Michael Nunn should never have invited James Toney to his homecoming dance. You know those tough kids—always snarling, talking about beating people up, looking mean. It was supposed to be a happy event in Davenport, Iowa, for native son Nunn last Friday night, a welcome-home-hero sort of thing. Then Toney went and hit him in the mouth at the ballpark, taking his IBF middleweight title and spoiling everything.
Other than Toney, it was a hell of a guest list. About 10,000 folks jammed into tiny John O'Donnell Stadium, home of the Class A Quad City Angels, on the north bank of the Mississippi River. Millions more watched on TVKO's pay-per-view. Shucks, the last time the previously undefeated Nunn had fought he was in Paris. Now he was back in Mark Twain country.
Bix Beiderbecke, the jazz great, came from Davenport. Buffalo Bill Cody was born and raised on a farm down the road. Cary Grant died in Davenport. Sarah Bernhardt stopped by once to perform in Fèdora at the Burtis Opera House. She did the play in French but cut the final scene so she could catch the last train out of town.
Someone in Davenport should have cut Toney's last scene with Nunn. The kid is hard. At Huron High in Ann Arbor, Mich., he was a star quarterback and a gun-toting crack seller. "That was a long time ago," says Toney, who is 22. "I didn't need the money. It was peer pressure. I went along with the crowd."
May 19, 1991
Boxing and Toney's mother turned him around. A single mother, Sherry, 39, earned an undergraduate degree in education from Michigan and a master's in communication and theater from Eastern Michigan. She now owns a wholesale bakery. Says Toney, "Mom taught me that if you want something, you have to work hard."
Working hard, Toney became a successful amateur fighter and turned pro in 1988. He had a brief setback after winning his first seven bouts: His manager, Johnny Smith, a drug dealer, was shot dead in front of a Detroit bar. Jackie Kallen, a 45-year-old publicist-entertainment writer with a passion for boxing, filled the void.
After 10 years of doing publicity for Tommy Hearns, Kallen had recently begun managing a stable of fighters. Under Kallen and trainer Bill Miller, Toney terrorized the middleweight division. He has a pit-bull philosophy. "Nothing fancy," says Toney. "I look at the other guy and I have to kill him."
He fought often, sometimes twice a month. By March of this year Toney, whose nickname is Lights Out, had won 25 fights, 18 by knockout. The only blemish on his record was a draw with Sander-line Williams when Toney had chicken pox. He later beat Williams. Promoter Bob Arum then called and proposed a fight with Nunn. Arum offered $50,000 plus $15,000 for expenses and a $1 million contract for his next three fights if he defeated Nunn. Toney's biggest purse had been $12,000. Kallen worried that they might be moving too quickly.
"Take the fight," Toney told his manager. "I will beat the son of a bitch."
"Don't swear," said his mother.
For the 16 weeks leading up to the bout, he gave up his favorite foods: pizza and fast-food hamburgers and french fries. To keep him away from Burger King while he trained in Detroit, Kallen rented Toney a house just outside the city, in Redford. "The place is full of rednecks and bikers," Kallen said, laughing. "I figured he'd be too afraid to go out."
"I wasn't afraid," said Toney. Then he laughed. "The second day I was there, the guy living next door saw me. He yelled, 'Hey, boy, come on over. I'm going to burn a cross.' I think he was joking."
Toney, the IBF's fifth-ranked challenger and a 20-to-1 underdog, arrived in Davenport full of fury. He entered the ring from the third base side, wearing your basic movie-villain black. In honor of Kallen, who is Jewish, he wore a Star of David on his trunks.
Nunn—tall, handsome, smiling and decked out in Gene Autry white—came in from the home-team dugout. Only their eyes were the same: ice cubes. Nunn had grown up as an enforcer on the mean streets a few blocks from the ballpark. Although he knocked out 24 of his first 36 opponents, he is a pure boxer. With Fred Astaire legs and high-speed hands, he is a poet in a world of punchers.
Toney expected Nunn to run. "He's going to find out it's no damn disco," he said. "I'll pressure him until he has to fight."
Nunn did move, but not as much as expected. Mostly he stood in front of Toney, fending off attacks with a hard jab and jarring the challenger with combinations. For five rounds Nunn fought brilliantly.
Following the fifth, Toney told Miller, "He's tiring. I can hear him breathing like a freight train. I'm going to step up the pressure."
At the end of seven rounds Nunn was ahead by three points on one judge's card, by five on another and by seven on the third. "You're losing it, son. You're losing it," Miller told Toney. "You've got to press him even more."
"Don't worry about it," said Toney. "He's not going the distance."
Nunn appeared tired in the eighth. He tarried too long in front of Toney, who found him repeatedly with jolting right hands. "Jab and move," trainer Angelo Dundee screamed at Nunn from the corner. "Get out of there. Move!"
"He's not hurting me," Nunn replied.
A minute into the 11th round of the scheduled 12-rounder, Toney missed with five hard punches. The last swing carried him face first across the ropes. Undaunted, he turned and hit Nunn with a right to the head. Nunn moved away, shaken. A little later the champion dropped his hands. He never saw the left hook that snapped his head violently sideways and put him on his back. A collective moan swept through the stadium. The last train was leaving town, and Toney wasn't on it.
Rising unsteadily at the count of nine, Nunn said to referee Denny Nelson, "I'm all right." He said it twice. He was wrong both times.
Only pure courage kept him on his feet. Like a Doberman chasing raw meat, Toney charged. A right uppercut turned Nunn around, and a looping right to the back of the neck draped him across the ropes. As Nunn turned toward the ring, two right hands to the head dropped him to his knees. Nelson stopped the fight as a white towel flew into the ring from Nunn's corner.
Rain fell on the homecoming parade. The wheels dropped off the floats. The high school band made a wrong turn and disappeared up a side street.
In the distance a train whistle wailed its anguish. "I got lazy," Nunn said with a sigh.