by Cliff Rold
Another year of International Boxing Hall of Fame voting has come and gone. It will be another year where Donald Curry, the one time undisputed welterweight champion of the world, did not get the call.
There was a time where Curry looked like he might be the pound for pound leader of the sport. A possible showdown with middleweight champion Marvin Hagler seemed inevitable. He was a thrilling knockout artist who could also box an opponent silly. The road to lasting greatness was open.
Then Lloyd Honeyghan happened and Curry’s decline was precipitous. Curry went from 25-0 in the first six years of his career to a fighter who went 8-5 in the next five years after that. Clearly, those years of adversity work against him.
Given the inconsistent standards evident in Hall of Fame voting, is it time for a reevaluation?
Put another way, how good was Curry, measured against all-time?
In answering the question, five categories will be examined:
2) Competition Faced
3) Competition Not Faced
4) Reaction to Adversity
5) What Did He Prove
It begins with…
The Tale of the Tape
Height: 5’9 ½
Hailed From: Fort Worth, Texas
Turned Professional: December 26, 1980 (TKO1 Martin Tineo)
Record: 34-6, 25 KO, 5 KOBY
Record in Title Fights: 9-5, 7 KO
Lineal World Titles: World Welterweight (1985-86)
Other Major Titles: WBA Welterweight (1983-86, 7 Defenses); IBF Welterweight (1984-86, 4 Defenses); WBC Welterweight (1985-86); WBC Super Welterweight (1988-89)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Defeated: Marlon Starling (SD12, UD15)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced in Defeat: 3 (Lloyd Honeyghan TKO by 6; Michael Nunn KO by 10; Terry Norris KO by 8)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Defeated: 4 (Milton McCrory KO2; Carlos Santos DQ5; Lupe Aquino UD12; Gianfranco Rosi RTD9)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Faced in Defeat: 2 (Mike McCallum KO by 5; Rene Jacquot L12)
Curry was an accomplished amateur, posting a record reported as high as 400-4. A member of a fighting family, Curry won national AAU and Golden Gloves titles before earning a spot on the 1980 Olympic team. It was an ill-fated achievement. Curry joined the rest of America’s amateur athletic hopefuls in the vortex of politics. The US opted not to participate in the Moscow Games and Curry would turn professional before the year was out. It was a setback. Curry would have been a real medal contender at a time when Olympic glory translated into big dollars and attention.
A quick ascent through the ranks culminated in early title success. Curry won the WBA welterweight title vacated by a retiring Sugar Ray Leonard, defeating Korean Jun-Suk Hwang in February 1983 by decision. One year later, Curry would be appointed the first IBF titlist and in February 1984 won its first welterweight title fight with a decision over Marlon Starling in their second professional encounter. It would take almost two calendar years for Curry to complete his clean out of titles in the class, knocking out Milton McCrory in two rounds for the WBC title in December 1985.
Lloyd Honeyghan upset Curry in September 1986 and Curry left the welterweight division to compete at Jr. middleweight. In his second attempt at a 154 lb. title, Curry would travel to Italy and stop WBC titlist Gianfranco Rosi in July 1988, dropping him five times before forcing as corner stoppage before the tenth round.
Curry would lose the title in his first title defense against the lightly regarded Rene Jacquot and would never hold another title.
Among outside the ring honors, Curry was named in, or as, the:
• Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year - 1985
• Ring Magazine Upset of the Year – 1986, 1989
• Boxing Digest - #19 All Time at Welterweight - 1997
Curry wasted little time mixing with quality in the welterweight division. In his first sixteen fights after turning professional, he defeated solid veterans like Adolfo Viruet and Bruce Finch and handed fellow undefeated up and comer Marlon Starling his first defeat via split decision. The Starling win positioned him for his first title shot.
From the Hwang win to his loss to Honeyghan, the only other fighter to hold a title in the division was McCrory. Ring Magazine rated them the best in the class for most of three years following the exit of Leonard. In between Hwang and McCrory, Curry was a fighting champion.
In his seven successful defenses of the WBA title, he never faced a fighter coming off a loss and defeated several highly regarded contenders. Starling, Roger Stafford, Nino La Rocca, Colin Jones, Elio Diaz, and McCrory were all rated in the top ten by Ring Magazine when Curry beat them. The combined record of the men Curry faced in welterweight title fights, including Honeyghan, was an impressive 262-13-3.
At Jr. middleweight, Curry bested former IBF titlist Carlos Santos by disqualification en route to his first title shot in the division. It came in July 1987 against the highest regarded champion in the class at the time, WBA titlist Mike McCallum. He won the WBC title from a Rosi who would later win the IBF title and make a division record eleven consecutive defenses. Curry’s loss to Jacquot, who came into the fight a pedestrian 23-9-1, was a clear sign of an impending fistic end.
Curry would attempt to win the IBF and lineal middleweight title against Michael Nunn in 1990 before returning to Jr. middleweight for one last, and failed, title shot against Terry Norris in 1991. Curry briefly attempted a comeback in 1997, stopped in his second fight back.
Competition Not Faced
As always, this section is concerned with what did not occur more than why.
Given his unification of the welterweight division, it’s hard to find much he didn’t do. He missed future champions Maurice Blocker and Simon Brown and both would have been nice additions to his record. They were well rated contenders towards the end of his reign but also still inside their first few years a professionals.
It’s hard to find much fault in Curry’s welterweight run given what was available in the class.
He spent four years at Jr. middleweight and there were several other beltholders and contenders he might have faced. Duane Thomas, John Mugabi, Julian Jackson, Darrin Van Horn, and Matthew Hilton all held belts between 1986-1991.
Reaction to Adversity
Curry’s losses overwhelmed the narrative of his career by the end but he passed some gut checks. He came off the floor against Hwang in his first title fight, shaking off the knockdown to resume a dominant posture for the rest of the fight. In front of a hometown crowd, another young fighter could have panicked. Curry settled and showed maturity and poise.
Once he was defeated, Curry became a riddle that could be solved. He didn’t have a chance to react to adversity against McCallum, undone by a perfect punch that left him senseless. Against Jacquot, Nunn, and Norris, he had respectable starts but couldn’t sustain and faded badly as the fights progressed. Even in the win over Rosi, a fight where Curry scored five knockdowns, the offensive dynamism was largely gone. His legs and endurance became a liability before he was even thirty years old.
What Did He Prove
There was a reason that, for a brief period of time particularly after his win over McCrory and before the loss to Honeyghan, a consensus started to form that he might be the best fighter in the world. He looked like a great fighter at his best.
For a few years, it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t. A combination of athleticism, speed, power, good size for his class, and technical skill, Curry was a tremendous boxer with killer instinct. His left jab, straight right hand, and left hook were all textbook and he had finishing power in both hands.
He also proved he was a genuine world champion. Curry won his first title in his hometown of Fort Worth but he didn’t stay in the United States for all his toughest opponents. He fought LaRocca in Monaco, Stafford in Italy, and Jones in the United Kingdom. He also faced Rosi in Italy and Jacquot in France at Jr. middleweight.
What Curry also proved, in the negative, is that he didn’t have staying power. The Honeyghan and McCallum losses changed him and he never rebounded. McCallum was especially hard because Curry fought so well before suffering a shocking, single punch knockout. It was a classic encounter between two superb talents. Some fighters are built to last. Donald Curry was not one of them.
Measured Against History
So what was Donald Curry?
Was he a great fighter for a short period of time or simply a very good fighter who had a nice run? The evidence suggests the former. His two wins over Starling and knockout of McCrory are the pinnacle of his career but some of the other quality on his resume can be overlooked.
He handed Starling, Hwang, Diaz, and McCrory their first losses. In many cases, he handed fighters their first early end as well. LaRocca had only one loss prior to Curry and that was a stoppage on a cut. Curry knocked LaRocca silly. Stafford, who had been the distance with McCrory, was knocked out for the first time in the first round. Jones and Diaz were both Olympians. Jones suffered a draw and split decision to McCrory, both in the States.
Both were stopped for the first time by Curry, Jones on a nasty cut in what would be his final professional fight.
The first Starling fight was closer than the second; both say a lot about Curry. Starling would go on to hand Simon Brown and Mark Breland their first losses and defeated Honeyghan by knockout before the decade was over. The McCrory win was worthy of the awe it inspired as well. McCrory was never handled as easily by anyone ever again, giving McCallum quite a competitive go in 1987.
While Curry’s shortcomings keep him out of most lists of the top fifteen to twenty welterweights of all time, how many would feel safe betting against the best Curry against any welterweight who has reigned in the decades since?
It begs the question of how he compares with other welterweight leaders. The roster of welterweight kings is one of the deepest of any weight class. The depth of talent has made long title reigns hard to come by under Marquis of Queensbury rules.
Curry’s WBA title reign from Hwang to Honeyghan encompassed just more than three and a half years. In that run he posted an 8-1 mark with six stoppages. Prior to Curry, Tommy Ryan, Joe Walcott, Jack Britton, Mickey Walker, Barney Ross, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jose Napoles (in his second reign), and Pipino Cuevas stood out as welterweight champions whose reigns lasted three or more years.
Every one is in the Hall of Fame.
Cuevas stands out as part of a shift in the ease of accomplishment with the gradual onset of permanent multiple titles in every division through the 1960s and 70s. From two to three to four widely recognized ‘world’ champions in boxing by the end of the 1980s, we’ve seen multiple fighters have reigns of three or more years.
Since Curry, Simon Brown, Pernell Whitaker, Felix Trinidad, Ike Quartey, Manning Galloway, Antonio Margarito, and Floyd Mayweather have all had reigns of three full (or more) years with a WBC, WBA, IBF, or WBO belt.
Most, but not all, of these men had Hall of Fame careers.
Curry’s unification of the division stands out from most of his welterweight peers since the mid-1980s.
His unification didn’t leave a lingering debate about the best welterweight in the world while he reigned. For instance, Whitaker, Quartey, and Trinidad reigned simultaneously for years. They had zero unification bouts against each other. Had they, it’s likely only one could have met three years or more, though the toll of fighting each other could have shortened any of their reigns. After the belts broke up during the reign of Honeyghan, no other welterweight would hold more than two belts again until Cory Spinks upset Ricardo Mayorga in 2003.
Several fighters have unified two titles in the years since Curry: Brown, Trinidad (against De La Hoya), Mayorga, and Keith Thurman. Two have managed to personally unify three: Spinks and Mayweather (WBC/WBA/WBO). Zab Judah won the WBC, WBA, and IBF belts from Spinks in 2005 and upon a loss to Carlos Baldomir those broke up again.
No one, since the inception of the WBO, has held all four titles together. By winning all the belts in his era, and fighting a stream of top contenders throughout his reign, Curry makes a case for the best single welterweight title reign since Ray Leonard unified and vacated the title.
It’s just a case of course.
Fighters like Trinidad, Brown, and Mayweather would have strong counter claims. Both Trinidad and Mayweather can say they never lost a fight in the division. How much should the Honeyghan loss count against Curry?
The answer might be not that much in reviewing just his welterweight run. In general, outside Jacquot, none of Curry’s losses prior to 1997 came to anything less than really good fighters. Honeyghan was unheralded but had a solid run in the years following the Curry upset, including handing Blocker his first loss. McCallum and Norris are both in the Hall of Fame. Nunn had Hall of Fame talent at his best.
What caused Curry’s sudden decline? Was it staying at welterweight too long? Did burnout after such an extended amateur run play a part? Were there issues outside the ring? In the end, those things only matter so much. Results were what they were.
But there is much to be said for the positive results. Aside from other champions at welterweight, Curry’s title reign at welterweight is comparable to a 1980s contemporary in heavyweight Mike Tyson. Both had a peak run of about three to four years where they beat some very good opponents. Also like Tyson, Curry never seemed to recover from his first loss but still had some good wins afterwards.
Unlike Tyson, Curry was never a genuine megastar.
He was still so highly regarded that two of his first three losses were named the upset of the year.
Curry’s accomplishments compare favorably to several recent Hall of Fame inductees.
In the most recently announced class, Vitali Klitschko and Ronald “Winky” Wright both entered on the first ballot. Unlike Curry, Klitschko never unified his division much less had a unification fight. While Klitschko had greater longevity than Curry, if one looks to Ring Magazine or other similar press ratings, he beat roughly the same amount of top ten contenders at heavyweight over the course of his career as Curry did between the first Starling win and Rosi.
Wright, like Klitschko, had greater longevity. Like Curry, Wright unified his division. If we judge their peak runs, was Wright more dominant at Jr. middleweight than Curry was at welterweight? Wright took a five knockdown loss to Julio Cesar Vasquez, tough decision defeat against Harry Simon, and a debated loss to Fernando Vargas before unifying against Shane Mosley and then beating Felix Trinidad at middleweight to add a punctuation mark.
Those are just from the last ballot. Also among entrants in recent years are Ray Mancini, Arturo Gatti, and Mark Johnson. Unlike Curry, none of them ever unified a division. Mancini and Gatti, while good and exciting fighters with big fan followings, were never considered in the same class in any division as Curry was at welterweight. Mancini had even less staying power, retiring after six years as a pro before a couple one off failed comeback attempts. His losses were of similar quality to Curry’s.
Gatti and Mancini were clearly less accomplished, and most would argue less talented, fighters.
Johnson was widely hailed in the United States as the best flyweight in the world. At peak he was every bit as impressive as Curry. Johnson never unified at flyweight. Were any of Johnson’s best flyweight wins as good as Starling or McCrory? Were his best wins above flyweight clearly better than Curry’s? Johnson’s victory over Fernando Montiel might give an edge over Rosi in that comparison.
Outside Mancini, who was a 1980s peer, a case can be made Curry’s biggest failing versus these other fighters is timing. He has been less fresh in the mind’s eye, than a Wright, Gatti, Johnson, or Klitschko were when their turn came up.
Timing always worked against Curry.
He had the misfortune of making the Olympics when his country wasn’t going, being the welterweight that came after Ray Leonard, and then losing his stride just when superstardom appeared close.
This scribe is among those who didn’t vote for Curry again this year, though the pencil gets closer every time. The other examples used here are cited because they also didn’t get a vote from this corner. The question for the voters who did vote for Gatti, Mancini, or Johnson is this: if there is room for them in the Hall of Fame, what’s stopping your nod for the “Lone Star Cobra?”
Verdict on Donald Curry: Not an All-Time Great, but Worth Deeper Hall of Fame Consideration
Author’s Note: This is an occasional series which will examine the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org