Jail made me stronger, I didn’t let it break me down – Michael Nunn

For someone who spent so much time behind bars, Michael Nunn could be forgiven for having a chip on his shoulder.

You’d understand if Nunn held a renegade stance on society, with vengeance lodged firmly in his mind, motivated by thoughts of what might have been and what has happened to him rather than hope of what might lie ahead.

But if you thought that you would be way off. Nunn is 60-years-old now and he was one of the best fighters on the planet in the late 1980s and early ‘90s but he spent nearly two decades in prison on a drug trafficking charge.

He was arrested in 2002, while still an active pro, jailed in 2004 and released in February 2019.

He’d brought a kilo of cocaine off an undercover agent and the authorities in Iowa threw the book at him. Yet the Nunn who walks amongst us now has no hard feelings. He did his time and has moved on. 

Peel back the surface of Nunn’s time inside, and you’ll uncover occasional tales of fights, high-powered Russians and influential gangs playing significant roles, but Nunn refuses to glamourise it, or even spend time dwelling on that period. 

Nunn is not completely closed off to talking about that time in his life, but he understands it won’t pay the rent so he looks forward, and he does so through open and optimistic eyes.

One of the reasons he has that outlook is that boxing has welcomed him back. Recently, he was a guest in Canastota at the International Boxing Hall of Fame, has attended numerous high-profile boxing functions since his release and has a popular, cult-hero like following from those who remember the superb southpaw from his days at the top.

When he says, “Things are great,” it’s not a hollow boast. He appreciates being asked for selfies, interactions with knowledgeable fans and the chance to discuss the glory nights. 

Nunn was unbeaten until he ran into James Toney in a hugely-anticipated battle of unbeatens in 1991. Nunn came following victories over Frank Tate, Juan Domingo Roldan, Sumbu Kalambay, Iran Barkley, Marlon Starling and Donald Curry.

Jail made me stronger, I didn’t let it break me down – Michael Nunn

The knock on him was he was not entertaining enough. He coasted. He was too good. He was not aggressive enough. But everything changed with the Kalambay win. Kalambay was coming off a championship victory over Mike McCallum for the WBA middleweight title but Nunn starched him with 1989’s Knockout of the Year.

Nunn landed a crashing left hand that laid Kalambay flat on his back and caused the stricken fighter to pitch into the arms of referee Richard Steele and the ropes as he tried to regain his senses. He could not. It was devastating and that ‘boring’ tag some had liked to ridicule Nunn with was gone. 

“The Kalambay fight changed a whole lot of things, I gained a lot of respect,” Nunn recalls. “That’s always good. That was a very intriguing fight because we were fighting for the unification. Unfortunately, when he got in the ring to fight me, they stripped him of his WBA belt, I was the IBF champion, he was the WBA champion, we were having a unification fight to see who The Man was.”

For Nunn, the other fight that comes closest to that was the 1988 stoppage of Frank Tate in Las Vegas but nothing topped the Kalambay mugging. It changed his reputation, but it also meant he became avoided. He couldn’t just make you look bad; he could obliterate you with one shot. Ironically, his biggest win did nothing to aid his career trajectory.

The big names had no interest in facing him, though. There were no marquee fights with the likes of Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard or Tommy Hearns. Even in the UK, Nunn was linked to fighting Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank but none of them ever got over the line. 

The one he didn’t court was Marvin Hagler, and not because of any kind of fear factor, but because of a mutual respect they had for one another.

“Marvin Hagler, he was up under the promotional banner of Top Rank, and so was I,” Nunn continues. “I used to train with Marvin Hagler and he used to tell me, ‘Always be in tip-top shape, don’t depend on the judges, bring your own judges, your left hand and your right hand.’ He was real sophisticated about that, and [about] being super-conditioned. I learned a lot from Marvin. But Sugar Ray, Tommy, and Duran, I always wanted to fight those guys because they were a little bit younger than Marvin. Unfortunately, it never transpired, but Ray’s different… Tommy Hearns is a friend of mine. Roberto Duran, I tell him all the time, ‘We should’ve fought.’”

Fellow southpaw Hagler, who died aged just 66 in 2021, had prophesised Nunn’s rise to prominence and the championship. They were not friends, but they were cordial with one another and, of course, Nunn had nothing but respect for the Marvelous one.

Jail made me stronger, I didn’t let it break me down – Michael Nunn

“Marvin was always a first-class guy,” Nunn added. “When I became the middleweight champion, he said, ‘I told you, if you stay true to the game and train hard, you could become world champion.’ I used to run with him, and he’s the type of guy where we’d meet at Caesars Palace [in Las Vegas] there at the hotel, we’d go up across the street to, it used to be, the Sands hotel, that was a long time ago, and we’d go run and stuff, and he’d always tell me to be in tip-top condition. I was a young guy, 21-years-old, so, he was just giving me the education about being a fighter and what it took to be a fighter. He was so dedicated, so serious. To have someone like Marvin Hagler say, ‘Hey man, I’m glad to see you do it,’ it was very respectful, and real honourable. I really appreciated that. I hope Marvin rests in heaven, because he’s one of the greatest middleweights who’s ever done it.”

Nunn is happy talking about those days and more so the injustices of his career rather than those of his life. But don’t think that just because Nunn did not land a bout with one of the transcending superstars of his time that he has regrets. He is content with his career and his legacy.

You cannot help but admire his positive disposition. Nunn was a terrific fighter but it’s his contagious positivity rather than innate resilience and his choice of peace and acceptance rather than defiance that elevates the words he uses.

This should be a could have been… should have been story, but it’s not. Good and bad, it is Michael Nunn’s story, his truth, his words and his feelings. One cannot make him mad at the past if he has let go of it. 

Now he likes to watch Canelo, he admires the knockout skills of Tank Davis, he’s looking forward to Spence-Crawford, he’s a fan of Inoue and, of course, he shouts out Artur Beterbiev.

Beterbiev is not just one of the leading fighters in the world, but he has links to Nunn. In 1995, Nunn defended his NABO title against John Scully, winning a decision over 12 rounds. Today, Scully is not just part of Beterbiev’s coaching team, but he is a member of the boxing fraternity who has helped Nunn since his release from jail.

Jail made me stronger, I didn’t let it break me down – Michael Nunn

“Dear friend of mine,” Nunn said, of his old opponent Scully. “You can’t be friends before the fight, but yeah, John’s been a great guy. Me and John fought in the nineties, now we’re best of friends. When I was in prison he would do things for me, if I needed something done, he would take care of it. John’s been a first-class guy, in prison… out of prison. Even though we fought, but that don’t change nothing because we’re friends.”

There must have been times inside when Nunn had to fight not to give up hope, to always see some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how dim it looked from afar. But his inability to quit remained steadfast and now he can be back among his people, boxing people. 

“You’ve got to understand one thing about boxing, you can be whatever you want to be, but as long as you been a winner, you’ve been a champion, and you respected your fans, and treated them right, they’ll always take care of you,” Nunn says. “I’ve been very blessed to have a strong contingency of good people. I can’t walk nowhere [without being recognised]. There’s people that crowd me. I don’t mind signing a few, but I don’t wanna sign no 1,000 autographs, but I must be respectful. They’re all my fans, and I’ve got to sign some, but I’ve got other events. Like I’m doing this interview with you, I got other people that want to interview me. I want to serve the fans because without the fans, there wouldn’t be no Michael Nunn. So, I’m very thankful for my fans.”

Perhaps it was their adulation and respect that helped him double-down on accentuating the positives of coming through his situation. You know there would have been bleak times. Many feel a sense of injustice at the length of Nunn’s sentence, that he was being made an example of in the State, because of the culture at the time rather than the individual who committed a crime. 

What Nunn says makes absolute sense, but you can’t help but wonder about what a man who could call himself the best fighter on the planet at one point felt when the lifeless prison doors closed behind him each night for nearly two decades, yet he won’t allow them the satisfaction of knowing if the establishment ever nearly broke him. He won’t go there and he won’t be taken there. He won’t give them any kind of satisfaction. He’s too positive to be called defiant. He doesn’t bleed negativity as one might expect.

“Nah, they didn’t break me,” Nunn concludes. “I mean, I’m here. I got my faculties. I’m still recognised. I’m still able to generate money and do things, and take care of myself, and do all the things I wanna do. I’m happy, I think I won, to be honest.”