist with speed and skill in a breakout performance. He then defended against former title challenger Juan Domingo Roldan, stopping the Argentine strongman in eight rounds. In four months, he’d knocked off two of the more formidable opponents in the division. Over the course of the year, he went 5-0 (4 knockouts).
But questions remained, especially about his power. Yes, he’d stopped Tate and Roldan, but that was more the result of an accumulation of shots. His punches often seemed to slap instead of crack.
Kalambay (46-3-1) was not only one of the elite technicians in the game, he had an iron chin – having never been knocked out.
A native of Zaire, Kalambay made his home in Italy, where the locals nicknamed him “Patrizio.” Like a fine Italian vino, Kalambay was velvety smooth, moving in-and-out, effortlessly working off the jab and countering with precision and flair. He was a gorgeous fighter to watch, frustrating the likes of Herol Graham (W 12) and Iran Barkley (W 15), whom he beat in October 1987 for the vacant WBA title.
But it was the March 1988 decision over McCallum, one of the finest fighters of the decade, that made people stand up and take notice. Fighting in his backyard of Pesaro, Italy, Kalambay was a master, frustrating McCallum with his quickness and skill and earning a unanimous decision in what was a shocker.
With the WBA being the WBA and stripping Kalambay, Patrizio entered the Hilton ring first – as an official challenger for Nunn’s IBF title. As per usual, Kalambay was cool and calm, expressionless and stoic. Nunn, meanwhile, entered with supreme confidence, grinning widely and with ease. If body language counted for anything at all, Nunn had the prefight edge before Michael Nunn vs. Sumbu Kalambay played out.
He also had the physical edge. Standing 6-foot-1, Nunn, decked out in all white, seemed to dwarf his 5-9 opponent. Plus he had a five-inch reach advantage at 77 inches. Once the first round bell rang, it became obvious that it was going to be an uphill battle for Kalambay. Still, no one expected the fireworks that were coming.
Nunn, uncharacteristically, moved forward immediately and Kalambay did what he always did – moved to his right. Nunn connected with the jab early, as Kalambay tried to maneuver away from his opponent’s long arms. As Kalambay tossed out the jab and inched closer behind it, Nunn had already established range. In a perfect counter move, Nunn timed the jab and dipped to his right, unloading a single, mammoth left hand that exploded onto Kalambay’s face. The Italian fielded the shot and froze for a second, before sailing backward to the canvas. As Nunn walked away, Kalambay lay on his back, open-eyes and semi-conscious. The former WBA champ struggled up, but collapsed against the ropes as referee Richard Steele held him up. Time of stoppage: 1:28.
The punch traveled inches and sounded like a shotgun blast. When it landed, Kalambay had no chance. Some say it was a result of him having fought so few southpaws. Whatever the case, he allowed Nunn to maneuver him right into the line of fire. And the effects were devastating.
The win catapulted Nunn into superstar status. After Michael Nunn vs. Sumbu Kalamaby, now, suddenly, the biggest fight in boxing was Nunn vs. Leonard, who’d come out of retirement four months earlier and won the WBC super middleweight title with a knockout of Donny LaLonde. It would be a showdown of past great vs. future great.
But the demand for Leonard-Nunn was shortlived. Nunn’s star diminished as quickly as it had risen, as he looked vulnerable and unwilling to engage in a safety-first decision over Barkley that August. He went on to reign for another two years before losing to James Toney in 1991, but never regained the status that he enjoyed following the incredible knockout of Kalambay – the most brutal one punch knockout of the decade. Check out this Where Are They Now piece on Nunn.
Matthew Aguilar may be reached at [email protected] or MatthewAguilar5 on Twitter