There is a saying among compulsive gamblers: The next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing.
Perhaps the opposite is true of certain fringe boxing contenders who, for one magic moment, rise above their circumstances and become champions. For those predetermined by fate to fail even when they succeed, the next worst thing to fighting for a title and losing can be fighting for a title and winning.
The late Steve Little is in a Hall of Fame – the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame – but there never will be a time when any member of his large family receives a telephone call from Ed Brophy, the executive director of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, relaying the good news that the Reading, Pa., native has been elected to the IBHOF. Not even Little’s most ardent admirers, and there are many in Reading and Philadelphia, have any illusions about his standing in boxing history. He is a minor footnote in the annals of the sport he loved, but didn’t always love him back. That makes him one of many dreamers and pluggers who give so much of themselves and receive so, well, little in return.
When Steve Little shocked Michael Nunn – as a 40-to-1 underdog – to capture the WBA super middleweight championship in London on Feb. 26, 1994, it should have been the proudest moment of his professional life. And, really, it was. But the giddy blush of victory was soon replaced by the sobering reality that he was an unmarketable champion with a mediocre record, no discernible punching power and a promoter who probably wanted him quickly dethroned by a more high-profile client. So what if Little was one of boxing’s good guys, a solid citizen with a wife and six kids at home? No bejeweled championship belt was ever going to elevate him above what he already was: a disposable and easily replaceable commodity.
All of which makes Little’s one-and-done reign as the WBA 168-pound champ – he dropped a unanimous decision to Frankie Liles on Aug. 12, 1994, in Argentina – unfortunate, but hardly a tragedy. The real tragedies came in February 1999 when Little was diagnosed with colon cancer, and Jan. 30, 2000, when, at 34, he succumbed to the dreaded disease.
“Steve Little was the most courageous person I’ve been around,” Rob Murray Sr., Little’s former manager, who, somewhat ironically, three months later would also succumb to cancer, said in March 2012. “He fought those last few fights (Little was 3-3-1 after upsetting Nunn) when he was terminally ill, although nobody knew it then. One day he was playing around in the gym with this guy, and he started bleeding and it wouldn’t stop. That’s when they found he had Stage 4 cancer.”
Bernard “The Alien” Hopkins, the former middleweight and light heavyweight champion whose eventual first-ballot induction into the IBHOF is guaranteed as anything ever gets, counts himself fortunate to have been Little’s friend.
“We were close, age-wise (Hopkins is 50; Little would now be 49 had he lived), and in other ways, too,” Hopkins said. “He traveled from Reading to North Philadelphia every day to Champ’s Gym when I trained there, so a lot of people thought he was from Philly. He was also a first or second cousin of Meldrick Taylor, I can’t remember which, which also kind of played into that that perception.
“We became friends because A, I need a sparring partner and B, he was a veteran who began fighting long before I did, at least in the pros. If Steve told you he would do something, he did it. I never heard nobody talking bad about him. I mean, how could they? As a man, they don’t come any better.”
So, what did Hopkins think of Little, whose final record – 25-17-3, with just six victories inside the distance – as a fighter?
“Steve was a bold, durable guy who couldn’t crack an egg, but he had a good chin and he was relentless,” Hopkins recalled. “He might not have been a pound-for-pound guy, but trust me, he would give any top fighter all he could handle. Even when he didn’t win, the other guy came away knowing he had been in a scrap. Steve was all heart and determination. “
A devoted husband and father, a straight shooter who never embarrassed himself or his loved ones in or out of the ring, Little’s stunner over Nunn should at least have afforded him a chance for one major score, which would at least provide some measure of financial stability for the family whose welfare was always his first priority. But professional boxing is a business, and Steve Little as world champion was never going to contribute to the bottom line of the sport’s true power brokers.
The late Butch Lewis once told me a story that sounded like it could have been true, and since has been confirmed by one of the principals. It is a tale of expediency over compassion, and the greater likelihood of blood being spilled inside the ropes than the milk of human kindness being ladled at a negotiating table.
To secure his shot at Nunn, Little had to sign over options to Nunn’s then-promoter, Don King, which was and is standard practice among certain operatives in a cutthroat industry. It never occurred to anyone, certainly not Nunn or King, that Little would actually win. But win he did, the guy who “couldn’t crack an egg” flooring Nunn in the first round and going on to take a 12-round split decision.
According to Butch Lewis, King’s plan was to have Little make his first title defense against one of the most devastating punchers of the era, Gerald McClellan, for a payday not much larger than the then-career-high $60,000 (minus deductions, of course) for challenging Nunn. Little might have been willing to fight anybody, but if he was going to sign up for an inevitable beatdown from McClellan, he wanted what he considered to be fair compensation.
Bill Cayton, who managed the popular Vinny Pazienza, a good fighter but someone who wasn’t as likely as McClellan to hospitalize an opponent, thought Little was just vulnerable enough to again make the “Pazmanian Devil” a world champion. But Cayton had lost control of Mike Tyson to King, the two men were none too fond of each other, and Cayton was never going to sign over options on Pazienza in any case. So Cayton enlisted Lewis to approach King with an offer: a much larger purse for Little to defend against Pazienza, without signing over options. Not surprisingly, King refused and Little wound up relinquishing his title to Liles for a reported $100,000, of which he probably was fortunate to receive half.
Not the kind of jackpot that would long ensure the financial well-being of a family as large as Little’s.
I talked to Pazienza – he goes by Vinny Paz now – and he said Cayton had indeed told him he was angling to secure a title shot at Little, but things never worked out, “I think because of King.”
“I never met Steve Little, but I think I would have liked him,” Paz continued. “He just seemed like a good guy, and I know he was a tough little bleeper. Me and him would have been a real battle, although I think I would have beat him.”
Little’s subsequent illness and death placed a significant financial burden on his widow, Wanda, a stay-at-home mother who considered him so much more than the family breadwinner.
“My husband was one-of-a-kind in many amazing ways,” Wanda said. “People here (in Reading) remember him as much or more for his good deeds as for his boxing He was my best friend, someone who worked so hard to be a great provider. I was blessed to have him for as long as I did.”
When contacted for this story, King said he did not recall particulars of the 5½-month period between Little’s unexpected upset of Nunn and the loss to Liles.
“The Rolodex is spinning in my brain,” he allowed after momentarily pondering the question. “Steve Little was a guy who really wanted to do something, but he never got the opportunity until we gave him the opportunity. He saw his chance and seized the moment. He pulled it off, and you got to give him credit for that.”
Asked if the Butch Lewis version of the way events played out is factual, King said, “It’s not my recollection, but I can’t really say how that went down. It’s, what, 20 years ago? Look, I understood Bill Cayton. One of the assets God blessed me with is the ability to look or talk to a person and almost tell what they will or will not do in certain circumstances. Bill Cayton was Bill Cayton, and I would go against him on anything I thought was not right. And I won more times than I lost.”
Hopkins, who does not part with his hard-earned cash readily, tried to do right by his late friend when he pledged $200,000 of his purse for the Feb. 2, 2002, defense of his undisputed middleweight title against Carl Daniels, in Reading, to the Little family. It was a magnanimous gesture, but one that didn’t help as much as it might have. Hopkins said he has heard reports that a slick operator, promising huge returns on investments, talked Wanda Little out of $100,000, which soon evaporated like morning dew.
“I heard that that guy was right on her, telling her about all these ideas he had on how she could double the money,” Hopkins said. “It was like one of those Ponzi schemes, from what I heard. She really got took.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would have set her up with some reputable financial planner, somebody who was licensed and bonded. I can’t beat myself up about it now because I tried to do a good thing, but looking back, I think I could have done more.”
King might not be all that clear on the aftermath of Little’s longshot win over Nunn, but he keenly remembers the run-up to that fight. He said Nunn, who is now serving hard time in an Iowa penitentiary on a cocaine trafficking conviction, lost his title more because of overconfidence and lackadaisical training preparations than because of anything Little had done.
“Michael Nunn was one of the most misguided fighters I’ve ever met – one of the most misguided people, actually,” His Hairness opined. “He was a great fighter, but he messed around, got caught selling drugs to an undercover agent and now he’s in prison. What a waste. He was a very talented guy. He went out searching for something he already had, in an illicit type of situation.”
Upon his Steve Sr.’s induction into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame on March 11, 2012, Steve Little Jr., then a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, disputed any notion that his dad had won his championship only because Nunn was out of shape and undisciplined.
“I finally got to see the DVD of that fight, in 2008 after I obtained it from a boxing historian when I was stationed at Cherry Point (North Carolina),” he said. “This was not a case of Michael Nunn fighting down to a lower level; he was fighting just as hard as my dad was fighting his fight. But, on that night, my dad was the better man.”
Not every winning lottery ticket pays off to the same extent. A 42-1 underdog, James “Buster” Douglas, knocked out heavyweight champion Mike Tyson on Feb. 10, 1990, and in his first defense, in which he relinquished his crown on a third-round KO by Evander Holyfield, he earned $23.2 million. Four years later, as a 40-1 no-hoper, Little outpointed Nunn and made 1/232nd of Big Buster’s windfall.
In boxing, as in life, the scales of justice do not always balance. The good often die young and virtue sometimes goes unrewarded. But for one glorious moment forever frozen in time, Steve Little won a fight no one thought him capable of winning. That is something all of us can aspire to, and reason enough to keep the small flame lighting the memory of a special but mostly forgotten champion from flickering and dying out entirely.