By Scoop Malinowski
One of the most underrated super fights of the 1990s was the IBF Middleweight duel between champion Michael Nunn and undefeated challenger James Toney.
The bout was televised by TVKO from Nunn’s hometown of Davenport, Iowa in a jam-packed minor league baseball stadium.
At the time Nunn was the best fighter on the planet but because he had no major names on his record, he didn’t quite have the star power to match his supreme talents. Nunn could do it all as a lefty, box, punch, move, and make it all look easy. He was so good the fading legends of the time – Leonard, Hearns, Duran, would not go near him. The big names who dared to fight Nunn got manhandled – like Donald Curry in his previous outing, or Sumbu Kalambay, who was taken out with one punch in the first round.
Nunn was similar to Mike McCallum, Gennady Golovkin, Lennox Lewis pre-1999 – at 36-0 he was clearly extraordinary, blatantly sensational, but without high profile wins against major league star names, the public and media always hold that against you. Nunn did not get his just due.
At the height of his powers, Nunn, 28, decided to fight in an optional defense against the IBF no. 5 contender James Toney, 22, a little known 25-0-1 native of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Toney made his presence felt in fight week, verbally sparring and threatening Nunn, showing he was not intimidated in the least and he meant business. Toney entered the ring with a fierce, serious, extremely focused scowl on his face. Just his appearance and doubtless body language alone was striking. Toney looked the part of a guy who could cause the upset of the year. But could he pull it off?
Dressed in all black as the villain, Toney could care less about pressure or the unbeatable skills of Nunn. He had the look of a titan who knew, completely KNEW he was going to win. Ain’t nothing, nobody in the world was going to defy him from becoming champion on this night.
Nunn looked great too. Before the fight, in the ring he wore an expression of some concern but mostly his non verbal message was: ‘I know I have some trouble on my hands tonight, this guy is rough, tough and mean and he really wants my belt. But I can handle anything he does. I’m going to play with this kid tonight.’
Nunn was bigger and longer than Toney and appeared to be superior in the first rounds but Toney had a steely determination and fearlessness. He did not look outclassed in any way, trading big bombs and matching smooth moves with Nunn. This was clearly a superfight in the making. Both fighters had the moves and refined skills that we just don’t see much today, multi punch combinations at high speed, superb head movements, moving targets and top notch footwork.
Angelo Dundee assisted Nunn in this fight, noticed early Toney was going to be trouble and had a tone of urgency in his voice between rounds. “Use your speed, show me your speed, use your jab,” he barked to Nunn in the corner early in the fight.
Nunn obliged his Hall of Fame counsel but every time he flashed his brilliance, Toney always fired back something. Toney refused to let Nunn do anything without some kind of retaliation. When Nunn tried to stare down Toney at the end of two rounds, Toney stopped and glared right back at Nunn. Both times Nunn was the one who broke the eye contact and walked away.
Nunn’s concerns expanded as the fight evolved. The patterns were the same, both trying to establish control of the fight but neither one able to dominate. Nunn, the lefty, had a little more variety and diversity of punches, but not much more. Toney looked more fierce, more driven, more obsessed with winning, hungrier to be a world champion.
Nunn certainly wanted to remain champion but you could see the will of Toney wearing him down. In round nine, Toney hurt Nunn with sharp strikes. Toney is such a ring master genius, it actually seemed that he was fighting a perfect fight against the closest thing to perfection in the sport at the time. Brilliantly mature, focused throughout, patiently waiting for the right time to turn up the heat on the champion. Conserve his very best strikes for the most opportune moment.
Round ten, Toney began to emerge as the aggressor, walking Nunn down, but Nunn still was dangerous with his punches, his wind and breathing were fine though his legs appeared slightly unsteadier at times.
Then in round eleven, still down on the scorecards despite winning the previous three rounds, Toney launched a career destroying left hook that dropped Nunn flat on his back. Nunn, as great as he was, still managed to go down with perfect grace and elegance – the greats have a way of doing that. He laid there shocked and helpless but still willed himself up, barely beating the count.
Toney was on him like a school of starved piranhas. He knew exactly how to handle this moment he had waited his entire life for. Just 24 pro fights of experience, Toney finished it as masterfully as any Hall of Famer ever did. Nunn, for the first time in his career, was helpless and taking a beating, until his corner mercifully threw in the towel to end it.
Though Nunn lost this fight, he showed greatness in defeat. More than the majority of his wins. He forced James Toney to show his own greatness which James Toney did, more than he probably thought he was capable of. It was that kind of fight, a sporting competition of two superhuman champions at their very best. Yes, it was Federer vs Nadal, Ali vs Frazier, Ali vs Foreman, Duran vs Leonard, Sampras vs Agassi caliber sporting genius.
Toney went on to become one of the all time great boxing champions, even challenging the best in the heavyweight division and never once showing vulnerability or pain or loss of control in the ring. Truly, James Toney is without a doubt, one of the greatest boxers in the history of the ring.
Nunn did not want the rematch with Toney and decided to move up to 168 where he won a title and produced some more fine performances but he was never the same superstar level athlete. He eventually was caught buying drugs from an undercover officer and has spend the last fourteen years in jail in Kansas.
Toney vs Nunn of 1991 is one of the best fights you will ever see and for sure one of boxing’s classic performances, two incredible gladiators at their very best.