Sunday, June 16, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Prize fighter Mike McCallum would hold his 1-year-old son on his shoulder as the boy’s bowed legs, wrapped in plastic braces, dangled in front of him. He feared that his boy would never follow him into the ring.
The sight pained the father, a Hall of Famer known back in the day as “the Body Snatcher.”
Mike Sr. and his wife, Verona, had fed their infant son whatever he wanted. He gained too much weight, burdening his undeveloped legs and pushing the bones outward.
The father dreamed of one day developing his son into an athletic powerhouse, with quickness and stamina, but these days, he could barely watch his little boy walk in the family’s Henderson home with short, rigid steps, like how a duck waddles.
The father acknowledged the conflicted future: Yes, he wanted his son to grow into a fighter, a rough career. But look at the toddler now. So the father’s challenge was to help his son recover from his overweight infancy and become strong — so he could enter a boxing ring, where opponents would try to harm him.
The 16-year-old boy faces his father, gloves raised above muscled arms, chin tucked, eyes wide open, his forehead creased in concentration. His father holds a large pad strapped to each hand, worn with the heavy imprint of many punches.
This is a place they’re comfortable together, father and son. Mike Sr. and Mike Jr. They come here to Johnny Tocco’s boxing gym six days a week, a gnarled old nook of boxing that used to welcome fighters such as Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali. Others are immortalized in custom murals on the brick wall outside.
The father’s face is expressionless. The son stands with his right foot forward, just more than shoulder-width apart.
He flings a jab into the mitt, making a loud snap. It is the sound of a punch delivered with the whole of his 5-foot-6, 158-pound body: shoulder, arm, hips and muscled legs. He throws his left jab a second time. Snap! And three more in quick succession, with a right hand close behind.
The final punch is the hardest and loudest, a sort of coda to his driving force.
The pair circle each other. The 55-year-old man, heavy shouldered and thick through the middle, sweat bleeding through his white T-shirt; the son, a head shorter, quick but unhurried. And his once-burdened feet? Now they move fast from side to side — quickly in, quickly out.
The whooshes and thuds from the boy’s punches join in the din of the jump ropes slapping the cement floor and the nearby shouts of coaches instructing their fighters.
The father suddenly stops. He demonstrates a move, a counter punch, one he has used many times himself.
The boy practices it, standing with his hands by his waist, head forward, a challenge to an imaginary opponent to strike him with his defense down. As the imaginary punch comes in, his head bobs to the side and his right hand flies toward the target. Perfect. He pulls back the jab with a snap and then counter punches again. Perfect.
For three rounds, three minutes each round, they work, and they are silent. They know what work needs to be done — that jab that can dictate a fight and bloody an opponent.
Here they practice the basics, where Senior has his son throw the same punch, over and over. Until he does it right; until he does it his way.
“We got to have the right basics,” Senior has said, “because when everything goes bad, you go back to the basics.”
To ignore the basics means being unprepared, and that means danger.
Veterans of the sport agree. Merqui Sosa, who went 27-9-2 in his light heavyweight division and is now a fixture at Johnny Tocco’s, says: “This is not a sport. You have to prepare. It’s your life in there.”
Years before, some told Mike Sr. and Verona they needed to break the legs of their son and get him into corrective surgery. They said no. They put him in plastic leg braces instead, and he would cry and scream. Once, he ripped the braces off in protest and threw them out the front door, cracking them on the concrete walkway.
No, it wouldn’t be an easy road. They’d change his diet, more fruits and vegetables to make him lean. By the time he was 2, Junior had stopped wearing the braces, but he was still ridiculed for being bow legged, and when he met strangers, he would hide behind his parents’ legs.
By 6, his legs were straight, quick and strong.
A command of the basics: defense, footwork, hit and don’t get hit — that’s how Mike Sr. dominated in a career that spanned 49 wins, five losses and one draw. He’s driven it home to his son most of his life, heightening the emphasis when he turned 12 and began to train more rigorously. It’s how you survive in a sport that has world-class fighters such as 147-pound world champion Benny Paret, who died, or Ali, who has been reduced to an invalid after many punishing years as a contender and world champion.
Even amateur boxers, the ones who wear headgear, have been found to have increases in chemicals commonly associated with chronic brain damage, according to a 2012 study by Sweden’s University of Gottenberg.
The father and mother respond to the known dangers of boxing by steadily and methodically training their son, and by ensuring he has the education to succeed if a career in boxing doesn’t happen.
Sometimes the fear returns. When Mike Jr. was 13, he had locked into a sparring match with a 16-year-old who hit him with punches that made his vision blur and his ears ring. That was it. Mike Sr. stopped the session. Mike Jr. was taught not to be satisfied with taking punishment.
“To be honest, I really don’t like getting hit. When I get hit, I get irritated and I sometimes do dumb stuff,” Mike Jr., a Silverado High School student, says.
So when the father talks, or demonstrates a technique, the son listens and watches.
Senior has been warned, though, that he can’t necessarily craft his son to be a boxer in his likeness.
“Mike is not you. He has a different disposition,” amateur boxer Luis Monda has told Mike Sr. “The kid is 10 times better going forward than he is going backward.”
Sometimes the father recounts the old days, the days when he was feared. He’ll talk about growing up in Jamaica, what he used to do with his hands, and the bitterness he still holds toward all-time great middleweight champion Thomas Hearns for never fighting him. He recounts his greatness to the ears of prodding young men who still call him the Body Snatcher, and he pours all his many memories and advice into them, and into his son.
One day, Mike Jr. may be great like his father was: a sterling amateur career culminating in an Olympic appearance. They hope. But they know that not all father-son partnerships have found success in boxing. Joe Frazier and his son, Marvis, were never successful, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. preferred to work with his uncle for 12 years instead of his father.
Mike Jr. has yet to have his debut bout. It’s been years in the making, years of waiting and waffling. As some close friends of the family say, it’s a fear the father has for his son, like the fear that he’d never walk normally.
His father still waits for that first fight. It will be soon. When at long last the boy steps into competition, in some small way, the Body Snatcher will have returned.