3. Feb. 24, 1989 – W 12 Iran Barkley, Convention Center, Atlantic City, New Jersey
Every once in a great while, a fighter comes along who is capable of creating magic. Muhammad Ali was one such athlete, for he sprung historic upsets of Sonny Liston and George Foreman because he lived to prove “the experts” wrong. Bernard Hopkins is another, for he was left for dead before his fights with Felix Trinidad, Antonio Tarver and Kelly Pavlik before shocking the world with decisive victories over each. As he approaches his 49th birthday, “The Executioner’s” sorcery continues to amaze.
Duran, of course, also should be counted among boxing’s greatest wizards. Thirteen years of nearly uninterrupted success was followed by eight-plus years of dizzying peaks, humbling valleys and stretches of mediocrity – at least when compared to his previous standard. Time after time, Duran shook off the disappointments by taking a long break, then starting over. Such was the case after the “No Mas” fight in November 1980 (nine months), the KO loss to Thomas Hearns (19 months) and a bitter split-decision loss to Robbie Sims (11 months). Each time Duran brushed himself off and began a new winning streak that eventually led to big-money opportunities.
Since the loss to Sims, Duran’s sixth in his last 18 fights since the Leonard rematch, Duran had run off five straight wins against decent opposition but hardly looked like a world-beater in any of them. Nevertheless, Duran’s name still had massive box-office appeal and at age 37, the 21-year ring veteran didn’t appear to be a mortal threat to a champion’s crown.
That low-risk, high-reward formula certainly appealed to Iran Barkley, whose out-of-left field overhand right separated Thomas Hearns from his WBC middleweight title the previous June. The three round knockout was deemed THE RING’s 1988 Upset of the Year and “The Blade’s” brain trust believed Duran to be a lucrative yet do-able first-defense assignment.
But Barkley’s desire to fight Duran wasn’t just about making “easy” money; his motivation was also deeply personal. Davey Moore, the man Duran brutally dethroned six years earlier, was a close friend of Barkley’s and he felt, quite rightly, that the beating Duran dished out effectively ruined the rest of Moore’s life. That life was unexpectedly snuffed out in June 1988 when the 28-year-old Moore’s parked car slipped out of gear and ran over him. Barkley dedicated the Duran fight to Moore’s memory and vowed to gain indirect vengeance for what he felt was a great wrong.
The 6-foot-1 Barkley was an imposing physical specimen. Standing six-and-a-half inches taller and sporting a five-and-a-half edge in reach, the 28-year-old Barkley also was nine years younger and wielded a potent left hook that was responsible for most of the 16 knockouts in his 25-4 record.
This Bronx Bomber was also a survivor, both in and out of the ring. The onetime member of the street gang “The Black Spades,” Barkley turned to boxing and used a powerful but often crude style to bulldoze opponents. He overcame three early losses to put together a 13-fight win streak that earned him a shot at the vacant WBA middleweight title against Sumbu Kalambay. After losing a 15-round decision, Barkley scored two knockout wins – including a sensational off-the-floor fifth round stoppage of Michael Olajide – to secure the fight with Hearns. Just five days after the death of Moore, Barkley overcame two horribly cut eyes to stop “The Hit Man” in scintillating fashion.
Despite his emotional declarations, Barkley opened the bout by calmly working behind the jab, utilizing an unusually tight guard and firing straighter-than-usual power shots.
Duran, for his part, circled the stalking Barkley and looked for chances to slip in his trademark counter rights. Barkley appeared to control the vast majority of the opening round but Duran erased all his solid work by slipping Barkley’s jab and firing a well-timed right to the ear that badly wobbled the champion. Any doubts about Duran’s power at 160 – at least on this night – were erased by that single blow and Duran would put that information to good use later in the bout.
Barkley’s constant punching and heavy body shots trumped Duran’s flashy replies in rounds two through six but Duran picked up his pace considerably in the seventh. With 1:21 remaining in that stanza, Duran nailed Barkley with a right over the top that wobbled his legs. Barkley answered with a flush double hook that would have laid out most middleweights but Duran’s legendary chin absorbed them with nary a flinch.
That chin was tested again early in the eighth when a Barkley hook spun Duran nearly 180 degrees but, as Barkley had done previously, Duran bounced back with plenty of his own offense. His peppery combinations out-shined Barkley’s bombs in rounds eight, nine and 10, and his accurate rights swelled, cut and nearly closed the champion’s left eye.
Surprisingly, it was the younger Barkley who was breathing heavily in his corner between rounds 10 and 11 while the bright-eyed Duran remained remarkably fresh. As he pondered his situation, Duran’s eyes revealed much about his state of mind. In his youth they had the look of a frothing assassin but here, at age 37, they were clear, focused, clinical and devoid of excess emotion.
He had a job to do and he knew exactly how to do it without wasting his limited energy supply. His extreme relaxation in the ring enabled him to outlast younger, more eager opponents, especially in the trenches. He also sensed that he was slightly behind entering the final six minutes and that he needed some of that old Duran magic to secure victory.
In the final minute of the 11th Duran connected with a heavy lead right that stunned Barkley, then a left-left-right that landed flush. Moments later, Duran reached back into his prime and produced a combination for the ages – an overhand right, a 45-degree hook, a right to the ear, a glancing hook and a scorching cross that floored Barkley and electrified a Convention Center crowd that fought through a snowstorm to secure their seats.
Barkley arose at Joe Cortez’s count of seven and managed to ride out the final seconds, but he unwittingly revealed his true state by twice failing to properly identify his corner.
Barkley tried his best to pull himself together in the 12th and for the first two minutes he performed admirably. In the final 60 seconds, however, Duran’s shotgun jabs caused Barkley’s legs to shudder and his jolting rights at close range scored often enough to close the mathematical gap one final time. Only after the final bell sounded did Duran engage in vintage bravado as he stared daggers at Barkley while bouncing lightly on his toes.
The scorecards were split and widely divergent. Judge Dave Brown saw “The Blade” a 116-113 winner while Giuseppi Ferrari turned in a 118-112 card for Duran. Veteran jurist Tom Kaczmarek cast the deciding ballot of 116-112 for the winner – and new – champion.
With the victory Duran became only the third fighter – and the first Latin – to capture major titles in four weight classes. Moreover his championship arc was lengthened to a remarkable 17 years and the fight was declared THE RING’s 1989 Fight of the Year – Duran’s first and only such honor.
In reality Duran defeated two opponents this night – Barkley and Father Time.