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Oliver McCall: The Last Run of the Atomic Bull

By Geno McGahee

On December 7th, the 45 year old former WBC Heavyweight Champion, Oliver McCall, 54-10, 37 KO’s, returns to the ring to take on former title challenger, Fres Oquendo, 32-6, 21 KO’s, in a 12 round contest with the IBF Inter-Continental Heavyweight Title in the balance. The man known as “The Atomic Bull” once sat on top of the sport, redemption for a shady past outside of the ring and hope for a prosperous future, but he could never overcome the personal problems that held him back from realizing what could have been his destiny.

McCall was known mostly, in the beginning of his career, as the best sparring partner for Mike Tyson. He was durable and would give Tyson the resistance that he needed, but outside of notable bouts inside of the gym with Iron Mike, McCall remained unremarkable.

McCall put together a record of 11-1, 7 KO’s, before facing off with Mike Hunter, one of the most awkward fighters ever to lace up the gloves. Hunter walked away with a unanimous decision victory, giving McCall another defeat on his record. He would put together three straight victories over nondescript opposition before facing off with future champion, James “Buster” Douglas, losing by points again. The term “sparring partner syndrome” was used quite often when describing McCall.

Another defeat to Orlin Norris in 1990, a much smaller man, brought him to a record of 15-4, 9 KO’s, and he was hand selected in 1991 as an opponent for the 18-0 rising heavyweight, Bruce Seldon. Featured on ESPN’s Friday Night Fights, McCall presented the sort of opponent for Seldon to give him some rounds, go the full ten rounds, and give Seldon the experience, but the fight didn’t go according to script.

Seldon was in a war and collapsed in the ninth round from exhaustion and pressure, giving McCall the biggest win of his career and putting him on the map. He immediately called out the contenders of the time, naming Riddick Bowe as the man he wanted to face the most. He didn’t get what he wanted, but forged on, putting together four straight wins over mediocre opposition, leading to a 1992 fight with top contender, Tony Tucker. Tucker’s only defeat was a spirited effort leading to a decision loss to a prime Mike Tyson. Tucker, much like McCall, suffered a lot of personal problems outside of the ring, hindering his career and preventing him from reaching the top level of sports.

In an ugly fight that was hard to score, Tucker walked away with a split decision victory, and McCall was back to the drawing board. After five straight victories, he worked his way into a WBC Title shot against the undefeated Lennox Lewis. McCall, leading to this fight was fighting much better then he had in the past. He fought with a purpose and upset the favored former WBO Champion, Francesco Damiani, winning in the 8th round. In fact, all five victories since the loss to Tucker were via knockout, but few took him seriously going into the fight with Lewis.

In 1994, HBO would broadcast the bout, and much of the focus from the media was on a future showdown between Lewis and former rival, Riddick Bowe, or a title unification. McCall occupying the ring with him was met by skepticism, most pointing to promoter, Don King, as the reason why he was given this chance to begin with. Emanuel Steward was brought in to train McCall for the fight and was able to keep him in the gym, away from the temptations that had hurt him in the past and there was chemistry between the trainer and fighter and Steward knows how to train heavyweights. He saw something in Lewis that could be capitalized on and it worked.

A counter right hand dropped Lewis in round two and he got up on wobbly legs. The fight was quickly waved off and rightfully so. Lewis, as he got up put his hands up, but then fell forward into the referee. HBO quickly screamed that the “WBC’s referee stopped the fight,” but the network had invested so much in Lewis that it was hard to let go, and hard to believe that McCall could defeat such a dominant champion and in only two rounds. It was a monumental upset and one that put Don King back in control of a heavyweight title.

In 1995, King set up a pay per view, pitting a long time King fighter and all time great, Larry Holmes taking on McCall for the WBC Title with a rumored showdown with Mike Tyson awaiting the winner. McCall was heavily favored but his performance was very strange, walking away from Holmes on several occasions and fighting only in spurts. He made it a close fight when it didn’t need to be. McCall eked by with a very close decision, leading to a fight with Frank Bruno.

Bruno always brought the crowd, being a national hero in the UK. He lost in title efforts to Tim Witherspoon, Lennox Lewis, and Mike Tyson, and lacked the stamina to make it into the later rounds. McCall, if all else failed, would most likely catch him late. It was hard to see him losing, but he lost. Bruno took the early lead and sat on it, winning by a wide margin going into the 10th round. McCall, sensing that he desperately needed a knockout to win, came on strong, but Bruno held on and made it to that final bell, ending the reign of McCall and getting the big money payday against Tyson in his next fight. McCall would proceed to have legal problems and drug issues after this fight.

In 1997, McCall would meet up with Lennox Lewis again with the vacant WBC Title in the balance. HBO chronicled the drug problems and run ins with the law that plagued the life of McCall and some speculated that winning this bout and having the title again may be the worst thing that could happen to him. With money comes access to the lifestyle that had hurt the heavyweight and the title brought a lot of money.

Unfortunately or fortunately for McCall, Lewis was a different fighter, under the tutelage of Emanuel Steward now, the same trainer that was in the corner of the “Atomic Bull” in 1994 when he upset Lewis. McCall came down to the ring, storming quickly and apparently ready to get it going, but as the rounds went on, Lewis continued to set up his power punches, keeping McCall safely away. It was a hopeless fight for the former champion and the despair was written all over his face.

In one of the strangest moments in the history of boxing, McCall had a nervous breakdown, first walking into Lewis with his hands down, allowing the powerful Brit to unload in some hopes, it seemed, that he would knock him out and end the fight. When that didn’t happen, McCall began sobbing and the fight was stopped. The turmoil of his life was on display and we were witness to a tortured soul, a man that allowed himself to become an addict and could never find the right method to overcome his inner demons.

McCall would remain in boxing, putting together 13 straight wins before losing to the rising contender, DaVarryl Williamson by close decision. He would follow that loss with 10 straight wins, before losing a decision to Juan Carlos Gomez. He put together three wins after that before losing a decision to Timur Ibragimov in June of 2010.

Drug problems would persist, including an arrest for cocaine possession prior to a scheduled fight with Zuri Lawrence. The sad thing is that McCall apparently needs to fight to turn a buck and it may just be to support a habit, and as he goes into this fight with Fres Oquendo, we will watch McCall once again show his grit and determination in a most likely losing effort to the fresher Oquendo, and then the “Atomic Bull” will set up his next fight.

Oliver McCall could have been a very good champion and had he focused and didn’t suffer from the problems he had, he may very well have beaten Frank Bruno and gone on to face Mike Tyson in a winnable fight. Throughout his career, he has beaten some top fighters like former WBO Champions, Francesco Damiani (KO-8), Henry Akinwande (KO-10), and former WBC Title holder, Oleg Maskaev (KO-1). He is also one of only two men that hold a victory over the all time great, Lennox Lewis.

The hope is that whatever problems that McCall has had are in the past and that he can look back at his accomplishments and be satisfied that he was the top of the heavyweight division and earned the spot by beating a great fighter like Lewis. Under the right conditions, he too may have been a great fighter, but will instead be remembered as a head case that never lived up to his potential. The fact that he held the heavyweight title and is still considered an underachiever should give you an idea of just how much talent McCall had.

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