On the anniversary of his historic upset victory over Tommy Hearns, former triple weight world champion Iran Barkley discusses life, his helter skelter professional career and the night, ‘The Hitman’s,’ gun jammed.
Boxing in the 1980s was dominated by four names; Roberto Duran, ‘Sugar,’ Ray Leonard, ‘Marvelous,’ Marvin Hagler and Tommy ‘The Hitman,’ Hearns. These four fighters were regarded as ‘The Four Kings,’ world champions who earned their legendary status as a result of their epic encounters with each other.
There have also been other fighters whose paths have been intertwined with the aforementioned, ‘Four Kings.’ Puerto Rico’s three-weight world champion Wilfred Benítez fought everyone with the exception of Marvin Hagler, and is increasingly considered a fifth king.
However there is a sixth name that often gets overlooked when it comes to the discussion about this great pantheon of fighters.
Iran “The Blade,” Barkley is a multi-weight world champion most famous for upsetting the odds when he challenged Tommy “The Hitman,” Hearns for the WBC middleweight title on the 6th June 1988.
Born in 1960 Iran Barkley was raised in the Patterson Projects, in the South Bronx district of New York City. The area was notorious for drugs, gangs and violence. To say he had a tough upbringing was an understatement. As child he ran the streets as a member of a local street gang and the young Barkley had to regularly fight his way in and out of his own apartment building, usually against older youths seeking to relieve him of his money and shoes.
The youngest of eight children, Barkley was often aided by his older sister Yvonne who would track down her brother’s muggers and beat them up. Yvonne later became a professional boxer herself and a pioneer of women’s boxing in the 70s, she was also extremely influential on her younger brother’s boxing career.
“My sister was a natural born fighter,” Barkley insists, “She came to me and said, ‘I’m tired of fighting your battles; you’re going to fight for yourself.’ So she took me to a gym where my cousin also boxed and that’s how it started.”
Barkley enjoyed a successful amateur career, winning a silver medal in the 1981 Golden Gloves and a Bronze medal in the 1982 World Amateur Championships both in the Middleweight division. However he decided to turn professional following the birth of his daughter in 1982.
“I went to the Golden Gloves four times, the fourth time I went to the finals and then I turned professional in 1982. I was on the Olympic team and I had the option to either go to the Olympics or turn pro. After my daughter was born in 1982 I decided to turn pro because I needed the money. I had a harder road than the guys that won the medals. I linked up with a good friend of mine; Davey Moore [a future WBA junior middleweight champion] and I was his top sparring partner. I caught the eye of Bob Arum and he signed me up.”
Barkley made a solid start to his professional career but in June 1984, in his ninth fight he encountered Robbie Sims, the half-brother of middleweight world champion Marvin Hagler. This was a see-saw battle which could have been ended by either fighter at any stage, but the more experienced Sims prevailed with a sixth round stoppage.
Three fights later Barkley lost to the unbeaten Eddie Hall, in an exciting fight which saw both boxers exchange heavy blows. Barkley could have ended the fight in the seventh when he staggered his opponent, but Hall managed to survive and claim an eight round majority decision. Hall would later fight a host of future middleweight champions including Chris Pyatt, Steve Collins and Julian Jackson.
Despite the early losses in his career Barkley quickly established a reputation as a tough fighter with a good left hook. He was not afraid of going toe-to-toe with opponents, or taking their punches in an effort to land his own.
If Barkley needed inspiration to rebound from these early setbacks then he credits one individual in particular as being able to provide the necessary motivation. Teddy Brenner, was an experienced match-maker with a reputation for making exciting even fights. He had arranged fights involving Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Floyd Patterson, George Foreman and Roberto Duran. He was closely associated with Madison Square Garden serving as the venue’s matchmaker during the sixties and seventies, before joining Bob Arum’s Top Rank Inc. as an advisor in 1980.
Barkley recalls, “Teddy used to always say, ‘I don’t make fights, I make wars.’ If you got past him and the fighters he put in front of you then you were a great fighter.”
“Teddy was a shrewd man, thanks to him he made me a successful man. One day he said to me, ‘hey Barkley! You think you can fight?! Nawh you can’t fight! You’re nothing but a punch drunk fighter and you’ll never make it to the title!’ That made me mad. Every time I fought I put Teddy Brenner’s face on them. I thought, I got to destroy everyone he puts in front of me and that was my mission.”
After the loss to Hall Barkley won thirteen consecutive fights, eight of them by stoppage. Along the way he stopped former world title challenger Wilford Scypion in eight rounds, won a split decision against Mike Tinley in a gruelling fight and pulled off an upset by knocking down and outpointing James ‘The Heat,’ Kinchen, who at the time was the number one contender for the WBC middleweight title.
These wins earned Barkley a shot at the vacant WBA world middleweight title against Sumbu Kalambay in Livorno, Italy in 1987. Barkley’s first world title shot ended in defeat as Kalambay boxed his way to a points victory in what was the last WBA middleweight title fight scheduled for fifteen rounds.
Barkley rebounded from his loss with a split decision over the capable Sanderline Williams, followed by a fifth round stoppage of Michael Olajide to set up a second world title shot against Tommy ‘The Hitman,’ Hearns in Las Vegas.
Already a world champion in four separate weight divisions, Hearns was a 4-1 favourite going into the Barkley fight. He had won forty-five of his then forty seven bouts and the only defeats on his record had been to ‘Sugar,’ Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler. At twenty nine years Hearns was considered to be in his prime but the Barkley camp felt otherwise.
In the build-up to the fight Barkley’s manager John Reetz described Hearns as, “a fighter in descent. His legs are gone. He’s got two or three nails in his coffin already and Iran’s got the rest of the nails.” The day before the fight Barkley addressed a media conference and with supreme confidence told the journalists that he planned to finish his man.
Reflecting back on the fight Barkley says, “I knew Tommy Hearns a long time, he was going to be hard to beat, but I had seen things that made me confident that I could beat him. I knew he wasn’t strong enough for me, I knew he couldn’t take my punches, I knew if I put my mind to it I could beat him. If I could get past his jab and get to the fourth and fifth round I knew he would get tired. I knew that if I could just put him in a fight then I would wear him out.”
Eight and a half thousand boxing fans attended the Hilton Centre, Las Vegas on the 6th June 1988 to see if Barkley would make good on his bold prediction. The fight began with Hearns on his toes and moving, obviously wary of ‘The Blades,’ lunging attacks. Hearns countered to the body and threw rights aimed at the challengers head but he remained at long range.
In the second round, he targeted Barkley’s ribcage with left hooks and was boxing well behind his jab. A right to the body made Barkley grimace in pain and he answered Hearns with a fast left hook. Hearns dug into his opponent with left hooks and uppercuts. As the round came to an end Hearns looked to be in command as Barkley’s eyes were badly cut and swelling. Barkley was also bleeding from a cut inside his mouth.
Things looked ominous for Barkley. At the end of the second round Dr Donald Romero from the Nevada State Athletic Commission had a word with both Barkley’s corner and the referee. Cut man Eddie Aliano sufficiently stemmed the bleeding and assured the doctor Barkley could continue.
Barkley recalls that pivotal moment in the fight, “My corner were saying to me you got to put pressure on him, you’re cut. I said to them, ‘don’t worry I ain’t got time to bleed.’ I knew by the second round he was gassed out, I knew if I could keep backing him up then I would have him.”
Barkley came out like a lion in the third, he caught ‘The Hitman,’ by surprise and began to force the action, backing the champion up on to the ropes with his lethal left hooks. Hearns responded with his own lefts and rights which threw Barkley off balance. Hearns landed two more rights and perhaps sensing a finish, piled on the pressure. A hurtful double left hook to the body forced Barkley to clinch.
It seemed that Hearns was on course for the victory when both men exchanged punches in the centre of the ring. Hearns pulled away and Barkley landed a looping right square on the champion’s unguarded chin. In that precise moment it was as if time had stopped. Hearns froze rigid for a second, Barkley threw another thudding right which snapped Hearns head back, before the ‘Hitman,’ fell to the canvas.
Hearns managed to haul himself up by the count of nine, but Barkley rushed in to finish him off punching Hearns through the ropes and onto the ring apron. The referee Richard Steele intervened and waved the fight over. Against the odds Barkley had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and was crowned the new WBC world middleweight champion. No one could have expected the final result, Ring magazine named Barkley’s win over Hearns Upset of the Year in 1988.
Barkley remembers clearly what it felt like to land the right hand that turned the fight around, “It felt great, I had practiced it with my sparring partners and it came at the right time, when everyone thought I was finished, some people say it was a lucky punch, but there is no luck in boxing. You train for it and you win, and you have the courage to do what you got to do.”
In the post-fight press conference Tommy admitted that he never saw the punch that knocked him down the first time, “I didn’t even see it. I thought I had slipped it. Now I know how the other guys felt when I beat them.”
For the defeated fighter Hearns looked remarkably unscathed in contrast to the new middleweight champion. Barkley had plasters over both his eyes which later required sixteen stitches. However the physical pain Barkley endured in the fight was nothing compared to the emotional turmoil he had experienced in the build up to the fight.
Just three days before the fight Barkley’s friend Davey Moore had died in a freak accident at his home in New Jersey when an unoccupied car rolled down his drive way and ran over Moore who was trying to stop it. He was 28.
The battle hardened Barkley could not contain his emotions during the post-fight press conference as he broke down while discussing the loss of his close friend. In the present day it is noticeable when questioned that the death of Moore has had a lasting impact on Barkley, “We were like brothers (Pause) he slipped and got crushed (Pause) It’s sad.”
In addition to the tragic death of Moore, both Barkley’s brother Alfred and father were in hospital both terminally ill with cancer. It seemed that Barkley’s life outside the ring has been tainted by tragedy, “After the Hearns fight, I lost my brother Alfred. After that I lost another brother, then I lost my nephew. My older brother died after that and I buried them all. In my family there were four boys and four girls, now I’m the last one left of the boys.”
It was a challenging time for Barkley both in and out of the ring following his victory over Hearns. He lost his WBC world middleweight title in his first defence to Roberto Duran in February 1989. Following that he dropped a majority decision to Michael Nunn in a challenge for the IBF World Middleweight title. He was then stopped in one round by Nigel Benn in a challenge for the WBO middleweight title in August 1990. The loss to Benn came just a few days after the passing of Barkley’s father.
Barkley managed to turn things around putting together a string of victories including a second round demolition of Darrin Van Horn for the IBF World Super-Middleweight title which set-up the rematch with Tommy Hearns for the WBA Light-Heavyweight title in March 1992.
Hearns was a 2/1 favourite going into the rematch but once again Barkley’s aggression would see him prevail, this time over twelve rounds. The fight was fought at a high tempo, with both fighters exchanging volley after volley of hard punches. Barkley left Hearns battered and bruised and scored the only knockdown in the fourth round on route to a split decision victory.
Barkley admits that he was determined to show the media that his first victory over Hearns was not a fluke. “The first time wasn’t luck, I took it personal that some reporters said that it was a lucky punch, that Tommy was finished. If he had beat my butt every one of those guys would have said he was the greatest. I took him twelve rounds and beat him up to show people it wasn’t a lucky punch. If I choose to beat somebody, I’m going to beat them.”
With victory in the rematch Barkley claimed the WBA Light-Heavyweight title and became a three weight world champion. Barkley had achieved more than anyone had ever expected, but he never scaled the same heights again. He was defeated by James Toney and Henry Maske in two further world title bids and would continue to fight into his late thirties boxing as a heavyweight before his retirement in 1999.
Despite being the only man to ever beat Tommy Hearns twice, Barkley fell on harsh times following his retirement from boxing. He ran into financial difficulties, had one of his championship belts stolen, was evicted from his home, was homeless for a period of time and battled ill-health.
With great honesty Barkley admits, “Beating Tommy Hearns did not change my life. I received $320,000 dollars for the first fight and $500,000 for the second fight. A million dollars ain’t nothing, not after you pay your bills and help your family. People said, ‘you should have saved your money,’ but everything had to go on bills. My brother got sick, my family didn’t have enough money so I took care of them. I am not a selfish person, but people say to me you probably wish you had been selfish now, but that’s the way I am, that’s the way God blessed me.”
Barkley rebuilt his life with the help of Ring 10 a charitable organisation that provides help and assistance to former fighters who have fallen on hard times. The organisation helped Barkley find new accommodation and get his life back on track.
Barkley explains the vital work being done by the organisation, “Ring 10 helps fighters who are down on their luck. They provide someone to talk to about your problems and financial help, so if a fighter has an illness Ring 10 helps pay the bill if the fighter can’t pay. When boxing is finished with you and you don’t have nobody to turn to they can help you get your life together. They can set you on track.”
Barkley has become a great advocate for Ring 10 and lends his support to the organisation.
“I support the work of Ring 10 to help other fighters when the game chews them up and spits them out. I want to make sure that they know they have a support system. I encourage all fighter’s to put a portion of their money away and come to the Ring 10 meetings because one day they might need that support system.”
Today, Barkley still lives in his native New York City, and frequents the world famous Gleason’s gym. He remains reflective about his professional career, “I got no regrets. I went from middleweight right up to heavyweight. I enjoyed fighting in all the divisions but they said I couldn’t beat anyone at heavyweight. I proved that I could be a heavyweight if I wanted to when I knocked out Gerrie Coetzee [former WBA heavyweight world champion] I did something that people said I couldn’t do.”
Despite all his triumphs inside the ring adjusting to life outside of boxing has been one of Barkley’s greatest victories, “I’m still figuring it out, but I know how to handle my money much better now and I’m writing my autobiography, I need a publisher and someone to help me, if anyone is interested they should call me. That’d be my comeback now.”
In a career spanning over twenty years Iran Barkley has encountered enough action, drama and tragedy for ten volumes of an autobiography. He remains one of the great characters in boxing, and certainly he will never be forgotten as the man who out hit, ‘The Hitman.’
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