by David P. Greisman, live at ringside
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — The lesson was his blessing, but it was also nearly his undoing.
Darren Barker had fought the middleweight champion and lost, bloodying Sergio Martinez but ultimately suffering an 11th-round knockout.
It was his first pro defeat, but it also served as a confidence booster. He had stood in with the best, and so when he returned to the ring 14 months later he was aggressive — and successful.
Barker scored a technical knockout over Kerry Hope in December 2012, scored a stoppage of Simone Rotolo in March, neither fight going past four rounds. Those victories landed him a shot at world titleholder Daniel Geale.
His fan-friendly approach put him into an entertaining fight, and it nearly put him down for the count.
In the sixth round, as Barker and Geale exchanged much like they had done for the previous 15 minutes of action, Geale laced a left hook to the body. Barker dropped to the canvas and looked as if he would stay there, rising to all fours only by the count of eight and just barely rising before two more seconds had passed.
“I started loading up and got careless,” Barker said afterward. “Then I was getting hit too much. The occasion kind of got to me. If I stuck to my game plan, I would’ve won easier … When I was down on the ground at the knockdown, it was all going through my head: my wife, my family, my daughter. It all made me get up.”
Geale rushed forward, energized by his breakthrough, attempting to expedite the conclusion. He mixed in flurries to the body and then to the head, and then repeated the pattern. Suddenly Barker battled back, stemming the onslaught and surviving the round.
The first half of the fight was over. Six rounds later, he would be the winner, barely edging Geale by split decision to take the International Boxing Federation’s middleweight title.
Judges Barbara Perez and Carlos Ortiz had it 116-111 and 114-113, respectively, for Barker, while Alan Rubenstein saw it 114-113 for Geale.
Barker, who is British, and Geale, who is Australian, were meeting in a ring in the New Jersey gambling destination of Atlantic City. They were fighting for a title that is to be defended next against a German, Felix Sturm, and also fighting to be considered for a potential shot against the two other best boxers in their division — a Kazakh who most recently has been based in Germany and the United States (Gennady Golovkin), and an Argentine who trains in Spain (Martinez).
Fittingly, they both fought as if they were world class, and in recognition that there was much to gain and to lose. Theirs was a give-and-take battle, with 1,555 punches thrown combined, according to CompuBox, including nearly 1,100 power punches.
Barker threw a total of 862 shots, landing 292, a 34 percent connect rate. He was 244 of 582 with power punches, a 42 percent connect rate. The 31-year-old from London is now 26-1 with 16 knockouts and has now rebounded from that loss to Martinez nearly two years ago.
But just barely.
The deciding margin came from the 12th round. Perez had it for Geale. Rubenstein had it for Barker. And Ortiz had it for Barker — giving him the point that would give him the win.
“I felt I won the fight. I was never hurt,” Geale said afterward. “It wasn’t my best performance, and I was disappointed that I lost the belt. I definitely want a rematch.”
Geale won the world title in May 2011 and had defended it four times and even briefly unified it with another belt. His last victory had been this past January, a decision win over Anthony Mundine that made up for what was previously the only blemish on his record, a split decision loss to Mundine in May 2009.
The 32-year-old from Mt. Annan, New South Wales, is now 29-2 (15 knockouts). He landed 259 of 693 power punches, a 37 percent connect rate, including 211 of 503 power shots, a 42 percent connect rate.
One punch nearly gave him the win. One point ended up being the difference.
David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Follow David on Twitter @fightingwords2 or send questions/comments via email at [email protected]