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Not On My Watch: Michael Nunn Recounts First World Title Defense vs. Juan Roldan

“When I was told that he was going to be my next opponent, I was very excited to be boxing one of the toughest middleweights in any era,” Michael Nunn wrote in an email to me concerning the first defense of his IBF World Middleweight Title against the formidable Argentinian Juan Domingo Roldan. Nunn had been in possession of the belt for a little more than three months, winning it with a spectacular 9th round TKO of 1984 Olympic gold medalist Frank Tate who had claimed the vacant championship in October 1987 by decisively outpointing Michael Olajide.

The IBF had not sanctioned Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s title defense against the unranked ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard that April and refused to recognize the victorious Leonard as their belt-holder. The WBA had done likewise (Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham was their #1 contender) and had Sumbu Kalambay, who prevailed with a razor-thin decision over Graham at Wembley Arena on May 26, duke it out with Iran Barkley for their middleweight title with Kalambay earning the fifteen-round verdict. Nunn would contend with both Barkley and Kalambay further down the line, but first thing’s first.

“Growing up watching him box Hagler and Hearns, then all of a sudden he is in the ring with me, that was cool. I wanted to beat him in royal fashion,” Michael said of Roldan. “I had to make him respect me, him being a man with almost 80 bouts and fighting all over the world. Ain’t too much a guy with his experience has not seen.”

How true this is. Juan Roldan was the Sisyphus of the 1980’s middleweight division, seemingly condemned to spend eternity thanklessly rolling the proverbial boulder to just within sight of the mountaintop only to have it slip from his clutches and careen back down upon each approach of the summit. Then ranked #6 by the IBF, his challenge to capture their championship from Nunn was Roldan’s third time vying to become the 160-pound king of the hill, a position as precarious to hold onto as it is prestigious to attain.

After finally getting to perform before American audiences with admirable wins over Wilbur Henderson, Teddy Mann, and Frank ‘The Animal’ Fletcher in preliminary bouts on cards all featuring middleweight title defenses by Marvin Hagler against Tony Sibson, Wilford Scypion, and Roberto Duran respectively, Roldan earned his own crack at the Marvelous One’s undisputed crown on March 30, 1984.

Most memorably, Roldan was credited by referee Tony Perez with a first-round knockdown which, no matter how dubious the circumstances, would be the only one of Hagler’s career. For the final seven rounds that the fight would last, Roldan turned in a valiant but cycloptic effort due, not to an errant (or deliberate) thumb as his corner protested, but a left uppercut unleashed by Marvin in the third stanza that swelled his right eye shut. Fighting Hagler with two good eyes was a considerable task for anyone and the handicap, coupled with Marvin’s relentless punishment, proved too much even for Roldan who absorbed a right/left/right combination, sank down to the canvas in slow motion and did half a reverse somersault before coming to rest on the seat of his pants. Shaking his head with weary resignation, Roldan stood up and walked toward his corner, electing not to continue. Who could blame him?

3½ years and 13 consecutive victories later, Roldan was matched opposite Thomas Hearns in a contest for the WBC Middleweight Title left vacant after ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard retired yet again. The same night that Leonard had wrested the belt away from Marvin Hagler in such controversial fashion, Roldan scored a ninth-round technical knockout of James Kinchen, who will reenter our story in an ancillary role momentarily. Despite the fact that he was floored twice in the opening round and again in the second, Roldan provided ‘The Hitman’ with some anxious moments, particularly in round four not long before he would be counted out himself, courtesy of Hearns’ devastating right hand.

“He really was ‘The Hammer’,” said Hearns in his post-fight interview, referring to Roldan’s ring moniker. “I thought I hit hard, but he hit me really hard.”

Marvin Hagler was on hand to give the new guardian of his former championship some good-natured yet ominous words of warning. “Take real good care of my belt until I come back. If I come back.” To which Tommy replied, “That’s another of my wishes, Marvin.” It’s a wish we all shared, though one that would sadly go unrealized.

One year later, on November 4, 1988, Juan Roldan would get his third and final chance to fulfill his own wish before the genie went back in the bottle for good. Now 67-4-2 with a decade’s worth of fistic experience and tricks up his sleeve, he would face off against Ray Leonard’s heir apparent and recently coronated IBF title-holder Michael ‘Second To’ Nunn. Their scrap was scheduled in the middle of a championship triple-header at the Las Vegas Hilton which had already seen Robert Hines pick himself up off the floor in the second and third rounds to stage a successful rally over IBF Super-Welterweight Champion Matthew Hilton. After being upset by a battered Iran Barkley in his first WBC Middleweight defense, Thomas Hearns moved up the scales and was supposed to have challenged WBA Super-Middleweight titlist Fulgencio Obelmejias for this evening’s main event. When Fully Obel (for those who didn’t care to pronounce his full tongue-twisting but poetic-sounding name) pulled out due to a rib injury, the NABF offered up their champion James Kinchen as a replacement. It was also arranged for Kinchen and Hearns to compete for the inaugural super-middleweight belt minted by the newly founded WBO.

Roldan was managed by Juan Carlos ‘Tito’ Lectoure, a highly esteemed boxing promoter in their native Argentina who owned Luna Park Stadium in Bueno Aires and had also supervised the careers of fellow countrymen Carlos Monzon, Nicolino Locche, Victor Galindez, and Oscar Bonavena. Lectoure had insinuated that Michael Nunn would spend the entire night running from Roldan like “a girl” or “a sissy”, which made Nunn that much more intent on switching up his strategy and engaging in a firefight with his challenger more times than Joe Goossen undoubtedly cared for. Not that he by any means totally abandoned his customary stick and move offense.

“Roldan was as tough as they come. He thought with his experience he would be able to trick me in to a slug fest. As you know, that was his way and I boxed his ears off,” Michael elaborated. “I wore him down with my punch count, wanting to show him a lot of speed and throw a lot of quick, hard combinations. Don’t think he had seen no one as fast as me.”

“Roldan had his team from South America with him rooting him on going into the bout,” continued Nunn in his reminiscences. “I know that he wanted to take the crown back to Argentina. As you know, the late great Mr. Carlos Monzon was from there and Mr. Roldan wanted to take a piece of the crown back to his country. But not on my watch.”

Speaking through his interpreter for the pre-taped segment airing before the bout, Roldan stated that “He’s not a Marvin Hagler or a Tommy Hearns. But, of course…I have to respect him for being champion of the world. But I came to win.” Nunn, who was graced with advantages of six inches in height and eight in reach, vowed to “fight like a wild horse in a barn fire” by way of his confident rejoinder. “He’s got to take my title because I’m not giving it up. And I don’t think he’s capable of doing that.”

Nearly 30 years later, Michael’s comments to me about his positive state of mind entering into fight night echo those same sentiments. “Joe Goossen had me boxing a lot of rounds up in the mountains, training super hard for Roldan. It was a good hard training camp. I had some good sparring partners to help get me ready, we might have even used Carl Jones for that bout because he was super strong and threw a lot of good hard shots and applied a lot of pressure. I also wanted to put on a show for my fans, family, friends, and my sponsors. I wanted the boxing world to know that they had a young dude from Iowa that was on a mission to rip through the middleweight class like a Texas tornado.”

Probably the most tried and true boxing cliché involves the notion that “styles make fights”. Certainly, no scenario better illustrates the critical strategic advantage of foot placement in boxing than when a southpaw goes toe to toe with an orthodox fighter, especially one with as unorthodox a style as Roldan. Not to mention sometimes unsporting. “He was real dirty the way he fought,” Michael remarked. “He was hitting me on the outside of my legs. That’s an old pro trick to try and slow my movement down. His plan did not work.” Not to be outdone by the battle-tested veteran, Nunn had a trick or two in his own bag.

To no one’s surprise, Nunn started out fleet of foot while Roldan pursued, crab-walking forward to where the champion purposely reclined against the corner turnbuckles. “I would trick him into thinking I was going to sit there and bang with him,” Michael said, “but would hit him with some quick hard shots to offset him and get out of there.”

Sure enough, the champion had lured Roldan into a trap and sprang upon his advancing predator with a hook and uppercut, both originating with Nunn’s left hand, that put down the Argentinian tough man. Michael moved in at the close of the standing eight count but Roldan was able to cover up and effectively protect against the volley of punches which followed, digging a right to Nunn’s body in the process. Further dispelling the myth that he was simply a nimble dancer with negligible power, Michael manhandled Roldan into the far corner and deftly sidestepped each incoming left hook and looping right.

Meanwhile, a mouse had taken up residence beneath Roldan’s right eye in the second round by virtue of Nunn’s left uppercuts which were repeatedly finding a welcome home there. When an opportune moment arose, Roldan would hook whichever arm was out of view of referee Richard Steele around Michael’s corresponding elbow while punching (mostly on the side or back of Nunn’s head) with his otherwise unoccupied glove. “I made him very mad, the way I boxed,” Michael said. “I’m sure I fooled him with my youth and my great shape.”

I was curious to know Michael’s opinion of Richard Steele, a Hall of Fame referee and one of the nicer guys you could hope to meet and talk boxing with. He has, however, often been a lightning rod for criticism within the boxing community due to his alleged association with Don King and several disputed stoppages, the most egregious example being the Meldrick Taylor “two seconds to glory” incident against Julio Cesar Chavez.

“We all have seen some crazy things in the sport,” Michael acknowledged, “but overall I think he was a good ref. It’s easy for folks to turn into snakes. I know refs can be dirty, that’s why your best policy is to always get into the greatest shape because, just like anything else, those creeps will play favorites. That is why I never tried to leave it to close, you have haters in everything. You hear about payoffs and, as you know, money will make a man do crazy things. I seen crazy things with my own eyes.” Referring to Mills Lane’s questionable treatment of him during his IBF title-winning fight, Michael said, “I had to knock Frank Tate out twice in one night.”

While pedaling backwards in the opening moments of the third round, Nunn went down in a heap in a neutral corner after slipping on the slick Budweiser logo adhered to the canvas. After regaining his footing, Michael was content to trade blows with Roldan in a head-to-shoulder parley before pivoting back and firing off power punches behind his right jab, even if Gil Clancy, working the mic for the broadcast, dismissed the majority of Nunn’s shots as “arm punches” and “slaps” because they were delivered while on the move and not from a planted, squared up position. Just as Al Bernstein countered Clancy’s remarks by suggesting that, as naturally strong as Nunn is, those punches can and will and have hurt opponents (just ask Curtis Parker, Frank Tate, or Sumbu Kalambay), Michael stunned Roldan with a hard left lead.

Despite lectures from Richard Steele to his cornermen cautioning them to be far less liberal with their application of Vaseline, Roldan would return to action following the sixty-second respites with huge gobs of the unguent high on his left forehead. He would then proceed to go to work with a body attack in the hopes of slowing Nunn down, resulting in some more of those shots to the hips which Michael alluded to earlier. This same tactic was used with great success by Joe Frazier during the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ to help keep Muhammad Ali immobile.

Speaking of Nunn’s hero Ali, Michael had adopted the rope-a-dope strategy employed by ‘The Greatest’, relaxing on the ring strands and shifting his weight to slip or ride out each of Roldan’s punches. Especially in light of Nunn’s own assessment that Roldan “was very strong and relentless in his attack”, it’s a fair guess to assume that Joe Goossen was no enthusiastic advocate of this technique. There existed enough mutual trust between Michael and the Goossens, though, for Joe to put faith (however anxious it must have made him at times) in Nunn’s physical abilities and intuitive thought process.

“Dan and Joe was two boys from Cali and I helped shoot them to the top of the game,” Michael proudly declares. “It did not make everybody happy. Managers used to kiss Dan’s ass, begging to fight on my undercards and sometimes Dan would look out and other times he said build your own champ and do your thing. Plus, Joe was always cool because he had the right mindset with all of his boxers and he did not like second place. Why should he when you had the right guys?”

Nunn heeded Joe’s advice to get off his combinations early in the middle rounds but would still stop and engage in close quarters with Roldan, who took advantage of the opportunity by banging to the body and shooting short uppercuts that got the attention of Michael, the Goossens, color commentators, and ringside judges who awarded one or two of these rounds to the challenger. “Mr. Roldan came and brought all he had,” Michael asserted.

Indeed, shortly after Nunn was admonished by Steele for low blows early in round eight, Roldan landed a pair of right hooks which were credited for the laceration on Michael’s left eyelid although, the way he remembers it, Roldan “opened me up with his head”. With blood beginning to trickle down his cheek, Michael set himself and fired away with a barrage of left hands. An uppercut, a body shot, and three more uppercuts sent Roldan down to his right knee before he slumped onto all fours then made a half-hearted attempt to struggle to his feet. His effort was in vain as Richard Steele concluded the ten count, removed Roldan’s mouthpiece, and assisted him toward his corner. “I wake up on the count of 8. This was my last fight,” Roldan stated later. “I retire tonight. This is it. I return to Argentina happy with my life.”

Nunn spoke with Al Bernstein at center ring following the formalities. “It makes me feel great to knock out such a tremendous guy like Juan Roldan, one of the top middleweights of the decade,” the defending champion beamed. “Joe told me this guy is strong and he’s awkward and he’s going to catch you regardless, so when he hits you, jump back on him.”

Joe Goossen attested to the fact that “Michael showed a lot of skill on the inside tonight” but was quick to point out, “I would rather have seen him stick to his best skills: boxing.” Michael couldn’t help but laugh while admitting, “I abandoned my boxing skills like a dummy but I was fortunate enough to overcome it. I just wanted to fight this guy.”

The radiant smile on Michael’s face could be attributed not only to his tough-fought victory over Juan Roldan, but that he got to conduct his celebratory post-fight interview with his arm around his loving mother Madies as well as his mentor and father-figure Bob Surkein standing by his side just as he had done as often as humanly possible since first encountering the sixteen year-old street fighter turned amateur boxer in his hometown of Davenport.

“That was a very happy moment, with me being in the ring with moms and Mr. Surkein. I know it made them just as happy,” said Michael. “I felt like I was on top of the world because they were two of my greatest supporters, let Mr. Surkein rest in peace. I owe him a lot of credit for being a part of my championship success.”

Nunn reflects frequently and fondly on the former Amateur Athletic Union referee and judge who single-handedly convinced the U.S. Olympic Committee to consider Michael for inclusion on the storied 1984 boxing squad. “I remember back in the day when he called the folks in Colorado and told them that he had a young kid off the street that could kick the crap out of any 156-pounder in the world and all the coaches thought Mr. Surkein was playing a trick. When I got on the plane to go to the training center in Colorado I was not scared at all. I met Tyson, Breland, and the top boxers in the world from all different states. They thought I was from Idaho, they got it mixed up with Iowa. After being up there for two weeks, they loved what they seen in me.”

Asked to bulk up to the 165-pound division to make way for Frank Tate, Nunn lost the middleweight spot to eventual silver medalist Virgil Hill at the Olympic Box-Offs. But the boxing gods would smile on Michael regardless. “It was history after that. Mr. Surkein is the one that linked me with the Goossens and Bob Arum. He told Bob Arum don’t go soft on picking guys for me to fight, he told Bob and Dan (Goossen) that the best was yet to come.”

“One of my greatest moments was giving Mr. Surkein and his wife a brand new Mercedes car that he did not even want, all he wanted me to do was to be happy and successful,” Michael recalls nostalgically. “I’m glad that I was able to put a smile on his face. He had so much trust in me and my skills. That made his day when I knocked Frank Tate out to win the belt. He was a good friend of Frank Tate as well, he knew Frank was a classy man also. He told ‘Sugar’ Ray and Tommy (Hearns) that they did not want to see me in the ring. He used to tell Mr. Arum to stop talking and make the fight, we will be there. Bob was never a big talker but when he spoke his word was bond.”

“He’s got all the talent in the world, we know that,” conceded Gil Clancy while filling airtime before Hearns/Kinchen could get underway. “He’s fast, he’s a southpaw, he can punch, he’s strong physically.” The hard-boiled trainer went on to mention with more than passing interest that ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard was emerging from his latest self-imposed hiatus to take on Donny Lalonde in a mere three days’ time. Wouldn’t it be something, Clancy mused, to pair off Leonard and Nunn? Would it ever.

Returning to the “styles make fights” maxim, you would be hard-pressed to conjure up two fighters with such striking similarities in terms of both physicality and personality. Unfortunately, that dream match would remain exactly that, “only a dream” in the words of Neil Young. “Just a memory without anywhere to stay.” But there will always be the night that Nunn, who would be recognized for The Ring magazine’s Progress of the Year and as KO magazine’s Fighter of the Year in 1988, got to send the distinguished Juan Roldan back to Argentina empty-handed and into permanent retirement.

“Thanks to all the fans at the Las Vegas Hilton and the folks at the hotel for giving me the chance to fight there. I wanted to look like a million bucks and with the will of god he gave me the power and endurance to go out there and get the job done,” Michael emphasized in a recent email. “It was a great win for me and the team, plus after that bout Mr. Arum raised our pay so it was a great moment for me, the family and the team and all the fans. We got the world’s attention and it was big for me.”