Throughout his professional career, he has had to fight the charge that he is a slapper rather than a slugger, a matador rather than a raging bull, more Gene Kelly than Gene Tunney.
Friday night at the Las Vegas Hilton, Michael Nunn finally put those charges to rest, along with Juan Domingo Roldan. Nunn knocked out the Argentine 2:28 into the eighth round of a scheduled 12-round fight to retain his International Boxing Federation middleweight title.
Nunn faced a man who had knocked down Marvelous Marvin Hagler, had nearly done the same to Thomas Hearns and had amassed a 67-3-2 record with 45 knockouts in his 11-year career, a career Roldan said was over Friday night.
So what did Nunn do--dance, jab and stay out of reach until Roldan had punched himself out?
That was the plan of Nunn’s camp. The North Hollywood fighter, however, made other plans.
He floated like a butterfly for the first minute of the fight, then put Roldan down with a left-right combination.
When Roldan got up, he found himself facing a fighter who was now stinging like a bee.
“After I knocked him down,” Nunn said, “I figured I could take it to him. I wasn’t going to run like he thought I would. He said I was going to run like a sissy or a girl. I wanted to show him I was just as much man or more man than he was.”
So Nunn stopped the music and starting fighting inside.
The new strategy didn’t work at first. Nunn seemed to have trouble finding his rhythm.
“A lot of people think Juan Roldan is easy to hit,” Nunn said. “He’s very awkward. He punches from all angles. He moves his head pretty good.”
But not good enough. Soon Nunn’s superior speed kicked in, and the fight became no contest. Some oddsmakers had Nunn a 9-1 favorite, and that also would seem to be the spread in punches landed between the two men. Roldan kept throwing punches where Nunn no longer was. Nunn kept throwing punches where Roldan wished he wasn’t.
Time and again, Nunn would avoid Roldan’s roundhouse punches with a fancy move of the head, like a young Muhammad Ali.
A couple of times, Nunn played rope-a-dope without the rope. He would stand in the middle of the ring, cover up and let Roldan tee off on him for 30 seconds, then open up with his whole arsenal of punches. Roldan never seemed to know what to expect.
“It’s getting to the point where he does this all day in the gym,” said Nunn’s trainer, Joe Goossen. “He was confident.
“At one point, he turned to me from the middle of the ring and said, ‘Don’t worry, Joe, I’ll turn it on in a few seconds.’ He was in control the whole time. He didn’t have to run from this guy.”
The judges agreed. Two of them, Robert Cox and Dalby Shirley, gave Roldan only one round. The third judge, Paul Smith, gave him two.
Curiously, it was in the final round that Roldan seemed to finally catch up to the slippery figure in front of him. Roldan landed three solid right hands and opened up a cut over Nunn’s left eye.
However, it proved to be Roldan’s one brief, shining moment.
Nunn responded with another barrage that ended with a short, powerful uppercut. Roldan went down, got up as far as his knees but never made it back to his feet before the count ended.
“I wake up on the count of 8,” said Roldan through an interpreter. “This was my last fight. I retire tonight. I try three times (for a world title). That’s what happens. This is it. I return to Argentina happy with my life.”
The last time Roldan said that, after the Hearns fight, he returned home only to find 10,000 people waiting to greet him. They didn’t want to hear any retirement talk. So Roldan came back.
And if 10,000 are again waiting this time?
“It doesn’t matter,” said Luis Abba, Roldan’s manager. “No more. He doesn’t need the money.”
Roldan pocketed $100,000 for this fight, Nunn $375,000. Each man weighed in at an even 160.
Nunn, of course, will not be retiring. He would like to unify the middleweight title. Beyond that, he talks of fighting Sugar Ray Leonard. A lot depends on how Leonard’s fight against Donny Lalonde Monday night turns out.
According to promoter Bob Arum, Nunn will fight in mid-February against a lesser-known opponent, than perhaps come back in late spring against Sumbu Kalambay, the World Boxing Assn. middleweight champion.
Nunn improved to 32-0, with 22 knockouts. In July, he knocked out Frank Tate to win the IBF title. Now this.
But still he hears the criticism. Friday night, Abba referred to Nunn as “a dancing man only. He is no fighter.”
Replied Dan Goossen, Nunn’s manager: “The dancing man knocked out out the brawler. It’s supposed to go the other way.”
Nunn just shrugged off the remark.
“I don’t figure they are going to recognize me as a great fighter until my career is over,” he said.
And with that, he was off to party, to show that he could still dance with the best of them. Gene Tunney was about to turn back into Gene Kelly.