A fan remembers Barry McGuigan vs. Steve Cruz, Fight of the Year 1986
On June 1, 2019, a charismatic and powerful world champion from “across the pond” was poised to make his mark in America against a challenger summoned from the sidelines on painfully short notice and for reasons that could not be foreseen. The stage for this champion to achieve his expected triumph was, by design, historic — Madison Square Garden in New York City — and the ultimate objective was tantalizing: Had this champion prevailed, the path would have been laid for the division’s first championship unification fight of the four-belt era, a fight that would have produced record purses for the combatants, would have generated even more ancillary revenue and would have shaped legacies.
But it was not to be. That champion, Anthony Joshua, was felled in stunning fashion by that upstart understudy Andy Ruiz Jr. who scored a seventh-round TKO victory that caused global shock waves and ruined what was thought to be the best-laid plans. Just like that, the unification mega-match between Joshua and the winner of the upcoming Deontay Wilder-Luis Ortiz rematch went up in smoke while Ruiz’s star shot into the stratosphere thanks to his roly-poly physique and Everyman persona. Meanwhile, the fighter who was replaced by Ruiz — Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller, who failed four drug tests for three separate substances — was forced to confront what might have been had it been he who faced that version of Joshua.
But before there was Anthony Joshua, there was WBA featherweight champion Barry McGuigan, a magnetic Irishman from the border town of Clones whose multi-layered ties to both sides of “The Troubles” made him a symbol of unity, a distinction he honored with the white dove sewn onto his trunks. His powerful performances inside the ring created the following slogan: “Let McGuigan Do the Fighting.” That’s because when he fought, he did so with a skill and a passion that pleased all sides of the violence that had been rocking his part of the world. He was a man who had “star” written all over him, and he was ready to expand his sphere of influence.
Before there was Andy Ruiz Jr., there was Steve Cruz, an unheralded blue-collar Texan who rose to the opportunity presented to him and produced the performance of a lifetime.
Before there was Jarrell Miller, there was Fernando Sosa of Argentina, the WBA No. 1 challenger who was forced to withdraw from this fight — and ultimately from boxing — for a reason that could not have been predicted: Not one, but two detached retinas. Without throwing a single punch, Sosa became the answer to a challenging trivia question.
Thirty-four years ago today, McGuigan and Cruz stepped inside the ring erected at the epicenter of championship boxing in the U.S. at the time — the parking lot outside Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. It was to be part of a card dubbed “The Triple Hitter” in which two of “The Four Kings” would grace the bill: Thomas Hearns (who would defend his WBC junior middleweight title against Mark Medal) and Roberto Duran (who would face Robbie Sims — the half-brother of undisputed middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler — in a 10-round crossroads match).
For McGuigan, the stakes went far beyond a successful title defense against Cruz. Had he won, he would have cemented his status as a transoceanic sporting star — a status that would have meant being paid tens of millions worth of various international currencies — and he would have paved the way for a potential mega-match with WBC counterpart Azumah Nelson, the Ghanaian warrior who pushed Salvador Sanchez to the brink before being stopped in Round 15, who powerfully disposed of Wilfredo Gomez to win his title belt, and who notched four successful defenses against Juvenal Ordenes (KO 5), Pat Cowdell (KO 1), Marcos Villasana (a majority W 12) and Danilo Cabrera (KO 10) just four months after Cabrera — himself a late sub for Sosa after Sosa suffered a fractured finger — lost to McGuigan in Round 14. Coincidentally, Nelson’s destruction of Cabrera — who cut and frustrated McGuigan before being stopped — was shown on NBC the day before McGuigan was to meet Cruz.
While it is true that McGuigan had appeared in America once before — he stopped Lavon McGowan on July 9, 1983 in Chicago on a show that included future heavyweight titleholder Frank Bruno (KO 2 Mike Jameson) and future undisputed welterweight champion Lloyd Honeyghan (KO 10 Kevin Austin) — this was to be McGuigan’s grand introduction to the American public, at least in terms of seeing him compete as a world champion.
Coming into the Cruz fight, devoted U.S. boxing fans were already familiar with McGuigan thanks to his two appearances on CBS (KO 5 Paul DeVorce and W 10 Juan LaPorte) as well as his three championship matches that were aired on ABC — his stirring 15 round decision over the legendary Eusebio Pedroza to capture the WBA featherweight title, his corner-retirement TKO win over mandatory challenger Bernard Taylor inside the heat-soaked Kings Hall in Belfast, and the struggle against Cabrera in Dublin.
Each telecast drove home McGuigan’s captivating yet incongruous persona — boxing hero on the one fist, transcendent symbol of peace on the other — and his fusion of polished aggressiveness, two-fisted power and resilience showed he was worthy of the attention he was receiving. But once he crossed the Atlantic to begin what was to be an eight-day, nine-city tour, McGuigan wanted to show the American public the entirety of his personality.
In the September 1986 issue of KO, writer Mike Steinke described a scene that illustrated McGuigan’s considerable charm, his sense of humor and his ease with the big stage.
“After mass, McGuigan was hustled to the Omni Park Central Hotel (in New York City, the first stop of the tour), where a press conference and a photo session were scheduled,” he wrote. “He would pose with Fernando Sosa, Thomas Hearns, Mark Medal, Roberto Duran, and Robbie Sims, McGuigan’s co-stars in June’s ‘Triple Hitter’ fight card in Las Vegas. The other fighters arrived before McGuigan, and the combination of the early hour and cold weather had put them in foul moods. As the photographers and fighters struggled through the session, the room was quiet and everyone felt uneasy.
“Just when it seemed as if the photo session was going to be a tedious chore, McGuigan burst into the room,” he continued. “As he cheerfully smiled and greeted everyone, it was as if a ray of sunlight was let into the gloomy room. Spotting Duran posing for a photographer, McGuigan smiled and shouted, ‘hey, Duran,’ and leaped in front of the cameras and eagerly shook hands with the Panamanian legend. Duran, who seconds before had been scowling, broke into a smile and happily shook the young Irishman’s hand. ‘I hear you won again. Only two rounds, right?’ asked McGuigan, referring to Duran’s knockout of Jorge Suero two nights earlier. As McGuigan put his arm around Duran for a picture, Duran lifted up his right hand and McGuigan jumped backwards in mock fear. Duran laughed and rubbed the little Irishman’s head.
“McGuigan’s outgoing personality surprised quite a few reporters, who came expecting to find the ponderous young man they had seen on television. But as they watched McGuigan jokingly over-exaggerate his poses and smiles, they realized the young Irishman was really a fun-loving lad. Several reporters commented that if the American media could capture the lighter side of McGuigan’s personality, he could emerge not only as America’s most popular fighter, but also as the sweetheart of the American sports scene.”
But to achieve all that, he had to defeat Cruz, who was earning $6.50 per hour as a plumber’s assistant and who entered the bout with a 25-1 (13 KOs) record as well as a No. 9 rating from the WBA once the previously 20th-rated Cruz was named McGuigan’s new opponent. Cruz was a familiar face to faithful viewers of ESPN’s “Top Rank Boxing” series, and his record boasted some notable names such as Nicky Perez (W 10), Dana Roston (W 10), Tommy Cordova (KO 9) and, most recently, world title challenger Rocky Garcia (majority W 10). Cruz’s only loss was a 141-second blowout to Lenny Valdez, and he reportedly was training for a possible rematch with Valdez when he got the call to replace Sosa.
“A combination of things caused me to lose that fight,” Cruz said in the December 1986 issue of KO. “I didn’t train right for the fight. It was just something I shouldn’t have done. I learned an important lesson in that fight: If you’re not going to go in there with your heart into it, you might as well not go in at all.”
While Cruz’s spirit was buoyed by the unexpected chance to win a world championship, McGuigan’s mind was troubled. The primary source of his angst was that his fight with Cruz was to begin at 6:20 p.m. PDT, which meant that it would be the only one of the three main-event fights that would be waged entirely in daylight. Although McGuigan trained for this match in Palm Springs — one of the most consistently hot locales in the U.S. — and despite having outlasted Bernard Taylor in the stifling heat inside the King’s Hall nearly nine months earlier, the champion was distressed by the possibility of fighting in what would be 110-degree heat. Not even the single-digit humidity reading could soften the sauna-like conditions.
Both men received a small scare at the weigh-in as each weighed slightly over the 126-pound limit. McGuigan said in his autobiography “Cyclone: My Story” that the “cushiony stage” and the process of weighing in other fighters had thrown off the scale’s accuracy, prompting officials at the Nevada State Athletic Commission to recalibrate. This time, both hit the championship limit on the button.
McGuigan was a solid 9-1 favorite but a flurry of late money on Cruz in the final 12 hours caused the odds to plunge to 5-2 by the first bell. Despite being listed as having slight disadvantages in height (one-half inch) and reach (one-and-a-half inches), Cruz’s plan was to stick-and-move while looking to counter with right hands. While Cruz enjoyed success employing this strategy, he was surprised by how well-rounded the champion proved to be.
“I had planned for McGuigan to come out in a crouch, like he usually does,” Cruz said in the December 1986 issue of KO. “And I planned that I was going to pick him apart with my jab, and then box and move like I did in my fight with Cordova. I didn’t expect McGuigan to come out with a jab of his own, and I didn’t figure him to have such a good jab like he did. It kind of threw me off, so I was trying to figure out another way to get in. I kept finding myself falling short because he had a longer reach than I did and he was catching me with his jab.”
The pace was quick, and while Cruz regularly speared McGuigan’s face with jabs, the constantly advancing champion also managed to close the distance and land thudding power shots to the challenger’s flanks. But Cruz did well enough during those close-in exchanges to indicate that this pairing was more equal than anyone could have expected. Three flush jabs to McGuigan’s face and several follow-up crosses late in Round 2 served notice that if McGuigan was going to get his expected win, he’d have to work hard for it.
Throughout the briskly paced early rounds the pair struck a very watchable balance: Enough defensive technique to indicate they were world-level competitors but more than enough offense to excite viewers and to inflict wear and tear. Through five rounds, McGuigan enjoyed the edge thanks to his strong efforts in rounds three and four in which he trapped Cruz on the ropes and blasted away with rock-fisted combinations. At least for now, all seemed well with “The Clones Cyclone.”
That would change in Round 6. Told by manager Dave Gorman to “get the hammer down a little more and get some respect out of him” and “you’re not throwing enough hooks,” Cruz returned to ring center, began and ended more of the skirmishes, and scored well with jabs. A triple-jab briefly pushed McGuigan to the ropes, after which Cruz connected with the punch Gorman was seeking from him, a booming hook to the jaw that caused McGuigan’s usually rock-solid legs to buckle.
With his corner urging him to consolidate his advantage, Cruz scored with a few solid punches, but refrained from going all out.
“I knew with the heat I’d have to save something,” he said.
In the seventh, it was now Cruz who was walking forward and seizing the initiative. Noting the frequency with which McGuigan was being hit, ringside commentator Harry Carpenter wondered if McGuigan had invested too much energy in the early rounds. The portion of the crowd that had been chanting for McGuigan now murmured nervously while those cheering for Cruz let their voices be heard with every connect. Still, Cruz remained composed enough to strike the delicate balance between piling up the points and preserving his gas tank.
Late in the seventh, Steele, who had repeatedly warned the champion about low blows, let it be known that he had just issued his third warning and would take a point for the next serious infraction. Meanwhile, both men’s faces were beginning to show signs of attrition — discoloration around both of Cruz’s eyes and a small cut near McGuigan’s left eyelid.
The fighters engaged in vigorous tit-for-tat combat in the eighth and ninth, and later in the ninth Steele issued the same threat to Cruz regarding low blows that he did for McGuigan two rounds earlier — taking points for the next violation.
Reminded by manager Barney Eastwood that his wife and son were watching at ringside, an inspired McGuigan seized command in the 10th and consistently kept the challenger on the back foot. But in the round’s later stages, Cruz turned the fight — and McGuigan himself — on his head after connecting with a snappy counter hook that drove the champion to a knee near one of the neutral corners. The weary but composed McGuigan waited until Steele counted “seven” to regain his feet and to non-verbally reassure his corner he was still in control of his faculties. Just as he had done in the sixth when he had McGuigan shaken, Cruz, with a sharp eye on the five-plus rounds that remained to be fought under the eroding but still broiling heat, played it close to the vest until the bell.
The knockdown significantly closed whatever lead McGuigan had built on the scorecards, and as he trudged toward his corner the champion had the look of a weary and slightly discouraged operator. His wife Sandra lowered her head and covered her eyes and the urgency level in his corner was clearly elevated, if not outright panicked.
The weight of the situation was clear to all: Forget about the fame, the millions and the history that seemed all but assured less than an hour earlier, McGuigan was now in the fight of his boxing life and it would take every ounce of his power, his talent and his resolve to save his championship. The next five rounds would determine his fate — and that fate was nowhere near certain.
“The Texan is looking menacing again,” Carpenter declared at the start of round 11. He looked quicker, stronger and filled with well-reasoned belief that his ultimate professional dream was within his grasp. The action appeared odd, for the champion who had scored 25 knockouts in 30 fights now was moving away from a challenger who had logged 13 in his 26 because he knew — at least at this point and time — that Cruz was the more threatening hitter. Not only that, Cruz’s legs were sturdy while McGuigan’s lacked their usual spring.
McGuigan’s abyss deepened when Cruz opened a cut over the champion’s right eye, then, in Round 12, after Steele made good on his threat and deducted a point from McGuigan for a left hook that struck the center of Cruz’s cup.
With the final result even more uncertain, McGuigan accessed his deepest recesses and attempted to summon a final drive. He marched forward and connected with several impressive volleys in the 13th that prompted a marveling Carpenter to ask from where McGuigan derived his strength. The 14th was closer, but McGuigan’s improbable show of strength helped create a lead on the scorecards that appeared almost unassailable.
That was the impression I received based solely on listening to the commentary of Tim Ryan and Gil Clancy, the longtime CBS team who were working the pay-per-view telecast for Showtime. I had not yet purchased a descrambler to decode the gnarled picture that was captured by my giant C-band satellite dish, but the audio was crystal clear. It wouldn’t be until sometime later that I fully grasped what unfolded in the 15th round — a round that would lift Cruz vs. McGuigan into the history books.
With the finish line in sight, the two men picked up their pace even more, but following the first exchange, Cruz connected with a right-left to the chin. Moments later, McGuigan dabbed at his face as if something was wrong, and , in response, the sharply observant Cruz came forward and landed a hearty right to the chin that caused McGuigan to stagger toward the neutral corner. This time, Cruz came forward behind punches that hit the target with almost unerring precision. A right-left-right that connected shortly after the midway point sent McGuigan reeling backward, after which he hit the floor with a thud. Up at three, the buzzed McGuigan walked toward the neutral corner pad with a vacant look in his eyes, but there was enough of a light within to convince Steele he was still fit to fight.
McGuigan did his best to avoid Cruz’s follow-up fire, but his shaky legs no longer had the reserves to keep the challenger at bay. A knifing right to the face was enough for McGuigan to topple backward, bounce off the ropes and fall to the canvas for the second time in the round. Only 35 seconds remained in the fight, and again, McGuigan arose by Steele’s count of three. Because Cruz strayed from the neutral corner, Steele stopped his count until the challenger complied with the neutral corner rule, a development that gave McGuigan a few more precious seconds of recovery time.
By the time Steele called the fighters back to action, 20 seconds remained, and as weak as McGuigan appeared, a TKO result was still a possibility. The Caesars crowd booed lustily for the only time in the fight when McGuigan immediately sought a clinch, but the survival tactic worked and McGuigan managed to finish the fight on his feet — barely.
The decision was unanimous, and the margins told a most dramatic story. While Medardo Villalobos’ card had Cruz a resounding 143-139 victor, jurists Guy Jutras and Angel Tovar’s cards reflected the bout’s frequent and often wild swings of momentum. Jutras’ score read 142-141 while Tovar’s was 143-142 for the winner — and new — WBA featherweight titleholder, Steve Cruz.
By scoring two knockdowns in the final round, Cruz did exactly what he needed to do to snatch away the championship, for had McGuigan kept his feet for the entire round, he would have retained his belt by split decision and even if McGuigan had suffered just one knockdown he would have kept the title by majority draw. Instead, the world had a new world champion — and The Ring had its 1986 Fight of the Year.
Although McGuigan didn’t want to make excuses immediately after the bout, explanations and criticisms emerged. One centered on his corner, which reportedly (and inexplicably) failed to hydrate him regularly until the eighth round and who did not have a single consistent voice. The other centered on the heat, which, for McGuigan, was a huge concern that proved prophetic.
“When I got back to the dressing room, I was beginning to feel a bit disoriented,” McGuigan wrote in his autobiography. “I think that was a combination of being caught so many times and of the dehydration. I certainly hadn’t drunk much during the fight, hardly anything for the first six or seven rounds, but you can’t really in boxing. You can’t drink copious amounts of water because you’d get a bloated belly.”
McGuigan complained of dizziness and headaches in his dressing room, and he was transported to a local hospital. Later, he experienced nausea and vomited, which ringside physician Dr. Edwin “Flip” Homansky said was evidence of heat prostration. According to the fight report printed in the November 1986 issue of KO, McGuigan was given an IV to replace his lost fluids as well as a brain scan, which did not indicate any significant swelling or bleeding.
Although a rematch clause was in the contract, McGuigan did not exercise it. In fact, he wouldn’t fight again until April 1988, and although he scored TKO wins over Nicky Perez, Francisco Tomas da Cruz and Julio Cesar Miranda before ending his career with a fourth-round TKO loss to Jim McDonnell in May 1989, McGuigan was never again the same force that stood at the doorstep of global superstardom. Nevertheless, McGuigan was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2005, closing the curtain on an in-ring boxing life that included a gold medal at the 1978 Commonwealth Games, a berth in the 1980 Olympics and a pro career that ended with a 32-3 (28 KOs) record.
As for Cruz, he was given a parade attended by 10,000 and, according to Sports Illustrated’s Ralph Wiley, he was given a $1 per hour raise by his employer, Ralph Rivera’s Plumbing Co. Following a physically draining and controversial 10-round split decision victory over Roger Arevalo in a non-title fight staged in his hometown of Fort Worth, Cruz was brutally dethroned by his mandatory challenger, Venezuela’s Antonio Esparragoza, via 12th round TKO in March 1987, also in Fort Worth. While Esparragoza went on to forge a four-year reign that included seven successful title defenses, Cruz soldiered on for six-and-a-half more years, going 10-6 (6 KOs). He fought for a world title twice more, losing by decision to Jorge Paez in August 1989 and by third-round stoppage to Paul Hodkinson in April 1992. His final record stands at 37-8 (19 KOs).
So while McGuigan was never the same fighter after losing to Cruz, Cruz was never the same fighter after defeating McGuigan. Both men left large pieces of themselves inside that broiling ring in Las Vegas, and their Fight of the Year-quality effort will be remembered for its ferocity, its tenaciousness and its melodramatic and life-changing conclusion.
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 20 writing awards, including two first-place awards, since 2006. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics” (available on Amazon) and the co-author of “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” (also available on Amazon). To contact Groves about a personalized autographed copy, use the email [email protected] or send him a message via Facebook or Twitter (@leegrovesboxing)
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