By Thomas Gerbasi
In boxing, not everyone can be Muhammad Ali, Floyd Mayweather, or a decorated world champion. There are those needed to be foils for such athletes, to be the ones on the other side of the win-loss ledger as the path to glory beckons.
That doesn’t make these boxers less important, or less worthy of our attention. In fact, its fighters like heavyweight Monte Barrett who are often the most interesting characters in the game. They’re ones who have given their all, told their stories, and shed more than their share of blood, sweat, and tears for our entertainment.
On Saturday night in Atlantic City, Barrett will make what he says is his final appearance in the prize ring against David Tua. As far as legit retirements go, boxing has a horrid track record, but for the time being, let’s put that aside and accept the New Yorker’s claim for what it is, one last walk up those four steps.
"Win, lose or draw, this is going to be my last fight, and I am looking to go out with a bang, not get banged out,” said Barrett during a press conference earlier this week. “I want to end my career on a high note, and everyone will see how prepared I am to do that come Saturday night.”
At 39 years old, and currently on a three fight losing streak that has seen him get stopped in two of those fights, it’s the right time for Barrett to make his exit, and it’s typical of him to be cognizant enough of where he is in his life and in the boxing landscape to make the right decision, as he’s always been a realist.
That doesn’t mean Barrett didn’t know how to sell a fight, but when you got past the occasional bursts of bluster, he knew what he could do in the ring, what he brought to the table for each fight – even seemingly unwinnable ones against giants Lance Whitaker, Wladimir Klitschko, and Nikolay Valuev – and how he could turn the tables. And that answer always came down to what he had in his chest.
“I’ve been the underdog my whole life, so it’s nothing out of the norm for me,” Barrett told me in 2003 before another fight he was supposed to lose against unbeaten prospect Joe Mesi. “I was supposed to be dead or in jail a long time ago. You’ve seen me in fights – I’m used to adversity. That’s the stuff that gives me the strength to run the extra mile, spar extra rounds, and do extra pushups. I thrive off of that. Adversity can make you or break you. It makes me rise to the occasion. I rise to the level of my competition.”
At the time of the Mesi fight, Barrett was 29-2 with his only losses coming via a close split decision against Whitaker in 1999 and a TKO defeat at the hands of Klitschko in 2000 that saw him hit the deck (and rise) five times. He bounced back from the losses to run off a three fight winning streak before promotional issues shelved him for nearly two years. It was during this time that his heart was truly tested, especially when money began getting tight and even his kids started noticing the strain.
“After school I picked up the kids, and I would get them whatever they want,” he recalled before the Mesi fight. “My money was low and they were like, ‘Daddy, it’s okay. We can share the chicken nuggets. You don’t have to buy us all individual meals.’ That was the low point. It hit me. Here I am with my kids, I’m living in a $400,000 home, yet I still had to learn this hard knock lesson. Then, one time I went to take my three daughters to the movies and they were so conscious of me having no money that they said, ‘here’s what we’re gonna do. Instead of getting three franks, we’ll get one frank and ask them to cut it three ways.’ My kids are so aware of what’s going on with me. When my mother was struggling, I wasn’t aware. My mother was working two jobs and on public assistance, but I wasn’t aware. But my kids were so conscious of what was going on that they never wanted to make me feel uncomfortable.”
When Barrett made his return in March of 2003, three more wins followed before he almost crashed Mesi’s Madison Square Garden party with a seventh round knockdown that led to a controversial majority decision loss.
Oddly enough, the win resurrected the Queens product’s career. He upset unbeaten hot prospect Dominick Guinn four months after the Mesi fight, and spoiled another perfect record when he beat Owen Beck in a 2005 title eliminator, but when he got his first shot at the world title, he faltered in a lackluster 12 round decision loss to Hasim Rahman.
This is the heavyweight division though, and if you can fight and have a few marketable wins under your belt, you will get more than one opportunity to win the brass ring. Barrett’s came a year after the Rahman fight when he took on Valuev in the seven-footer’s United States debut. Looking like a dwarf compared to the giant, the 6 foot 3 Barrett was still game throughout until being halted in the 11th round.
In a nutshell, that could have been Barrett’s career. Not big enough against the giants, not powerful enough against knockout artists, not fast enough against speedsters, and not lucky enough in a game where luck certainly has its role. But to his credit, he always fought.
“See, a lot of guys don’t know how to react when they’re under pressure and they see blood,” Barrett told me before the Rahman fight. “I have blood out my nose, out my ears, my face. It doesn’t bother me. I wipe it off and I’ve got to keep going.”
And against a level just below the elite in the division, Barrett had more than enough to win on a consistent basis, and as he explains, it may not always have been pretty, but he had enough in his fists and his gas tank to beat fighters like Guinn, Beck, Erik Kirkland, Robert Wiggins, Robert Davis, Tim Witherspoon, Greg Page, Phil Jackson, and Jimmy Thunder.
“I didn’t look the greatest or the most polished,” said Barrett of the Kirkland fight in 2003, when he stopped the 17-1 prospect in the tenth round. “I was off for six months. I didn’t look like Sugar Ray Robinson, but I was a throwback from the past. I just gutted it out, kept punching away, and I made that opening. I willed myself on this guy. I felt he was stronger than me at some point and I felt that he was better skilled than me at some point, but did he have that dig down deep attitude where he had to go and get some guts. He had to go to the store and get it. Mine is right there at the cash register. While you’re going shopping and looking down them aisles, I’m right at the cash register getting my ching-ching on. You’ve seen my fights. There were some fights right on the edge, but in the last two rounds or last round I pulled it out. That’s digging deep. Nobody can teach you that. You have to be born with it. That’s an edge for me because I’ve been there. That’s nothing for me.”
After an upset loss to Cliff Couser in 2007, Barrett ran off three straight, stopping Couser and Damon Reed in two, and bursting the Tye Fields hype bubble with a 57 second knockout of the 41-1 Montana native. But in his last three bouts, contested in 2008-09, Barrett has fallen short against current champion David Haye (TKO by 5), unbeaten Cuban Odlanier Solis (TKO by 2), and European prospect Alexander Ustinov (L12), making it clear that as he approaches 40, it’s time for a new chapter in his life. And what a way to go should he upset Tua Saturday night, a goal he, like any true fighter, believes is within reach.
“I haven't felt this new and restored since I beat Dominick Guinn,” he said earlier this week. “I am physically and mentally one hundred percent ready to go Saturday night. In some of my losses I just wasn't right mentally, or I didn't have ample training, but for this fight I have no excuses. I have a lot of respect for David, I know what he brings to the table and I know this fight isn't going to be a walk in the park, but I trained my butt off, and I am not worried about what David is going to do Saturday night, I just need to worry about what Monte is going to do.”
And who knows, a win might convince Barrett that he has another lease on his fistic life, but should he stick to this retirement, here’s to a career well fought, Mr. Barrett. You may not sit with the champions of the game in the history books, but you’ve earned your share of respect for one simple reason – for being a fighter.
“All my life I’ve been a dreamer,” he once told me with a laugh. “And I didn’t even have nothing. I was just a little kid. And I said to my mother, ‘I don’t think I’m better than everybody, I just dream big.’ If I shoot for the moon, maybe I’ll hit a star. If I’m gonna do something, I’m gonna do it all the way. If I love, I’m gonna love hard. If I hate, I’m gonna hate hard.”