Lee Groves

10: Greatest 122-pound title fights

5. Marco Antonio Barrera KO 12 Kennedy McKinney – February 3, 1996, Great Western Forum, Inglewood, California

Barrera-McKinney is placed here not only because it was a fantastic fight but also due to its historical significance. Up until this point the lower weight classes were seldom – if ever – showcased on premium cable because it was thought they wouldn’t deliver sufficient ratings. But HBO rolled the dice by creating the Boxing After Dark franchise, whose original mandate was to air high-grade matches at featherweight and below. If the series was to thrive, and if boxing’s “little big men” were to continue receiving this valuable exposure, the fighters had to deliver in a big way.

Johnny Tapia blew away Giovanni Andrade in two rounds in the co-feature, an expected result whose impact was felt for just a few minutes. Barrera-McKinney, however, ended up soaring far above even the most hopeful expectations.

McKinney began the fight behind his jab, over which Barrera landed two hard overhand rights. That early sequence set the tone for the rest of the fight – a high-energy pace with plenty of power shots and an abundance of skill and technique.

McKinney’s long-range boxing dictated the terms throughout most of the fight’s first half, though Barrera scored heavily in the final 90 seconds of round four. Barrera finally broke out of his shell in the third minute of the sixth and belabored McKinney with power-laden volleys. McKinney’s left eye began to swell and his mouth leaked blood but his courage was untouched as he eagerly traded with the undefeated Mexican.

Barrera broke open a boxing-oriented eighth with a little more than a minute remaining when he scored the fight’s first knockdown courtesy of a right-left-right. A follow-up barrage decked McKinney a second time and the 1988 U.S. Olympian barely avoided a fight-ending third only because of his vast experience and fortitude. A seven-punch explosion in round nine decked McKinney but the American roared back in the 10th with a classic right cross that badly stunned Barrera. McKinney’s rally continued in the 11th when a sudden lead overhand right forced Barrera’s right glove to touch the canvas. Referee Pat Russell correctly ruled it the first knockdown of Barrera’s 40-fight career.

Though Barrera led 106-100 on all three cards, the fight had the feel of a close contest entering the final round. Sensing this, Barrera took instant command by scoring knockdown number four with a long looping right to the stomach and what should have been a fifth knockdown with a Mexican hook to the liver that caused McKinney to turn away in agony. Russell waved off that trip to the canvas but Barrera punctuated his dominance moments later with a right that awkwardly spun McKinney’s head and folded his legs. This time Russell halted the fight without a count and as he kneeled by the fighter he spoke for many when he said “great fight son….you’ve got the best heart I’ve ever seen.”

That sentiment could have also applied to the winner, who was forced to fight through fire to reach the 40-0 mark.

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