LAS VEGAS — The question going into Thursday night's North American Boxing Federation title fight at the Las Vegas Hilton was this: Can Michael Nunn punch?
The answer could be found four rounds later on the face of Darnell Knox.
Or what was left of it.
Nunn reduced Knox's nose to a bloody pulp before the bout was stopped after the fourth round of the scheduled 12-rounder.
It was Emanuel Steward, Knox's manager, who ordered the fight stopped. Don't dare ask him if Nunn has a knockout punch.
"He was totally outclassed," said Steward of his own fighter, "and I didn't see any sense in him taking any more physical punishment. He had no chance of winning."
Knox himself would only say he had "no excuses" before being whisked off to nearby Valley Hospital to see if the nose was broken.
"I was very impressed with Nunn," Steward said. "He was sharp and under total control. He is someone to be reckoned with in the middleweight division."
Nunn, who lives in North Hollywood, has waited a long time to hear such praise. Despite the fact this was his 27th win without a loss, his 18th knockout and his sixth KO in his last seven fights, Nunn has often been criticized for being too much of a defensive fighter, for bringing his dancing shoes into the ring too often.
From the opening bell, Nunn, 159, made it plain he was saving his dancing for the moment he anticipated his arm would be raised in victory.
Nunn came in flat-footed, was aggressive and showed little fear of wading in, despite the fact that in Knox, 159 1/2, he was facing a man who entered the ring 27-1 with 21 knockouts.
"I wanted to gain control right from the beginning," Nunn said, "and be in command of the fight. Once I realized I was stronger than he was, all I wanted to do was to get the fight over."
It appeared for a moment as if the fight was going to be over before many in the crowd had found their seats in the temporary arena erected in the hotel parking lot.
Midway through the first round, Knox, who fights out of the Kronk gym in his native Detroit, went down from a right hand, followed by a left. It actually appeared that Knox went down as much from the force of Nunn's body hitting his as from a punch, but referee Richard Steele signaled knockdown.
Knox got up and actually got back in the fight briefly, connecting on a straight right hand.
Nunn just grinned and, through his mouthpiece, yelled at Knox, "You can't hurt me."
Asked later about the punch, Nunn told reporters, "I've worked too hard to let one punch stop me from my dream."
From then on, it was just a question of how much Knox could take. Nunn hit him with everything the rules allow and more.
In the second round, a highly animated Nunn pounded Knox on top of the head. In the third, Nunn lost a point because of a low blow.
Nunn constantly taunted Knox and dared him to hit back.
Nunn briefly put his dancing shoes on in those rounds, but again became the flat-footed aggressor in the fourth.
In what proved to be the final round, Nunn trapped Knox on the ropes. The old Michael Nunn might have thrown a couple of combinations, then backed off.
Not the new Michael Nunn. He threw everything in his arsenal, pounding away repeatedly with lefts to the body and left uppercuts, one of which smashed in Knox's nose.
Each man earned $20,000 for the fight.
"I think Michael Nunn proved tonight he has more than one style," Nunn said. "I'm not a one-dimensional fighter. I can punch if I have to punch. I can box if I have to box."
Now that that is settled, only one question remains: What's next?
Nunn is currently ranked fifth by the World Boxing Council, sixth by the International Boxing Federation and seventh by the World Boxing Assn. He figures to move up in all three. But not necessarily to the top. In Knox, he beat a man ranked only 10th by both the WBC and IBF.
Obviously Nunn would like a title shot. He's got plenty of champions to choose from. Thomas Hearns is now the WBC champ, Frank Tate has the IBF title and Sumbu Kalambay is middleweight champion of the WBA.
So what is Nunn's NABF title worth? That remains to be seen.
There are almost as many scenarios as there were punches thrown by Nunn on Thursday.
Hearns may fight Marvelous Marvin Hagler or Sugar Ray Leonard, although both Leonard and Hagler claim to be retired. Or Leonard may fight Hagler.
Having not yet proved he is in that class, Nunn figures to look elsewhere anyway. Nunn's manager, Dan Goossen, has been talking to Tate's camp, but Tate's people are interested in a fight with former champion Roberto Duran.
"The bottom line is, Michael deserves a title shot," Goossen said. "But this is not like baseball where the New York Mets are scheduled to play the Los Angeles Dodgers. There are no guarantees. Nobody is standing in line to fight Michael Nunn."
Not now that Nunn, unlike the Dodgers, has proven he can hit.