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Mike McCallum Part 1: Unheralded King of the '80s
By Matthew Sanderson (June 20, 2004) Part II 
Mike McCallum
Mike McCallum, the great ‘Body Snatcher’ from Jamaica, has been retired since 1997. Despite having been a pound-for-pound entrant for the better part of fifteen years, as well as being one of the most complete technicians of his time, he gets as much recognition today as he did back then: very little.

Whereas in the star-filled 1980’s he was avoided by his 'Fantastic Four' contemporaries – Leonard, Hearns, Hagler and Duran – nowadays his name is used by Roy Jones ‘nuthuggers’ to inflate their hero’s body of work. Forget that McCallum was 39 years old and shot when he was out-pointed by Jones. People would rather use his name as an alibi to prop up their fallen idol. Check out a Mike McCallum Google search and see what I mean.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1956, Michael McKenzie McCallum would prove to be one of the hardest working fighters of his day. After a wealth of amateur experience, in which he learned a vast array of skills and achieved an impressive 240-10 record, he moved to America and stepped into the professional ranks in 1981. He adapted to this new experience quickly, and added body punching – a facet often neglected in the amateurs – to his repertoire. McCallum would aim his left hook at the soft spot below his opponents’ ribcage to wear them down in battles of attrition.

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McCallum began his career impressively, stopping his first fourteen opponents. Two fights later, in only his second year as a professional, he faced the former WBA junior middleweight champion Ayab Kalule. McCallum put on a boxing clinic to dominate his foe, and was so impressive in breaking his man down that he was avoided for almost two years by champions and contenders alike. It is a measure of McCallum’s class that Kalule had previously given a prime Sugar Ray Leonard a stern test, albeit in a losing effort.

McCallum found himself taking on low-key opponents, well below his level as one of the best fighters in the world. In spite of this disappointment, McCallum simply bid his time and faced the best opponents available, using the setback as a positive experience to sharpen his skills. A fight with the great Roberto Duran fell through, and Sugar Ray Leonard wanted nothing to do with him.

By the time he secured a title shot, against Sean Mannion at the end of 1984, McCallum was more than ready, and outclassed his rugged foe over fifteen rounds. He would go on to defend his title 6 times in the next 3 years, defeating such stellar opponents as David Braxton, former WBC welterweight champion Milton McCrory, and the feared Julian Jackson, perhaps the hardest puncher of his generation and a future three-time champion himself. None of them went the distance.

The most impressive defence was also his last at junior middleweight. In July 1987 McCallum faced Donald Curry, the brilliant former welterweight champion who had been a leading pound-for-pound entrant prior to a shocking defeat against the unheralded Lloyd Honeyghan. Curry – a master boxer with tremendous power – had battled the scales as much as the impressive Honeyghan, and saw it as a sign to prove himself in the higher division.

Viewers were treated to a superb contest from the opening bell. Both men boxed at the very highest level of world class, each taking turns to punish the other for even the slightest mistake. Missed McCallum jabs were countered by crisp Curry right hands over the top; Curry’s body punches were answered by sharp McCallum hooks and uppercuts to the uncovered head. The two men were like mirror images, waiting for the split second that they saw an opening, in an exciting ebb and flow tactical match.

After four rounds it was dead even. Although Curry had staggered McCallum with an astonishing right hand in the second round, ‘The Body Snatcher’ recovered well and came back to close Curry’s left eye with crisp inside work. By round five Curry seemed concerned by the swelling, and, suddenly inspired, began to baffle McCallum, alternating his work between in – and out – side, and firing laser-like combinations. Curry, however, was made to pay for his success. Curry stepped in with a sharp left hook. McCallum countered with a hard body shot that lowered Curry’s guard, and then knocked him senseless with a sweeping left hook.

"The Donald Curry fight was maybe my best fight," said McCallum. "It was a short fight, but it was a very back and forth fight. Donald was pound-for-pound one of the greatest fighters at the time. He was a good thinker, he punched quick, was very precise and he had me going for a minute until I knocked him out. It was a great fight, it was like a chess match, a real thinking man's fight."

McCallum was subsequently viewed as an outstanding champion. He'd proven himself a superb craftsman with all the tools of the trade, who could adapt to any style or situation. He was rated as one of the best fighters, pound-for-pound, in the world, as well as one of the best technicians of the decade. Emanuel Steward, who trained McCallum prior to his fight with Mannion, still has a very high opinion of him:

"The main thing that I remember about Mike is he's the most naturally gifted fighter that ever walked into my gym. He did everything effortlessly. One day he was boxing with Tommy (Hearns), and I said to him, 'I'm gonna show you a little trick. Tommy jabs with his left hand down, so I want you to parry it and step over real smooth, and shoot a little one, two and hit him on the chin.' He hit him three consecutive times, and finally Tommy stopped and said, 'How come I can't stop him from hitting me?' And everyone laughed… The workouts between Mike and Tommy were just unbelievable. They were better than most fights. They were just phenomenal!”

In spite of this, McCallum was never a big attraction. His subtle, calculating fighting style and his quiet personality failed to capture public interest. He was only appreciated by the purists, and was shunned by the public who preferred to watch Duran, Hearns, Leonard and Hagler fight one another. McCallum’s plight was similar to that experienced by greats such as Ezzard Charles, Charley Burley and Archie Moore during the ‘40s and ‘50’s (as well as their many contemporaries and antecedents). But whereas they were held back for being black, McCallum – every bit a good as his contemporaries – was avoided because he wasn’t ‘box office.’

Part two will chart McCallum's career from 1988 to 1997, from his days as middleweight champion through to his light heavyweight reign.

Click For Part II.

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