Jamaica’s first boxing world champion wasn’t known as ‘The Bodysnatcher’ for nothing.
The mid-80s through to the early 90s were a great time for boxing, especially the middleweight division. Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran are regarded as all-time greats, and rightly so. But Mike McCallum deserves to be mentioned in the same breath.
The Jamaican was a victim of that unfortunate phenomenon which has also befallen Gennady Golovkin (GGG) in recent years – being so good that no-one wants to fight you.
At 19, McCallum won the Central American and Caribbean Games welterweight title to book his place at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He impressed in his opening two wins before losing a controversial split decision to West Germany’s Reinhardt Skricek. The Kingston native could have turned pro then, but Prime Minister Michael Manley asked him to set his sights on Moscow 1980. McCallum also moved to Tennessee to train alongside his rival and close friend Clint Jackson, who defeated him at the 1974 World Championships.
A year later, he beat another future world champion, Marlon Starling, and Sugar Ray Leonard’s older brother Roger to take the US Amateur crown and followed that up with the National Golden Gloves title. Then in 1978, he returned to Canada to take gold at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton.
He claimed another Golden Gloves in 1979 but his serene progress was brought to a shuddering halt by Cuban southpaw Andres Aldama in the final of the Pan American Games. Aldama knocked him out in round two with McCallum guilty of complacency against an opponent who had won light-welterweight silver in Montreal, only finding a certain Sugar Ray Leonard too good in the final.
McCallum had high hopes of revenge in Moscow, but was struck down by appendicitis in the Olympic Village and had to miss the Games. Aldama became Olympic champion, beating another future world champion John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi in the gold medal fight.
After that setback, McCallum turned pro at light-middleweight and ended up training under the late great Manny Steward at the Kronk Gym in Detroit alongside Thomas Hearns and Milton McCrory. The Kronk Gym is also sadly no longer with us having been destroyed by suspected arson last October.
While Jackson failed to flourish in the pro ranks, McCallum had no such problems. He won 15 out of 16 inside the distance before facing his first true test, Uganda’s former world champion Ayub Kalule. Coincidentally, Kalule had relinquished the title in his fifth defence to… Sugar Ray Leonard.
Apart from that aberration against Aldama, McCallum had become well used to beating southpaws and the referee stopped the contest on doctor’s advice before the start of round seven. It was a one-sided contest with Kalule down in the first but the highlight for me was the third round with McCallum almost playing possum midway through the period (from 9:00) before exploding into life with 50 seconds to go and landing some dizzying combinations.
McCallum in his early days looked much like his stablemate Hearns – tall (though not quite as tall as Hearns) with a long reach and very fast hands and feet. Like all the great fighters, he possessed a stinging jab and then could follow up with the right, and often to the body. Hearns actually gave him the ‘Bodysnatcher’ nickname after one of their sparring sessions.
Four fights later, he had his world title shot but not the one he really wanted. In January 1984, he lost his partner Yvonne Ladely to complications following open-heart surgery. Before she died, he told her he would beat Roberto Duran to take the WBA light-middleweight title. But that fight never took place despite him being the mandatory challenger. Duran defied the WBA to fight WBC champion Hearns instead, a fight which would have earned him far more money than the relatively unknown Jamaican.
McCallum was known for his tempestuous relationships with managers and fell out with Steward who had, in his view, got Hearns the fight which was rightfully his. The WBA stripped Duran of his title and McCallum met Irish-born American Sean Mannion for the vacant belt four months after Hearns knocked out Duran inside two rounds to send ‘Hands of Stone’ into his first retirement.
Now represented by Lou Duva, McCallum had far too much knowhow for the brave but limited Mannion. As early as round two, he had his opponent in trouble following up the jab with those famed combinations and it was pretty much plain sailing after that. Any referee today would have stopped the contest before the end of round 13, but Mannion somehow went the distance.
This episode summed up McCallum’s career to an extent – winning the title at Madison Square Garden in a fight he didn’t want on the undercard of Marvin Hagler’s 10th defence of his middleweight title. ‘Marvelous Marvin’ beat Mustafo Hamsho for a second time six months before that famously ferocious three-round war with Hearns. McCallum earned just $30,000 for that fight while Mannion pocketed $75,000. Hearns picked up an estimated $250,000 for his demolition of Duran.
Amazingly, McCallum defended his newly-acquired title just six weeks later in Milan against Luigi Minchillo. The Italian brawler had taken Duran and Hearns the distance, but he failed to come out for round 14 against McCallum whose head and body shots finally took their toll.
McCallum had seven more fights, three of them title defences – including a two-round battle with Herol Graham’s future heartbreaker Julian Jackson – before he finally got his payday. But it wasn’t against any of the ‘Four Kings’ who were nearing the end of the road. Still at light-middleweight, his opponent was former Kronk stablemate and ex-welterweight champion Milton McCrory whose only defeat had come at the hands of Don ‘Cobra’ Curry.
This was a revenge fight for McCallum but McCrory gave him enough to think about before an epic eighth round. McCallum landed some fine rights over the top which made a mess of his opponent’s face and, while McCrory managed to respond, the bout had swung decisively in the champion’s favour. McCallum stopped McCrory in round 10 before going over to give Steward a piece of his mind. Hearns was the one he wanted but that fight never materialised.
Next up was Curry who had looked set for legend status before his shock defeat at the hands of Lloyd Honeyghan. The former undisputed welterweight king’s response was to move up to light-middleweight and he had two wins before taking on McCallum.
You’d be hard pressed to see two better technicians in the ring and both had joy in the opening four rounds with a peach from Curry at the end of the second almost sending McCallum to the canvas for the first time in his pro career. But if there’s an illustration of why McCallum should be ranked alongside the all-time greats, this is it. A big puncher with both hands and sound in defence, McCallum was also blessed with a rock-solid chin like Hagler. He rarely knocked out a man with one punch, but did so on this occasion. Curry let his guard down as he blocked McCallum’s right uppercut to the body and, in a flash, he was down thanks to a huge left hook. McCallum had spotted the weakness in round four, tested out the theory early on in round five, before executing the plan to perfection.
McCallum’s then moved up to middleweight and immediately lost his perfect record on a unanimous decision to Sumbu Kalambay. The Italian-based fighter from Zaire (now DR Congo) was a very tricky customer and had beaten Herol Graham before taking the title from Iran Barkley. Making the first defence of his WBA belt, Kalambay was just too quick in the early rounds and, unlike in previous fights, McCallum was unable to track his man down as the fight wore on. The challenger said he had not given himself enough time to acclimatise, but admitted he had been beaten by the better man on the day.
Excuses aside, I see this as the start of McCallum’s gradual decline. After three wins, he met Herol Graham for the WBA middleweight title vacated by Kalambay when he chose to fight Michael ‘Second To’ Nunn. Kalambay probably wishes he hadn’t bothered as his Las Vegas debut lasted less than 90 seconds.
Graham could make anyone look ordinary but you can see McCallum is a good step slower than at his peak. At 32 and after 36 fights, that probably shouldn’t have come as a great surprise. He eventually wore down ‘Bomber’ inside the Royal Albert Hall, in the Sheffield stylist’s first unsuccessful world title bid, taking the narrowest of split decisions which I think was a bit closer than it should have been. But McCallum was now a two-weight world champion.
McCallum was no longer ‘box office’ in the States and went to Boston to beat Steve Collins before returning to the Albert Hall to defeat Michael Watson. He then avenged his loss to Kalambay on a split decision before relinquishing the WBA belt to take on IBF champ James Toney with the fight ending in a draw. Toney won their second meeting in August 1992 and Eddie Futch suggested McCallum move up two weight divisions to light-heavyweight.
Despite losing that speed, McCallum was still a very savvy, heavy-handed and correct fighter and Futch’s plan worked to perfection as the 37-year-old stopped Randall Yorker inside five rounds to take the WBC interim title. He then outpointed Australia’s former champion Jeff Harding to win the full version, showing all his experience and ringcraft to get the job done.
That was his last real hurrah as Old Father Time caught up at last. He was knocked down for the first time as a professional as he lost a unanimous points decision and that WBC light-heavyweight title to Frenchman Fabrice Tiozzo. He then became Roy Jones Jr’s 34th victim – suffering his second career knockdown – and ended his career with another defeat to Toney although he was well past it by that stage. But he retained his proud record of never losing inside the distance.
Now to the big question – how would he have fared against the ‘Four Kings’? I think he’d have demolished Duran much as Hearns did. Judging by their contests in sparring, McCallum vs Hearns would have been a minor classic but I think McCallum’s superior chin would have proved decisive. And I reckon he’d have had the speed to cope with Sugar Ray Leonard.
But McCallum-Hagler would have been a brutal bloody fight for the ages. Hagler switching from southpaw to orthodox and back again to make an impact, McCallum trying to land with the jab and follow up with his quick combinations. As both men possessed iron chins, it almost certainly would have gone the distance. Hagler’s proneness to cuts late in his career might have left him vulnerable but I certainly wouldn’t have liked to have picked a winner. It’s just a shame we never had the opportunity to.
McCallum recalls a conversation he had with Hagler when he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003. My old Setanta buddy Ciaran Baynes told me about his trip to meet the fighter, most notably how he countered Hagler’s admission of respect with “you didn’t give me the chance to feed my family” by avoiding what would have been a big money fight.
As it is, McCallum proved himself to be one of the most talented, and durable, boxers of his generation. He may not have had the flashy skills of a Hearns or a Leonard, but he was a complete fighter feared by all in boxing, not least the fighters who ducked him for so long.