After spending 16½ years in prison, Michael Nunn accompanied a few relatives out to the area around 53rd and Elmore in Davenport, where dozens of stores and restaurants have popped up over the past decade or so.
“I thought I was in New York City with all the lights ...’’ Nunn said. “That was cornfields, man … I said where the hell are we at, New York City? I thought we were on Times Square.’’
The old hometown changed quite a bit during all those years that Nunn was away.
Nunn has changed, too.
The two-time world middleweight boxing champion is a little bigger than he was back in the day although he still appears to be in very good shape. His face shows the normal lines and wrinkles that come with advancing age. He is completely bald.
He’s still just as talkative, just as confident, nearly as brash. But there is a strand of maturity in his voice and his words that wasn’t there in 2004 when he was sentenced to more than 24 years in federal prison for drug trafficking.
Spending roughly a third of your life behind bars will help you grow up.
“Going to prison teaches you what you want to do and what you don’t want to do,’’ Nunn said in an exclusive interview with the Quad-City Times. “I think it’s going to make me a better person as far as being a good dad and a good man in the community and just a genuine person … I want to utilize my skills in a productive way.’’
Nunn is finally out of prison and back living in his hometown.
His original sentence was shortened by 57 months due to legislation passed several years ago regarding federal drug offenders. He was released to a halfway house in Davenport on Feb. 6. He walked out of there in early July.
He still has been under travel restrictions that have kept him from going outside the Iowa-Illinois region but those are expected to be lifted soon. He will be able to go wherever he wants and take advantage of numerous invitations to attend fights and make public appearances around the globe.
“There’s a lot of people I want to see and a lot of things I want to see and things I want to do,’’ Nunn said.
He already has been told he will be inducted into the California Boxing Hall of Fame in October of 2020.
A long list of old friends and acquaintances have reached out to him. He has heard from Bob Arum, who promoted many of his fights, including the 1991 Rumble on the Riverbank, which featured Nunn defending his world title against James “Lights Out’’ Toney.
Former world champion Roy Jones Jr. has been in touch with Nunn and even suggested that the two old champs might make some big money by stepping into the ring against one another.
“Now that we’re in our 50s, he wants to fight now,’’ Nunn said with a grin. “I don’t understand that. When we were in our 30s, he didn’t want to fight … I just always knew I could beat him. I’ve always been a firm believer in just getting in the ring and fighting … Roy would never fight me.’’
Nunn isn’t discounting the possibility that at the age of 56 he might still have a few good rounds in him. He might even take Jones up on his offer.
“I’ll just beat him up 20 years later,’’ he said.
For the most part, however, Nunn just wants to enjoy life and spend time with his four children and six grandchildren.
“When the time comes, I’ll get all the attention that I need,’’ he said. “I just want to go home and spend time with my grandkids and my family, just relax a little bit. I’ve been home like 100-and-some days but being in the halfway house is kind of hectic. I just want to kick back and walk around the block and just breathe.’’
He said he has things he wants to impart to those grandkids, the oldest of whom just graduated from high school. None of them ever saw him fight except on Youtube videos. He wants them to know the value of a good education and hard work. He wants them to make a good life for themselves and not repeat the mistakes that Grandpa made.
“I don’t want them to think that what I did was cool,’’ Nunn said.
He may write a book about the path his life has taken. He certainly wants to do some public speaking, especially to youth groups.
“I’m a bigger person now and I want to be able to do productive, positive things, not just here in the community but worldwide, and be able to inspire the kids to do the right things and not grow up being in jail and being in that fast life,’’ Nunn said.
He wants to share the lessons learned in a life that is, at best, a cautionary tale.
Nunn was a wild kid from the streets of Davenport who was able to channel his aggression into boxing with the help of local trainer Alvino Pena and an AAU referee and judge named Bob Surkein. He later was able to ascend through the pro ranks with the help of manager Dan Goosen and trainer Angelo Dundee.
Using a lightning fast style reminiscent of Muhammad Ali, Nunn won his first 36 professional fights, claiming the IBF middleweight championship with a knockout of Frank Tate in 1988.
He held the title until that memorable night at John O’Donnell Stadium in 1991 when Toney surprised him with a knockout punch in the 11th round.
Nunn bounced back to win the world super middleweight title about 16 months later, holding that belt until a 1994 loss to Steve Little. He finished his career 58-4.
Even through all that success in the ring, Nunn had occasional run-ins with the law. He admits that he occasionally dabbled in the sale of illegal drugs although he won’t say for how long, saying only that “I had my moments.’’
Somehow, he always managed to squirm out of trouble.
He finally got caught in August of 2002 when he paid a federal undercover agent $200 for one kilogram of cocaine — street value $24,000 — in a Davenport hotel room. Nunn pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges in May 2003 and was sentenced in January 2004.
Several witnesses, including some relatives, testified in court that Nunn had been dealing drugs since 1993.
“They blew it up bigger than it was,’’ Nunn said. “They said, 'He had a 10-year history of drug dealing.’ They just went by what they heard on the street. I didn’t say anything. I figured I’ll get a chance to say my peace later. But I’m thinking, 'If I had a 10-year history and they’re just catching me now … wow.’’’
District judge William Gritzer also took into account testimony that Nunn may have been armed during some of his drug dealings. Nunn didn’t help himself when he did get a chance to speak, showing defiance and belligerence toward the judge. All of it added up to a sentence of 292 months in prison.
He spent 18 months in the Muscatine County jail while going through the legal system, then spent another 15 years in federal facilities in Texas, Colorado, West Virginia, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
He said he was a model prisoner who steered clear of gang activity and sometimes acted as a peacemaker in disputes between other prisoners. He said the warden of the Oxford, Wisconsin, facility told him he was sorry to see him go when he was transferred to the halfway house last winter.
The drug dealings and his 2002 arrest don’t really enter Nunn’s thoughts much anymore.
“I’ve tried to put that in the rear view,’’ Nunn said. “I’ve had my moments where I thought about it. I’m looking past all that stuff. I don’t worry about it …
“It probably was a good thing that they got me when they got me because the situation probably could have gotten worse.’’
How could it have gotten worse?
“Getting involved in the drug business, you could have been killing people or getting killed or killing police or whatever,’’ he said. “Maybe it was time to just stop everything and change lanes basically.’’
While he was incarcerated, so many of those who helped him passed away. Surkein. Pena. Goosen. Dundee. On April 29, 2017, his mother, Madies Nunn, died.
“That was probably the hardest time ever,’’ Nunn admitted. “I talked to my mother every day for 15 years and eight months. Her passing while I was in prison kind of hurt but I understand that that’s life. The thing about it is we had the type of relationship that will last me a lifetime.’’
He said his mother inspired him to achieve all the positive things he did in boxing.
“Without her, I probably would have never done these things,’’ he said.
He also is quick to lavish praise on people in the Quad-Cities who supported him while he was in prison. He has spent much of the past few months thanking those people for standing behind him.
While he is proud of all his boxing accomplishments, Nunn freely accepts responsibility for the bad things he did. It’s part of the maturity he developed during all those years behind bars.
“I fought nobody but me,’’ he said. “I’ve taken responsibility for everything I’ve done. I don’t shift the blame. I went to jail and I’ve done my time. Now I’m back and I’m going to keep moving forward.’’