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Original Issue

NUNN Better

Michael Nunn stopped dancing, started punching and fought his way to the IBF middleweight title

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?"
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.

So Hill went to Los Angeles and won a silver medal; Nunn went home. Dismayed by the news that Nunn was not planning a professional career, Surkein confronted him. "What are you going to do?" he demanded. Nunn replied that he was going to get a job.

"Doing what?" asked Surkein. "You going to rob banks? Mug old ladies? Everything is closing down around here. There's no work. You got three choices: Stay here and take a chance on going to jail; get a job at McDonald's; or fight as a professional. I've got the right people for you. Just give it three years."

"I thought, What the heck," says Nunn. "I wasn't doing anything, and he was only asking for three years. If it didn't work out, there was still Davenport. I said, 'Let's go.' So we got a plane to Los Angeles, got a hotel and met the Goossens."

The Goossens are mainly Dan, the manager, and his brother Joe, the trainer; but all of the Goossen brothers and sisters have had a hand in Ten Goose Boxing. While scouting talent at the '84 Olympic trials in Fort Worth, Dan had met Surkein, who urged him to take a look at Nunn. Dan was impressed with the young fighter in spite of his failure to make the team, and signed him in September 1984 for a $10,000 bonus. "The others got the gold medal winners," says Dan. "We got the gold nugget."

Dan moved Nunn into an apartment building next to his home in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "I wanted him near me, not to keep an eye on him, but so he could come over to eat, to watch TV, just to sit around if he wanted," says Dan. "We have always been a very close family. I wanted Michael to feel like a part of that family." Later, Nunn was joined by his fiancèe, Loretha Boyce, and her daughter, LaShanta. Loretha and Michael will be married in August. Nunn has a son, Mike, back in Davenport.

Surkein joined the group in L.A. as Nunn's unpaid business adviser. "A lot of people, guys in Detroit and New York, were interested in Michael," says Surkein. "But I didn't want him to get caught up in a stable with a bunch of champs. I wanted him to go where he was the star."

It immediately became clear to Nunn that he was indeed Big Bird among the Ten Goose goslings. When Dan and Joe escorted him to the gym in brother Tom's backyard, Nunn remembers thinking, "Oh, my god. Am I supposed to train in this thing? This is weird."

"You should have seen it a year ago," Dan told his fighter proudly.

After the family voted to go into boxing, it needed a place to train its fighters. So the Goossens built a ring on the Wiffle Ball court in Tom's yard in North Hollywood. After a friend built a platform, the brothers hammered in wooden posts for the corners and strung rubber hoses for the ropes. Dan bought outdoor carpeting to cover the platform and was assigned the job of sweeping the leaves out of the ring so the fighters could train.

"Tom has pain-in-the-neck trees," says Dan. "The leaves break into a hundred pieces. Used to take me an hour a day just to clean the damn ring up."

By the time Nunn arrived in the fall of '84, the gym had walls and a roof, but that was about all. The toilet was the first tree to the left. "For five years we didn't have a [building] permit," says Dan. "Tom has great neighbors. The first complaint, and we would have been out of business." Last month the Goossens opened a new gym in Van Nuys.

Joe began teaching Nunn the skills that he had not acquired as an amateur, and the victories began piling up. And so did the boos; he was winning, but too prettily. After Nunn's second pro fight, in February 1985, Bob Arum signed him to a promotional contract. "He kept winning, and all my people kept saying he was a stinker," says Arum. "But I promoted a lot of Ali fights and every time I looked at Nunn, he reminded me of the young Ali, the boxer who never came down off his toes. I knew that if the kid ever started to plant his feet, like Ali finally did, he would be a hell of a puncher. I told my people to shut up and keep using him."

Mostly. Arum put Nunn on ESPN. NBC used him once, in his 14th fight, on March 9, 1986, in Las Vegas: Carl Jones knocked him down in the first round. Embarrassed, Nunn got up to win a boring 10-round decision. Afterward, NBC boxing coordinator Kevin Monaghan and commentator Ferdie Pacheco suggested that if Nunn wanted more network fights, he would need to be more aggressive.

The Jones fight turned out to be more instructive to Nunn than any trainer's advice had been. "That knockdown was the best thing that ever happened to me," he says. "It made me more serious. I was getting too cocky. Now I keep my hands out, watching the guy all the time. I'll never get lazy in the ring."

The knockdown, the only one Nunn has suffered as a pro, also took place in front of Nunn's idol, Sugar Ray Leonard. Nunn had become friendly with actor Michael J. Fox, and Fox invited Leonard to the fight to show off his buddy. Fox and Leonard walked in during the first round. "Ray, there's my man," said Fox, "the one in the blue trunks." A moment later, Nunn went down.

"Oh, him. Yeah," said Leonard. "Falls nice."

Later, in the dressing room, Leonard told Nunn: "Mike, you're a wonderful fighter. I like your moves. But you have to counter more. When you step to the right, and the guy is coming and misses, hit him four or five times. Then back off him. Don't take a step and then back up and do nothing."

"He told me to shorten my steps," Nunn recalls. "He showed me things I wasn't doing, and he made me a better fighter."

The real turning point, though, came after a 12-round decision over Alex Ramos in November 1986, Nunn's 20th straight victory and another yawner. Afterward, Dan and Joe met with their fighter. "Look," said Dan, recalling Monaghan's and Pacheco's remarks. "We are having a hard time getting you TV fights. They want a little more destruction out of you. You're going to have to start using the things Joe has been teaching you. More firepower, a little less finesse."

Nunn could have balked. He could have said, Hey, I'm 20-and-oh, and I don't think anybody can beat me. You want destruction, buy me an ax. Instead, Nunn made up his mind that he would become a puncher. "It was always there; Joe just had to bring it out of me," says Nunn. "I think it was confidence. I used to think, Why do I have to go in there and get hit? But once I started doing things Joe wanted me to do, I found out I could get in a guy's face and still not get hit. It was amazing, because I never was an inside fighter. I was always on my toes. Once I learned how to get inside, it was like the key to the vault."

In his 13 fights since the Ramos match, Nunn has allowed only two opponents to go the distance. On July 18 of last year, he hit Tate, who had risen from Olympic gold to the IBF middleweight title, with a savage body shot in the eighth round and stopped him in the ninth, to take the crown. In two title defenses he made rough-and-tumble Juan Domingo Roldan quit in eight rounds and knocked out Sumbu Kalambay at 1:28 of the first round. It has been an awesome run.

Between fights Nunn works on his impressions—his favorite object of mimicry is Mr. T—with which he bedevils friends, and to that end, he has placed dozens of phone calls to Sammy DeMarco, a 76-year-old retired railroad worker in North Hollywood whom he and Joe Goossen have befriended. De-Marco is convinced that Mr. T, the heavyweight TV hero-thug, is also one of his friends, judging from the calls the old man has received. The calls go something like this: "Sammy, you tell that Nunn to start training hard or I'm gonna come down there and jump on the sucker's head." Sorry, Sammy. Your close friend is a hero, but he's only a middleweight.



Among the Davenport crowd, Nunn (foreground) became known for his good hands.



In April, Madies's son was inducted into the Iowa Hall of Fame.



Nunn deferred to Tate in 1984, but he got his due in their '88 title fight (left).



Nunn helps out the Goossens, Dan (center) and Joe, in Ten Goose's gym in Van Nuys.