MICHAEL “THE BOUNTY” HUNTER was considered one of the toughest heavyweight boxers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He fought at a time when champions Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis ruled the ring. Although he never faced them for the heavyweight title, Hunter won his share of fame, nailing down the U.S. Boxing Association (USBA) Heavyweight Championship and the International Boxing Federation Cruiserweight Championship.
In 1996, he lost what would be his last fight to Brian “Danish Pastry” Nielsen and retired. He left Los Angeles years ago for Las Vegas and had recently moved back to Hollywood to train boxers at the Tru Boxing Gym on Highland Avenue.
Along the way, Hunter also battled drugs. It may have been that weakness that led him on February 8 to the roof of the St. Moritz Motel, where he encountered undercover officers from the Los Angeles Police Department.
Two Hollywood Division officers had set up surveillance for a routine buy-bust operation at a Mobil Gas Station next door. LAPD spokesman Lieutenant Paul Vernon gives this account of what happened next: It was around 7 p.m. The 46-year-old Hunter came up from behind Officer Todd Ramsey, 41, who was busy talking on his cell phone. Without provocation, Hunter hit him on the head with a gun. Ramsey’s partner saw what happened and tackled the former boxer. The two cops and Hunter struggled. Hunter broke free, stepped back a few feet, and pointed his gun at Ramsey. Ramsey fired twice, hitting Hunter in the chest and arm. Hunter was pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Ramsey was also treated at the hospital, for the blow to his head, and was sent home that evening.
“It does not appear that he knew they were police officers,” Vernon said. “Perhaps he saw an opportunity to rob them.”
Hunter’s weapon turned out to be a fake — a black, polymer replica pistol. “Unless you pick it up and pull the trigger, it looks like a real gun,” Vernon said. A week earlier, Hunter had been arrested a block from the Sunset Boulevard motel on suspicion of being under the influence of a narcotic.
HUNTER BEGAN HIS BOXING CAREER in 1985 in Maryland, ending up in Los Angeles, where the South Carolina native’s unorthodox boxing style caught the eye of actor James Caan, who saw a televised fight in which Hunter stepped into the ring wearing a black cowboy hat, a black mask and a gunfighter coat. Hunter dropped the outfit, and Caan became his manager for three years.
“We used to go to his [Caan’s] house in Bel Air and ride around on his motorcycle,” said Hunter’s widow, Gwen, whom he married in 1987. “[Actor] Tony Danza was also a good friend of Michael’s. They were all really close. We would have ringside seats. We went out to dinner and socialized. They were all very nice people.”
Caan recalled what it was like to manage Hunter. “He had a style like no other. It was truly unique. I am glad I didn’t get mad enough as to try to hit him, because I certainly would have missed. He was quite a character.”
Caan later sold Hunter’s contract to renowned Los Angeles trainer Bill Slayton, who also trained heavyweight champion boxer Ken Norton. During that time, Hunter became the sparring partner for heavyweight champions Lewis and Tyson. “He knocked Tyson down, but Tyson didn’t want to admit to it,” said Gwen, who separated from Hunter in 2000 and now lives in Las Vegas with their three children.
By 1990, Hunter was ranked in the Top 10 by both the World Boxing Association and the International Boxing Federation in the cruiserweight division and was ranked No. 18 as a heavyweight by the World Boxing Council (WBC). That same year, he moved to Australia after his fourth-round knockout of previously unbeaten Australian heavyweight champion Jimmy Thunder. However, the Department of Immigration refused to issue Hunter a second six-month residency visa after learning he had served a seven-year jail sentence for armed robbery when he was 18 and didn’t disclose it on his visa application.
Hunter also beat former cruiserweight and heavyweight champions Pinklon Thomas, Dwight Muhammad Qawi and Oliver “The Atomic Bull” McCall. (After McCall lost to Hunter, he went on to beat the unbeaten Lewis for the WBC heavyweight championship at Wembley Arena in London in 1994.)
On January 17, 1993, Hunter, in a 12-round unanimous decision at the Union Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, beat former Olympic Gold Medalist Tyrell Biggs to become the USBA heavyweight champion. Hunter had taken over the spot of Tony Tubbs, who was disqualified by the Nevada State Athletic Commission for failing a drug test. It was considered by many to be Hunter’s greatest fight.
“He fought on one day’s notice,” said Hunter’s brother-in-law and former trainer, Kevin Henry. “It was a title fight. It was televised on ESPN. You couldn’t turn it down. It was the best I saw him look. It was the time he shined. He knew the opportunity was there, and he would never get it again. It was his biggest fight. It boosted his career.”
After the Biggs fight, Hunter went on to win the WBC Continental Americas Championship against Russian heavyweight champion Alex Zolkin. By October 1994, his record was an impressive 24 wins, three losses and two ties, with eight knockouts.
Drug problems surfaced toward the end of his career. A win against former USBA heavyweight champion Buster Mathis Jr. was short-lived, as judges changed the decision to a no-decision when Hunter tested positive for an illegal drug. Henry said that Hunter eventually got discouraged with boxing, and his marriage fell apart in 2000.
“Mike was denied the chance to fight for the heavyweight title,” he said. “He wasn’t with the right promoter. He was a contender for five years without getting a title shot. He did everything he could possibly do to get a title shot. He fought former world champions and beat them. He was never knocked out in his career. He was only knocked down once, and then he got up and knocked the guy out in the next round. Time went on and he wanted to do family things. He wanted to help kids do what he couldn’t do. He decided to give his career up and dedicate it to others.”
Last September, Hunter took a job at the Tru Boxing Gym as an instructor and trainer. He worked seven days a week, starting work at 6 a.m.
“He was an upstanding guy,” said gym employee Stephen Hardy. “He had a heart of gold.” But his stint at the gym was brief. “He was let go in December,” said Hardy. Friends said that Hunter was living at the St. Moritz Motel at the time of his death.
“He was a champion,” said Young Dick Tiger, who worked out with Hunter in the 1980s. “He was a good friend of mine. I don’t believe he is dead. I saw him the day before he died pushing a friend in a wheelchair down Sunset Boulevard. I said, ‘I will see you tomorrow.’ ”
HUNTER’S ROOFTOP ENCOUNTER is being examined by the LAPD’s force investigation division, which looks into all officer-involved shootings. Vernon said the shooting looked justified. “He came up behind one of the officers without any warning and hit him on the head. The fight was on. There is no expectation at this point. You defend yourself first. There is no obligation to identify yourself as a police officer before you shoot when someone is already pointing a gun at you.”
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However, Hunter’s widow and friends are still in disbelief over the boxer’s death and question whether the LAPD shot first and asked questions later. “He never knew it was a police officer or anything,” said Gwen Hunter. “He was probably assuming he got into an argument with a private citizen.” Said Young Dick Tiger: “You don’t have to shoot and kill. Shoot the leg or hand. You don’t have to kill. The police are allowed to do whatever they want.”
“He would use his fists before he would use a weapon,” added Hardy. “He wasn’t a thug. He was crazy but not stupid.”
Hunter’s eldest son, Michael “The Bounty” Hunter II, is following in his father’s boxing footsteps. The high school senior is undefeated as an amateur super-heavyweight. He will be competing for the Golden Gloves State Championship in Nevada on March 18.
Said Gwen Hunter: “His dad couldn’t do it, but he will become the heavyweight champion of the world.”