Hello. Who's this? Bob Arum? That's good. Don't interrupt my telephone call, sucker. I want to fight that chump, what's his name, Michael Second to Nothin'. Yeah, that's the sucker. I'm gonna bust his head, break me some bones. Whaddya mean I sound like Mr. T? Look, fool, don't play with me. You're makin' me mad. Just get this Michael Second to Nothin' and tell him I'm gonna raise some lumps on his chump head. You writin' this down, fool?"
—MICHAEL J. NUNN
IBF middleweight champion and top-ranked impressionist
There was no way it could work. Take the fighter: a 21-year-old former street tough who, after losing in the 1984 Olympic trials, headed home to Davenport, Iowa, to look for a job. As a teenager he was the first one the cops went looking for after a brawl. As an amateur fighter he was the best two-round boxer in the world on natural talent; on conditioning he was a third-round washout. Turn pro? Forget it. Those guys have to go 10 rounds. It figured that his next battle, and all those that might follow, would be in the street.
Then there was the organization: Ten Goose Boxing, a Southern California clan of eight brothers and two sisters who sat down one day in 1983 after a game of Wiffle Ball and said, "Hey, let's manage some fighters." The first fighter they signed was a guy named Nacho; they had spotted him working in a gas station. He looked like a fighter until a high school football player they had brought in as a sparring partner punched Nacho in the nose. Nacho was last seen speeding down the street, his hands still wrapped, behind the wheel of a flatbed truck. Their next fighter was a Rolls-Royce salesman they nicknamed The Fighting Armenian. He hung on through seven fights before deciding it was a lot easier to sell cars.
"Sometimes it is hard to believe it all happened," says Michael Nunn, 26, the onetime street brawler and current star of the Ten Goose stable. "When I lost in the Olympic trials, I figured it was over. I had made a little impact; I was the first fighter in Iowa history to go to the Olympic trials, so it was like a big deal. After I lost, I figured it was time to do something else, because nobody back home ever really considered being a professional fighter. It was kind of like professional boxing was on another planet and Iowa people were on this one."
And so Nunn's boxing career nearly came to an early end. It had begun on the streets of Davenport, when Nunn was about 12. At first his fighting instincts needed a little prodding from his older brother, Willie. "Michael would start a fight, but then when the other guy got mad, he'd hang back," says Willie. "I had to tell him if he started something, he'd better finish it. Then he got to liking it. Took about a month."
Some suggest that Nunn's street nickname. Wonder Mike, may have been given to him by the police, as in: "I wonder who Mike is beating up tonight?" Word got around quickly. "Big guys, older guys, would come around to see how tough he was," says John (June Bug) Hanes, Nunn's closest friend. "Police never picked him up at the scene of a fight. They never lasted that long. It was like one-two, or one-two-three and a kick, and it was over. Then the police would go over to his house to get him. But he never spent one night in jail. They'd talk to him and let him go. Mike was no thief or nothing. The cops knew that. It was the neighborhood we lived in; you had to fight to survive."
Nunn's father was gone before he had a chance to know him. Mike and Willie and their two sisters, Sylvia and Betty, were raised by their mother, Madies, a nurse's aide. Mike found a surrogate father in Marshall Jackson, an older cousin who was quick with pocket change, the loan of his car, and advice. Jackson steered Nunn toward amateur boxing. "T could see where he was heading," says Jackson. "And I could see all that raw talent. I told him, 'You want to fight, get in a ring. You keep up that fighting in alleys and someday somebody is going to shoot you, or cut you up bad.' "
At the police department gym in Davenport, Nunn found a place to train, but no one to train him. He watched all of Muhammad Ali's fights on television; the day after each one, he would go to the gym and try to duplicate Ali's moves. He was a natural, blessed with quick feet, fast hands, good eyes and excellent reflexes, but he needed guidance. In 1974 he found it in Bob Surkein, a tough retired Army major who became Nunn's second substitute father.
Surkein was a referee at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where Ali, then Cassius Clay, won his gold as a light heavyweight. When he first met Nunn, Surkein lived just across the Mississippi River in Moline, Ill. Under Surkein's tutelage Nunn won 168 bouts and lost eight as an amateur. "He had so much God-given talent, he never should have lost any," says Surkein. "He should have been an Olympic champion. He is as close to Ali as anyone has ever come."
At the 1984 Olympic trials, Nunn, tall at 6'2" but a natural 156-pounder, was asked by U.S. boxing officials to move up to the 165-pound division, which included Virgil Hill, who is now the WBA light heavyweight champion. The US. coaches wanted to clear the way for Frank Tate, the eventual Olympic gold medal winner at 156 pounds, who was being heralded as America's next great middleweight. Tate's last loss as an amateur had been to Nunn. Even so, Nunn agreed to fight above his weight. Hill defeated Nunn 4-1 in the trials, in Fort Worth, then lost to him 5-0 in the first Box-off in Las Vegas. In the third and deciding bout, at Caesars Palace, Hill scored a quick knockdown of Nunn in the first round and went on to win 5-0.