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Best I Faced: Iran Barkley

Photo from THE RING archives
12
Jun

Iran Barkley, an all-action fighter who made his name as a middleweight when the 160-pound division was particularly deep, lit up boxing during the 1980s and early ’90s. He wasn’t consistent — being just as likely to lose a fight he was favored to win as he was capable of upsetting the biggest stars in the sport — but he was always fun to watch. All told, the likeable New Yorker won world titles in three weight classes in an exciting career.

Barkley’s early years were particularly tough. He was born and raised in the notorious Patterson Projects in South Bronx, the youngest of eight children. Despite the hardships he has fond memories of his youth.

“It was tough. I had to battle with gangs, I was a former gang member in the Black Spades,” Barkley told RingTV.com. “We protected our neighborhood, we ran it in the ’70s, it’s not like it is now, the buildings run down, gangs were coming into the neighborhood, we were beating them up and kicking them out of there.”

Many in his family boxed but it was his sister – a female boxer – who first introduced him to the sport when he was 14 years old.

“The Blade” enjoyed a successful amateur career. He was the runner up to his best friend Dennis Milton at the New York Golden Gloves in 1981, the same year he won the Empire State Games. In 1982, he won silver at the United States amateur championships and bronze at the Copenhagen Box Cup. He also won bronze at the World Championships in Munich, Germany.

He was on the Olympic squad and had hopes of making the 1984 team. However, fate had other ideas.

“I didn’t want to wait the two years because my first daughter was born,” he explained, “and I had to figure out how to raise her and get money instead of robbing and stealing.

“I said, ‘I’ve got to figure out how to do this.’ I chose the boxing world and gave up the gang business. I was still cool with my gang. They supported me.”

Barkley exited the amateur system with a very respectable record of 95-4 (26 knockouts).

He turned pro in late ’82, and after winning his first four bouts the heavy-handed bruiser dropped a decision to Osley Silas, though he later avenged it. In early ’84, Barkley was stopped when he faced Marvin Hagler’s half brother Robbie Sims.

“I didn’t know the distance or [how to] pace [myself] at the time,” he said.

Barkley continued to progress and although he lost once more his career was clearly on the way up. He was one of the more popular fighters at the Felt Forum in his home city. He beat well respected Wilford Scypion in late ’85. The following year he stayed active, notably beating world-rated James Kinchen by 10-round split decision.

When Marvin Hagler was stripped of the IBF and WBA middleweight titles for facing an inactive Sugar Ray Leonard, Barkley was selected to face Sumbu Kalambay for one of the fractured titles. The two met in one of the final 15-round fights in Kalambay’s adopted Italy. Despite a sterling effort Barkley, he lost a spirited decision to the skilled but underrated African.

Unperturbed, Barkley set about getting a second chance, and two wins later, including a highly impressive fifth-round stoppage over highly touted Michael Olajide, Barkley was offered the chance to face WBC middleweight champion Thomas Hearns.

The two met in Las Vegas in the summer of 1988. Barkley entered as a 4-1 underdog and while expected to make for an entertaining fight most believed Hearns would win handily. It looked that way for two-and-a-half rounds, as Hearns speared Barkley with sharp, thudding shots to the head and body, busting up the New Yorker and cutting him badly over both eyes.

Photo from THE RING archives

It was doubtful referee Richard Steele and the ringside doctor would have let the fight continue into the fourth round. However, Barkley never stopped believing and is nothing if not resilient. He dug down deep within himself and with 45 seconds left in the round Barkley threw a Hail Mary right hand that landed perfectly, dropping boxing royalty flat on his back. Hearns made it to his feet but had nothing left and a follow up flurry dropped him through the ropes. It was one of the most unlikely wins of not just the ’80s but many other decades.

Eight-months later, Barkley met another ring legend: Roberto Duran. Barkley was hoping to avenge the loss of his friend Davey Moore who Duran had beaten previously. On this night Barkley wasn’t able to turn back the super-human effort put forth by the smaller, older man, who wouldn’t be denied.

Barkley learned just how special Duran was and famously afterwards said, “It was his heart… it just wouldn’t go.”

Looking back now he feels it wasn’t meant to be and it was simply Duran’s night. The fight was awarded THE RING magazine’s Fight of the Year award for 1989.

His name was such that he was able to fight Michael Nunn and Nigel Benn in middleweight title fights. However, by this time he was struggling badly to make 160 pounds and lost both bouts.

Photo from THE RING archives

Barkley worked his way back up at super middleweight where he demolished Darrin Van Horn in two brisk rounds to win the IBF 168-pound title. Just two-months later, Barkley met Hearns in a rematch this time at light heavyweight where they contested The Hitman’s WBA strap. Barkley still had Hearns’ number in terms of style, as his pressure and slugging produced another early round knockdown, but the Detroit legend got up and fought the New Yorker tooth and nail to the final bell. Barkley won a split decision and become an unlikely three-weight champion. Both wins helped him win the THE RING’s ‘Comeback of the Year’ award for 1992.

He made the decision to drop back to super middleweight where he was stopped by then up-and-coming James Toney in nine rounds. The following year he had one final world title fight, when he traveled to Germany and lost to Henry Maske. By this time Barkley was clearly on his way down.

“Henry Maske was a guy who caught me when I was a light heavyweight that came down from 240 pounds to fight him,” he said. “When I made weight I was dry. Henry was an alright boxer but he wasn’t a strong guy. It got away from me that day.”

Like many others before him and since, Barkley stuck around too long. By the mid-’90s, his prime was in the rear view mirror, but he continued to fight up at heavyweight for much of the rest of the decade.

“Boxing was my life,” he said passionately. “I didn’t know what else to do after that. You’re lost until you find yourself.”

Despite the numerous late-career losses, Barkley, who retired with a record of 43-19-1 (27 knockouts), is largely pleased with his boxing achievements.

“I feel I achieved everything I could have achieved,” he said. “Except saving the money and just moving on.

“I think I fought everybody they could have thrown at me, except John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi, Marvin Hagler, those would have been good fights. If I’d beat Duran maybe Ray Leonard would have had to fight me and maybe I’d be getting the millions they were getting. I was making comfortable money.”

While he enjoyed many highs and several lows, he finds it difficult to pin down a particular proudest moment.

“All the things I’ve accomplished in the boxing game, being in the boxing game, dealing with the fighters, meeting people,” he listed out for RingTV.com.

For several years life was tough for Barkley, however, due to the kindness of his friends he has been able to put his life back in order.

Barkley, now 57, is married and has four daughters from a previous relationship. He also has four grandchildren. He still lives in the Bronx and has been doing the celebrity tour, meeting and greeting, signing autographs, all of which keeps him actively involved in boxing. He says there is an autobiography being written on him called “It was never meant for me to win.”

He graciously took time to speak to RingTV.com about the best he fought in 10 key categories.

BEST JAB

Roberto Duran: Wow, in my pro career, you know who I would have to say? Duran. Duran had a jab that if he hits you with it, he knew how to throw punches off of it. He set everything up off that jab. Another fighter I always thought was perfect doing that was was James ‘The Heat’ Kinchen.

BEST DEFENSE

James Toney: He used to protect himself and roll. I really had to figure him out. He wasn’t a big puncher but that roll was frustrating.

FASTEST HANDS

Thomas Hearns: Tommy had fast hands. Being tall and lanky like he was, his hands were pretty quick. Tommy had a bigger punch with everything he threw. Michael Nunn’s punches, I didn’t really feel. He was quick but I didn’t feel his punches. He wasn’t quicker than Tommy.

FASTEST FEET

James Kinchen: As a matter of fact, James Kinchen and another guy I that didn’t get too much recognition I fought early in my career, Mike Tinley, (had fast feet). Kinchen, he was little and he had fast little feet.

BEST CHIN

Duran: Duran was a good catcher. I spun Duran around with a left hook one time. It was amazing. I said, “This guy took a shot that would have knocked a building down.” [Laughs]. James Kinchen. I hit

Photo from THE RING archives

him with good shots, he would always come back, even though I was a big puncher and knocked him down a couple of times, he just came back. Toney took a good shot but he was crafty with his rolls.

SMARTEST

Duran: He knew just how to get out of things. No matter how hard I hit him he would always come back and figure something out, someway how to survive. Toney had a good Ring IQ.

STRONGEST

Duran: [Laughs] Duran was the guy. He was a little guy but no matter what I hit him with he would roll and come back. He was still able to push me a little.

BEST PUNCHER

Photo from THE RING archives

Hearns: His power’s unbelievable. He was a lot stronger than I thought he was for a slim guy. Nigel [Benn] didn’t have any power to me. I felt a lot of punches but Nigel’s power to me, I didn’t really feel his power. That evening [against Benn], with me I couldn’t make [middleweight] weight anymore, I was steamed out but he did his job that he had to do. I fought guys who hit way harder than him.

 

 

BOXING SKILLS

Duran: His skills were sharp. He was a crafty guy. He’ll roll back and punch, he’d catch you off balance if he could. He was a smart, crafty man.

BEST OVERALL

Hearns: Because of his punching power and his skills, his ability to jab, move and be that tall to be able to box.

 

Questions and/or comments can be sent to Anson at [email protected] and you can follow him at www.twitter.com/AnsonWainwright

  • Dee Money

    I know its brought up every time, so let me be the first. I love reading these things.

  • John Swan

    Always find it amusing how fighters struggle to give credit to opponents who blew them away and are always more inclined to put praise on an opponent they had a close fight with. Benn annihilated Barkley, knocked him down three times in the first round and Barkley says he didn’t feel his power.

    • Turner Wednesday

      Agreed. It’s called fighters pride I reckon. Ben was a ferocious puncher and Barkley is telling lies.

      Then again, I haven’t been in with Benn so what do I know!

    • Mark Schoeman

      Or you were never an athlete…and that’s not an insult, just an observation as to why it’s amusing. I can recall in my younger years playing teams that seem to struggle with teams we crushed, yet they gave us the hardest times…losing badly to teams that were clearly inferior because we had some extenuating circumstance…beating teams that were brimming with more talent, who crushed teams we couldn’t beat, but we just had their number.

      If I condensed all my athletic experience as only my own, in an individual sport like boxing, I’d have recollections that a guy that blew me out was nowhere near the level of other guys and the blowout was because I was injured/drained/listless…the guy who seemed average to an observer, faced me when I felt my best and gave me fits…the legend who I battled tooth and nail was every bit as advertised and I feel lucky to escape with a win.

      That’s why these features are fascinating; it’s the participants. Everything else here is nothing but observer/experts with their “hot takes”. This is the guy that actually did it, not just watch it…and the only amusing part is fans getting upset because their favorites aren’t praised…

      • Pietey Trenton

        Fuck me that was well said sir

        • Mark Schoeman

          And I really want to reiterate: I’m not knocking the non-athlete, trying to big league them, like they can’t have an observer’s opinion. I’m in the same boat with boxing. I’ve engaged in it as a hobby, but I’ve never competed, so my perspective is pure observer.

          However, from the perspective of having competed in other sports, I have experiences where I lost badly to a team like Benn – yet still felt that team was average – and beaten teams like Hearns – and felt we just matched up well, if not outright lucky. I’m sure observers would knock my interpretation, but they weren’t on the court/field, so they really don’t know anything.

          • Eddy

            An excellent response and respectfully put. Well done that man.

      • TNT

        You the old saying about truer words. I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    • Adam Davies

      Steve Collins – from his ‘Best I faced’

      Nigel Benn hit the hardest. I don’t even think Benn knew how hard he hit to be honest (laughs). Nigel caught me flush in the first fight and I thought he had broken all of my teeth and this horrible taste filled my mouth. I actually felt sick to my stomach and nobody had ever hit me like that before.

      Granted Steve was never in the ring with Hearns but still…

      Michael Watson – from his ‘Best I faced’

      No thinking required for biggest puncher but styles make fights. I knew I had that fight won from the start and was very confident in myself. I predicted six rounds and that’s how long it went. The fight with Nigel made me who I am.

      Admittedly I am a bit of a Benn fan, but I can see his flaws and his shortcomings and his punching power definitely wasn’t one of them. I can accept that Iran felt he had been hit harder once or twice, but to say ‘I fought guys who hit way harder than him’ – definitely fighter’s pride.

      • IanF69

        Nice post.

        • Adam Davies

          Thanks

          • IanF69

            Ahh borrowed is a better word……still a well though out post.

      • TNT

        With all due respect, did either Collins or Watson fight the same fighter whom Barkley faced? While I agree that Been was a horrific puncher, I wouldn’t simply dismiss Barkley’s perspective as “fighters pride.” Please refer to Schoeman’s and Dougie’s posts.

        • Adam Davies

          Hi TNT

          15 months between the Collins and Barkley fights, so similar if not the same. Collins fought Benn at the tail end of both of their careers, and at 168, so no.

          Schoeman’s and Dougie’s are both excellent posts making excellent points. If I had been fouled like that I might struggle to give Benn any credit at all. Pretty sure Nigel was ducking below the knees a couple of times, never mind the belt, and that late shot was shameful. Barkley also campaigned at higher weights, so he fought bigger guys and didn’t feel Benn’s power at 168

          He’s never hit me so all I can do is observe and comment I guess. To me, I have no problem with saying Nigel didn’t hit him hardest – I can respect that, but when I read ‘Benn had no power to me’, ‘I didn’t really feel his power’ and ‘I fought guys who hit way harder than him’ it does seem like a bit of pride.

          It’s a keyboard warriors observation, that’s all – I could be way off the mark.

    • Benn caught a weight-drained (and over-hydrated) Barkley cold in the opening seconds of their fight. He also nailed Barkley HARD when Barkley was down (on all fours). Barkley literally didn’t know what hit him. He’s not bullshitting when he says he didn’t feel Benn’s power because Benn numbed him out with his Kamikaze attack and his blatant fouls (when Barkley was down). It is what it is.

    • IanF69

      Yip…pride got the better of him.

  • Droeks Malan

    Loved “The Blade.” He always gave you your money’s worth, unlikely three weight champion, respect.

  • John Grady

    Outstanding article, this series is the most educational and interesting offered by this great publication.

    It is interesting that the great RD “won” more categories above and had defeated IB, but the legendary TH (who lost twice to IB) was viewed as IB’s best overall foe.

    IB’s explanation regarding not ranking NB’s power as the top (despite being knocked down three times and out in one round) makes sense to me.

    Great article, thank you for authoring it.

  • Abraham E. Hernández

    He is a go to example for my boxing noob friends that Styles make fights with the TH, IB and MP trio.

  • maxx

    Was not aware Barkley boxed in the “Copenhagen Box cup”, a good little tournament that UK amateurs traditionally have featured prominently in,,,,,,a while back I bumped into a former sparring partner of Benn at a amateur show in Walsall, he stated for a smallish middleweight Nigel had freakish power and was a vicious fighter on the streets of Ilford though he did apparently get sparked out cold outside Illfords McDonalds.

    • IanF69

      I remember you telling someone on here Nigel got sparked out at Mc D’s …but you never mentioned you fought in the Cop Box Cup….your a dark horse Maxx…and one day you will give us your full resume……and what name you fought under …as I for one would be interested….Cheers M8

      • maxx

        I was told Nigel got sparked out by a chap called “Lennie” who was from the same boxing gym as Nigel, apparently Nigel had busted up Lennie’s brother who was a passive ballet dancer or so, anyway I guess Lennie got his revenge and he must have been a tough dude as the chap who informed me was a former amateur opponent of mine and a big 6ft 1inch middleweight who is currently serving in the London Met, he sparred Nigel on many occasions and stated Nigel had truly FREAKISH power for a guy his size………the Copenhagen Box Cup features boxers from as many as 20 countries and is of similar standard to the Haringey Box Cup, a good test for any upcoming amateur boxer…….In regards to myself, I will just say this, I always gave it my best, I never had any major bigtime achievements though I am reasonably proud of my modest achievements in the ring and outside the ring.Kudos Ian pal

        • JV316

          that little mcd’s detail cracked me up….and i would like to say i am also a fan of max cherry (jackie brown one of my all-time favorite movies)

          • maxx

            Robert Forster is a terrific actor and seems like a real cool dude, did you know that he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Max Cherry, a cool laconic character in a terrific movie “Jackie Brown”.
            chill out to this buddy.Kudos
            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbH3hSS1xCY

          • JV316

            i actually did know forster was nominated for that role maxx, what a great understated subtle performance, and classic tarantino move of reviving a great actor’s career… and was just listening to across 110th street yesterday! it seems to find its way onto most of my spotify playilsts…and of course there’s this great delfonics track from the film…
            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CsG8Xmxkgq4

          • maxx

            Tarantino has a knack of spotting great talent, Robert was one of his favourite actors (though for some incomprehensible reason, a forgotten and very under appreciated gem of the film industry) yet thanks to “Jackie Brown” his career was revived and talent appreciated around the globe……Good to hear the Delfonics track, has been a long time.Kudos pal

          • JV316

            same to you man, good to meet another fan of an underappreciated movie. take care, enjoy the fights this weekend

          • maxx

            Will do, my money is on the Krusher.Kudos pal.

          • JV316

            good luck maxx, rooting for ward here but don’t have a prediction and don’t think i’m going to bet on it, bet on ward last time and barely escaped with that one, probably shouldn’t tempt fate twice!

  • Nick

    Great piece on a true fighter and champion who fought everyone!

  • william ellis

    Barkley was even better than the article claims – a number of observers thought he won the fight with Duran, and though his two victories over Hearns were a little fluky, no one else beat Hearns twice. He belongs in the same group with Leonard, Hagler (both of whom never fought him) Duran and Hearns. Easy to hit – but not easy to beat.

  • J rock

    That guys resume is filled with god’s of the arena.

  • Joey Junger

    Barkley was one of those guys who just had the ability to make you root for him no matter who he was fighting. I don’t know why, but I always winced when he was taking punishment. I still find it hard to go back and watch his fight with Toney, even though it was a great coming-out party for “Lights Out.”