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Hall of Fame inductee Barry Tompkins recalls 1980s glory days

05
Jun

I believe I was around 10 years old when I first heard Barry Tompkins’ voice.

“Rocky IV” was released in the U.K. in January 1986 and I eagerly queued outside a local cinema, in the freezing cold, along with scores of other excited youngsters. I remember being confused that Rocky was beating up on Mr. T (I hadn’t seen “Rocky III”) at the beginning and I was upset that Apollo Creed met his demise at the hands of Ivan Drago. I also recall the audience screaming “Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!” during the final bout but, even at 10 years old, I knew better. I didn’t shout for “The Italian Stallion” – I melted into my seat and cringed.

I can’t remember Tompkins, who played a sportscaster during the finale, but I know I heard his voice.

As the years and decades passed, however, Tompkins became a constant companion. His commentary was synonymous with some of the most transcendent fights of the 1980s and it became part of boxing study hall. Sugar Ray Leonard versus Thomas Hearns versus Hagler versus Roberto Duran – Tompkins was always there. The San Francisco native also officially announced the arrival of a 20-year-old Mike Tyson, when “Iron” Mike’s punch was the fistic equivalent of the world’s deadliest snake bite.

“We have a new era in boxing!” Tompkins bellowed after a legless Trevor Berbick got to his feet, at the third time of asking, only to be stopped by referee Mills Lane at 2:35 of Round Two.

The irony is that despite a versatile career, spanning six decades and a multitude of sports, Tompkins will always be remembered by fight fans for his 10 years at HBO. He has done so much more, including 100s of other fights for FOX Sports and Showtime, but he accepts the HBO tag without complaint. Tompkins knows how special that era was but, despite his professional involvement, didn’t believe his ticket was punched to Canastota, New York.

“I’m looking forward to (being inducted) but I was shocked,” Tompkins told RingTV.com. “Being inducted never entered my mind because I do a lot other things. I’ve never been just a boxing guy. I’ve always prided myself on being able to do a lot of different sports and I like doing a lot of different sports. So, to go into the Hall of Fame for any one sport never entered my mind.

“More than anything else, the fact that it comes from my peers, makes this very special. It’s an honor.”

Tompkins (right) and fellow-inductee Steve Farhood.

Tompkins is 76 years old but still operates on an extremely busy schedule. He provides boxing commentary for Showtime’s “ShoBox” series, along with esteemed boxing expert Steve Farhood (who is also being inducted this year) and former IBF junior middleweight titleholder Raul Marquez.

“I never think about age,” said Tompkins. “I can’t hide from it but it helps that I’m always around young people. I do a lot of college football and college basketball, so I’m around college kids all the time. My co-crew at Showtime, a lot of them are half my age, so I try not to think old. I still run and I don’t think about it. I’ve been healthy and I’ve never been in a hospital in my life.”

Indeed, Tompkins sounds just as vibrant as he always has and, because he intrinsically knows what’s required, provides a wonderful interview. We discussed 10 fights he worked during the 1980s in a bid to uncover some new and interesting anecdotes.

SUGAR RAY LEONARD TKO 14 THOMAS HEARNS

Location: Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada.

Date: Sept. 16, 1981

“One of the things I remember about that fight is that Ray was usually my co-commentator unless, of course, he was fighting. What they did for that one was bring in (welterweight contender) Randy Shields to stand in for him. They hired him because he’d beaten Ray as an amateur and he’d lost to both Leonard and Hearns as a professional. Anyway, Shields had never done broadcasting before so in every big moment, he’d just scream. I’m trying to call a fight and he’s like (Tompkins shouts), ‘Whoah!’ and it was like sitting next to someone who had bought a ticket. I got off the air and thought it was one of the worst broadcasts I’d ever done in my life but it was one of the great fights (laughs).”

LARRY HOLMES TKO 13 GERRY COONEY

Location: Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada

Date: June 11, 1982

“That’s a memorable fight because I knew both of them really well – and I liked both of them too. But that was the most volatile pre-fight I’ve ever been around in my life and there was so much racial tension. Not from the (fighters) but from (Cooney’s managers) Dennis Rappaport and Mike Jones, who painted Cooney as ‘The Great White Hope’ and just completely overplayed it. At the weigh-in, there was a kind of tension in that room that I hadn’t seen before and I haven’t seen since. That was the most memorable part of that fight. Larry and Gerry were really good guys, who were thrown into a racially-charged situation and neither one of them had anything to do with it.”

Arguello (left) and Pryor (right) put on a fight for the ages. Photo: THE RING

AARON PRYOR TKO 14 ALEXIS ARGUELLO

Location: Orange Bowl, Miami, Florida.

Date: Nov. 12, 1982

“The greatest fight I ever saw. People always ask me, ‘What’s the greatest fight you ever did?’ and, just in terms of the fight itself, this is the one. But there was more to it than that. It was at the Orange Bowl. There was a capacity crowd of around 60,000 people and, at that time, the Civil War was going on in Nicaragua. Arguello was a supporter of the Sandinista National Liberation Front and with the fight being in South Florida, there was a huge Hispanic population and an extremely volatile atmosphere. It was decided days beforehand that there would be no national anthems, then the fireworks were canceled because the organizers feared gunshots. That was before the bell rang and, in terms of the action, it was an absolute war. Both absorbed horrendous punches.”

MARVELOUS MARVIN HAGLER UD 15 ROBERTO DURAN

Location: Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada

Date: Nov. 10, 1983

“At the end of that fight, Duran, who had really made Hagler work (for victory), came over to where Ray and I were sitting. He stuck his head between the ropes and said to Ray, ‘You can beat that guy.’ That was the moment where Ray began to think more seriously about fighting Hagler. Ray didn’t say anything that night but a few weeks, or months later, he takes me out in this boat for lunch and outlined his entire battle plan for defeating Hagler. He said that you must move, stay off the ropes, throw eye-catching flurries and close rounds strongly. Ray was a one-of-a-kind and a great student of the game. This was all down to what Duran had said.”

SUGAR RAY LEONARD TKO 9 KEVIN HOWARD

Location: DCU Center, Worcester, Massachusetts

Date: May 11, 1984

“I had to help Ray up the stairs to his house and he had won that fight. What does the loser look like? (laughs) The other memory I have, though, is that Ray’s driver took me to the airport afterwards and he was an older, grey-haired guy – a very interesting guy. We were talking about the Howard fight and he said, ‘Sometimes your mind writes a check that your ass can’t cash.’ You know, I’ve heard that phrase a 1000 times since but that was the first time I heard that expression and it came from Ray’s driver…about Ray.”

ROCKY BALBOA KO 15 IVAN DRAGO

Location: Moscow, Russia

Date: Dec. 25, 1984

“It took two weeks to do an 18-minute scene for the film and it was eight-hour days. I was bored to tears. It was up in Vancouver and we had to be in every single shot. The audio part took one day but we just sat around for the rest of the time. There was one scene where the actor playing Drago’s manager (Michael Pataki) had to run on to the ring apron and say this diatribe in Russian in Drago’s ear. At the end of the diatribe, Brigitte Nielsen had to stand up in the audience and say ‘Niet.’ That was the only line she had. So, the actor said the diatribe in Russian, which he didn’t speak by the way and Brigitte Nielsen stands up and says, (Tompkins downplays) ‘Niet.’ (Director/star Sylvester) Stallone goes through every emotion with her: ‘Give me fear. Give me anger. Give me love. Give me hate.’ There must have been 32 takes and the actor doing the Russian lines got it right every single time. She couldn’t get one word right and it drove me crazy.”

MARVELOUS MARVIN HAGLER TKO 3 THOMAS HEARNS

Location: Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada

Date: April 15, 1985

“The greatest three rounds of boxing I’ve ever seen. I watched it the other night and what struck me was how accurate Ray (Leonard) was with his commentary in that fight. He was pretty spot on. Ray referred to the fact that Hearns couldn’t last, if he fought the fight the way he did. He pointed out that Hearns was getting tired, even at the end of the first round. Ray kind of saw what was happening and, in listening to his commentary, he was on it every bit as much as I was – maybe more. I have to admit to a certain bias when it comes to Marvin Hagler; he wasn’t only a great fighter but a great champion. I always thought he was the real deal and he fought everyone there was. I also had the pleasure of doing commentary with him, when Ray fought, and he did a damn good job.”

Tyson (right) attacks Berbick in their WBC title fight. Photo by THE RING

MIKE TYSON TKO 2 TREVOR BERBICK

Location: Hilton Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada

Date: Nov. 22, 1986

“What’s funny about that line (‘We have a new era in boxing.’) is that there was no forethought behind it. To be honest, I don’t think it’s such a great line anyway and it’s something that almost anyone could have said. I had done a few of Tyson’s fights before this one and had absolutely no doubt whatsoever that he would beat Trevor Berbick. Honestly, though, after that fight, I didn’t think we’d see Tyson lose for 10 years – I really didn’t. I didn’t think Tyson would lose until he was too old to fight. What’s interesting about Tyson back then is, in an interview, he wanted to talk about anything other than the fight. If you asked him a direct question about the fight, he’d just say, ‘I’ll take care of that.’ But the dichotomy is that he would always sit on a sofa and hug a pillow – so there was always this soft and fuzzy thing going on – but then a video would be playing in a loop and it was a slaughterhouse. He could be talking about kids, dogs, birds, whatever but, on the TV, three feet away from him, was cattle being slaughtered. It was brutal.”

SUGAR RAY LEONARD SD 12 MARVELOUS MARVIN HAGLER

Location: Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada

Date: April 6, 1987

“The most memorable thing about that fight, for me, was that I knew both of them so well. I obviously knew Ray a little bit better but I liked both guys and that’s hard. I can honestly say that, in all the years of doing all these different sports that, other than one or two times, I have never cared about who won. Obviously, I cared about Ray when he was in fights but that was because I cared about him and not because I was a boxing fan. That fight was hard for me to cover because I cared about them both. It was such a big event and the buildup culminated in this incredible sound that went through the crowd when they first seen the fighters coming to the ring. The only time I’ve ever encountered anything like it was in the Kentucky Derby. When the Kentucky Derby starts, it’s the same kind of thing when the race comes all the way up the stretch. That’s my abiding memory of that fight: You didn’t just hear the crowd; you felt it.”

MIKE TYSON KO 1 MICHAEL SPINKS (Tompkins provided pre-fight material, not commentary)

Location: Convention Center, Atlantic City, New Jersey

Date: June 27, 1988

“You know, I’m not sure how much Michael Spinks wanted to fight. I had to go up to Grossinger’s to watch him work out and (trainer) Eddie Futch, who I’d gotten to know well over the years, was there. After we’d done the whole interview and workout thing, Eddie and I were sitting out on the deck of this place where we were staying and I asked him, ‘Does (Spinks) have a chance?’ Eddie didn’t even look up and just said, ‘No.’ That’s all he said, ‘No.’ That’s my main memory of Spinks and, of course, he went in there and got knocked out quick. At least he tried, though – he went out on his shield.”

 

 

 

Tom Gray is a U.K. correspondent/editor for RingTV.com and a member of THE RING ratings panel. Follow him on Twitter @Tom_Gray_Boxing

 

 

 

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