“As a kid growing up reading about them in The Ring magazine, I’m so honored to have been able to meet those great champs,” Michael Nunn told me recently in reference to his having gained an audience with both ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson and Leonard early in his professional career. “God has been good.”
Reading material is not made readily available to inmates of the facilities in which Nunn has been housed so, for the two years or so that we have been corresponding, he has requested at various times biographies on UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma and the helmsman of the Alabama Crimson Tide football program Nick Saban, volumes on plant-based nutrition and the training regimens of the Navy Seals, printouts of internet articles on Tom Brady and Carlos Monzon. We got on the topic of ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson when Michael asked if I knew of a good book on the pound-for-pound legend and could have a copy mailed to him.
There are several to pick from and I gave equal consideration to Robinson’s memoirs and the book written by Herb Boyd in cooperation with Ray’s son, both of which I’ve read. Being Sugar Ray by Kenneth Shropshire is another contemporary entry into the ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson canon, but I took a chance on Sweet Thunder which is one I haven’t gotten around to yet. It is written by Wil Haygood who had done critically-acclaimed biographies about Sammy Davis Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. as well. He also authored The Butler which was made into the popular film starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.
I guess it was a solid choice. Michael emailed me the day the book arrived to assure me how much he was enjoying it, seeing as though he had dug into a good portion already. He then promised to tell me about the time he got to spend an afternoon with ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson back in 1984 while training at the Ten Goose Gym in Van Nuys, California in preparation for his professional debut. Naturally, I held him to it and Michael was as good as his word.
“I remember that lunch meeting with Mr. Robinson and his wife (Millie, his third and last) like it was yesterday. A guy that owned a big food business in LA (Smokey Joe’s BBQ) was a good friend with the Goossen family and I used to go in there and eat. One day I go in there and Mr. Smokey Joe tells me if I come back in over the next few days he will introduce me to Mr. Robinson. He and his wife were great friends with Mr. Smokey. His doctor’s office was across the street from Joe’s food business and whenever Mr. Robinson and his wife would go for a doctor visit they would also see Mr. Smokey and have lunch.
I was all smiles. I told him it was a fantastic day for me to be in the presence of one of the greatest of all-time. What a classy man. He still looked like he could go a few rounds, a very humble giant, and his wife was also a sweet woman, very classy and sharp. He told me to train hard and to stay focused, that I had good size. That made me feel good, the greatest middleweight of all-time teaching you how to use your reach as an advantage. It was cool being a young 21 year-old man sitting across the lunch table from the greatest middleweight of all-time. He told me that he would keep his eyes open and be looking for me. He told me to go get those belts and that’s what I did.
You can bet Joe and Dan (Goossen) loved the idea of Mr. Smokey making it possible for me to meet the greatest middleweight that ever done it. It made me study and work and train even harder. I had to tell my moms and my family and friends that I got to have a lunch sit-down with ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson. Wow, I know it was a big moment for a young man from Iowa. Let him and his loving wife rest in peace. Mr. Robinson went through a lot of bullshit in his days just like Mr. Louis and Mr. Ali. They overcame a lot of drama and in the end endured like real men do. A very stand-up man, he was a real soldier. As you know, a man only gets what he strives for.”
Because Michael and I are big basketball fans, it is a topic of conversation that receives especially heavy rotation during March Madness and the NBA Playoffs. Shortly after the NCAA brackets were determined, he had picked North Carolina to get to the big dance and the Tar Heels were his favorites to win what we both hoped would be a good, competitive championship game against Gonzaga, who I was personally rooting for. While comparing notes via email the day after North Carolina’s victory, I happened to mention that Michael Jordan had visited their dressing room prior to game time and delivered some spirited words of encouragement to the current crop of hoopsters representing his alma mater. Which reminded Mr. Nunn of a little story. One that dates back to March of 1986, immediately before and after his fight against Carl Jones at Caesars Palace.
“That had to be an honor for Mr. Jordan giving the guys that pep talk, I’m sure that made them lay it on the line even more. I’m sure it lit a spark for the guys playing for the Tar Heels. Big ups to them and Jordan also. I can tell you it’s a joy to have a legend give you some advice. I remember back in the day, Dan Goossen had ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard come in to my dressing room in Vegas before my bout with Mr. Jones and shoot some shots at me. Ray was real impressed.
I got knocked down in the first round by a left hook from a tough kid from Los Angeles. I was 14-0 at the time (Jones had a record of 16-1-4). We were two of the hottest young up and coming middleweights and it was a battle for the West Coast. With the will of God I pulled off the victory in a good tough ten-round bout. Ray liked the idea me getting knocked down in the first round and getting up and taking charge of the bout. He told me that day that I was a future world champ and I will remember that forever.
As you know, somebody has got to win and somebody got to lose. Don’t really know what happened to Mr. Jones. He came to a few of my training camps and helped me get ready for a few bouts against the tough guys that came after my victory over him. I have not seen or heard nothing from him. A real good sharp guy.”
Frustratingly, my own digging into Carl Jones’ past has unearthed nothing other than what is accessible to anyone else. Jones retired in 1997 with a career mark of 23-6-4, having briefly held the WBC Continental Americas Super-Middleweight Title. He fought on two noteworthy occasions, one memorable and the other fateful, although indirectly in both cases. Jones was outpointed by ‘The Golden Viking’ Ole Klemetsen in a six-rounder on the undercard of the Bowe/Holyfield rematch famous for the Fan Man incident and had his one and only bid for a world title snatched away by WBC Light-Heavyweight Champion Mike McCallum in London. Their bout was next up after Gerald McClellan was removed from the ring on a stretcher following his savage brawl with Nigel Benn which ultimately left him blind, hard of hearing, and permanently disabled. Carl Jones’ current whereabouts and well-being remain a mystery to me.
As for the saga of ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard and Michael ‘Second To’ Nunn, this is merely the beginning, of course. There was the changing of the guard mega-fight that never happened and the altercation on the Vegas Strip that did, a byproduct of professional jealousy and one drink too many on Ray’s part. But we will file that away for the time being as another story for another day. Right now we’ll focus on thinking happy thoughts. Ones that are as sweet as sugar.