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Mike McCallum Part 2: Body Snatcher or Professor?
By Matthew Sanderson (June 28, 2004) Part I  
Mike McCallum
Following his reign as the most avoided champion on the planet, McCallum entered the middleweight division looking for fresh challenges. He would go on to handle the best 160-pound fighters of his generation, only to be cheated by politics and incompetent judging with sickening regularity. But McCallum knew that he was the master between the ropes, and consistently produced some of the finest pure boxing of the 1990’s.

After moving up to middleweight, McCallum secured a fight with WBA champion Sumbu Kalambay. McCallum had never seen the skilled Italian from Uganda fight before, and wasn’t quite ready for him tactically. In his only legitimate loss for the next seven years, McCallum dropped a close decision. Without a title it was more difficult to secure a big fight, and he had to wait a year for his next meaningful contest. 

Politics – which would eventually hurt McCallum’s career – were in fact responsible for his next opportunity. Kalambay decided to unify with the IBF champion Michael Nunn, but was stripped of his title for failing to meet his mandatory. McCallum travelled to England and fought Herol Graham for the vacant WBA belt. Graham was even trickier than Kalambay, but McCallum adapted well to the tricky southpaw, winning a close decision.

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McCallum defended his title three times on the road in 1990. He outclassed the rugged Irishman Steve Collins in Boston; and then travelled to London to stop the Englishman Michael Watson in one of the finest performances by a foreign fighter on British soil. Defence number three came against nemesis Sumbu Kalambay in Monte Carlo and McCallum boxed beautifully to erase his only defeat.

In 1991 McCallum secured a unification match with IBF champion James Toney. Toney was the hottest thing in boxing at the time, having stopped unbeaten IBF champion Michael Nunn in a thrilling contest. He was a superb craftsman even then, an expert counter puncher with two-fisted power. ‘Lights Out’ had defended his title twice, and was considered one of the three best fighters, pound-for-pound, in the world.

It was a fiercely contested battle. The 35-year-old McCallum used his superior footwork to stay out of trouble and keep Toney out of range. He kept busy all night with his thudding left jab, outworking the younger man throughout. McCallum dictated the pace, built a big lead, and took away Toney’s danger punch – the left hook – by slamming sharp right hooks into his left side.

Toney had his best success when he fired stinging rights over McCallum’s jab. But he could only do this when McCallum left his punches out too long. Mike’s defence was so tight and his punching so precise that Toney could only capitalise occasionally.

Although Toney rattled McCallum in the fourth, sixth and eighth rounds, Mike would simply resume control with the jab and box calmly on the move. It was a commanding performance, and from the seventh through the ninth he went back to ‘Body Snatcher’ mode, hurting his man on the ropes and grinding him down to the midsection.

By the twelfth round both men were exhausted. McCallum seemed to be comfortably ahead. Sensing that he needed a knockout to win, Toney went hell for leather, throwing astonishing salvos and hurting McCallum in the first minute. Toney was totally punched out, however, and Mike went back to the body. In the final ten seconds, Toney launched another hurtful assault, but McCallum’s chin – seemingly made from iron – held up. By the final bell few could dispute who had won.

It was a great fight and McCallum had produced one of his best ever performances. When the decision was announced, however, he was in for a shock. The bout was declared a draw, and McCallum – who should have been the partially unified champion – was left without a title. It has often been referred to as a "dodgy decision”, and Mike was back in the wilderness. 

McCallum waited eight months for a rematch, and implemented a foolproof strategy. Toney’s success in the first fight depended on timing his right over McCallum’s incessant jab. So McCallum cancelled him out. He threw enough thudding jabs to keep Toney at bay, but not enough for Toney to counter. When Toney did throw the right, McCallum would intercept it with short left hooks that put his man out of range, before landing sharp counters of his own.

It was a spare, cagey performance, a masterpiece of economy. McCallum made every punch and every move count. Toney appeared bewildered by these tactics, and was outworked by the older man. In a battle between tacticians, McCallum was superior. At this stage in his career Mike preferred to be called ‘The Professor,’ and he earned the nickname with this marvellous thinking man’s approach.

It was Hall of Fame material, but the judges didn’t see it that way. One judge scored it a draw, which was bad enough, but the other two cards of 117-110 in favour of Toney was a disgrace. “That was a shocker,” one commentator remarked, and the decision was met angrily by the crowd. McCallum was peerless between the ropes, but had been robbed for the second time.

He’s the best I’ve ever fought," admitted Toney, now a three weight champion and leading heavyweight contender. “He made you do things you didn’t want to do.”

Whereas Toney would become an outstanding super middleweight champion the following year, McCallum had to bide his time again. He lost two of his best years waiting for another opportunity, and jumped at the chance to face WBC light heavyweight champion Jeff Harding, putting on 15 pounds of weight.

Harding – who had come off a classic three fight series with Britain’s Dennis Andries – was considered too big and strong for the veteran who was pushing 38. But Mike's superb skills were still intact, and he used them to handle the bigger man. McCallum won comfortably on points, and was now a three division world champion.

McCallum defended his belt against journeyman Carl Jones in February 1995. It proved to be he last great performance. Although noticeably slower than before, he showed a marvellous variety of punches, chopping Jones down in seven. But Mike was overshadowed both by the main event – Nigel Benn versus Gerald McClellan – and its tragic aftermath.

Age proved to be McCallum's toughest contest, catching up with him when he faced Frenchman Fabrice Tiozzo later that year. Tiozzo became the first man to knock McCallum down, and earned a clear decision against the now faded veteran. In 1996 McCallum – a shell of his former self – dropped a decision to a prime Roy Jones Jr, who also knocked him down. He was clearly finished as a world class fighter.

Mike retired in 1997 after losing to James Toney at cruiserweight, and is now a Las Vegas based trainer. He was thankfully inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003, the same year as George Foreman. Although McCallum finally received his due, the headlines were far more concerned with grill machines than body snatching. Some things never change...

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