Two decades before Antonio Margarito and Paul Williams claimed to be boxing’s “Most Avoided Fighter,” there was Mike McCallum, a superb technician who lobbied hard to get high-profile fights with Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns during his underrated years as a junior middleweight contender and beltholder but to no avail.
The two all-time greats, who had bigger fish to fry with bouts against each other and middleweight champ Marvin Hagler during McCallum’s mid-to-late 1980s prime, probably did the right thing (in terms of their careers) by not facing the iron-chinned Jamaican, who scored impressive knockouts of dangerous young contenders such as Julian Jackson (TKO 2), Donald Curry (KO 5) and Milton McCrory (TKO 10) in defense of his WBA 154-pound title (that was stripped from Duran) in ‘86 and ‘87.
McCallum, who attacked the midsections of his opponents with such expert zeal that he earned the memorable nickname “Body Snatcher,” was not able to coax the “the Big Four” (Duran, Hearns, Hagler or Sugar Ray Leonard) into the ring, but he still fought a veritable Who’s Who of top talent of the ‘80s and ‘90s during his 16-year career, including Roy Jones Jr., James Toney (three times), Jackson, Curry, McCrory, Steve Collins, Sumbu Kalambay (twice), Michael Watson, Herol Graham, Jeff Harding, Fabrice Tiozzo, and Ayub Kalule.
McCallum, who won major titles in three weight classes, junior middleweight, middleweight and light heavyweight, had a career any fighter would be proud of. He went 15 rounds in his first title bout (against Sean Mannion in ‘84), which made him the first Jamaican to win a major boxing belt. He was never knocked out as a professional despite his willingness to face bona-fide punchers, such as Jackson, who was 29-0 (with 27 KOs) when they fought. He gave Toney fits (in their first two fights) and he defeated Harding (for a light heavyweight belt) at an age when most fighters are faded or retired.
Only Kalambay, who scored a split decision over McCallum in his adopted home country of Italy in 1988, can say he defeated the Body Snatcher during his prime (and he barely won).
McCallum retired in 1997 with a 49-5-1 (36) record. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003.
RingTV’s Doug Fischer recently had the opportunity to talk to McCallum, who currently trains middleweight prospect Matt Korobov in Las Vegas, when the Russian southpaw took part in a media workout in L.A. prior to his bout on the Brandon Rios-Urbano Antillon undercard on July 9.
McCallum agreed to take part in RingTV.com’s Best I’ve Faced series, the periodic feature that asks the most-accomplished fighters of our generation to list the best they've fought in 10 important categories.
Here’s what McCallum, who seemed to enjoy the trip down memory lane, had to say:
Best overall: James Toney – He wasn’t a complete fighter the first time we fought, and I still believe I won that fight. But he learned in that fight and he got better. He grew with each fight. By our third fight, he was a different fighter, a complete fighter. He was someone who could do it all, fight inside or outside, work offense and defense at the same time, just like me when I was younger. I like to think that I helped James mature as a fighter.
Best boxer: Herol Graham – He was a pure boxer, a southpaw and very elusive. It wasn’t easy to hit him. He was very smart, very skilled.
Best puncher: Julian Jackson – He hit me so hard! Julian wasn’t just powerful, he was also real quick. I got caught by a right hand in the first round of our fight and I remember thinking “What’s wrong with my legs?” I tried my best to hide it from him. I knew I had to take him out as soon as I could.
Best defense: Sumbu Kalambay – I fought many good defensive fighters. Toney had a good defense. Graham was slippery. Jones was fast and slick, but Kalambay is No. 1. I can’t forget about him. He’s the first fighter to beat me and it’s because of his good movement. He was always sliding side to side, very shifty. He was a dangerous boy.
Fastest hands: Jackson – He was quick, man. That’s why he got so many knockouts. Everyone focused on his power and then he’d get you with a punch you didn’t see. They landed on you — boom! — from out of nowhere. Kalambay and Toney were also fast. So was Jones, obviously, but I fought him when I was older and had slowed down a bit.
Fastest feet: Roy Jones – He had very quick feet. He was elusive just because of his footwork.
Best chin: Steve Collins – I almost said Toney, but Collins had the best chin. I hit him right on his chin all night and he wouldn‘t budge. I couldn’t hit Toney that much and when I did, he backed off. Collins walked through punches.
Best jab: Donald Curry – I fought many fighters with good jabs. Kalambay could win fights with just his jab. McCrory had a good, hard jab. But Curry’s was the best. I see why they called him “the Cobra” because he didn’t miss with it. He was a bad man with that jab.
Strongest: Michael Watson – Oh my God, he was so strong. That’s why that fight was so hard. It was a gruesome fight, 11 rounds of back-and-forth hell.
Smartest: Roy Jones Jr. – I fought quite a few smart boys in my time. Graham was a cunning S.O.B. I remember him sticking his tongue out at me whenever I’d miss a punch. Kalambay was smart and so was Toney, although he didn’t have the experience to back it up when we first fought. But I think Roy may have been the smartest. He was very clever, which didn’t surprise me. I knew he was sharp. It was like he was always one step ahead of me.
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Photo by Chris Farina-Top Rank.