At his best, Roberto Duran might have been the greatest fighter pound for pound ever recorded, from prime to finish.
We’ve never seen Harry Greb on film in live action. There are only snippets of Sam Langford. Big chunks of the best years of Henry Armstrong and Ezzard Charles are unavailable and the welterweight years of Ray Robinson are largely left to legend.
Duran is different.
Early excellence like the knockout of Ernesto Marcel, his lightweight conquests of Ken Buchannan and Esteban DeJesus, through to the dreary moments like the old man battles with Hector Camacho; it’s all out there to see. There were so many highs before the inevitable highs and lows set in. If one wants to argue Duran as boxing’s greatest living fighter, and it’s nor hard to do, there is ample evidence to support the claim.
After several trips through the library of classic fights, books, and movies about the sweet science, we turn to a reader request. Michael P. emailed the following:
Why not consider...a Boxing Without Boxing look back at Roberto Duran's 4th world title win over Iran Barkley for the WBC Middleweight title in 1989. I could go over-the-top on why such a review would have merit, aside from it being my second favorite middleweight title fight of all-time…Hot-damn, I'm missing the 80's as I write this.
Anyone who lived through boxing’s 80s can understand the sentiment. In this case, it works as a nice bookend to the previous review of the Duran biopic, Hands of Stone. By February 1989, plenty of lows had set in for Duran. He was almost five years removed from his last title fight, a second round loss at the hands of Tommy Hearns. 7-1 since, with the lone loss coming in a crowd pleaser to Robbie Sims in 1986 no real wins of note, Duran’s challenge of Barkley was a typical gold watch fight for an aged legend.
Duran was never typical.
WBC middleweight titlist Iran Barkley was coming off the breakthrough win of his career. Limited but tough and carrying heavy hands, Barkley came up well short in his first attempt at a title, losing a wide unanimous decision to Sumbu Kalambay for the vacant WBA belt in October 1987. Two more wins earned him a crack at Hearns for the WBC strap in June 1988. After two bludgeoning rounds, it looked like another long night for the man nicknamed “The Blade.”
A sensational finish in round three made it an early trip to the showers instead. Bigger, younger, stronger, and longer, Barkley went looking for another big name to add to his ledger.
What ensued was the 1989 Ring Magazine Fight of the Year.
Heading Into the Fight
Titles: WBC middleweight (1988-89, 1st Attempted Defense)
Previous Titles: None
Weight: 159 ½ lbs.
Hailed from: Bronx, New York
Record: 25-4, 16 KO, 1 KOBY
Ring Magazine Ranking: #2 (Cover Date: March 1989)
Record in Title Fights: 1-1, 1 KO
Previous Five Opponents: 140-16-2 (.892)
Previous Titles: WBA lightweight title, WBC welterweight title, WBA junior middleweight title
Weight: 156 ¼ lb.
Hailed from: Panama City, Panama
Record: 84-7, 61 KO, 2 KOBY
Ring Magazine Ranking: Unrated
Record in Major Title Fights: 15-4, 13 KO, 2 KOBY
Last Five Opponents: 81-16-4 (.822)
Venue: Convention Center - Atlantic City, New Jersey
Purses: Duran $325,000; Barkley $500,000 (BoxRec)
Referee: Joe Cortez
Recapping the Action
Barkley is the aggressor at the bell, shooting his jab as Duran looks for early counters and shows off his tricky head movement. Barkley lands a good left to the head and another to the body with a brief exchange in between. Duran lands a hard counter left to the body and keeps making Barkley miss. Duran lands a huge right to rock Barkley, the titlist stutter stepping toward the ropes. The bell sounds before Duran can follow up with anything significant.
Barkley supplies some whaling body shots to assert himself early and often in the round. Duran ties up in spots and continues to be a hard target upstairs. Barkley lands a hard left hook, followed by a short uppercut and stiff jab as Duran is against the ropes but the veteran slides away. Another Barkley right hand is answered by a banging Duran right. Duran just misses the mark with an overhand right before the bell.
Barkley whips in hard lefts to the ribs in an early clinch. They exchange blows at mid-ring before Duran lands a rattling combination and then both exchange again. Duran lands a pair of jabs, then rips the body, making Barkley miss to the head in between. Barkley gets the better of an exchange with a stiff right. Duran lands a right and left before the bell.
Both men come out swinging but then quickly lock up inside. Barkley gets a quick warning after a low blow draws a complaint from Duran. They trade power shots near the ropes and then work to mid-ring at the halfway mark. Barkley lands a big haymaker and some hard shots to the body but Duran is unmoved. Duran eats a left and fires right back with a bigger right. They battle down the stretch near the ropes with Duran landing the final combination of the frame.
By the middle of the round both men are exchanging big shots over the Budweiser sign in the middle of the canvas. Barkley gets the better of it early but in the last thirty seconds it’s Duran finding hole after hole in the defense of Barkley. The older man appears the fresher after another hard three minutes.
Duran, as has been the case most of the fight, uses his shorter armed jab to trick Barkley into range for counters. Barkley’s best work is to the body and the younger man uses his length and legs to slow the pace a hair before returning to the trenches with Duran in the waning seconds.
Duran lands a right, takes two to the body, and then steps forward and lands a series of hard shots. Barkley lands a thudding right to the head, turns Duran to the ropes, and then eats a right hand. Duran then turns Barkley, landing a stunning right but shortly after Duran is rocked by a dynamite pair of left hooks. Duran plants two more big right hands, one off the ropes and one near the center of the ring. Barkley has the last say in an exchange along the ropes.
A Barkley left hook nearly drops Duran, the veteran almost pirouetting as he keeps his balance. Duran stays close and uses the ropes to weather the storm, taking some more big lefts but chopping away with short shots at close range. Duran lands the last two right hands, recovered from peril.
The pace is relatively measured compared with some previous rounds. It is to Duran’s favor. Duran chips away with rights, more accurate and active, though Barkley still has leather waiting for his trouble. Barkley’s left eye is becoming a swollen mess.
It’s an inside firefight again early but Barkley appears increasingly sluggish. The crowd chants for Duran whose counters seem to land more frequently, and harder. Barkley goes to the body when all else fails, struggling to find a way to unsettle Duran’s rhythm.
A relaxed Duran is breathing deep, ready to resume as the bell sounds. Barkley lands a right to the head and left downstairs near the ropes, Duran circling away. Near the ropes again, it is Barkley with his back to the strands taking the worst of an exchange. Duran continues to find a home for nasty right hands. Barkley lands a right of his own and Duran explodes with a combination. A right, then a left and another right wobble Barkley. A glancing left, and then a final picturesque right hand send Barkley hard to the floor as the crowd goes wild. Barkley beats the count and plays keep away to hear the bell.
Fighting with confidence, Duran waits for countering opportunities as Barkley tries to gut his way back into the fray. Shooting his jab and launching power punches, Barkley can’t quite find the bomb he’s looking for and the target is touching him back. Barkley walks into a jab that knocks him off balance. Barkley gets Duran near the ropes late and lands to the body but takes a right to the head. Barkley lands the last punches of the round but, as the bell sounds, Duran stops to pose in front of him before raising his left glove to declare his superiority as his cornermen lift him from the floor.
The scores come in at 116-113 Barkley and a winning 118-112 and 116-112 for a new WBC middleweight king.
After the Bell
The fight was a magnificent display from both men. Jon Margolis offered tribute in his wrap from the Chicago Tribune:
Both men had some ghosts to destroy in this fight and even in losing the close contest, Barkley may have done away with some of his own. For Duran, who has been fighting professionally for more than 20 years, the ghosts were his humiliating defeat by Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980 and the personal depression which followed his 1984 loss to Thomas Hearns. For Barkley, the ghosts were the whispers that he won his World Boxing Council middleweight title last June with a lucky punch against Hearns, and his conviction that Duran fought dirty when he beat Barkley`s friend Davey Moore in 1983. Moore was killed in an accident last year.
Barkley was far from done, though his next two fights after Duran made his future accomplishments even more impressive. After Duran, Barkley would lose a decision to lineal and IBF middleweight champion Michael Nunn before a first round stoppage at the hands of Nigel Benn. Barkley rebounded to win a pair and then stopped Darrin Van Horn in 1992 for the IBF super middleweight belt. In his very next fight, Barkley would again get the better of Hearns in a close split decision to win the WBA light heavyweight title. Barkley’s career ended in 1999 at a mark of 43-19-1.
Duran’s breathtaking performance had defied the odds and Duran celebrated his achievement. As provided by Steve Springer for the Los Angeles Times:
Using those legendary manos de piedras, those Hands of Stone, Duran reached down for one more brilliant performance, winning a split decision and his fourth world title in a fight that did not seem all that close. Duran dominated inside, repeatedly hit Barkley with his right hand, constantly counterpunched successfully, and put Barkley down in the 11th round with yet another right. Barkley got up, but he never got back into the fight. “I am like a bottle of wine,” Duran said. “The older I get, the better I get.”
For Duran, it would instead be the last bottling of vintage . He lost his next fight, a catchweight rubber match with Ray Leonard for a super middleweight strap, then retired on his stool the bout following with a shoulder injury in a non-title affair against Pat Lawlor. Duran would never defend the title he won against Barkley but the performance at age 37 spoke for itself. Writing for Sports Illustrated, Bruce Newman could hardly hide the awe of the moment:
Perhaps the most astonishing thing was not that he defeated Barkley, but that the win came almost 22 years after his pro career began. In a career that has spanned three decades, Duran has won the lightweight title (1972), the welterweight championship (1980) in his first fight against Leonard, and the WBA junior middleweight belt (1983). As a pro, he has lasted longer on the world stage than Muhammad Ali, and Duran—who is 85-7 with 61 knockouts—gives no appearance of being finished.
Duran would continue on until 2001, even managing an unlikely split with younger former middleweight titlist Jorge Castro in 1997, and receiving one last unfortunate title shot against WBA middleweight beltholder William Joppy 1998. Duran was stopped in three. His final career mark stood at 103-16. Duran was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2007.
While the sport is largely postponed, boxing has a rich library of classic fights, films, and books to pass the time. In terms of fights, readers are welcome to get involved. Feel free to email, comment in the forum, or tweet @roldboxing with classic title fight suggestions. If they are widely available on YouTube, and this scribe has never seen them or simply wants to see them again, the suggestion will be credited while the fight is reviewed in a future chapter of Boxing Without Boxing.
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Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]