It’s mid-morning, sunny and cool. Only the sounds of birds are heard in the pines and oaks along the narrow road.
The lone runner glides swiftly over the road, past the houses. He’s a tall, lean athlete whose stride is so soft, his feet barely make a sound when they hit the ground. His stance is upright, head motionless as he stares straight ahead.
Two cars follow him on his four-mile run, the drivers holding their speedometers between 7 and 8 m.p.h.
Surely, this must be a long distance runner, preparing for a race.
No. He’s a fighter, not a runner. And the clock is ticking.
Soon, he will be in the fight of his life.
“First Fighter Squadron” is what the sign over the gate says at the entrance to Joe Sayatovich’s ranch in the mountains of eastern San Diego County. It’s a 30-minute drive from Pine Valley, and is about five miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.
Sayatovich is the reason Michael Nunn’s training camp is in Pine Valley. Nunn is preparing for his middleweight championship bout Saturday night against Sumbu Kalambay at the Las Vegas Hilton.
“I wound up sitting next to Sayatovich at the Hagler-Leonard fight, at about the time when we needed to find a training camp site for Nunn,” said Dan Goossen, Nunn’s manager.
“He told me he’d converted a barn into a gym, that he worked with a group of boxers, that we were welcome to use it. The facility is fine, but since Michael is very happy staying in Pine Valley before his fights, we’re now looking at the possibility of building a gym in Pine Valley, and doing away with the drive to Joe’s ranch.”
Nunn will have sparred about 200 rounds for Kalambay. On this day, he went eight.
On the old barn’s second floor, while rock music blared, Joe Goossen, Dan’s brother and Nunn’s trainer, helped Nunn through a regimen of stretching exercises, then put the gloves on his fighter.
Dan Goossen pulled a chair next to the ring and pointed to the sparring partner.
“That’s Israel Cole,” he said. “He’s a hell of a sparring partner. He’ll fight like hell for two rounds, then Mike will take over.”
He was right. The $500-a-week sparring partner came out aggressively for the first round, banging away. The champion’s feints and feet kept him away from most of the punches, but a few caught him on the body and head.
The second round was the same. Cole swung away furiously. Nunn peppered away with the jab.
In the third round, Cole began to tire. The punches were a bit slower, a bit later, and Nunn short-stepped inside with hard counter blows. In the fourth, Nunn was leading with scoring punches.
In the fifth, Nunn was in control. He landed a punch in the vicinity of the belt line and Cole shouted: “That’s low, man!”
Responded Nunn: “That was not low.”
With 30 seconds left in Cole’s final round, the fifth, he shouted: “C’mon, man, beat me up!”
Shouted Dan Goossen: “OK, we’ll give you another round.”
At that, the small group of spectators burst out laughing. The last thing Cole wanted was another round against Michael Nunn.
The buzzer ended the round. Cole leaned on the top rope, exhausted, while someone removed his headgear.
Cole looked down at Dan Goossen and said: “That’s a champion, man--and that’s no . . . . If I ever fight him for real, I’m bringing a gun.”
Nunn, after five hard rounds, was sweating freely but seemed fresh. After a one-minute break, Lloyd Weaver, one of heavyweight Mike Weaver’s brothers, entered the ring. Nunn upsets some purists by often holding his hands too low. No one ever seems to hit him, but the book says the hands should be high, protecting the head.
“If it was any other athlete, you’d change him,” Dan Goossen said. “But not Michael. He’s so gifted . . . “
For three more fast-paced rounds, against a fresh, aggressive sparring partner, Nunn showed no trace of fatigue. His combinations were frequent, sharp, accurate and telling.
At the buzzer ending Weaver’s third round, the boxers seated on the floor applauded. It was an impressive display of physical condition, and Nunn acknowledged the applause with a smile and a nod.
A champion seemed ready.
“Michael’s worked much harder and longer for this fight than he has for any other,” Dan Goossen said.
“For the Tate fight, Joe held him back in the final weeks. He was sharp very early for that one. But this fight is coming after Michael’s longest layoff yet.”
Dan Goossen was bragging. He was talking about million-dollar fighters. It’s a short list, one that Nunn has recently joined. He’ll earn slightly more than $1 million for the Kalambay fight.
“When you think about it, and when you consider the marquee fighters who’ve ducked Michael, it’s really surprising how quickly he’s come this far,” Goossen said.
“Less than five years ago, Michael was earning $1,500 per fight.”
Goossen sat in the lobby of the Pine Valley Lodge, Nunn’s training camp headquarters.
Goossen bragged about the managing job he has done with Nunn, and half-seriously beefed about not being named manager of the year by the boxing publication that recently named Nunn as fighter of the year and Joe Goossen as trainer of the year.
Nunn has come far quickly. And he has been expertly managed.
For example, Goossen insisted that Nunn’s contract with Bob Arum for the Kalambay fight have a “strip clause.”
“We wanted protection against the possibility that Kalambay would climb through the ropes without the (World Boxing Assn.) title,” Goossen said.
“That’s exactly what happened, and Michael will be compensated for it.”
Nunn-Kalambay was to have been for both the International Boxing Federation and WBA championships. Recently, though, the WBA stripped Kalambay of his title, claiming Kalambay was avoiding a mandatory defense to fight Nunn.
Nunn was largely unknown in 1984, after failing to beat Virgil Hill and make the U.S. Olympic team that year.
Joe Goossen attended the 1984 U.S. Olympic trials on a scouting mission and liked Nunn more than anyone he saw there.
Later that year, Nunn moved from Davenport, Iowa, to North Hollywood and turned professional, under the Ten Goose Boxing banner.
The Goossens’ standard line on Nunn’s beginnings: “Other people signed gold medalists; we signed the gold nugget.”
In the beginning, boxing folks sneered.
At first, Nunn’s quickness, hand-speed and considerable talent went unappreciated by most. Even though he is a demonstrably big hitter, Nunn is not one to wade into someone and exchange head blows.
In a style similar to the young Muhammad Ali, Nunn employs a long, thumping jab, quick feet, counter punches . . . and finally overwhelms opponents, not necessarily with the concussion of his blows, but with the abundance of his athletic gifts.
So far, it has worked. He’s 32-0.
Skeptics were rendered silent when Nunn won the IBF middleweight title by stopping favored Frank Tate, and then, in his only defense, by stopping Juan Roldan.
And so for the fighter, as well as for the Goossens, it has been a dizzying trip to million-dollar paydays. Team Nunn has graduated from small paydays at the Goossen’s Country Club boxing shows in Reseda to serious talk of huge paydays in outdoor stadiums against the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran.
Said Dan Goossen: “I’m not kidding myself at this stage; I know Duran and Leonard can make more money fighting each other than either could by fighting Michael.
“But by next year, when no more legends are left standing, Michael will be the new legend.”
Leonard, it turns out, is one of Nunn’s biggest boosters.
“Nunn is a class act,” he has said. “Boxing needs more Michael Nunns.” Said Nunn: “I consider him a friend now, but that will change if we ever fight. He said to me at the Forum one night: ‘You hang onto that title, because we’ll get together.’ ”
Nunn’s paydays, if he continues to win, will escalate. A recently signed HBO/Top Rank three-bout contract guarantees him another million-dollar bout after Kalambay, although no opponent has been selected.
According to the Michael Nunn school of boxing, conditioning is everything; the beginning, the middle and the end.
When asked if he has studied video tape of Kalambay (46-3), Nunn shook his head.
“I watched him a little, but I don’t study anyone I’m going to fight--I’m more interested in studying me,” he said.
“I get myself in the best possible condition I can, fight my fight, and the results take care of themselves. From what I’ve seen, Kalambay’s a good counter-puncher. But I’ve got a big reach advantage over him, so that hurts him.
“I’ve got size, speed and youth on him, too. But he’s a good fighter, and he’ll bring out the best in me. He looks like a classy boxer, but I have longer arms and he sets up straight, in front of you. And I’m a moving target.”
The best part of the preparation, he said, is the running.
“I’m a natural runner, so I enjoy it,” he said. “It’s very pleasant, early in the mornings, when there’re no cars on the road.
“One time when I was growing up in Davenport, I visited Augustana College (in Sioux Falls, S.D.,) and raced against the 440 guys on the track team. I beat them all.”
It may be that Nunn’s smooth, running stride enables him to achieve a higher level of conditioning than is possible by less-athletic boxers, for whom roadwork can seem like punishment instead of conditioning.
Nunn sees the middleweight division as more competitive than the heavyweight division.
“I’ve got a lot of tough opponents out there, guys I know who can challenge me,” he said.
“Mike Tyson has no one. Eventually, that will hurt him.”
And unlike other champions, Nunn, 25, shows signs of having a healthy, Scrooge-like grasp of his money.
--Tyson recently pulled into a Southland dealership and bought a $205,000 Ferrari.
--Nunn drives a new Mercedes-Benz, but he obtained it through a unique financing procedure. Arum, of all people, paid for it. It was a reward for being named fighter of the year by KO magazine. Goossen “suggested” to Arum that a Mercedes would be a suitable bonus.
“Michael’s a dream to work with,” Goossen said.
“He lives well within his means. He lives in a condo he owns in Van Nuys and he’s not a big spender. With part of his Kalambay purse, he’s going to buy his mother a house in Davenport.
“By late 1990, Michael will be able to live comfortably off interest on the money he already has.”
To Nunn, that’s the 10% solution.
“Ten percent--that’s the name of the game,” he said, “Getting enough in the bank so you’re spending only what the bank is paying you.”