In the history of boxing, there aren’t many legendary fighters more underrated than Jamaican native Mike McCallum. McCallum’s ability to skillfully fight both inside and outside was rare. He was a master boxer who was also one of the greatest body punchers who ever lived. I will detail in full why McCallum is the best kept secret in the storied history of the sport and the 20th greatest fighter of the last 45 years.
After a tremendous amateur boxing career which saw McCallum represent Jamaica in the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics, McCallum turned pro at the age of 24 in 1981. McCallum won his first 21 fights to earn the WBA 154-pound number one ranking. The man who was the WBA Champion at the time, the legendary Roberto Duran, decided to fight McCallum’s Kronk stablemate Thomas Hearns and be stripped of his title instead. When McCallum was unable to get either a shot at Duran or a guarantee that he would fight the winner of the Hearns-Duran fight, he promptly fired his trainer and the head of the fabled Kronk Gym, Emmanuel Steward.
Throughout the 1980s, McCallum was frustrated by his inability to secure a fight with the Fabulous Four. He was considered too high a risk for too low a reward. Duran made much more money in both his destruction at the hands of Hearns and his loss to Marvin Hagler. Hearns made much more money in his knockout of Duran and historic loss to Hagler. The same with Hagler, who made huge money in his defeats of both Hearns and Duran and his decision loss to Sugar Ray Leonard.
Despite the fact that McCallum’s fighting ability was on the level of the aforementioned legendary quartet, he was completely shut out in getting both a huge payday and an opportunity to match skills against any of them. Instead, he concentrated on winning the WBA 154-pound title that was stripped from Duran. On October 19, 1984 at Madison Square Garden, McCallum put on a brilliant display of boxing as he battered Sean Mannion for the entire 15 rounds. When both fighters were inside, McCallum battered Mannion’s body while deftly slipping and blocking punches in return. When fighting outside, McCallum controlled the action with his tremendous left jab and punishing counter punching. Despite winning a lopsided decision in front of a huge crowd at the Garden, McCallum received a paltry purse of $15,000. This made McCallum that much more hungrier in his pursuit of greatness.
McCallum seemingly took out his frustration on two of Steward’s fighters, David Braxton and Milt McCrory. In both defenses of his WBA Super Welterweight crown against the Kronk fighters, McCallum punished both tall, lanky fighters to the body. Once he battered their bodies, he battered both of their faces with ripping combinations. Both men’s faces looked as though a baseball bat had struck them several times. Neither fighter was ever the same.
McCallum two biggest wins during his 154-pound title win occurred 11 months apart against two stylistically different fighters. On August 23, 1986 he defended against one of the greatest pure power punchers in boxing history, Julian Jackson. McCallum showed his incredible boxing and counterpunching resulting in a second round stoppage of his dangerous foe. Then, in his sixth and final defense of his 154-pound title, McCallum faced the vaunted former Undisputed World Welterweight Champion Donald Curry. Curry dominated the first four rounds by outboxing McCallum and deftly avoiding his counters. Then, in the fifth round, Curry walked into one of the greatest left hooks ever landed inside a boxing ring. My father compared it to the left hook Sugar Ray Robinson knocked Gene Fullmer out with thirty years earlier. Immediately after the fight, McCallum moved up to 160 pounds.
On March 5, 1988, the Jamaican great fought the Congolese WBA middleweight champion Sumbu Kalambay in Kalambay’s adoptive homeland of Italy. As my father and I watched this fight on television, we both assumed that McCallum would eventually catch Kalambay late in winning via a late round stoppage. What we failed to take into account was that the WBA had reduced its championship fights from 15 rounds to 12 rounds. Kalambay got off to a fast start by utilizing the ring with constant movement. By the time McCallum was finally able to get some momentum, it was too late. Kalambay utilized the perfect game plan and handed McCallum his first career loss. The Body Snatcher was forced to start all over again at 160 pounds.
McCallum would defeat three consecutive nondescript opponents before getting another crack at the 160 pound world title. Kalambay had been stripped unjustifiably by the WBA when he fought the IBF champion Michael Nunn in what was supposed to be a middleweight title unification. McCallum once again traveled to Europe to fight for the vacant WBA crown. On May 10, 1989, McCallum won a hard fought 12-round split decision over Herol Graham in Graham’s London backyard. Now 32-years-old, McCallum would proceed to put on two of the greatest performances of his career while defending his middleweight championship.
On February 3, 1990, McCallum fought Irish native Steve Collins in front of a predominantly Irish Boston crowd. The first half of the fight saw McCallum at his body punching and stalking best. Collins was another crafty boxer who McCallum had to stalk and break down. He was able to successfully get inside by utilizing his tremendous left jab. Collins was able to come on strong in the second half of the fight by actually becoming the aggressor and backing up the legendary Jamaican. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late as McCallum had built a big enough lead to win via decision.
Despite Hearns, Duran and Leonard all still active fighters at this point in McCallum’s career, he was still viewed as too big a risk for low reward. Instead, McCallum continued to defend his middleweight crown against the best possible opposition he could find across the globe. On April 14, 1990, McCallum once again traveled to London to face hometown hero Michael Watson. In one of the single greatest performances my father and I both have ever seen on television, McCallum put on an amazing display of technical wizardry. The 33-year-old McCallum made the 25-year-old Watson look as though he was fighting in quicksand as no matter what he did, he couldn’t land anything effectively or stave off the punishment McCallum was administering. Finally, in the 11th round, McCallum violently knocked out Watson with a barrage of power shots. Watson would eventually fight two wars with fellow British rival Chris Eubank. The second fight saw Watson get brutally knocked out and as a result was comatose for 40 days. Watson is still alive today despite having suffered severe brain injuries caused by his knockout losses to both McCallum and Eubank.
After avenging his only professional loss to Kalambay on April 1, 1991 by a very close split decision, McCallum finally received the big time fight he had chased his entire career. He signed to face the IBF middleweight champion James Toney on December 19, 1991, 12 days after McCallum’s 35th birthday. Toney was 23 and in the prime of what would become an illustrious career. Once again, the corrupt WBA stripped McCallum despite the fact that he was fighting the only other middleweight at that time who was as great as him.
The first six rounds showed both fighters displaying their plethora of skills. Both men landed their wicked left jabs and stinging right crosses. Toney masterly used his feints and shoulders as defensive tools. McCallum, as I stated earlier, was one of the greatest body punchers in boxing history, also utilized this important tool of his. I couldn’t believe my eyes at how these two fighters were flowing against each other. Such masters at the sport, putting on an incredible fight and without going toe-to-toe in brutal exchanges. Both fighters were landing and making each other miss by keeping their distance in the middle of the ring.
Both fighters stepped it up a notch in the next two rounds. They began fighting inside and both landed their signature money punches; Toney’s crackling right cross and McCallum’s paralyzing hooks to the body. Even though they were exchanging more, it was both calculated and in control. Both men were still trying to defeat each other by applying their skills to the fullest without a hint of desperation.
Rounds nine through eleven saw for the first time in the fight, one of the fighters take control. Because Toney was 23 and McCallum had just turned 35, that seemed to be a huge factor in Toney having fresh legs and McCallum being noticeably tired throughout the final third of the fight. Toney landed several neck snapping combinations and McCallum was unable to avoid those shots. McCallum also missed many shots as Toney’s defense was even better due to McCallum’s fatigue setting in. The first eight rounds were extremely hard to score. The next three were all Toney.
The 12th and final round saw Toney hurt McCallum for the first time with a ripping left hook. McCallum was seriously hurt and completely exhausted. Toney battered McCallum throughout the rest of the round and was on the verge of a knockout when the final bell sounded. Oddly enough, the fight was scored a draw. I know the first eight rounds were very difficult to score, but the last four rounds were all Toney. The horrible decision was the only thing that marred an incredible display of boxing skills by both fighters. Toney would handily outbox McCallum in the rematch eight months later. The end of the line seemed to be near for McCallum. He proved his demise was premature as he moved up to 175 pounds.
On July 23, 1994, the 37-year-old McCallum defeated the WBC light heavyweight champion Jeff Harding by completely outboxing the Aussie brawler over 12 rounds. McCallum’s third world title reign would only last 11 months as he was outpointed by the Frenchman Fabrice Tiozzo on June 16, 1995. It was the first sign that my father and I had seen of age catching up to McCallum. McCallum would lose the final two fights of his career against Roy Jones and Toney. You could see both Jones and Toney both restraining themselves from punishing McCallum as both boxed their way to lopsided victories. Finally, at the age of 40, The Body Puncher finally retired from the ring with a record of 49-5-1 with 36 knockouts.
Mike McCallum throughout his career showed a plethora of skills both as an inside fighter and boxer at long range. He is in the short list as far as the greatest body punchers in the history of the sport. Although he won titles in three weight classes, the true testament of his greatness was that none of the four kings of boxing, Leonard, Duran, Hagler or Hearns wanted to risk fighting such a dangerous opponent for minimal money. That fact alone justifies his ranking as the 20th greatest fighter of the last 45 years.