“Mike McCallum is the most naturally gifted fighter I have ever worked with.”–Emanuel Steward
The dictionary has several different definitions for the word “respect.” It’s a given in life that each of us wants respect. Equally given, respect is that rare personal quality that must be earned, usually over the span of time through quality hard work and proven positive results. In the pursuit of respect, there can be no short cuts.
During the mid to late 1980’s, 3-Division Champion Mike McCallum quietly accumulated the respect of his peers and the boxing world as he stepped-up to face every challenge he was presented with, head-on. He avoided nobody and showed “respect,” by his own definition, in his willingness to accommodate all comers, despite being overlooked and sometimes shoved aside by the power brokers and superstars of the day. Where the masses failed, he was able to succeed.
Steadfast in his self belief, and driven by his ambition to succeed, boxing’s first Jamaican World Champion set-out to make an indelible mark in the sport’s long and storied history by conquering the divisions above light middleweight, a province ruled by bigger and younger men. Despite sanctioning body politics and a lack of promotional momentum, McCallum persevered, traveling the world and underlining, both in word and in deed, the true meaning of the designation, “World Champion.”
MP: You defended your WBA Light Middleweight Title against Julian Jackson, Milton McCrory and Donald Curry, all three were fighters who were world champions or would eventually become world champions. Each brought a distinct threat or skill set to the equation, yet you managed to retain your championship against each of them. Compare them for us as challengers.
Well, Milton McCrory was a bad boy. Uh, he was a good boxer. He could punch a little. We sparred a lot in the gym so we knew each other. That was a tough fight. We were going back and forth. As a matter of fact, in the second round he hit me, my back was to the ropes, he hit me with a nice left hook and kind of stung me for a minute, but you know I prevailed. It was hot in Phoenix that day man! That was the hottest time in Phoenix, man. We fought in a tent, sweatin’ like crazy. We had a hell of a fight. It was like a classic fight. Body shots slowed Milton down in the 7th and 8th. I could tell that he was hurt. He got cut over the right eye and was bleeding profusely so they stopped the fight in the 10th.
MP: What about Julian Jackson?
Oh Man! Julian Jackson was THE hardest puncher I ever fought in the game. That includes all the fighters that I sparred with, worked with or fought with. None of them punched harder than Julian Jackson. He was a quick puncher and a devastating puncher. He not only punched hard, he punched fast. I’m gonna tell you how this guy punched. I saw the shot coming, the right hand coming. I knew the shot was coming. He hit me. I stood up on my feet and BANG! And that thing that hit me, I was ok in the head, I was clear in the head but when I tried to move, it was like I didn’t feel my legs. My legs were all rubbery. What’s wrong with my legs? I tried to stand up firm, but I just couldn’t do it because my legs kept going all over the place. I was in great shape, but I came back from that and when I hit him he couldn’t deal with it.
MP: How do you rate Donald Curry? That was a highlight defense.
Oh man, Donald Curry was a bad boy. He didn’t have the right hand that Julian Jackson had, but Donald was more accurate…a very sharp puncher. Now I understood why they called him a Cobra! Before when they called him a Cobra, I was like “yeah right.” That boy hit me with a right hand man, I almost fell down. Oh my God! Oh man! Donald was a sharp shooter. That boy hit me so hard, man. I told him if you hit me that hard again I’m gonna kill you! Donald was a dangerous man. I’m telling you the truth. I tried to use the jab a little bit to get him off me. I got myself back together.
Eventually I finished the round. What I was doing was I tried to throw the left hook to the body, and he’d bring his hand all the way down from his chin to stop the body shot. And he did it also going back. So I said, well ok, I’ll do it again, and he kept doing the same thing. So I said ok, if you do it again I’m going knock him out. So what I did is I made a move like I’m going back to the body, I’d didn’t complete the shot to the body, and he dropped his hand again. So I turned it to the top. I shifted from the body and brought it to the top. Boom, on his chin! That was a clean shot. Once I hit him I knew that was it. I could feel the shot from all the way down from my left arm all the way down to my left toe.
MP: Have you crossed paths with Donald Curry since that fight?
One thing about Donald, he was a game fighter. I saw him when I was at the Hall of Fame being inducted back in 2003. My wife said to him, “Donald what happened in the fight with Mike? You were doing well when all of a sudden Mike knocked you out.” He said “Mike messed my world up on national TV, because I got careful. I wanted to say I got careless, but I got careful and got knocked out.” Donald was a real sport and I had a lot of respect for him. At the ceremony I said, Donald, I have a lot of respect for you. You see, in Jamaica, tourism is one of our biggest assets. People come from different parts of the world to enjoy the beaches, fish, drink our nice fruit juices and stuff like that. Spend some money and from that money we can feed our family. So when they come off the plane to spend their money on vacation to do all of that, the Jamaican people tell them, “nuff respect.” In other words, they’re saying thank you for coming to Jamaica to spend your money with us and do business with us so we can feed our family and show you a good time. So for that, “nuff respect.”
So later, Marvin Hagler leaned over and said he respected me when I was sitting close to him at the ceremony. But respect means to me you give me a chance to feed my family. This is boxing, we are boxers. This how we make a living. I said to him “I heard you say in an interview that you’d cut off your pinky finger for a million. Why didn’t you fight me so we could make some money to feed my family. This is a hurt business that we’re in. This how we feed our family. You didn’t fight me, Thomas Hearns didn’t fight me. Roberto Duran didn’t fight me. But all of you fought each other. And you want to tell me that you respect me? No, you don’t respect me man. Don’t come here and sit beside me and tell me you respect me. Don’t give me that. I don’t want to hear it.” I said, “Champ, don’t tell me that!” He didn’t say anything. He shut up. He never said anything more to me after that. After when I took the podium, I said “one thing I can tell you guys, Donald Curry I have a lot of respect for because, the Haglers’, Durans’, Hearns’ and Leonards’, they never fought me. But Donald Curry gave me a chance to feed my family. Donald respected me and he gave me an opportunity to make some money. That’s what I call respect!”
MP: In 1988, you moved up to the middleweight division and journeyed to France to challenge Sumbu Kalambay the reigning WBA Middleweight Champion. You lost a close decision. What are your recollections of this setback?
I went over there late, man. I wasn’t fully acclimatized over there. I didn’t understand about going over there early, the time difference, jet lag and all that kind of stuff. I went a week before when I should have been there two or three weeks before the fight. They were very happy when I came a week before the fight and I was wondering why. This boy was a good fighter too. Not trying to take anything away from him now. This boy was a damn good boxer. Oh man this boy was bad. He was a real professional. After the fight, we left two days later. That’s when I was just starting to feel good. I said, man why couldn’t I have just come earlier? Man oh man! Sumbu was a trooper and a true professional. He fought good that night. You know, he won. Take nothing away from him.
MP: In 1989, you defeated top-rated Herol Graham for the WBA Middleweight Title. You proceeded to defend that title against talented contenders Steve Collins, Michael Watson and ultimately reversed the previous loss to Kalambay with a decisive decision win. I noticed that a few of these defenses occurred on foreign soil and in potentially biased venues. How did this play on your mind and how did it affect your game plan?
Yeah, but not too much. I didn’t put that into my mind. I’m from Jamaica, so I was already fighting in deep waters as it is. Bunny Grant was a world champion, he’d go all over the place and fight different guys and come back. He’d always say, “You’re a professional fighter. If you are champion of the world, a World Champion, you’re supposed to fight anywhere in the world.” So I always said to myself, I’m a true world champion. I’ll fight anywhere in the world. I learned once you keep the crowd quiet, you’re ok. But if the crowd got out of hand, you’re probably behind. Once you have crowd control, you’re in front. My thing, no matter where I fought, was to keep the crowd quiet.
MP: Next came the high profile James Toney fights. A questionable draw in the first match and a debatable loss in the rematch. What are your recollections?
Yeah, I won those fights. They wanted to push me out because I was old and Toney was young. That’s what they are doing to him now in the Sam Peter fights. But you know, the Lord works in mysterious ways. I know I won all of those fights. It now has come back to haunt him in his career when he’s the old fighter.
MP: In 1994 you defeated the rugged Jeff Harding for the WBC Light Heavyweight Title at the advanced age of 37. In doing so, you looked brilliant, keeping pace with the younger and much larger man. I noticed that you stood in there and committed to your punches more than you had in some previous encounters. Did you feel you had to alter your style for a bigger fighter?
Well Eddie Futch would always tell me that I could go up to light heavyweight and win and could handle those guys. Matter of fact, he was the one that told me to leave middleweight and go right to light heavyweight. I said what about super middleweight? He said no. You got the style, you got the body and the height, you can fight. You’ll win. In Jeff Harding I fought one of the most vicious men of the day and I won the fight. I used heavy body shots and some great moves to out slick the younger man.
MP: You lost the light heavyweight title to Fabrice Tiozzo in France in 1995.Any specific recollections about that one?
That fight man, I didn’t feel right. I don’t know, man, I just didn’t feel good over there again. I’m not taking anything from Fabrice, but I wasn’t right that fight. I had a good training camp, but I didn’t feel right. I don’t know what happened to me. It was a great fight. I tried my best but it just didn’t work out.
MP: In 1996, you faced the streaking Roy Jones, JR., for your old WBC Light Heavyweight crown. Around that period, I had read a statement from you where you declared that Roy was supremely gifted and akin to a modern day Sugar Ray Robinson, possibly one day might be lauded as highly as Robinson was. What were your thoughts going into that match with Roy, and what was it like in that fight facing Roy?
I could beat him. I know I could beat Roy. He had never fought anybody like me. I was going to do things to mesmerize him. I know I’m a gifted fighter. After the fight, I know he had never seen anybody in the ring like me, even as an old fighter.
MP: You were often referred to as an “old school” throwback-type of champion. Bernard Hopkins, the former Undisputed Middleweight Champion and current Light Heavyweight King is often referred to in this way. What are your thoughts on Bernard and his legacy?
Great fighter. He’s paid his dues. A true professional. He goes about his business. He loves to win. You gotta give him all the props as a throwback. I remember him fighting for a long time. Always making a lot of noise, and everything he said that he was going to do, he’d do it, his way. So you really have to give him a lot of props for that. When you see a great throwback like Bernard Hopkins, you got to call it.
MP: Respected Trainer Manny Steward once said that you were the most naturally gifted fighter that he had ever worked with.
You know, Manny and I were very close in terms of a trainer and fighter when I was with him. He’d been saying that for the longest time. So I know that there is some sincerity in that. Even when training with all these guys, Tommy Hearns, Milt McCrory and David Braxton, he’d say “This boy is fluid. This boy is the best fighter.” He didn’t hold his mouth. This is one of the reasons I always said to myself, why, if you have a guy that’s the best fighter you ever worked with, why didn’t he push this guy so he could get all those big fights and so we could go further down the line? But, that never was to happen. So, you know, it’s one of those things.
MP: How do you want to be remembered by fans?
Lots of people don’t give Mike McCallum the credit, his real credit. His credit is I was an all around fighter. I could box, even better than my punching to the body. And because of my boxing ability and skills, nobody could go to the body as I would go to the body. A lot of people are still trying to figure out how The Bodysnatcher did it. I was such a good counter-puncher. It enabled me to go to the body so good. Most guys don’t know how to land to the body like I did. It’s a lost art. Nobody can do it today the way I did it in my day. I feel that I was a great world champion and was proud to represent Jamaica, both as a decorated amateur and later as its first world champion.