Michael Nunn, his handsome face imprinted with a permanent grin, was sitting on the steps of a small stage in a room at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel last Saturday night, staring at a TV monitor. Over and over, perhaps a dozen times. Nunn. the IBF middleweight champion, watched as he knocked out Sumbu Kalambay with one shattering shot just 1:28 into the first round of their title fight, which had ended only a few minutes before. "Hey. look at that." he shouted happily as the video replay showed Kalambay falling yet again. "Runners aren't supposed to punch."
Though undeserved, the rap on Nunn had been that he was a sprinter in a world of fighters. Instead of playing the national anthem before his fights, said the wags, they should play Waltz Me Around Again, Willie. And instead of examining his gloves, they should check his shoes for track spikes. Undefeated as a pro, the champ from North Hollywood was a cinch for the track and field hall of fame.
"Hey, I can't control what people say." said Nunn a few days before his second defense of the IBF title he won from Frank Tate last July. "I've won 32 fights, and 22 of them were by knockout. Somebody was hitting those people."
Kalambay, a 32-year-old from Zaire who now lives in Chiaravalle. Italy, came to Las Vegas with a 46-3-1 record. He was the WBA middleweight champion until early March, when he was stripped of his belt for failing to defend against Herol Graham of Great Britain, a man he had decisioned easily in 1987.
"Kalambay has those great short, powerful punches." said veteran trainer Angelo Dundee from the sidelines. "He'll hit Nunn. I want to see how Nunn fights after he is hurt." Dundee will have to wait. Kalambay never hurt the champion; in fact, he never hit him. After spending little more than a minute studying his opponent. Nunn discovered that Kalambay had a bad habit: After throwing a jab, he dropped his left hand.
So the next time Kalambay jabbed, Nunn leaned to his right, let the punch slip over his left shoulder, and fired a smashing, looping left hand to the side of Kalambay's head. It sounded like someone had slammed a bat against a side of beef. Kalambay crashed to his back, then rolled onto his right side. He pulled himself to his hands and knees but pitched forward, face first through the ropes, as referee Richard Steele counted him out. Only two middleweight championship fights have ended more quickly: Marvin Hagler knocked out William (Caveman) Lee in 1:07 in 1982; Al Hostak knocked out Eric Seelig in 1:21 in 1939.
There are glory days ahead for Nunn. On June 12, Sugar Ray Leonard, 32, will fight Thomas Hearns, 30. The winner is expected to face WBC middleweight champion Roberto Duran, 37. The hope is that the survivor will then test his aging guns against the 25-year-old Nunn.
"You never know," said Leonard, who did the color commentary on the fight for HBO. "Nunn might have trouble now finding opponents. I think that is kind of neat. Who knows? I always need a stimulus to get motivated."
If Nunn didn't stimulate Leonard Saturday night. Lorenzo (TNT) Thomas, a light heavyweight with a 4-2 record, certainly did. In the second round of a preliminary bout against Alfred Cole, Thomas was pushed through the ropes and landed on Leonard at ringside. From his perch in the five-time world champion's lap, Thomas blurted. "Damn, it's Leonard! Ray, I love you."
Thoroughly motivated, Leonard shoved Thomas back into the ring, where he was stopped by a TKO in the next round.