Closet Classic - Mike McCallum vs. Milton McCrory
By Lee Groves from Max Boxing
It was the spring of 1984 and Emanuel Steward had a decision to make. Two of his best fighters were in line for a bout with WBA junior middleweight champion Roberto Duran and each had a legitimate reason to fight him. His verdict would forever change the course of each man’s career, and the situation he faced was a most unenviable one.
On the one glove was Thomas Hearns, the WBC super welterweight champion who at age 25 was at the absolute peak of his physical powers. "The Hit Man" (38-1, 32 KO) had won his last six fights since his lone loss, a 14th round TKO to Sugar Ray Leonard for the undisputed welterweight title, and he was fresh off a decision victory over Luigi Minchillo on February 11. It was the second successful defense of the 154-pound belt he won from Wilfred Benitez in December 1982 and he was itching for another big-money encounter. His freakishly tall 6-2 frame and 78-inch wingspan generated frightening power, the kind of power that keeps turnstiles turning and massive amounts of money flowing into the till. A title unification showdown with Duran would be a surefire winner at the box office because the bout would Hearns’ iron fists against the fiery Duran’s iron chin. From both an economic and athletic standpoint, Hearns-Duran made sense.
On the other glove was 27-year-old Mike McCallum, a 1976 Olympian from Jamaica who built a 21-0 (19 KO) record on body punching so savage that Hearns dubbed him "The Bodysnatcher" following a sparring session. Though his resume of opponents weren’t as star-studded as Hearns’ were, McCallum bowled over every foe set before him. His most notable victims were against 118-fight veteran Jimmy Heair (KO 2) and former WBA champ Ayub Kalule (KO 7). The Kalule bout vaulted McCallum into the world rankings and four additional victories over Tony Suero (KO 3), Jose Vallejo (KO 5), Manuel Jiminez (W 10) and Hasim Razzaq (KO 1) placed him as the mandatory challenger for Duran’s title. Duran had not fought since winning the belt from Davey Moore the previous June and if the Panamanian wanted to keep his belt he had to fight McCallum – and soon. McCallum was ready and willing as the Razzaq fight had taken place on March 10, so the timeline was perfectly situated for McCallum to engage in a summer title shot against an aging and inactive icon. A victory, especially by knockout, over a living legend would serve as the ideal launching pad for the next phase of McCallum’s career.
Those were the circumstances set before Steward, and in the end he chose to pursue the financial sure thing in Hearns-Duran instead of the speculative but calculated gamble that Duran-McCallum would have been. An incensed McCallum immediately severed ties with Steward and signed with Duva Boxing. Because the WBA stripped Duran for fighting Hearns instead of fulfilling his mandatory defense, McCallum was matched with number-two contender Sean Mannion for the vacant title on October 19, 1984 at Madison Square Garden on the undercard of Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s rematch with Mustafa Hamsho. McCallum thoroughly out-classed the Irish southpaw en route to a lopsided 15 round decision but his performance did nothing to increase his potential star power. Meanwhile, Hearns spectacularly stopped Duran in the second round with a right cross that still ranks among the hardest single punches ever thrown in the history of the sport. That performance heralded the return of "The Hit Man" and served as an immaculate prelude to a mega-match with Hagler for the undisputed middleweight championship.
While Hearns continued on his gold-plated road toward potential immortality, McCallum continued to seethe about his lack of mainstream recognition as he knocked off challenger after challenger. McCallum topped Hearns by stopping Minchillo in the 13th round and he gained a small measure of revenge when he knocked out Kronk’s David Braxton in eight rounds eight months later. That victory wasn’t enough to completely salve the hard feelings against Steward because Braxton wasn’t seen as one of the Kronkmaster’s top-shelf stars. To get full satisfaction, he needed to blast out one of his big guns, and after defenses against Julian Jackson (KO 2) and Said Skouma (KO 9), McCallum got his chance when he signed to defend against Milton McCrory on April 19, 1987 at the Pointe Resort in Phoenix, Arizona.
McCrory (31-1-1, 23 KO) was a former WBA welterweight champion in the midst of a mini-comeback after he was brutally stopped in two rounds by WBC counterpart Donald Curry on December 6, 1985. "The Ice Man" added weight to his 6-1 frame and won decisions from Keith Adams, Doug DeWitt and Jorge Amparo before stopping Rafael Corona in the first round six weeks before fighting McCallum. Likewise, McCallum (30-0, 27 KO) had tuned up for McCrory with his own first round KO over Leroy Hester in Kingston, Jamaica four weeks previously. The two fighters knew each other well as they had sparred several times at Kronk. However, both knew that there is a big difference between two teammates helping each other to get ready for fights and a fight between a champion hungry for recognition and revenge and a challenger eager to regain his lofty status in the sport’s hierarchy.
Both fighters began the bout working their lefts from long range, but the straight-up McCrory was the first to build upon his jab by landing a long right and a solid hook to the jaw. At this point, McCrory began backing McCallum up and a second hook made him retreat even further. McCallum slipped under a right and drove a hook to the side, but it was McCrory who dictated the pace and seized the initiative more often. A chopping right to the ear made McCallum’s legs wiggle briefly and a right-left-right-left forced McCallum backward. The challenger took full advantage of McCallum’s tendency to start slowly, and while the champion managed to land singular body shots with both hands from time to time, McCrory couldn’t have imagined a better start to his title challenge as he returned to his corner after the first three minutes.
McCallum’s co-trainer George Benton also realized this, and he sought to give his charge a strategic kick-start.
"You’ve got to go forward with this guy," he said. "You’ve got to push him back with the jab. Jab at his chest, jab at his belly, jab at his head. Don’t back away from this man; put pressure on him and make him back up."
McCallum, ever the good student, heeded Benton’s advice as he stood his ground and sought to go punch for punch with McCrory. A pair of hooks sent the challenger stumbling off-balance across the ring before he awkwardly reached out for McCallum’s shoulders. As McCallum advanced assertively behind hard jabs and hooks to the stomach, McCrory’s punches looped instead of snapped toward the target.
Midway through the round McCrory tried to turn the tables by charging in behind windmilling blows, and though he won that exchange McCallum connected with two solid hooks that highlighted his superior infighting ability. A third hook landed moments later as McCrory flailed away with punches that had volume but little real power, but McCallum failed to consolidate his advantage by letting off the gas – a tactic for which he was heavily criticized against Mannion.
McCrory returned to jabbing busily in the third, but many of those jabs either fell short or fell victim to McCallum’s excellent head movement. Conversely, McCallum’s jabs were more powerful, precise and diversified. The evidence for that assessment was seen when McCrory pulled away from a successful exchange with a bloody nose, a nose that Steward later said was broken a week-and-a-half earlier. Though McCallum connected with a stiff counter right and a solid hook to the ribs in the final 30 seconds, the slower pace and the flow of the fight appeared to favor McCrory.
The bout may have lacked wildly dramatic ebbs and flows but it didn’t lack for action as the pair engaged in an intense, well executed boxing match. Both fighters were operating from specific but divergent blueprints as McCrory sought to pile up points behind his long left while McCallum worked his punches up and down in the hopes of preparing his challenger for a late-round stoppage.
The fight took place within a tent with no air conditioning, and the combination of television lights and the body heat from the thousands of fans within sent the temperatures soaring toward 100 degrees. By the fourth round, McCrory and McCallum was bathed in perspiration as they continued to probe for openings.
A long right-left from McCrory snapped McCallum’s head midway through the fourth, and he furthered his advantage with a right to the body, a left hook to the jaw and a stinging right-left-left-right to the head. The salvo sparked McCallum into action with a right-left to the ribs, but at this point McCrory’s hand speed and combination punching kept the champion on the retreat.
McCallum might have been losing the round, but he never lost his composure or his patience. Despite having scored plenty of early round knockouts, McCallum’s style had always been predicated on long-term principles and he was willing to wait for the dividends to manifest themselves. When McCrory threw combinations, McCallum made sure to sink a body shot or two into whatever holes McCrory exposed. In the midst of McCrory’s best rally of the fight, McCallum knew his punching were inflicting damage and all the proof he needed could be seen on McCrory’s face. More blood flowed from the challenger’s nose, which caused him to paw at it with his gloves while breathing through a wide-open mouth. McCrory was never able to adopt a stone-faced expression when he was in a difficult situation. In fact, ABC blow-by-blow man Jim Lampley said that McCrory sometimes had the look of "a frightened deer" when under pressure and now he was the very picture of duress as he dealt with his various injuries. McCallum may have been behind on points, but he was comforted by the fact that he had 11 more rounds to extract his pound of flesh.
Benton thought along those same lines between the fourth and fifth rounds as he instructed McCallum to slowly turn up the heat – and to do so while under control.
"Let me see you throw that straight right hard to the body," he said. "The body shots are killing him. Punch with authority; don’t let your punches get sloppy and don’t let yourself get sloppy. Get yourself together."
Benton’s words didn’t take immediate effect as McCallum’s first punch was a winging hook to the body that missed badly while McCrory continued to move in both directions and throw tightly delivered blows with specific intent. At one point McCrory landed a long right to the face, then pivoted neatly to his right as McCallum dove in after him. The move made McCallum lightly bang his gloves together in frustration. McCallum ripped a hook to the body that brought a warning from Cortez, but in the next motion he blasted a hard jab off McCrory’s broken nose. McCallum then ducked under a right and delivered a short counter right to the face that made McCrory briefly stumble. McCrory’s nose leaked even more blood and the crimson began to smear all over his face as a hook forced him to backpedal.
The fight – which had been McCrory’s up to this point – began to take a noticeable turn toward the champion, and confirmation came with 24 seconds remaining when he landed a good straight right, a right uppercut and a crunching hook during an exchange that saw McCrory miss wildly. A long straight right clanged off McCrory’s face and McCallum capped off a solid final minute by winning an exchange of hooks.
McCallum continued to roll in the sixth as a heavy counter hook to the jaw brought oohs from the crowd and two more lefts connected to the head and body. McCallum ripped a jab to the body and two more to the head of the retreating McCrory. It was now McCallum who began and ended the exchanges, using his educated left to slowly dissect his quarry. McCallum smartly blended in occasional rights and right-lefts to the belly throughout the session and the champion capped off his best round yet when, with 10 seconds remaining, he landed two rights and a left to the body followed by a torrid hook as the bell sounded.
When McCrory dominated early, McCallum offered plenty of softer, inaccurate and such was the case now that the roles had been reversed. McCrory fired at McCallum at every opportunity, but he didn’t have the firepower to keep the champion at a safe distance. A thumping right-left late in the seventh reverberated throughout the arena and a second right-left to the ribs coupled by a right-left uppercut to the jaw closed out another solid round for the champion.
McCrory tried to stem the tide early in the eighth with a stiff right to the face, but his follow-ups couldn’t deter McCallum’s inexorable advance. A right to the body followed by an overhand right to the jaw and a winging hook staggered McCrory and yet another overhand right nailed the challenger as he slid along the ropes. McCrory was in deep trouble for the first time in the contest and McCallum commenced what he hoped was a final definitive assault. His shoulders snapped violently as he unleashed a left uppercut to the head and a follow-up right-left-right. Three consecutive left uppercuts lifted McCrory’s head, teeing it up for a tremendous overhand right-left hook combo.
McCrory bravely attempted to fight back because that was his only viable option. The champion’s thudding body shots had robbed his legs of their spring, and all McCrory had left at his command were survival instincts fueled by a fierce fighting heart. One couldn’t help but admire McCrory’s courage as he continually drove himself forward in the face of McCallum’s strafing attack. A right to the ear, a left uppercut to the jaw and a right-left to the face caused a stricken McCrory to stumble forward into McCallum as the round ended. The eighth was a rousing session that moved ringside analyst Alex Wallau to call it "one of the great rounds we’ve seen this year."
Between rounds referee Joe Cortez summoned the ringside physician to examine McCrory, who not only had a broken nose but now also had a nick above the left eye and a partially closed right eye. Cut man Ralph Citro applied Avitene, a medication used in open heart surgery, to close the cut but it only provided a few seconds of relief as McCallum knocked it off with his first landed punch of the ninth round. The blood above the left eye flowed heavily and it forced McCrory to squint and bat at it with his glove. It was difficult enough for someone to fend off a skilled fighter like McCallum when completely healthy, but to do so when so badly injured was an untenable situation. Still, McCrory soldiered on as McCallum peppered away with short punches, and a piece of tape hanging from the challenger’s glove prompted a time out.
Steward sagely wiped away the blood with a towel before working on the glove, causing Lou Duva, a man who has pulled off similar stunts to save his fighters over the years, to howl in protest. That sleight of hand aside, the fight started to take on an air of inevitability as McCallum stalked his man with assuredness and confidence, all the while driving lefts and rights to the pit of the stomach to further weaken his challenger. There was no quit in McCrory as he continued to trade shot for shot despite having every reason to feel discouraged and put upon, and only the bell interrupted his seemingly quixotic quest to reverse his fortunes.
The moment McCrory plopped on his stool, Citro administered to the challenger’s injuries while Steward tended to the spiritual ones.
"You’re ahead on points, you just got to move your legs," Steward implored. Then he drew upon past experience to amplify his point.
"(Like the fight with) Roger Stafford, move in and out with your legs," he said, referring to a fight when McCrory boxed his way to a decision victory after breaking his hand in the eighth round. "That’s what we’re talking about – leg boxing – not just standing in one spot."
"I’m trying," McCrory said. "I’m trying my best."
Indeed he was, but it wouldn’t be enough. McCrory’s spirit was willing but his flesh was weak as he started the 10th poking out a series of weak jabs. A jab to the body was enough to send McCrory to the ropes but the champion was taking his time as he allowed McCrory to escape and slowly circle away. A thumping right-left to the body was followed by a head-snapping jab that made McCrory totter back. A hook to the body moments later made the sound of a hammer on a hollow melon and it was evident that McCallum was biding his time, waiting for the perfect moment to launch his final assault.
With 1:20 to go, it began. An overhand right drove McCrory to the ropes, triggering a vicious assault that ended with McCrory crumbling to the canvas. Though McCrory regained his feet immediately, it only took Cortez one look at the challenger’s badly battered face to convince him to stop the contest at 2:20 of round 10.
As Cortez cradled McCrory’s head, an exultant McCallum tended to a final piece of personal business. ABC’s cameras didn’t capture the event, but the announce team offered a vivid description.
"When the referee stopped the fight, Mike McCallum ran right over to Emanuel Steward and told him he had his revenge," Wallau said, referring to a shouted exclamation from the champion caught by the ringside microphone a few seconds earlier.
"(He) got right up in Steward’s face," Lampley added. "It was a remarkable scene as McCallum wins a victory that he very, very badly wanted."
"The first couple of rounds, I wasn’t getting off at all," McCallum told Wallau. "He was pasting me with that jab real good and throwing right hands that hit me a couple of times. But I was real cold; I couldn’t get off. In the middle part I started getting myself together. Lou and George were telling me to stay right there, don’t move, come back up, go to the body. Every time I hit him to the body he’d slow down or he’d flinch. It was beautiful."
A few minutes after the initial confrontation, McCallum and Steward spoke again, this time more amiably, but his post-fight comments indicated the bitter feelings had no subsided in the least.
When asked what he said to Steward immediately after the fight, he replied, "I said I am the champion of the world. Still the champ. I know he don’t like that because it’s very personal. He don’t like losers and my revenge to Emanuel Steward is just keep winning. It’s two defeats against the Kronk stable (Braxton and McCrory) and I’m still going strong."
McCallum stressed that he held no animosity for McCrory or with any of the fighters at Kronk, only against Steward. And when Wallau was asked about fighting Hearns to complete the triple play, McCallum was more than happy with that scenario. But before that fight could take place there was one significant roadblock to navigate: Donald Curry.
Epilogue: Three months after beating McCrory, McCallum pulverized the Curry roadblock with an electrifying hook to the jaw that left the former undisputed welterweight champion on his back for the 10 count. The victory dramatically lifted McCallum’s profile in world boxing, but it was never compelling enough to draw Hearns into the ring. Soon after he defeated Curry, he vacated the WBA junior middleweight title to fight Sumbu Kalambay for the vacant WBA middleweight strap in March 1988. McCallum lost a close but unanimous decision but four fights later he secured a second crack at the WBA belt after Kalambay was stripped of it for fighting IBF king Michael Nunn. This time McCallum won by split decision over the much-avoided Herol Graham in May 1989.
McCallum defended the belt three times against Steve Collins (W 12), Michael Watson (KO 11) and Kalambay (W 12) while sprinkling non-title victories over Frank Minton (KO 4), Carlos Cruzat (W 10) and Nicky Walker (KO 5) to set up a supposed unification fight with IBF king James Toney. But McCallum was stripped of the WBA belt for accepting the bout with Toney and the 12-round draw left him title-less.
McCallum found new life in the light heavyweight division, and after three wins over Ramzi Hassan (W 10), Glenn Thomas (W 10) and Randall Yonker (KO 5), McCallum captured his third divisional title by beating WBC champion Jeff Harding (W 12) on July 23, 1994. He made one defense against Carl Jones (KO 7) before losing the belt in an upset to Fabrice Tiozzo (L 12). McCallum never again fought for a major world title and his 10-round win over Ali Saidi would be his last. After losing to Roy Jones in November 1996, the 40-year-old McCallum engaged in his final contest, a 12-round decision loss to Toney on February 22, 1997 at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn. His final record stands at 49-5-1 (36 KO) and he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003.
For McCrory, the McCallum fight represented his last opportunity to capture a world title. Six months after the loss, "The Ice Man" beat Herman Cavesuela to win the NABF middleweight title, a belt he never defended. After stopping Jerome Kelley in two rounds one month after beating Cavesuela, McCrory lost back-to-back fights to Lupe Aquino (L 12) and Joaquin Velazquez (KO by 7) that prompted a nearly two-year retirement. The 28-year-old McCrory launched a two-fight comeback that saw him beat Mike Sacchetti (W 10) and Robert Curry (KO 1). The Curry fight, which took place on April 6, 1991 at Honolulu’s Aloha Stadium, took place on the undercard of Hearns’ three-round TKO of Ken Atkin and proved to be McCrory’s final bout. He retired with a record of 35-4-1 (25 KO).