“I used to beat on Tommy Hearns.”—Mike McCallum
Notoriety and greatness do not always go hand in hand. From his humble yet well grounded beginnings on the island of Jamaica, Mike McCallum has always understood the value of hard work and in paying his dues. He embarked on a journey through life, first as an amateur fighter, plying his trade in the shadows as a sparring partner for seasoned pros, hoping for the honor to represent his homeland at the Olympics, then later, fueled with burning national pride, becoming boxing’s first Jamaican World Champion. Everything he achieved came with years of low key diligence and traveling the globe looking to compete with the best boxing had to offer. There were no gold medal send-offs or high profile cable contracts.
During this period in the mid to late 1980’s, there was a high profile round robin of lucrative matches going on in boxing between “The Fabulous Four” – “Sugar” Ray Leonard, Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns, Roberto Duran and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. At his best, McCallum was as good as any of them, no less than a 50/50 proposition in a potential head to head match-up. Despite this, he was shunned, shoved aside and locked-out of any opportunity to prove himself up to the task of competing with his high profile contemporaries.
Through it all, he forged ahead and cut his own swath through each division he competed in, even if it meant kicking-in the back door for the opportunity. In all, he defeated seven highly respected world champions, winning and defending titles at light middleweight, middleweight and light heavyweight. With rightful enshrinement into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003, history will look kindly on the career and legacy of this once great warrior from Jamaica. For me, it was a great honor and a dream come true to represent RSR and spend time with “The Bodysnatcher” to talk about his journey through boxing and life.
MP: Starting out as a youngster, who were your boxing hero’s and what inspired you to take up boxing as an amateur?
Ray Robinson and Bunny Grant. Yeah, Bunny Grant was a Jamaican like me. As a matter of fact he was the one who really started me out with the body shots. He was the one that punched me to the body. Whenever Bunny was getting ready for a fight, he’d have me spar him at the tail end of the sparring sessions. If he set out to spar eight rounds, he’d bring me on for the last three or four rounds. He’d hit me to the body and I couldn’t deal with the body shots. He’d use me as a 17 year-old youngster full of energy, jabbing him like crazy. I’d be surprised at Bunny, he’d be setting me up for the body shots. What really happened is, he asked for me, telling me and others that “that boy is a good fighter, that boy is full of promise.” So Bunny Grant is the one that I really and truly learned the body shots from, and uh, he was a vicious puncher to the body. As a young amateur fighter I used to watch him very closely. All of his little tricks towards getting to the body. I picked up all of his little tricks and stuff and I took it a little further.
MP: All through your career you displayed a level of fluidity. You always had an answer for your opponent’s offense.
That’s what I’m talking about. But see I took it a little further. Doubling and tripling punches to the head, and then the body and back to the head. You know as a youngster, I learned all that he had to offer. It was a fantastic deal for me, and by going along you add to it also. And then I moved onto the national level where I could represent my country. One of my greatest coaches Emilio Sanchez, my international coach, one of the greatest coaches that ever trained me. He showed me a shot where a guy would throw a jab and I’d pull and come back with a quick right hand over the jab. Man, that shot became so great for me in the amateurs and later through the pros, when I threw that shot, it took me through my whole career. I teach that shot now to my fighters.
He taught me things and took me to a higher level. But he taught me stuff, nobody knows about this guy, who was a genius, because this guy wasn’t an American. People would see me as a youngster in the gym and say “wow, the Bodysnatcher, where’d this guy come from?” But I had great coaches, and nobody would know about these guys.
MP: What was behind your decision to turn professional back in 1981?
Well, yeah, as a matter of fact, I went to the 1976 Olympics. The Prime Minister of Jamaica, Michael Manley, asked for me one day. He sent for me and said to me that he admired my work, my fluidity in the ring and that I had great potential. He asked me not to turn pro and give Jamaica four more years in order to get to the 1980 Olympics. I wasn’t bound to do it. He asked me a personal favor. It was a big decision for me. I came out of the Olympics in 1976 at 19. I of course tried to do that. What was so unfortunate for me is I went to Moscow, the week before the games opened, I came down with acute appendicitis in Moscow, in the Olympic village. Yeah, I said I couldn’t believe this!
MP: With less than two years of professional experience, you faced former WBA Light Middleweight Champion Ayub Kalule in your 17th fight. What are your recollections going into this match and of Kalule as an opponent in the ring?
I saw him fight Ray Leonard, and I said to myself I’m gonna beat him better than Ray Leonard did. Ray can’t punch to the body like I punch to the body. But I was a fluid boxer also. Listen, in my career, I was so fortunate to come up against some of the greatest southpaws. Johnny Bumphus and a guy by the name of Clinton Jackson, he was a vicious southpaw. But mainly I worked with Clinton Jackson as an amateur when I was coming up in the National AAU. What I’m trying to say is back then we had some vicious workouts. I’d get so frustrated at first, but by boxing him everyday, and later Johnny Bumphus, later in my career it became very easy for me to fight southpaws. So when I fought Ayub Kalue and Sean Mannion after that, it was easy for me. By learning and working with these guys, I could fight southpaws with my eyes closed and I can also now as a trainer teach my guys to fight southpaws. So I’m basically rounded.
MP: You eventually positioned yourself as the WBA mandatory challenger for Roberto Duran’s Light Middleweight Title in 1984. How much did you focus on him leading into that period and did you see anything that you felt you could capitalize on?
Oh you know about that? I was so confident. Yeah, I wanna show him mano-a- mano. I wanna understand how tough he is. Now the world will know me. Cause I watched him fight. He’s short, he can’t beat me. I’m gonna bust him up. The short man can’t beat me. The world will know Mike McCallum. So I said “OK.” But listen to this now. Emanuel Steward was also the manager of Thomas Hearns because we were in the Kronk stable. What he did was go to Duran’s people and told them that Mike McCallum has agreed to step aside. My former manager, Shelley Finkel called me and said to me, “Mike why are you giving up the chance to fight Duran?” I said what you talking about? He said that I had told Emanuel that I would step aside to let Tommy fight Duran. I said “no way in hell!” All this went on without me knowing. I told them that I was not giving up my right to fight Roberto Duran to let him fight Thomas Hearns. I wanted to fight Duran and am not stepping aside for nobody. I told Manny I need my fight! They did this without my consent.
I went to Panama to the WBA to try to enforce my right for the fight. Let me fight the man and then you can all assess me. I was a vicious body puncher. I was a boxer, I was tall. I had a good chin. Man…he convinced Duran to face Thomas Hearns for more money. He wanted me to step aside and allow him to do that. I told him I want my fight right here and right now!
MP: Ultimately Duran opted to face Thomas Hearns for the WBC Light Middleweight Crown. The WBA then mandated a box-off between yourself and Sean Mannion for the Light Middleweight Title, the fight where by you won your first title. What were your thoughts going into your first title match? Was it harder to focus on such a lesser known opponent?
Yeah man. Mannion was rated number two. Yeah man, I wanted to fight Duran. I don’t want to lose. I could make at least a quarter million dollars for Duran. If you beat Duran you are on top of the world. No disrespect to Mannion. It was for the title!
MP: Your record shows you to be an active champ. When you weren’t defending your title, you were fighting tune-ups. This was an old school approach. Where did this come from and how much do you feel this type of activity helped you stay successful?
You know when I was working with Eddie Futch, his thing was for me to not defend my title right away. He wanted me to have a tune-up before defending my title.
I didn’t know then why he wanted me to do that. Now I understand why. I was the kind of guy that liked to work and if something or my coach makes sense to me, he’d have no problem with me and whatever he said I would make certain to do. The tune-ups made me fluid and sharp for my defenses. Today, now, I understand all of this.
MP: It has been rumored for years that you and Thomas Hearns used to engage in heated sparring sessions at the famed Kronk Gym in Detroit. How much truth is behind this and who else did you spar with over the years?
I used to beat on Thomas Hearns. We had great workouts. Sometimes Tommy would get the better of me, and sometimes I’d get the better of Tommy. I think more times I’d get the better of him then he’d get the better of me. We had some great workout and great times. That’s one of the reasons why Tommy wouldn’t fight me. I would say I sparred maybe a hundred rounds with him. The first time I went to Detroit they paid me to work with him. I told them no, I’m not a sparring partner. But they kept say “come on, work with him.” I worked with him a couple of times, and I was getting the better of him than he was of me. I know I was getting to him. From there it became more heated. Those were good times man……
MP: Who else did you spar with at The Kronk?
Milton McCrory. He was a great sparring partner and he had my number for a minute! He was one of the toughest to spar with and I sparred with him a lot. But a guy named Duane Thomas, a former champion too. Me and him had some workouts man! It was back and forth. Now he gave me a hard time. David Braxton gave me a hard time for a minute too. I had made up my mind that one day I may fight any of them, so I always tried to hold something back so that one day if I ever fought these guys, I’d have something for them.
RSR Readers: Stay tuned for Part II of “Invasion of the Body Snatcher: RSR Sits Down with Mike McCallum, the Forgotten Great,” where we will discuss his defenses against Donald “The Lone Star Cobra” Curry, Milton McCrory, Julian Jackson and his foray into middleweight and light heavyweight waters.