Boxing’s Five Greatest Moments: 1980-1989

By Matt McGrain on July 19, 2013
Boxing’s Five Greatest Moments: 1980-1989
He ate punches, and stuffed them right back down the throat of his would-be conqueror.

Barkley was a fighter that combined enough of the animal and the tanker that Duran’s days seem numbered. And, of course, they were. But not quite yet…

A lot of this happened before I really understood what it all meant—and I didn’t put eyes on #3 until a number of years after the event. Still, as I said in the introduction to Part One of this series, “[t]hese moments can’t be compared in the same way that fights and fighters can because they are as much about the instant they occurred in as they are about an integral quality.” In other words, they are, ironically, timeless. I wasn’t there to see Jack Johnson, smiling, leaning on the turnbuckle as the brutalized Jeffries and the partisan crowd both tried to recover from the terrible beating he was giving them, but it still gives me those chills. 

There are no sports that provide those chills in retrospect in the way that boxing does, and there is no sport that so rewards repeat viewings of those great and fleeting moments. It makes me sad that these moments are less personal than they were for Parts One and Two because I would dearly loved to have lived them in the way I did my selections for ‘90s and ‘00s—alas, two of these are selections made with a longing glance over the shoulder.

Either way, here they are—my picks of the most heart-wrenching, stomach-churning, adrenaline-pumping, air-punching, on-the-edge-of your seat moments delivered to us by the greatest sport in the world between January 1, 1980 and December 3, 1989.

#5 “No Mas”—Roberto Duran

Sugar Ray Leonard’s critics are vocal. A bully and a drug addict he was a wielder of smoke and mirrors, showman first, warrior second—the glittery 1980s entourage and insufferable cocaine-fuelled womanizing and spousal abuse a precursor to the depressing celebrity culture of today. It was interesting to watch the reactions of critics when Leonard admitted to all this and more but claim peace and rehabilitation in his 2011 self-titled autobiography. Begrudged admiration was to be seen all around. 

For me, the man was never of that much interest. I was interested in the fighter. That he could be regarded as a showman first and a fighter second was a ludicrous misunderstanding of a man who admittedly knew exactly how to manipulate the media but was a fighter to his core; to his rock solid, never surrender, granite-infused core. As is so often the case, it was a loss and not a win in which he proved it.

Roberto Duran hated Ray Leonard more than the most motivated of keyboard warriors. He hated everything about this media-darling millionaire who claimed to come to boxing from a poor background when his early life, compared to that of Duran’s, was a cakewalk. 

Amongst the greatest of lightweight champions, Duran had nevertheless achieved notoriety via word rather than deed after his stunning knockout of lightweight contender Ray Lampkin. Lampkin boxed brilliantly to extend the champion into the fourteenth but was knocked dangerously unconscious in that round and immediately removed to hospital. The stoppage was pure Duran and revealed much of what was special about him. He feinted with, or legitimately tried to land, his right hand but got more than he bargained for when a badly tiring Lampkin decided to lunge and attack swooping in over the top of a right hand that suddenly wasn’t there—nothing was there. As though it were nothing, Duran had switched his weight to the opposite side of his body and struck home with an extremely short and devastating left hook. Lampkin skipped away behind the shot as though bursting up for the first ten yards of a 100-meter sprint, Duran harnessed his own follow through to close the distance and land a left-uppercut, right-uppercut, left-hook combination, the final punch amongst the most brutalizing left hands ever thrown. 

“Next time,” Duran assured media, “I send him to the morgue.”

The knockout and the remark pegged him as pugilism’s lurking monster. A showdown with boxing’s next spice boy was likely ordained from that very moment. There are few fighters in boxing history whose hatred was more terrifying than Duran’s. Stanley Ketchel, perhaps. But to be hated by Duran created what Leonard called “a fight within a fight” and it was a fight he was doomed to lose. Their first meeting was savage, brilliant and arguably scraped heights unequalled in boxing but it was Duran who emerged, somehow still furious, as the victor.

“I felt a deep sense of loss, as if a part of me had been taken away for good,” Leonard would write years later. “No one rocked me as hard to the body as he did. If anything, the hits he took made him counter with greater fury as if he actually enjoyed pain…When the [final] bell rang, I walked toward him to touch gloves.  ‘Fuck you!’ he said.”

After the loss, Leonard began to think about retirement. He considered a career in the movies. He even made some calls. But he couldn’t do it. He had to come back and the only way for him to come back was via perhaps the most savage genius the ring had ever produced.

The supposed combination of foods Duran quaffed down his ill-disciplined throat on fight day is by now legend, as are stories of his pre-fight partying and mental attitude going in, but far more interesting was the seeming invigoration of this deadly opponent. Leonard had been galvanized by the first defeat of his career and it was clear almost from the very first moment he stepped into New Orleans ring that hosted the rematch. 

“I was not the same man I was in Montreal,” Leonard would understate later. “It was my turn to get inside his head.”

Channeling Muhammad Ali, Kid Gavilan, and, yes, Sugar Ray, Leonard shucked Duran into a funk of frustrated impotence, an impotence that took hold despite his modest successes. At the end of the seventh, Leonard danced, jived, and feinted as Duran withered under the mental pressure. Winding up the right hand in huge circles and then snapping his jab into Duran’s face, Leonard showed Manos de Piedra less respect than would be expected by a sparring partner—and there was nothing he could do about it.

At the beginning of the eighth, supposedly struggling with stomach problems, the menacing, devastating, brutal Duran began following Leonard around the ring, and pawing with the jab. An old hand at cutting of the ring he had a jab fit for breaking facial musculature but Leonard had utilized his exquisite skills to replace that Duran with this new and useless one. The Panamanian warrior raised his right hand and waved the fight off all in a moment, a gesture more synonymous with a fan disagreeing with the referee’s decision than a sportsman locked in a duel with a fellow great, a motion that lacked in total the gliding menace his movements betrayed against Lampkin. In a mixture of English and Spanish he said:

“I don’t want to fight with this clown…I don’t box anymore.”

Referee Meyran quite rightly demanded a further explanation and Duran voiced those two famous words, now shorthand for quittage everywhere, “No mas.”

It was one of the most unthinkable moments in all of boxing, as much a shock as Tyson in Tokyo or Liston in Miami, but more in many ways because it was so completely unexpected—Leonard was winning, but not out of sight and Duran was basically unharmed.

But he was also unmanned. Leonard had been outpointed by Duran a few short months before, but he had inflicted, in his revenge, the greatest of ignominies upon boxing’s own king of machismo. It was redemption.

As we shall see, Duran, too, would somehow find redemption.

#4 “Boy, What a Fight! I Wish I Coulda Seen It…”—Bobby Chacon

“I think you’re going to see a good twelve round fight,” understated Chacon right before the outbreak of the most savage war of the 1980s. 

As well as being the most luminous clash of a battle-torn era, no fight has ever so violently exposed the pathetic nature of the alphabet governing bodies. One of the most celebrated fights in history was nearly hijacked by the bizarre ruling of the WBC that the fight should not go ahead, and would not be fought for the strap it itself sanctioned—despite the fact that Cornelius Boza-Edwards was listed as the number one contender to that very super-featherweight strap, held by Chacon. The reason seems to have been the nefarious relationship between Jose Sulaiman and Don King, who was scrambling to secure supposed “rights” to Chacon’s fights. Chacon, for his part, had made it clear that he would never fight for Don King again. This, somehow, meant that the champion of an alphabet body meeting the number one contender named by that alphabet body was a bad thing.

The utter meaninglessness of that strap would be underlined by the heart and soul the two men laid on the line with no “title” to fight for—just pride.

Boza-Edwards had beaten Chacon in 1981 after the “Schoolboy” had failed to meet the bell for the fourteenth round. He had reclaimed his reputation for heart and will in his sensational 1982 defeat of Rafael Limon. That heart and will was now the cornerstone of Chacon’s method, his slippage from technically excellent to middling making him a target that needed to fire back whenever he was hit. Some very decent defensive work done on the ropes aside, this is the battle he fought with Boza-Edwards.

A taller, younger, rangier southpaw and in possession of a victory over Chacon, Boza-Edwards made a confident start, sticking on his southpaw jab and twice rattling his man with straight left hands. The Ugandan handled his American opponent but a slip ruled a knockdown (a punch went in) resulted in a three point swing at the end of the first—and when, after beating Chacon up again in the second, Edwards was legitimately dropped by a hammering straight right behind a sharp jab, the fight was balanced perfectly. Chacon was cut above his left eye, soon to be cut above the right, and had lost five of the first six minutes to a relentless pressure opponent who was in possession of every single conceivable physical advantage but was likely four points up on each of the judges’ scorecards. A savage fire had been lit underneath Boza-Edwards whilst Chacon had been given breathing room to find a solution to the problem he had been set. The next ten rounds pass in a blur of savage ramifications.

Things started badly for Chacon. He was trying to move and fight between stretches of violence, but when he stopped it was stock still and usually bang in front of his man. A straight left down the pipe dropped him to his haunches. Boza-Edwards was back within touching distance. He spent almost the remainder of the fight trying to close behind that moderate knockdown. As strategy, it would prove to be questionable, but only because Chacon thrived. In the fistic equivalent of trench warfare, he found the outer-extremities of a chaotic shootout drawn into a pattern of last-stands and desperate gambits suited his pugilistic national character. Always, always, he punched when the better equipped foe who had him all but surrounded punched, and as the rounds progressed he found ways and means—surging right hand leads, broadsides to an exposed body, and, most importantly of all, an extra punch no matter what the cost—of fighting his opponent’s fight, and winning. Surging in behind a double-headed right hand spear he sealed an astounding victory on the judges’ scorecards by dropping a still-swinging Boza-Edwards to the canvas in the opening seconds of the twelfth round, up at no count but losing and spent, not just on that night but as a fighter, and still he charged forwards, shorts bloody, Chacon with his hands by his sides winging in single shots, himself exhausted.

But the most special moment of the night came after that fight. Chacon summed up so perfectly the fan’s fervor for honestly fought wars between well-matched warriors with his post-fight remark, the same words spoken so often by boxing fanatics who couldn’t make it home from work or to the stadium because that’s the way life is sometimes.

“Boy, what a great fight!  I wish I coulda seen it…”

So good, that being in it wasn’t quite good enough.

#3 “Two Minutes To End The Bout, Two To Revive The Favorite”—The Lewiston Tribune

If the 1970s was the greatest party in the history of the flyweight division then the 1980s was the hangover. The title was passed around between lesser talents for almost the entire decade, but there were bright spots—most of all the contendership and reign of Mexican puncher Antonio Avelar. Knockouts abounded. World champions Shoji Oguma, Alfonso Lopez and Tae-Shik Kim all fell; Avelar was world champion and monstrous when he was matched with Prudencio Cardona, an unheralded puncher out of Columbia in March of 1982.

Cardona was on his own knockout streak having stopped five of five in the run up to his title fight, but the combined record of his last three foes was an uninspiring 7-10, and he had been outpointed three times in the previous three years. Avelar was a firm favorite.

The underdog served his warning early, swinging wildly with mammoth left hooks, punches that leave the impression that heavyweights may fall should they happen by, but Avelar appears to be in no danger—Cardona looks ripe for counters and nothing more. At the end of the first minute, however, he led with the right opening the Mexican champion up for a cuffing left that sent Avelar stumbling back and across the ring, seemingly momentarily bemused by this more sophisticated attack. As the challenger returned to missing, the champion began to work counters to the body and to establish his jab. 

The fight seemed to have fallen into a pattern that might have stretched into the twelfth when Cardona caught his man with another cuffing punch, this time a right, and Avelar seemed momentarily frozen, ducking rather than moving, feet rooted to the canvas as a surprised Cardona attempted to weave in a body attack before moving his man off the spot with two hard punches to the head. Avelar’s disorganized retreat to the ropes invited pressure and pressure is what it brought, and with that pressure came punches, and as Avelar looked across his own left shoulder, Cardona drove a titanic right hand punch straight to the point of his chin, turning his head against the brake of his neck and Avelar was instantly unconscious. When he fell forwards it was entirely without awareness of his surroundings and it was his face that bore the brunt of his devastating impact upon the canvas.

Knowing as we do that Avelar was safely revived and boxed on for another five years, even fighting again for the world title, we can allow ourselves the darkest of thrills as the referee tolls the ten over the prone and stricken figure at his feet to absolutely no affect. It was the rarest of knockouts, the victim rendered absolutely unable to respond for a period of time longer than the fight itself.

Cardona was not a natural champion; he lost his title only weeks later. But he earned those weeks on top of the world. The decade did not produce a more devastating knockout, or any more terrifying single moment.

#2 “Won’t Be Easy. Won’t Be Easy, Won’t Be Easy, Won’t Be Easy”—Michael Spinks

Yes, Cardona’s knockout of Avelar was more devastating than Mike Tyson’s of Michael Spinks; yes, it was more unexpected, and for those that cared about the little men clashing south of the Mexican border it was by far the more shocking moment, but almost nothing in the sport compares to the anointment of a new and terrible heavyweight golem. As a boy I was a believer in the great old-timers to the exclusion of all that was modern. Not since before my interest in boxing began had there been a champion comparable to those that wrought devastation in shadowy black and white as opposed to color. To me, Joe Louis seemed fresher than the men squabbling over the hopelessly fractured heavyweight title.

Mike Tyson had hovered up most of those precious shards but still the linear title evaded him. Michael Spinks was the consummate professional in possession of that title, more precious to the hardcore fan like Mike Tyson than the most glistening gold strap. There were many, and I was amongst them, that thought that Michael’s superlative generalship, lateral mobility and unusual style might trouble Tyson. But the ring entrances and extended introductions (Trump, Ali) lasted five times longer than the fight.

Tyson looked focused, coiled, lethal. Spinks looked polite, nervous, even alarmed. As is the case in Duran’s loss to Leonard, more is made of that than need be. Tyson destroyed the linear heavyweight champion of the world in seconds. Jabbed, rushed, and beaten to the ropes by a fighter utterly devoid of fear or respect, Spinks froze. Forgetting to throw punches at his marauding opponent he stood at distance and banged his gloves together in a stricken mantra of the defeated whilst Tyson peered at him, perhaps wondering to himself, could it be so easy to realize your dreams and those of the men around you, can it be done with so little resistance or is there some hidden toll? Karmically, perhaps, physically, no. After absorbing a hard right hand and sweeping body-punches, a buzzed Spinks reckoned the safe distance at which to hammer his gloves together incorrectly. The golem was inside. A left hook to the head followed by the most savage of right hands to the body forced Spinks to a knee; after the mandatory eight he ran onto a horrific right uppercut and was deposited, quivering, at full length, blank eyes straining for the sun. 

That punch threw Joe Louis into sharp relief. Here was a man comparable. Here was a black and white fighter who contrived to create no grey areas. Here was kill or be killed. Making the fight was a tortured process that left men born to negotiate deals tearing hair from their scalps—and as he stepped out of the ring he stepped into a torrid personal life apparently far beyond his control; but, in the ring, Tyson was the very definition of simplicity, a singularity where destruction of the opponent was the distorting factor. The moment when Spinks, dreaming of some different time, made his hands and knees before crashing face first into the bottom rope as the referee said “10!” defined that notion. A god was born.

#1 “The Wind Is Old, But It Keeps Blowing”—Roberto Duran

Duran is quite right; the wind has been blowing on earth for more than four billion years, occasionally reaching speeds of two-hundred and thirty miles per hour. 

On Neptune, the wind has also been blowing for four billion years.  Neptune is four times bigger than the earth. The top speed for Neptunian winds are estimated at around twelve-hundred miles per hour.

Size matters.

Speed matters.

Age, matters.

Iran “The Blade” Barkley was twenty-eight years of age in 1988 when he crushed all-time great Thomas Hearns in a devastating third round knockout. Badly cut above his right eye blood streamed down his face even as he raised his fists to the sky in howling triumph, too tough for the fading giant, too savage, too young—everything Hearns had been in smashing out the tiny Duran four years previously. Duran was thirty-seven years of age when the doubtful, even dangerous idea that he be matched with Barkley was mooted. Separated by five inches in height and five inches in reach as well as almost ten years, Duran was a worn fighter, closing in on a hundred fights and boxing in his third decade. When he had turned professional, boxing as a bantamweight, Barkley was seven years old. Whilst Duran was establishing his greatness as a boxer, “The Blade” earned his nickname running with “a crazy [New York] street gang” called The Black Spades. Amongst the most intimidating fighters of his generation, Barkley was no toy-soldier but a legitimate gangster, for what little such authenticity is worth.

Also authentic was former light-middleweight strapholder Davey Moore, who once ran with Barkley’s Black Spades but had since become more famous as a victim of a previous Roberto Duran comeback, stopped in devastating fashion in 1983. Only days before Barkley’s exultation versus Hearns, Moore was killed in a freak accident. The widely held perception was that Duran had ruined Moore’s career. Barkley decided during the build-up to the “title” clash to make the fight personal.

“I’m getting ready to defend this title against a guy that beat a very good friend of mine, Davey Moore…I ain’t gonna have any respect for him.  Roberto Duran once said ‘No Mas.’ I want to hear him say, ‘Mr. Barkley, no more.’”

Publicly, Duran was dismissive—“that’s his problem”—privately, he seethed.

“This motherfucker acts as if I killed Davey Moore. But this one I am going to kill. Wait.”

Duran was from a harder corner of the world than Barkley, something the legitimately intimidating legitimate middleweight may have overlooked. Setting a personal vendetta ablaze between he and the former bantamweight may have begun the type of war he understood as well as any American, but could he understand it as well as a dirt-poor Panamanian? And if he could, did he have the tools to carry the victory?

He seemed to have the size. Barkley’s advantage in the ring that February night, 1989, was stated. He dominated most of the opening round with hard body-punching as the two met mid-ring, both showing fine defensive moves, but one key factor became immediately apparent—Duran had dialed in on the Barkley jab. Within seconds he was slipping that punch with head movement. A brilliant defensive fighter in his heyday, he had sparred against fast opponents happy to take liberties, concentrating his attention upon their leads, and this gave Duran a fundamental edge come fight night. It upended the potential clash of styles, turning Manos de Piedra from a mover-sniper into an aggressive counterfighter. Duran reportedly planned to move going in to the fight, an approach he could not possibly have successfully adopted in a twelve-round fight, but this discovery in conjunction with a supposedly sluggish ring maximized his economy—and his chances.

This was perfectly illustrated in the dying seconds of the first round when Duran slipped three consecutive jabs to land a left hook to the body, a jab of his own and then with ten seconds left on the clock, a massive right hand counter over the top that staggered the bigger, stronger, younger fighter and the Rocky music began to play in the collective mind of the Atlantic City Convention Center crowd.

The road was long and hard. Barkley won many of the opening rounds with his aggressive, surprisingly organized boxing, and he hurt Duran badly in the second, seventh and eighth, but slowly those lightweight right hands started to count. At the end of the ninth they traded flush, hard right hand blows and there was a sense that Duran’s was the more damaging punch. At the bell, Duran gave the former gang member that look, the one he had given Leonard, Buchanan, Moore; Hands of Stone indeed. Heart of wrought iron, the quitter, heart of black steel.

“I told myself, ‘You’re too strong for me. You’re too tall for me. But I know more than you.’”

So it was that in his nineteenth world title fight, we see the astonishing sight of the 3-1 favorite at the feet of Roberto Duran in the eleventh round of their savage contest. It is one of the most underappreciated moments in the history of the sport because it was not something that should have been possible. Name for me, if you can, the other career-lightweight who could have beaten this aggressive, large middleweight onto his back whilst defending his title?

“I’m not giving up nothing…I came too far. I’ve been overlooked, stepped on, thrown in the corner, pushed in the dark…”

Duran had to punch it out of him, mostly with that right hand, but in truth he hardly ever let any chance to punch pass him, sniping and slashing with shots on balance whenever Barkley presented a target. He ate punches, and he stuffed them right back down the throat of his would-be conqueror with interest. In strange, dreamlike flashes, he seemed almost as brilliant as he had ever been.

Right hand; left hook—another right hand. They bow together and he lands a sneak uppercut—he slips three punches and swallows a big right and then one-two, left-right,left-right, Barkley is down.

The Blade reclaimed his feet, but the damage was done. A seemingly desperately close fight resulted in a split decision in favor of Roberto Duran. Yes, he was old and small, but he was also rocking back and forth chanting Iran Barkley’s name on the dressing room floor before the fight.  There are fighters that, when concentrated, and, yes, motivated, it seems unwise to pick against even in favor of wildlife or trucks. Barkley was a fighter that combined enough of the animal and the tanker that Duran’s days seem numbered. And, of course, they were. But not quite yet.

“That man just got too much heart. Too much heart.”—Iran Barkley

Boxing’s Five Greatest Moments: 2000-2009   
Boxing’s Five Greatest Moments: 1990-1999   
Boxing’s Five Greatest Moments: 1980-1989     
Boxing’s Five Greatest Moments: 1970-1979

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Roberto Duran vs Sugar Ray Leonard II FULL FIGHT

Bobby Chacon - Cornelius Boza-Edwards II

Prudencio Cardona KO1 Antonio Avelar

Mike Tyson vs Micheal Spinks

Roberto Duran vs Iran Barkley

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  1. linguist_hombre 09:37pm, 07/20/2013

    I love Barry McGuigan, Meldrick Taylor, Thomas Hearns in the 80s

  2. Jim Crue 04:06pm, 07/20/2013

    Someday a boxing a historian will delve into the Spinks-Tyson fight and discover why Spinks froze. There is a story there, but in the not too distant future no one will care.

  3. Matt Mosley 03:29pm, 07/20/2013

    Love the Duran-Barkley fight.
    Close to being in my Top 10.

  4. Eric 12:20pm, 07/20/2013

    Leonard over Hagler? How about Duran over Leonard in “The Brawl In Montreal?” Holyfield-Qawi I? Leonard-Hearns I? Tyson becoming the first undisputed heavyweight champ since Neon Leon? Hagler over Hearns? And even Duran beating Davey Moore, most thought Duran was washed up, overweight, too slow, too small, and Moore would make his “name” by trouncing the “old” blown up lightweight. Just some of my fond memories from the electric Eighties.

  5. Springs Toledo 09:19am, 07/20/2013

    “Setting a personal vendetta ablaze between he and the former bantamweight may have begun the type of war he understood as well as any American, but could he understand it as well as a dirt-poor Panamanian?”
    —That there is some beautiful insight. McGrain has plenty of that, and it’s combined with a serious command of boxing history. Excellence has become a habit for this writer.

  6. Mike Schmidt 12:36am, 07/20/2013

    Nice, very nice. Of course anything Roberto is top listed for me!! Loved the great Gil Clancy call of that Barkley vs Duran fight—Clancy was calling that fight perfecto as each round to round went by. THE ONLY GUY TO PICK DURAN ON THAT FIGHT AND A GUY YOU COULD USE WITH ONE HELL OF A WINNING RATIO AT THE SPORTSBOOK…...DRUM ROLL,,,,,BOSTON’S BOXING BORGES WRITER—ONLY GUY TO PICK DURAN. Good stuff Sir and keep em coming.

  7. Darrell 09:25pm, 07/19/2013

    Beautiful, evocative writing man…much kudos to you.

    Boy, that Duran was great wasn’t he?!

  8. The Traveling Man 06:29pm, 07/19/2013

    Quick stop for some java and a look-see at my trusty lap-top.

    All good ones, but I have to consider Cooney vs. Holmes because of the back story.-1982

    And Hagler vs. Hearn’ for its unmitigated savagery - 1985

    The Chacon picks are outstanding.

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