“God has been good to me. I got nothing to complain about. I collected all the world championships of the major organizations in the sport of boxing at the time. I did my part; I'm just thankful. I'm going to keep it moving and keep my head up. Be strong and be the soldier that I am,” said Michael Nunn during an exclusive interview with NYFights ahead of his induction into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame on August 26th through the 27th from the Resorts World Hotel and Casino.
Michael “Second To” Nunn will be enshrined in the NVBHOF as part of the 2022 all-star class of fighters, including Kennedy McKinney, Ray Mercer, Hector Camacho, and Iran Barkley, to name a few.
Michael was born on April 14th, 1963, in Davenport, Iowa. Outside of a minor league baseball team, an indoor football team, and a minor league hockey team, Davenport isn't a city known for its sporting prowess. However, the Quad Cities did give the world a few sports gems. Three-time Superbowl champion Roger Craig, middleweight contender Antwun Echols, and Michael Nunn. Nunn would become among the best middleweight champions of the late 1980s and early 90s. Boxing fans and pundits like to throw the word “resume” around when discussing how great a fighter was. Especially when it involves deciding a boxer's induction into the Hall of Fame.
Michael's resume is exceptional and validates his moniker “Second To” Nunn. The Iowa native amassed a record of (58-4) with 38 Kos and won world titles in two divisions. The slick southpaw made a total of nine successful title defenses, fought eight world champions, defeated five by knockout and battled two International Boxing Hall of Fame inductees.
The journey to greatness started when Michael was 11 years old. Following the advice of his friends, Nunn found his calling when he joined the Davenport Boxing Club. “It was weird because I found something I liked to do. I didn't know I liked to box. And I'm really thankful to my friends for taking me down to the Davenport boxing club. I fell in love with the great sport of boxing. Look at me now,” said the champ as he reminisced about his beginnings. Boxing came naturally to Nunn. Michael's first coach Alvino Pena knew the 12-year-old boy was special and had the talent to become a world champion.
It wasn't long before the young pugilist swept local and international tournaments. As an amateur, Nunn only lost eight times in 176 contests. He won three Iowa Golden Gloves and competed for a spot on the 1984 Olympic team. He faced future world champions Virgil Hill and Frank Tate at the trials. Tate would best the Iowa native in two of three matches and earn the spot on the 1984 USA boxing team.
Michael took his talents to the professional ranks with nothing more to accomplish as an amateur. His first professional fight was on December 20th, 1984. Over the next four years, Nunn was undefeated in thirty outings. Finally, the time had come, and Michael had earned a shot at the IBF middleweight world title. Nunn would face his amateur rival, Frank Tate, as if written for a Hollywood movie. Since beating Nunn at the trials, Frank won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympic games, was undefeated in twenty three professional outings, and made the third defense of his IBF middleweight strap.
The fight occurred on July 28th, 1988, at the Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion in Las Vegas. Nunn avenged his amateur losses and knocked out Tate in the ninth round to become the IBF middleweight champion of the world.
“It was a crowning achievement moment for me. I just wanted to go out and be the best man that night. I wanted to show that I was the superior fighter. Me and Frank fought three times in the amateurs, he was up two to one on me, and I had to clear things up. And what a better way to clear things up than fighting for the world championship,” recounted Nunn.
Michael continued, “I want to thank Dan Goossen, Bob Arum, and my trainer Joe Goossen for making the fight possible. I overcame all odds and beat Mr. Frank Tate, a good friend of mine. It was a great night. I always told my mother I was going to win the championship at Caesars Palace. And I thank God for blessing me to win the championship at Caesars Palace. For me to be from Iowa, a small hick town in the Midwest, fight for the world championship, and say ‘I'm going to win it at the Caesars Palace- it was a great achievement for me, my family, the Ten Goose boxing Organization, and my fans throughout the world.”
Nunn successfully defended that title five times against some of the toughest fighters of that era. The list included Sambu Kalambay, Iran Barkley, Marlon Starling, and Donald Curry. “We wanted the best of the best, and in order to be the best, you got to beat the best. And you could never be considered a great fighter if you don't beat the best fighters of your era. So, we wanted to test our skills with the best, and we were able to do that,” said Nunn proudly.
Michael was on top of the boxing world and became a celebrity in his own right. Nunn would make guest appearances on talk shows like the Arsenio Hall show. A favorite among Hollywood celebrities, the likes of Michael J Fox, Magic Johnson, Gene Hackman, and Michael Landon graced the front rows of a Michael Nunn fight. He even had the 80s' “badass” Mr. T present in his corner during the ring announcements before he faced Iran Barkley. Nunn was so famous in Hollywood that Dr. Jerry Buss made it possible for him to fight at The Forum, home of the Showtime Lakers.
On May 10th, 1991, Nunn made the sixth defense of his title against future Hall of Famer James Toney. The fight was a competitive match between arguably the two best middleweights in the world. Nunn fought bravely, but it was Toney's night, and he knocked Michael out in the eleventh round to become the new IBF middleweight champion. It was Nunn's first loss as a professional.
James Toney turned the lights out on Michael Nunn 💡 pic.twitter.com/weWWyOSUcM
— Top Rank Boxing (@trboxing) August 22, 2022
I asked Michael to describe his emotions after the loss to Toney. “James was just the better fighter that night. He worked hard and did what he had to do to win. I didn't make excuses then, and thirty-something years later, I won't make excuses. James is one of my dear friends to this day. He was just the best man that night. I started great, but I didn't finish great. And like Kobe said, you don't rest in between; you rest when you get to the end. I learned a lot in that fight,” said Nunn humbly.
When I asked if there were ever talks of a potential rematch with Toney, Michael told NYFights, “I never made middleweight again after that fight. It was time for me to move up in weight. There were never talks about a rematch. Not to take anything away from James, I don't think James wanted to fight me again. You're going to have to ask him.”
The champ and I laughed, and he continued, “my greatest joy was to be able to move up in weight, work harder, and win a second middleweight championship. When you lose, you get to see what you're made of. Anybody can go undefeated. It's good to go undefeated. But what happens when you get knocked down? Can you respond? Can you get back up and redeem yourself, rise up to that level and win another world championship?”
And win another world championship he did. After his loss to James Toney, Nunn immediately started his quest to become a champion at super middleweight. Michael challenged Victor Cordoba for the WBA super middleweight title in a year. Nunn won a split decision and became a two-division champion. However, the split decision victory didn't sit well with Michael, and he wanted a rematch against Cordoba. “I beat him, but the fight was super close. They gave me the SD; I told him, let's run it back. I just wanted to give the guy a fair shake because the first fight was super close. He knocked me down in the tenth round, and it embarrassed me because I had my family there. So, I had to get up because I had just lost to James Toney a year before, and I couldn't afford to lose again. So, I had to get up and try to win the last two rounds. But the second fight was hands down Michael Nunn,” said Nunn confidently.
That would be the last world title Michael Nunn won. In his fifth title defense of the WBA super middleweight title, Nunn lost to Steve Little. Going into his fight with Michael Nunn, Little was on a streak of five wins after suffering thirteen losses in his career. On paper, Nunn was the superior fighter and should've defeated Little, I believed. So, what happened that night? “The guy did everything he needed to do to win the fight. The judges said that he won the fight. I don't make excuses when it comes to fighting. When I win, I win. When I lose, I lose. I thought I did enough to win. Unfortunately, I didn't. But I'm not going to cry wolf; I was just going to get back in the paint and continue to move forward,” said Nunn.
At this point in his career, Michael was only 31 years old. He was still young and talented enough to win a third-world title. Unfortunately, he never did. Michael would challenge twice for a world title and came up short both times. Nunn lost a unanimous decision when he challenged Frankie Liles for the WBA super middleweight title. And lost a controversial split decision against Graciano Rocchigiani for the WBC light heavyweight title. What changed?
“I really don't know. I guess the powers that be must've been against me because when I fought Frankie, it was a real close fight. I thought I did enough to win. When I fought Rocchigiani, I thought I did enough to win,” said Nunn.
Acknowledging that Michael was probably robbed of a world title against Rocchigiani, the WBC recently awarded Nunn an honorary world light heavyweight championship belt. Michael recounted, “I was standing in the corner, and Joe Goossen told me, ‘Yo Mike, go out there and get your third strap.' And when the referee raised Rocchigiani's hand, I wondered what in the world was going on here. I'm very thankful to Mr. Jose Sulaiman. They reviewed the fight and were like, ‘the right man didn't win the fight.' The WBC was gracious enough to give me the light heavyweight title.”
Nunn continued, “Mr. Jose Sulaiman left word with his son Mauricio that when I came home from federal prison to give me the light heavyweight championship belt. I'm looking at the belt as I'm doing this interview. That was the only belt I didn't have. But that goes to show that when God is with you, who can be against you? It was tragic. I don't like to see bad decisions in boxing. I'm as real as they come. And anybody that knows me will tell you that if somebody beats me, give them the fight. But don't rob me. I beat that man hands down.”
Michael Nunn will be inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame this weekend for his achievements. Nunn was overtaken with emotion when he got the phone call notifying him of his induction. “The emotions were crazy. I was ecstatic. It made me feel great to know that everything I did in the great state of Nevada- turning pro there -winning world championships there- making million-dollar fights at these exclusive hotels- it's like something out of a storybook. I remember seeing the large poster hanging up of Frank Tate and me and was like, ‘wow.’ A lot of people didn't think it could be done, but I never listened to them. I always had a strong mindset to overcome all odds. I've been blessed,” said Nunn thankfully.
Nunn is enjoying his retirement from boxing however his heart still belongs to boxing. “I'm just kicking back looking to get a commentating job. I love the great sport of boxing. I want to work with some young kids and give them the right direction. Boxing made me. So, I want to be around the sport and work with one of the big promotional companies. We'll see what God got in store for me,” said Nunn smiling.
Nunn isn't done accomplishing his boxing dreams and believes he has done enough to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. “No doubt about my man, yes sir! I believe that I'm going to get my phone call soon. I put my body of work in. I'm sure I'll be blessed to be there one day, and that is my ultimate goal,” said Michael excitedly.
In a storied career, Michael Nunn has experienced the highs and lows of boxing. He was gracious in victory and humble in defeat. He has no regrets about boxing and only wishes he would've had the chance to fight his idols. “I always wanted to test my skills against the legends Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, or Roberto Duran. They were legends, and I wanted to test my skills against them, but I never got the opportunity. However, I love those guys, and they all motivated me to become a world champion,” said Nunn nostalgically.
The old adage “they don't make them like they used to” rings true when I think about Michael Nunn. As fans, we love boxing for the thrill of watching the best fighters fight each other in “super-bouts” and mega venues. Michael was willing to face the best warriors of his time and risked it all to be considered the best among the best. A rarity amongst the boxers of today. Michael cleverly paired up his “second to” boxing moniker with his last name. And for most of his career, Michael Nunn was second to none.