Mike McCallum: The Body Snatcher
By Lea Worrall
One of the most complete ring technicians of the modern era, Mike McCallum first came to prominence in the 1978 Commonwealth Games, held in his home country, picking up the gold medal in the welterweight division.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica on 7th December 1956, he left his native country to turn professional in the United States as a light-middleweight in January 1981. He stopped the American Rigoberto Lopez in the fourth round, going 12-0 before fighting in his home country in his thirteenth contest against Gilberto Almonte.
Unfortunately for the Kingston crowd they only got to see 66 seconds of their man in action, issuing a sixth straight and final stoppage defeat on the Dominican’s ledger. It would be Kevin Perry who stopped McCallum’s stoppage spree, lasting the full ten rounds in front of the Madison Square Garden crowd in the Jamaican’s fifteenth pro outing in June 1982.
Two fights later he faced the biggest name of his career to date in the guise of ex WBA light-middleweight champion Ayub Kalule. The Ugandan, who set up home in Copenhagen, Denmark, also got off to a great start in the paid ranks. Within three-and-a-half-years he became world champion, dethroning and sending defending WBA champion Masashi Kudo into retirement. The champion made four successful defences, before losing his title and unbeaten record to Sugar Ray Leoanrd in June 1981.
He won his next four contests and challenged Davey Moore in an attempt to regain his old title. Though the defending champion was vastly less experienced than Kalule, he still had enough ring savvy to stop the Ugandan in the tenth round in July 1982.
Four months later he faced McCallum, in only his fifth outing outside his native Denmark. A right uppercut from the Jamaican put Kalule down in the first round. After seven completed rounds the fight was stopped with the Ugandan on his stool, dropping to 40-3 (19 early), whilst McCallum improved to 17-0 (16 KO’s).
McCallum continued to win and due to his fearsome body attacks was starting to become known as the ‘Body Snatcher’. By 1984 he became number one contender to WBA light-middleweight champion Roberto Duran. However, the Panamanian wanted a big contest after extending Marvin Hagler the full fifteen rounds for the undisputed middleweight title in November 1983, and elected to face WBC counterpart Thomas Hearns instead.
The World Boxing Association decided to strip Duran of their title and scheduled McCallum and Irishman Sean Mannion to face each other for their vacant belt on the undercard to Marvin Hagler versus Mustafa Hamsho on 19th October 1984. Although Mannion had a solid record of 29-5-1 (10 KO’s), he wasn’t in McCallum’s class, who pocketed the vacant belt by scores of 150-134, 149-136 and 149-133. It was the first time two women judges had scored a world title fight and McCallum became the first ever Jamaican world boxing champion. The victory was a bittersweet experience for McCallum, as in the build up he un-expectantly lost his wife, Yvonne, of fifteen years, after an unknown illness, leaving him to look after his young daughter singlehandedly.
On 1st December 1984 McCallum made the first defence against the tough Italian Luigi Minchillo. The Italian had only lost three and managed to take Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns the distance, without getting knocked off his feet. Again, the champion showed his class and the challenger’s corner pulled their man out after thirteen rounds, with McCallum leading by scores of 130-116, 130-118 and 129-119.
McCallum next defended his belt in July 1985, stopping David Braxton on cuts in the eighth round. With a non-title fight in May 1986, he next defended his championship against the hard hitting Julian Jackson. The U.S. Virgin Islander started his pro career in February 1981 and amassed a ledger of 29-0 with a staggering twenty-seven stoppages, with only Curtis Ramsey extending him into the twelfth round in August 1984, before succumbing to Jackson’s power.
The challenger took the first round on two of the judges’ cards and managed to sting McCallum with his power. The champion used all his ring craft to avoid the dangerous opponent, managing to drop Jackson in the second. With the challenger trapped on the ropes from McCallum’s pressure, the referee Eddie Eckert, saved the Virgin Islander from further punishment at the 2:03 mark.
That August he had a non-title fight in Paris, stopping Irving Hines in the fourth round and the following month, staying in the French capital, defended his belt against Said Skouma. The Parisian was stopped in the ninth round as the champion improved to 29-0.
McCallum kicked off his 1987 campaign with an appearance in front of his Jamaican fans. Again, they didn’t get to see much of him as he dispatched Leroy Hester in the opening round. Next up for his WBA title was ex WBC welterweight champion, Milton McCrory.
The challenger boasted an amateur career of 105-15, winning the 1979 World Junior Championships in Japan as a welterweight. He turned pro in September 1980 and blew away his first seventeen opponents before Pete Ranzany took him the ten round distance in April 1982. McCrory carried on winning and in March 1983 he faced Welshman Colin Jones for the vacant WBC welterweight title.
The green strap was left vacant when Sugar Ray Leonard retired due to retinal problems. After twelve rounds the WBC championship remained vacant as both combatants could’t be separated by the judges. The two boxers faced off again five months later and this time McCrory was given a split decision.
In his fifth defence, McCrory put his WBC crown on the line with Don Curry, the WBA and IBF champion on 6th December 1985, to decide the first undisputed welterweight champion since Sugar Ray Leonard. Both champions had unbeaten records and a mouthwatering contest looked to be on the horizon.
However, Curry quickly found his range and momentum, stopping McCrory in the second round. In April 1986 McCrory campaigned as a middleweight, winning three in a row, all points decisions over Keith Adams, Doug DeWitt and Jorge Amparo. In March 1987 he dropped down a division to take the vacant NABF with a first round win over Rafael Corona, before facing McCallum in April 1987.
McCrory looked to make a competitive contest in the first few rounds behind his jab and dangerous right hand. It didn’t take long for the champion to suss out his former Kronk team mate and went to work on breaking the challenger down. The Jamaican piled on the pressure in the eighth and McCrory was fortunate to hear the bell. By the tenth he had nothing left and went down from a barrage of punches. With blood streaming from a cut eye, Joe Cortez waved the finish at the 2:20 mark.
Three months later McCallum shared the ring with another former welterweight world champion, Don Curry. Curry had an amateur resume of 400-4, winning an array of titles including the National Junior Olympics in 1977 and the 1980 World Cup as a welterweight. By the end of the year he started out in the paid ranks, and by February 1983, aged twenty-one, he defeated Jun Suk Hwang for the vacant WBA welterweight crown.
Twelve months later, the newly formed IBF recognised Curry as their champion and was pitted against Marlon Starling for both crowns. The two met previously in 1982, with Curry claiming a split decision. This time however, the champion went one better, winning by a unanimous decision.
The defences came thick and fast and by December 1985 he became undisputed welterweight champion with a two round destruction job of WBC counterpart Milton McCrory. Curry was being touted as the only credible opponent for middleweight king Marvin Hagler. However, that fight never materialised compliments of Britain’s Lloyd Honeyghan, who dethroned the weight-drained champion in six rounds on 27th September 1986.
Curry debuted as a light-middleweight in February 1987, winning two bouts by disqualification, both in the fifth round against Tony Montgomery and Carlos Santos, two months later. Curry then faced McCallum on 18th July 1987. The champion, notoriously a slow starter, planned to jump on Curry from the very first round. “I’ve studied him. He has a great right hand and a good hook. Let’s see if he can handle the pressure and my body shots.”
The champion started brightly enough, though two of the three judges sided with Curry to take the opener. With 30 seconds remaining of the second a right-hand had McCallum’s legs nearly betraying him and he would later say: “It was a great hook. It was the closest I’ve ever come to being knocked down.”
Though the judges had the challenger winning, it was testament to the champion’s power and accuracy that caused Curry’s left eye to swell as early as the third. The challenger, a two-to-one favourite to become a two-weight champion, was ahead 40-36, 39-38 and 38-37 after four rounds of boxing. Curry started to box on the outside in the fifth. The challenger stepped in with a jab, right hand and another left hook, as McCallum threw an incredulous right to the body. He then dipped and threw one of the most perfect left hooks I’ve ever witnessed to Curry’s unprotected jaw.
The fight was over and McCallum was hoping a win of this magnitude would attract the big names to share the ring with him. The Jamaican got his chance to become a two weight world champion when he challenged WBA middleweight champion Sumbu Kalambay in his next appearance in March 1988.
Kalambay first won the vacant belt with a unanimous fifteen round decision in October 1987. The challenger, who vacated his title to move up a weight was the betting favourite. Alas for the Jamaican, Kalambay showed too much speed and outlasted McCallum on his way to a unanimous decision, inflicting the first defeat in his thirty-three fight career.
McCallum won his next three, travelling to London’s Royal Albert Hall to challenge Herol Graham for the vacant WBA middleweight crown on 10th May 1989. The belt was stripped from Sumbu Kalambay when he elected to face IBF counterpart Michael Nunn, instead of his mandatory challenger Graham.
Graham, fighting out of Sheffield, was a low handed switch-hitter and president of the who needs him club. He started his pro career in November 1978, amassing a 38-0 (21 KO’s) before losing a points decision to Sumbu Kalambay in May 1987, losing his EBU middleweight title in the process.
Before his defeat, Graham had held the British, European and Commonwealth light-middleweight championships between February 1982 and September 1984. He moved up to middleweight, stopping Lindell Holmes in the fifth round that July. The following April he lifted the British middleweight crown and TKO’d Ayub Kalule for the EBU title in February 1986, before losing to Kalambay.
Graham won three in a row to set up his clash with the Jamaican. The contest was shown live on the BBC, without commentary from the usual voice of Harry Carpenter, due to industrial action at the corporation. Steve Rider and Terry Lawless would provide their comments during the rounds intermission.
Graham, a master at not getting hit, found himself in with a formidable technician who was able to figure out his style and catch the British boxer more than anybody else. In the fifth, McCallum slipped on the wet canvas, bringing an eight count from referee Enzo Montero. The three judges didn’t score it a 10-8 round because of the slip. In round eight Graham was deducted a point for turning his opponent illegally, costing him the split decision verdict, with the Jamaican becoming a two-weight champion in this intriguing and enthralling battle of skill.
The unbeaten Dubliner, Steve Collins, was the first man to challenge McCallum for his middleweight belt. At the age of twenty-one, Collins upped sticks to Massachusetts, USA, to ply his trade as a professional alongside one of the very best around, Marvin Hagler.
With the Petronelli brothers in his corner, Collins made his name in America, winning the USBA middleweight title against Kevin Watts in May 1989. His big chance came in February 1990 against the Jamaican in his seventeenth outing as a pro, compared to McCallum’s record of 36-1 (31 KO’s).
The champion used his vast experience, out boxing his challenger for the first five rounds, and causing a cut in the fourth. The hurt and bemused Irishman had to survive the ‘Body Snatcher’s’ ominous onslaught in the fifth.
Collins, whose corner men had done a great job in patching up his cut eye, took the fight to the ageing champion in the middle rounds. With the challenger driving forward, the tiring Jamaican was coming off second best during the slugfest.
McCallum’s pride and champion’s heart kicked in in the tenth, biting down on his mouth piece and firing back. After wobbling the unbeaten challenger, McCallum made sure he stayed on top, winning by a unanimous decision.
On 14th April 1990 at London’s Royal Albert Hall, the defending champion put his WBA strap on the line against local favourite Michael Watson. Hailing from Islington, Michael Watson took his fine amateur pedigree into the paid ranks. With an early career loss to James Cook and a draw on his record, Watson got his shot at the title by stopping the unbeaten and knockout record of Nigel Benn, to lift the Commonwealth middleweight title in May 1989.
Watson was out of action for eleven months due to suffering a broken nose in sparring whilst preparing for McCallum. The layoff didn’t seem to affect him, as he worked behind a solid jab, much to the delight of the London crowd.
However, by the second round, McCallum had already sussed out the Englishman’s style and started to land his notorious body punches. Watson stayed with him and tried to force the action in an attempt to slow the thirty-three-year-old champion down. To the challenger’s surprise, McCallum shifted through the gears and his ring generalship was far too much for him.
The Jamaican picked up the pace in the penultimate round and a long right-hand had the British boxer on his heels. Uppercuts reigned through Watson’s defences who looked to the ropes for sanctuary. As the ropes sprung Watson back towards the advancing champion, McCallum landed a right to keep the challenger on his back for the ten count.
McCallum had a super-middleweight contest in February 1991 before meeting his sole conqueror Sumbu Kalambay. After Kalambay’s victory over the Jamaican in 1988, he successfully defended his belt against Robbie Sims and Doug DeWitt, before getting stripped of his title to fight IBF counterpart Michael Nunn in March 1989.
Nunn showed why he was a five-to-one favourite, taking out Kalambay inside a round. Kalmbay won five on the spin before facing McCallum again on 1st April 1991 in Monaco. Both Gladiators were thirty-four and the challenger had the champion in trouble on a several occasions. The Jamaican rallied and kept hold of his belt with a split decision.
McCallum now looked to unify the middleweight division and planned to face IBF champion Michael Nunn. That fight never happened when a twenty-two-year-old James Toney took the belt from Nunn in the eleventh round in May 1991.
Toney made two defences, before getting in the ring with McCallum on 13th December 1991. The bout was meant to be a unification, but the WBA wanted $30,000 dollars from their champion’s purse and a $35,000 exception fee for allowing him to fight Toney. The McCallum camp were happy to proceed until the governing body demanded they pay $50,000 step aside money to top contender Steve Collins’s manager, Barney Eastwood. When they refused, the World Boxing Association stripped McCallum of their belt ten days before the bout.
Both men produced some great boxing, especially Toney, who was landing his right hand at will. Toney was robbed of a genuine knockdown, when referee Steve Smoger declared a slip. McCallum was nearly out on his feet in the final round and had to rely on his great powers of recovery to last the full distance. The judges couldn’t split the two and the fight was declared a draw.
McCallum had another fight at super-middleweight, whilst Toney defended his crown in against Dave Tiberi in February 1992 and Glenn Wolfe two months later and sneaking in a non-title bout before facing McCallum again that August.
The two put on another masterclass of boxing skills. Toney would keep his chin tucked out of harm’s way and counter with hooks as his older adversary got close. The Jamaican refused to let his age and lack of speed be his downfall as he ripped in some sickening, trademark body blows.
McCallum tired down the stretch and what looked like a close contest as indicated by judge Phil Newman’s 114-114 card was cancelled out by surprisingly wide scores of 117-110 from Tom McDonough and Doug Tucker.
‘The Body Snatcher’ skipped the super-middleweight division altogether, campaigning as a light-heavy, kicking off his new division against Ramzi Hassan in March 1993. That August he was boxing in front of an appreciative and knowledgeable British crowd, who cheered his boxing skills en route to a points verdict over Glenn Thomas.
On 4th March 1994 the Jamaican picked up the Interim WBC light-heavyweight title with a fifth round TKO over Randall Yonker. He then faced the fully fledged champion and granite jawed Jeff Harding in July 1994. Harding, hailing from Sydney, Australia, was eight years younger than the challenger and the naturally bigger man.
The Australian turned pro in November 1986 and by the following September he became the national light-heavyweight champion. In March 1988 he picked up the vacant Australia New South Wales cruiserweight title by outpointing Apollo Sweet.
He kept winning and in June 1989 got his shot at WBC light-heavyweight champion Dennis Andries in Atlantic City. Harding was a massive underdog, even though he was eleven years younger than the thirty-five-year-old champion.
Andries dished out punishment in the early rounds, cutting the Australian in the first. Harding took all the champion had to offer and still piled forward. The champion was forced back in the second half of the contest and going into the final round Andries was ahead on the scorecards. Harding hurt the champion early in the round and managed to floor him. Andries got up and continued, only to taste the canvas again. The proud champion wasn’t through but had to prise himself from the mat for a second time.
Harding unleashed another barrage, forcing Joe Cortez to intervene and relieve Andries of his title. The Australian made two successful defences before giving Andries a rematch in July 1990 in front of his countrymen.
The ageing challenger charged at Harding from the opening bell, pummelling his cast iron jaw. By the fifth, Andries had tired significantly and it looked like a carbon copy of their first contest. Andries came out for the seventh in a last ditch attempt to finish his man. Harding’s defences seemed to be doing their job, until Andries let fly with two long hooks, finishing the hurt title holder to regain his crown and inflict the first defeat on the Australian’s record.
Harding won three on the spin and travelled halfway around the globe to meet Andries for a third time in an attempt to reclaim his green strap. The spectators at the Hammersmith Odeon witnessed a twelve round slugfest, with Harding taking a majority decision 115-113, 115-114 and 114-114.
The champion stayed out of his home country and faced his next two opponents, Fabrice Tiozzo and David Vedder, both in France. He then travelled across the Atlantic to face Mike McCallum at Bismarck’s Civic Center. The Jamaican, at thirty-seven, turned back the clock and won a unanimous decision to become a three-weight world champion, sending Harding into retirement with a 23-2 (17 KO’s) record.
McCallum made the first defence of his championship on the same bill as Nigel Benn’s fateful contest with Gerald McClellan. In the opposite corner was the American Carl Jones. Once again the British crowd cheered the skills on display as the veteran won every round before stopping Jones in the seventh.
The champion then travelled to France to face Fabrice Tiozzo. The Frenchman put the Jamaican down in the second round and managed to outscore McCallum unanimously to become champion at the second time of asking after previously losing a WBA challenge to Virgil Hill in April 1993.
After a ten round points win in Germany, McCallum, aged thirty-nine, faced the undefeated Roy Jones Jnr in Florida for the interim WBC light-heavyweight tile in November 1996. Jones, 33-0 with twenty-nine stoppages to his name, floored McCallum just before the end of the tenth round, as he ran out a comprehensive points winner.
In his final bout the Jamaican was pitted against old foe James ‘Lights Out’ Toney for a third time in February 1997. On the line was the vacant World Boxing Union cruiserweight title. Toney, who won and lost the IBF super-middleweight championship since his last meeting with McCallum, took the vacant crown with a unanimous decision.
McCallum never boxed again, bowing out with a record of 49-5-1 (36 KO’s). Not only was he a fierce competitor and ferocious body puncher, McCallum also gained a reputation as a fiercely independent voice, refusing to bow down to a single promoter and changing his backroom team frequently, working with many great trainers throughout his career such as Emanuel Steward, George Benton and Lou Duva, Eddie Futch and Miguel Diaz.
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