For nearly four years Mike McCallum worked in the shadows. He was the WBA junior middleweight champion, which made him a natural for an American Express commercial: "Do you know me?" All that changed on Saturday night with one chilling left hook.
The punch landed flush on the jaw of challenger Donald Curry, putting him on his back, quivering and senseless, at 1:14 of the fifth round. "I don't know what he hit me with," said Curry 40 minutes later as he labored to focus his eyes. "I don't know what happened."
What happened in the Sports Pavilion at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas was a neat bit of sleight of hand. "I set him up beautifully," said McCallum, boxing's latest instant hero. That tactic, one part magic and one part mayhem, was designed by trainer George Benton, who abides by the first law of Sugar Ray Robinson: Always follow a hook with a hook and then another and another.
"You can't throw just one hook," says Benton. "The first one gets caught by a glove or an arm. Robinson threw them in bunches until he hit something solid, like a head. Then he'd throw more. I saw guys he had knocked out falling, and he was still hooking." To this plan, Benton and manager Lou Duva added a caveat. "Curry ain't no bum," said Duva. "You can't just fight him. You got to outthink him."
You remember Curry—the seemingly invincible world welterweight champion, unbeaten and last year's best pound-for-pound boxer until Lloyd Honeyghan, an unknown Brit, stopped him in six rounds on Sept. 27. "I was weak from making the weight," said Curry after that fight. So he moved up to 154 pounds and was greeted by head butts from Tony Montgomery and Carlos Santos, both of whom were disqualified in the fifth round.
But Curry's toughest fight was taking place outside the ring. In April, Curry sued Sugar Ray Leonard and Leonard's attorney, Mike Trainer, claiming they had conspired to talk him out of fighting McCallum last year. Curry maintains that that bout would have led to a rich showdown with then middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler but that Leonard was already planning to take on Hagler himself.
"The whole thing is crazy," says Trainer. "He came to me for advice, and I asked him if he wanted to fight McCallum. He said no. So I said, 'O.K., fight Honeyghan.' If he wanted to fight McCallum, I'd have advised him to go that way. All this happened before Ray announced his comeback to anybody including me."
HBO telecast Saturday's fight, and, because of his suit, Curry requested that it not use Leonard as a color commentator. HBO execs told Curry to pick his people and let them pick theirs. "I'm a professional," said Leonard, who did indeed work the fight. "I'm quite sure I'm capable of treating Curry fairly."
A few days before the bout, McCallum, a 30-year-old Jamaican who lives in Brooklyn, was musing on his obscurity. He has held his title, which he has defended five times, since Oct. 19, 1984. After Leonard's defeat of Hagler, McCallum became the longest-reigning of the current champions, undefeated in 31 fights, including 28 KOs, and he had never been off his feet.
But who knew him? "Compared to me," McCallum said, "Rodney Dangerfield has all the respect in the world. Nobody has ever heard of me. What do I have to do?" Then he answered his own question. "I have to knock out Curry. When I do that on television everyone will know who Mike McCallum is."
Normally a slow starter, McCallum planned to jump on Curry right from the opening bell. "I have studied him," McCallum said. "He has a great right hand and a good hook. Let's see if he can handle the pressure and my body shots."
In the second round Curry buckled McCallum's knees with a right to the head. McCallum slumped and then steadied himself. "It was a great hook," the champion said. "It was the closest I've ever come to being knocked down."
Curry stepped up the pace in the third round and was in command until the end of the fourth when McCallum caught him with a solid right to the head. The momentum shifted. During the minute's rest after the round, McCallum told his corner that Curry was starting to cover up to protect his body.
Thirty seconds into the fifth round McCallum threw a right hand to the body, and, as Curry covered, he fired a harmless hook to the head. McCallum was testing Curry, and inwardly he smiled. Soon, he thought.
A few moments later McCallum hooked twice and then showed Curry a slow right uppercut to the body. "I just wanted him to see the right hand," McCallum said later. With his eyes locked on the decoy, Curry leaned back and lowered his hands. "I just got careless and relaxed," Curry said.
He picked a poor moment to take a breather. Stepping to his left, McCallum turned hard, cracking the hook against Curry's jaw. The challenger never saw the punch. He fell backward, bounced once and then lay stiff, his hands over his head. Curry's eyes were open but unfocused. He heard nothing as referee Richard Steele counted him out.
Afterward, McCallum wore a wide smile across his unmarked face. "Do you think everybody knows who Mike McCallum is now?" the champion said.
Listening was Thomas Hearns, who will fight Juan Roldan on Oct. 29 in Las Vegas for the vacant WBC middleweight title. Hearns smiled when he heard someone ask McCallum, who earned $475,000 for Saturday's bout, if he would like to fight him. "Certainly," said McCallum. "Hearns. Hagler. Any of those guys. Now that people know me, I want to be a fighting champion. I'd love to fight Hearns."
"For a lot of money," said Hearns.
"That's right," McCallum said happily, envisioning a million-dollar payday. "For a lot of money."
Popular fighters cost more.