Michael Nunn does something nobody else can do. But then, there is growing suspicion that nobody wants it done. That's because there may be limited demand for a human Slinky. Not even a largely comped crowd last Saturday night at the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas could find entertainment value in yet another safety-first performance by Nunn, who was booed for much of his fight with pumped-up WBC welterweight champion Marlon Starling. The nickel slots offered more action.
That Nunn won again, by majority decision, running his record to 35-0 with the fourth defense of his IBF title (Mike McCallum wears the WBA crown; the WBC title is vacant) was beside the point. Not only did Nunn fail once again to raise people from their seats, he also failed to fill them. Bob Halloran, the matchmaker at the Mirage, insisted that he was happy with Nunn and the vague two-year arrangement his hotel has with the fighter. Yet only about 2,400 of the people in the Grand Ballroom had actually bought tickets. Some 1,600 freebies had been given to customers, none of whom demonstrated much enthusiasm for Nunn's win.
They shouldn't have been surprised. The performance was typical Nunn: a lot of backing up, a lot of weaving side to side. Two judges gave it to Nunn by a wide margin; the third had it even. Few boxers have Nunn's speed of hand and foot, and there may be none so elusive. But to see this talented fighter lean back into the ropes, with a back arch not seen this side of Olympic gymnastics, is to speculate on his potential as a featured limbo dancer at the tropic-themed Mirage, not as the next Ray Leonard. Starling, at 5'8" a half foot shorter, simply could not reach him.
If Nunn was not quite the Leaning Tower of Pizzazz, there may be extenuating circumstances. It was only the day before the fight that Nunn and trainer Joe Goossen got back together. The Ten Goose team that patiently groomed the 1984 Olympic alternate into a million-dollar fighter had been shucked only weeks before this fight in favor of a squad from Nunn's hometown of Davenport, Iowa, that appeared to be led by a cousin called—wouldn't you know it?—Uncle Marshall. The new trainer was Cassius Green, a Little Richard look-alike whose chief credential was that he trained George Foreman for his night of seven heavyweights a few years ago in Canada.
The issue seemed to be money. Promoter Dan Goossen, Joe's brother, agreed to reduce a 67%-33% split in favor of the fighter (with a 10% trainer's fee coming off the top) to a straight 80%-20%. Nunn was unmoved, muttering about "a lot of friction." Then, on Friday, Nunn got word to the Goossens that he would like to have Joe back.
Thus Dan could brush off Nunn's performance, saying, "All I looked at was the win. The key thing is to make sure this doesn't happen again." Nunn agreed. "I kind of got a little lazy tonight, thinking about my manager problems," he said.
Additional problems loom. Nunn is not very satisfying to anybody but a true aficionado. Starling tried to legitimize the matchup by insisting that his walking-around weight was about 160, the same as Nunn's. His walking-around reach, though, remained strictly welterweight. Nunn was able to lean in and out, lay his palm on Starling's forehead, do a hula dance and otherwise showboat. "I didn't like that," said Halloran, who hopes to develop Nunn as a marquee fighter for the Mirage. "I think he has to be more aggressive, get a little more serious."
Halloran said that Nunn confided to him that he wasn't motivated by the fight, that there was nothing to gain. Halloran told the fighter that a knockout, coming off a lackluster win over Iran Barkley last August, might improve his reputation. Nunn seemed to dismiss the possibility.
When a reporter went so far as to suggest that the Mirage had a dog on its hands, Halloran was inspired to an extended metaphor. "Well, that's a helluva dog, a 35-0 dog. That's a dog that's got a helluva bark. Nobody's wagging his tail." Halloran finally caught himself, laughing. Unspoken was the hope that somebody teach Nunn some new tricks, fast.
Nunn spent much of the fight pawing at the challenger from a decidedly passive position.
Starling was not shy about his lack of respect for Nunn.