LAS VEGAS — For Michael Nunn, it's showtime.
Winning time alone isn't good enough anymore. Not if he hopes to make it to prime time.
The 24-year-old North Hollywood fighter will step into an outdoor ring next to the Las Vegas Hilton at 6:05 this evening to face Darnell Knox, 27, of Detroit in a 12-round bout for the North American Boxing Federation title.
The two men will perform on an international closed-circuit and pay-per-view telecast. But the cameras aren't there for Nunn and Knox. They are just a warmup act for the headline performers--Thomas Hearns and Juan Roldan, who will meet about two hours later for the World Boxing Council middleweight title and general worldwide recognition as middleweight king.
For Nunn to move into that elite company and get his own world title shot, he first must win over detractors who say he is too defensive as a fighter, too weak a puncher, too . . . well, boring is a word you often hear in describing Nunn's style.
On the other hand, he has won almost every round of every fight with an effective jab and the kind of speed and footwork rarely seen since the music stopped for Muhammad Ali.
Nunn has not been given a title fight, say his supporters, because other fighters are reluctant to face somebody with the speed to make them look slow and awkward. Who needs it? It certainly can be said that the last time many of Nunn's opponents got a good look at him was during the prefight instructions.
So for Nunn, it no longer is merely a numbers game, though he certainly has impressive figures. He is 26-0 with 17 knockouts and is ranked fifth by the WBC, sixth by the International Boxing Federation and seventh by the World Boxing Assn.
But a dominating performance tonight, climaxed with a knockout, could do more to boost Nunn's stock with the international boxing crowd on hand than any ranking sheet. Nunn has scored knockouts in his past five fights, Knox in his past six.
"All I care about is a win," insisted Dan Goossen, Nunn's manager. "The bottom line is the win. Everything else from there is gravy.
"Of course, if he looks good in winning, it always helps. By Michael putting pressure on his opponent, it helps me out in putting pressure on the boxing organizations to get him a world title shot. I've got to be able to go in there and say, 'His actions don't lie. He is the best middleweight.' "
Goossen thinks a win tonight should boost his fighter into the role of No. 1 contender in all three major boxing organizations.
Unless . . .
"With all the middleweight titles filled," Goossen said, "there should be no one ahead of Michael. Depending, of course, on Marvin Hagler. If he wanted to come back, he should be No. 1. I couldn't argue much. Hagler was a great middleweight champion and he deserves the No. 1 spot.
"But if they were to put a Michael Olajide ahead of Michael Nunn, that would be bull. It shouldn't happen. If they were to put an Iran Barkley ahead, it would be bull."
Both fighters recently lost middleweight title fights, Olajide to Frank Tate, the new IBF champion, and Barkley to Sumbu Kalambay, now the WBA champion.
Of course, before Nunn or his people start worrying about the rankings, they must worry about Knox, perhaps not a world-class fighter but still a man with a 27-1 mark and 21 knockouts.
Nunn's camp has not taken Knox lightly. For the first time in his professional career, Nunn did not train at the Ten Goose gym in North Hollywood. Instead, he and his trainer, Joe Goossen, brother of Dan, went to Pine Valley, east of San Diego, to work out in solitude for several weeks.
The result, of course, is that Nunn says he's in great shape. And Knox says he's in great shape. And everybody's got a plan.
"I think," said Emanuel Steward, Knox's manager, "that Darnell is going to give Nunn something he's never been in there with before--speed. That's Nunn's main asset. Plus, his height. He's 6-2. But Darnell is 6-1. As fast as Nunn is and as tall as he is, normally you've got to give him those two advantages. But not this time.
"I think Darnell is going to stop him."
No argument from Knox, ranked 10th by both the WBC and the IBF.
"I think the problem with the guys who have faced Nunn," Knox said, "is that they were slow fighters who were all looking for one big shot. Everybody was trying to knock him out. By doing that, they gave him time to get away. They didn't follow him around, didn't cut off the ring and give him something to think about.
"You have to get in there, take your time and be consistent. What I'm going to try to do is to crowd his right-hand jab and turn that jab from an offensive weapon and make it into a defensive weapon.
"All the things I've read about Michael Nunn, all the things I've heard about Michael Nunn, all the things that have been said about Michael Nunn are not going to help him now."
Naturally, there is a slight difference of opinion in the camp of Nunn, a 3-1 favorite.