In the Matter of Michael Nunn

By Ted Sares on December 1, 2011
In the Matter of Michael Nunn
Michael "Second To" Nunn should not be forgotten by either aficionados or boxing purists

He was an outstanding fighter who possessed a rare combination of size, speed, punching power and technical boxing…

“If I never fight again in my life, I’m the happiest man in the world…I’m a two-time world champion. You can’t ever take that from me.”—Michael Nunn

Here we go again but I have a Dec. 7 deadline to make.  Over the past few weeks I have done related articles on Myung-Woo Yuh, Yoko Gushiken, Masamori Tokuyama, Dariusz Michalczewski, Maseo Ohba, and several others. Now it’s time to look at Michael “Second To” Nunn.


“As a boxer, a pure boxer…he was almost perfect.”—Al Bernstein

When you think of Nunn, you think of words like articulate, affable, good looking, tall, left-handed, stylist, speed, sharp reflexes, fantastic foot movement, great technique, and solid defensive skills. He also had an unappreciated ability to take out his opponents with power punching and the record bears this out. He was a rangy and slick southpaw who gave his opponents fits and was a master of the slip and slide move. His jab was a punishing jackhammer. These were his trademarks in the ring and provided great entertainment. Unfortunately, his career defining fight ended by a sudden and brutal knockout at the hands of James Toney in a fight that affirmed Toney’s nickname “Lights Out.”

Let’s look more closely at his chronology and see how his body of work stacks up insofar as his being a prospective inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Amateur Record

Nunn won three Iowa Golden Gloves titles and posted an amateur record of 168-8. He turned professional in 1984.

Professional Record

“There were times, earlier in his career; you couldn’t hit him with the backside of buckshot.”—Bert Sugar

It was an outstanding one at 58-4 with 37 KOs and a surprisingly impressive high KO percentage of 60%. He became the IBF middleweight champion by icing Frank Tate in 1988. Tate was undefeated at the time. In 1989, he defeated former world titleholder Sumbu Kalambay via a one-punch left hand knockout that was named the first ever Ring magazine KO of the Year. He followed this win with successful title defenses against rugged Iran “The Blade” Barkley, Marlon “Magic Man” Starling, and Donald “The Cobra” Curry, all former world champions. He was considered one of boxing’s best pound-for-pound fighters and would go on to earn a total of $6 million.

Early on, he had beaten tough fighters like Alex Ramos (for the California State Middleweight Title), porcelain chin but heavy handed Marcos Geraldo, Mike Tinley, Willie Harris, Cecil Pettigrew, Dale Jackson and Kevin Watts…all of whom had outstanding won-lost slates.

He won the NABF middleweight title by stopping Darnell Knox, 25-1 coming in, in 1987 in perhaps what was his peak performance. A year later, he stopped the aforementioned Tate for the IBF middleweight title at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. He then knocked out and retired tough Juan Domingo Roldan, 67-4 at the time.

As an aside, Michael had a knack for ending and/or negatively impacting the careers of many of his opponents and this “opponents post-fight” statistic, though an arduous one to compute is, in my view, a valuable one in evaluating a fighter’s worth.

His fateful fight with James Toney in May 1991 took place at the unlikely location of the John O’Donnell Stadium in Nunn’s hometown of Davenport, Iowa. Leading on the cards by 97-93, 99-91 and 98-92, he got caught by a left hook from hell in the 11th round and just like that, it was lights out. It was a huge upset. “My God, he was kicking the snot out of the guy,” Angelo Dundee said. “And he got hit with an inside left hook. He didn’t see it.”


Regrouping, he won the NABF super middleweight title with a solid TKO over Randall Yonker (23-1) in 1991. Then in Sept. 1992, he won the WBA super middleweight title with a decision over Panamanian Victor Cordoba, 23-3. With a record of 42-1, he met Steve Little in London in 1994 and lost his crown by a razor thin upset SD. Shortly after, he lost a bid to regaining his title when Frankie Liles, 25-1, beat him by a close decision in Ecuador

Nunn then put together a nine-fight win streak including nods over contenders John Scully (35-4) and Booker T. Word (23-4-2). He also KO’d and sent into retirement Lonnie Horn (26-3). This positioned him for a shot at the vacant WBC light heavyweight title against Graciano Rocchigiani in Germany. Unfortunately, he lost a SD with a scoring disparity that could only happen in Berlin, or so it seemed. After this disappointment, Nunn closed out his fine career with six straight wins including victories over Glen Thomas (26-4), and former world champion William Guthrie (24-1), by KO. His last fight was in Jan. 2002 at age 39. It is noteworthy that of his four defeats, only one was decisive and his record could well have been 61-1. It is also noteworthy that a long anticipated fight with Roy Jones was never made.

The End Game

“It’s not that Michael Nunn blew through double-digit millions…It’s not a tragedy because he may not go to the Hall of Fame. He just was too good of a man to put himself in that position, where he’s not there to be able to touch people and touch their lives and make them feel special. That’s the tragedy.”—Dan Goossen

The rest of the story is, of course, history, but this is about Michael’s boxing career. Suffice it to say that as he now sits in prison serving a 24-year prison term, his path must now be one of redemption. But that part of the story warrants separate and lengthy treatment. In fact, it begs for a book or movie.

Whether Michael Nunn gets into the International Boxing Hall of Fame remains to be seen, but if he fails, it will not be because of his lack of providing indelible memories for serious boxing fans throughout the world. He was an outstanding fighter who possessed a rare combination of size, speed, punching power and technical boxing. Heck, he was poetry in motion. He should not be forgotten by boxing aficionados and purists.

What do you think?

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Boxing Masterpieces - Nunn v Tate

Michael Nunn vs Juan Domingo Roldan [1/3]

Michael Nunn vs Juan Domingo Roldan [2/3]

Michael Nunn vs Juan Domingo Roldan [3/3]

Boxing Classic Michael Nunn vs Sumbu Kalambay

Michael Nunn vs. Iran Barkley (part 1 of 5)

Michael Nunn vs. Iran Barkley (part 2 of 5)

Michael Nunn vs. Iran Barkley (part 3 of 5)

Michael Nunn vs. Iran Barkley (part 4 of 5)

Michael Nunn vs. Iran Barkley (part 5 of 5)

James Toney vs Michael Nunn 1of4

James Toney vs Michael Nunn 2of4

James Toney vs Michael Nunn 3of4

James Toney vs Michael Nunn 4of4

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  1. Brad Harvey 01:24pm, 06/20/2015

    Michael was so much fun to watch, he was a good man good friend , Mike helped a lot of people in Iowa if you knew Mike he was there for you can’t wait to see you out Mike Brad h.

  2. Stevo1966 10:24am, 06/16/2013

    I remember reading a boxing magazine when they were discussing Haglers possible successors. Nunn was described as being boring to the point where “all his fans could turn up in one taxi!”. Harsh words for a fighter who looked very special for the next 3 or 4 years. His knockout of Kalambay was awesome. Nunn-Jones should have happened as i believe they would have brought out the sharp-shooting best in each other. I think Nunn-Hill in the pros would have been excellent too. Such a shame and i hope he is able to turn his life around and realise the real highs are the ones he experienced in the ring.

  3. MR.BILL-HARDCORE XXX 06:14am, 12/03/2011

    I have a lot of those mid-80s to 1990s title fights that Curry and Nunn were in on video… However, I am missing “Nunn-Toney.” I saw it, but had no VCR hook-up at the site….

  4. MR.BILL-HARDCORE XXX 09:35pm, 12/02/2011

    Even though both are close in age, Curry was shot by 1990 when he fought Nunn…. I knew Curry was on his way out when he choked against Rene Jacquot in 1989….. His skills and reflexes seemed to leave him over night…..

  5. the thresher 03:27pm, 12/02/2011

    Look, Nunn iced the Cobra. Curry had a glass jaw. Nunn’s record is way better as well.

    You feeling me on this MRBILL?

  6. MR.BILL-HARDCORE XXX 12:40pm, 12/02/2011

    Well, Curry’s WBA / WBC reigh at 147 from 1983 to ‘86, is more impressive than Nunn’s IBF reign at 160 from 1988 to 1991…. Yeah, its a close call, but Curry gets the nod over here….. Had Curry and Nunn both walked away from boxing after being stopped by “Honeybaby & Toney,” history might have been more kind to them…... Who knows??

  7. The Thresher 12:08pm, 12/02/2011

    And here is the trap. If Curry somehow gets in, how in God’s name can they keep Nunn out?

  8. the thresher 10:00am, 12/02/2011

    Think Lone Stare Cobra

  9. the thresher 05:39am, 12/02/2011

    Don from Prov—another hint. Think snake.

  10. te tumbo 08:47pm, 12/01/2011

    great blast from the past. Toney displayed a glimpse of the same killer-instinct that Floyd used to KO Ortiz, e.g., in the 8th when Nunn attempted to call his own timeout and the finish when Toney kept throwing until the ref decisively called the fight. also, interesting comments about Holyfield’s “new high-tech training program” that Toney adopted for his fight v. Nunn. sounds state-of-the-art and almost miraculous.

  11. JC45 02:59pm, 12/01/2011

    I agree with Jofre , like so many fighters Nunn was at his best before the big money rolled in. What stood out for Michael as a fighter in my opinion were his legs. He was one of the best movers I’ve ever seen. He was in the tradition of Willie Pep , Luis Rodriguez , Ali , Sugar Ray Leonard , Howard Davis jr and Hector Camacho.  Fast , balanced and very pretty to watch. He owned a very sneaky and heavy left hand cross and had a fine jab.  The bloke should have been released from prison years ago. I’ve seen child murderers here in Oz do less time than Nunn has. If he was a child molesting member of the professional classes he’d have probably gotten a suspended sentence . Cheers All

  12. TEX HASSLER 02:41pm, 12/01/2011

    I thought Nunn was an excellent boxer but I also thought that John Scully beat him easily even thought Scully did not get the decision. Nunn is certainly not forgotten.

  13. MR.BILL-HARDCORE XXX 12:42pm, 12/01/2011

    Nunn was great at 160 between 1988 and 1990, but once he got iced by Toney in 1991, Nunn was never the same, even in winning a title at 168 over Victor Cordoba I believe….

  14. "Old Yank" Schneider 12:38pm, 12/01/2011

    Hall candidate?  Absolutely!  Nunn had skills to spare.  I have the impression that he was so naturally gifted that he took much for granted—giving a 97% effort in camp rather than doing the 110% thing.  I see James Toney in the same light when it comes to work ethic.  I often wonder what either of these guys might have been had they not taken their natural gifts so much for granted.  I also have the impression that there was a bit of set-up in Nunn’s arrest.  Damn, who gets offered tens of thousands of dollars worth of contraband and does not at least CONSIDER taking the chance to buy it when it’s offered for $200 bucks?  Flip that sucka and not look back!  Psst, over here…gimmie $50 bucks and I’ll load this $6,000, 65 inch SONY LED TV in your trunk – it fell off the back of a delivery truck.  This is how some young folks are often “trapped”.  I’m not condoning his drug trafficking offense or trafficking in any contraband, but some things can look worse in the newspaper than they really are in life.  And I’m not a fan of placing open candy dishes out for kids who don’t have permission from their parents to have a piece.

  15. Don from Prov 12:23pm, 12/01/2011

    Flummoxed, Ted.  Don’t see the trap—
    Which should be the case with a good one.

  16. the thresher 11:01am, 12/01/2011

    MRBILL, Nunn is in a better prison facility these days but he is still making 44 cents per hour on the assembly line. WORD!

  17. the thresher 11:00am, 12/01/2011

    No, I set a trap, Don. Can’t you see it? Hint: Think IBHOF

  18. the thresher 10:58am, 12/01/2011

    Anyone who did not apprectiate Nunn’s skills back in the day didn’t understand appreciation when it hit them SMACK in the puss..

  19. MR.BILL-HARDCORE XXX 09:44am, 12/01/2011

    These days, Michael Nunn is pressing license plates and making concrete for the state of Iowa until 2023 or so when he supposedly gets out of the big house for several cocaine charges…. To be honest, his last bust seemed like entrapment to me, but cops and feds get away with murder, so Nunn is a jail bird today….

  20. Don From Prov 09:34am, 12/01/2011

    I must admit that I never cared much for Nunn in the ring, and I usually appreciate smart boxers.  Anyway, I’ve forgotten: What is he in prison for?  And Federal or state? You’ve set a trap?  I think you are going a little “holiday-insane” and need a nice calma calma quiet meal at Wetherlane’s and a trip to the boxer’s luncheon?  Promptly!!!!

  21. the thresher 07:57am, 12/01/2011

    Thank you Mike but that one you wrote on The Rock still has me reeling.

  22. pugknows 07:47am, 12/01/2011

    Nunn had the world by the string thanks to Goossen and he gave it all up. I just read another article about him and his story is a truly tragic one. But he has himself to blame which he knows better than anyone.  This is one of the saddest stories in boxing and really should be made into a film.

  23. mike schmidt 07:44am, 12/01/2011

    Skill set off the chart and yes 100% Hall of Fame- great article on a fighter who should be highlighted more often, thanks sir

  24. the thresher 07:01am, 12/01/2011

    Yes. He built up a long rap sheet and that contributed to his “harsh” sentence of 24 years.

    “When you hang around rats, you eat cheese.”

  25. jofre 06:55am, 12/01/2011

    Once he hit the big time I think his dediciation and focus seemed to suffer. I just don’t think his heart was into the game anymore. Consequently it led to his several brushes with the law

  26. the thresher 06:13am, 12/01/2011

    BTW, I have set a trap with this article and I wonder if anyone sees it

  27. the thresher 06:12am, 12/01/2011

    I have a Dec. 7 deadline to make.

    Joe, you are spot on. The downward spiral, albeit a slow one, began right after that fight.

  28. Joe 05:41am, 12/01/2011

    Some guys just never get over those devastating loses and some take twenty years to recover, Big George comes to mind.  I’m thinking losing to Lights Out is where the decline started - just an opinion.

  29. Joe 05:37am, 12/01/2011

    Michael “Second To” Nunn gave us some good shows.  Too bad he had to wind up in the can.

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