“Forgotten Champion”: The Life of Iran Barkley

By Brian D'Ambrosio on November 24, 2014
“Forgotten Champion”: The Life of Iran Barkley
“There are people who say, ‘damn, he’s crazy.’ But you know what? You ain’t in my body.”

At one point, Barkley was all gone, as all gone as one could be while still maintaining a heartbeat, blood flow and pulse…

Iran Barkley was ferocious in the street. Mean is no stranger to Barkley, who grew up in a street gang in the Bronx called the Black Spades. He was raised to fight, to survive, and he imprinted early with a kill or be killed mentality.

“I’ve always loved boxing,” said Barkley. “What drew me to it was that I didn’t like hanging around in the streets, just beating up guys. Why not get in the ring and beat up guys and get paid for it?”

At age 54, he is no longer fighting for pay, but the need to fight for survival hasn’t diminished. Decades into a harsh life, he’s still fighting for his own self-preservation. Barkley knows no other mentality, which is why the threat of a comeback is spoken with the underpinnings of a man desperate to regain his stature – and a few more zeroes in the bank account.

“I get mixed feelings when I tell people I’m ready to start boxing,” said Barkley, who hasn’t fought a sanctioned bout since 1999. “There are those people who say, ‘damn, he’s crazy.’ But you know what? You ain’t in my body and you ain’t running my body. Those are the same people who are asking for tickets and money and everything else. I’ve got some people watching out for me – it could be better. They could go through their own experience. We don’t get wise until it’s all gone. Don’t get wise until then.”

All Gone

At one point, Barkley was all gone, as all gone as one could be while still maintaining a heartbeat, blood flow and pulse. His career bottomed out, his feelings turned inward in an endless spiral of self-doubt and unhappiness. After heartbreakingly descending into homelessness, the fighter had one of his belts stolen in 2010, around the time a relative booted him from his lifelong home in The Bronx’s Patterson Houses, on Third Avenue and 142nd Street.

At the moment, Barkley has a roof over his head and a steady job, with some assistance from Ring 10.

“Everything is going good,” said Barkley. “I wake up and I work out and I do some things. Financially, it is not good. I’m on the board of Ring 10 – it’s phenomenal. It’s been a blessing to me.”

Barkley vs. Hearns 

Barkley was one the great fighters of the 1980s; the era more commonly associated with “Sugar” Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, and Thomas Hearns. If there were a biography written about Barkley, perhaps it would be titled, “The Fifth and Forgotten Champion.”

Perhaps his high point was his knockout win over Thomas Hearns in Las Vegas in 1988 (WBC middleweight title). Before he fought Hearns, the champion’s trainer Emanuel Steward knew Barkley had the attitude to be dangerous. “He’s not that skillful, but he just don’t give a damn.”

On the brink of defeat, Barkley found the right hand to drop Hearns on his back. Seconds after regaining his feet, Hearns was rescued by the referee. Four years later, Barkley became the only man to defeat Hearns twice, when he out pointed him over 12 rounds to win the WBA light heavyweight title.

“Hearns, the second time, it was all me,” said Barkley. “I decided, ‘I ain’t gonna’ knock him out, I’m gonna’ beat him up.’ That’s what I did. They couldn’t say that it was a lucky punch anymore. I beat him fair and square. I see and talk to him at events. But I beat him bad.”

Barkley was taught to box in the Bronx by his sister, Yvonne.

“I got into boxing because of her,” said Barkley. “She hung out with my older brother and my cousins. My brother told me to be in the gym to keep me off the streets. I look back with pride. I try not to look back. Yesterday is old news. They don’t know me as they should. I guess I didn’t have the proper PR work.”

“The Blade”

He was nicknamed “Blade” when he was 14 years old by Davey Moore’s trainer, Leon Washington. At the Morrisania Youth Center in the Bronx, Barkley cut the five-time New York Golden Gloves champion while sparring.

“I cut him in the ring when he was boxing me,” said Barkley. “I was sparring with Moore sometimes in Japan, I was still an amateur. I fought my way to the top.”

Barkley made his professional debut in 1982.

“I remember all those fights. Teddy Brenner brought the warrior and the madness out of me. He put me in there in these wars, all wars. With Bob Arum, he didn’t pay me the money. I did everything. I knocked out Gerrie Coetzee, knocked him out, I beat Greg Page. I fought Trevor Berbick in Canada. They robbed me of Berbick. So I disappeared out of the game. They were saying I couldn’t beat a legitimate heavyweight, so I knocked out a legit heavyweight in Coetzee. I earned my way to the top.”

Despite victories over Hearns, and titles in three different weight divisions, Barkley said that he hasn’t received the recognition he deserved because “Ray Leonard was calling the shots.” 

“After Ray had seen what I did to Tommy, he didn’t want any part of me. We good friends today. We laugh about it. But Leonard, he could’ve put me over the top. It was always the money with Leonard. He was getting 10 million. I was never getting that money.” 

Barkley lost the WBC middleweight title he had taken from Hearns in his first defense against Roberto Duran. Barkley went down once in round eleven, but felt that he started and finished strongly enough to have been allowed to retain his championship.

“I got shafted against Duran,” said Barkley. “I knew in the eleventh they were going to steal the fight from me.”

Weighing 159 pounds, Barkley was 25-4, and Duran, at age 37 and 156 pounds, came into the fight at 84-7. Barkley walked into the Atlantic City Convention Center with extreme prejudice. Years earlier, in a bout against Barkley’s friend, Davey Moore, Duran had thumbed Moore and used several illegal tactics.

Barkley and Duran fought at a torrid pace from the opening round, big exchanges and big shots. In a classic round seven, Barkley, empowered by swift left hooks, hurt Duran. Disciplined, poised, using good body work, Barkley committed to the left hook, but Duran’s skill and experience helped him survive. Barkley used every punch in his arsenal but Duran would not fall.

“I couldn’t knock Duran out,” said Barkley.

When he was an amateur, Barkley had pictures of Tommy Hearns, Ray Leonard, and Marvin Hagler tacked to his bedroom wall.

“Like I say, Ray could’ve helped me out a whole lot by fighting me. He fought a rough man in Hagler. And Hagler could’ve helped me, too. Now, they always forgot about the fourth or fifth champion. I should’ve been in that trilogy and all that, man. I guess they were scared of me.”

“Got to see the world for free”

In Barkley’s first word title attempt in 1987, he traveled to Italy to contest Sumbu Kalambay for the vacant WBA middleweight title. He dropped a unanimous fifteen-round decision.

“The Kalambay fight I got some time to walk around Italy,” said Barkley. “I was set up to lose over there. To last 15 rounds is the ultimate. I wish they would put it back to 15. Shit, half the guys can’t do 10 or even fucking 5. More time, more rounds to catch up. 15 rounds is 15. But it’s cool all the countries I got to see. Got to see the world for free. I fought some great guys in different countries.”

Barkley lost his six last fights – and then he lost every penny.

“A lot of guys they saved their money, they got books of it. I couldn’t do that. Everyone pushed me to the side. They said I gambled all of it away. But who is stupid enough to gamble one million dollars? I was not getting 10, 15, 30 million. I bought a building, got divorced, I had bad investments. I had problems in the 1980s, 1990s, bad business investments. They are always lying.”

Barkley said that he is presently attempting to arrange a bout as a cruiserweight.

“I stopped in the Top Rank office yesterday, and I told them that I need a break. They forget what I did for them. They need to help me. They need to let my phone ring, and say, ‘we going to give you a shot.’ I guess they still mad because I beat Tommy Hearns. Put him in there, if the money is good, we going to do it again. I’m still training, running three, four miles.”

Barkley has plenty of fight left – at least verbally.

“I still got a lot left in me. I’ve had 10, 20 years of good rest. At 200 pounds, I’m good. I’m training at Gleason’s. Top Rank didn’t do the right thing by me, and they are still promoting fights. Bob Arum owes me a lot. He’s out promoting Mexicans. Why are there no black fighters on Arum cards?”

Iran Barkley’s story continues where it began: on the mean streets of the South Bronx.

“This is home,” said Barkley. “It’s where I grew up and I remain. I will never leave the Bronx. This is my roots. I don’t look back.”

And the story of Barkley as a boxer is more likely complete, despite a man’s fear and frustration of facing otherwise, despite his lack of a surrogate outlet, despite the cold truth of reality.

“I’ve had 10, 15, 20 years of rest,” said Barkley. “I’m ready to crash somebody in their face. I was born to be a fighter, born to be champion. If you feel that I’m old, put me on a card, and see how old I am. Call Gleason’s gym in New York. I’m ready to fight, ready to be a part of the money team for a minute.”

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Thomas Hearns - Iran Barkley 1

Thomas Hearns - Iran Barkley 2

Thomas Hearns Iran Barkley Arsenio Hall 1992

1989 Roberto Duran vs Iran Barkley

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  1. bikermike 05:00pm, 12/04/2014

    ...another case where a fighter has not known who to trust,..and therefore took control over his own winnings.
    With no knowledge nor sound advice…he has gone through his winnings…just as did others….Hearns amongst them

  2. Jethro's Flute 01:04pm, 12/04/2014

    Eric is right about Barkley. He probably had Hearns’ number in the way that Ken Norton had Ali’s number but he wasn’t in the class of the others mentioned.

    The less said about Scumweather, the better.

  3. JailWeather Jr. & Sr 01:40pm, 11/25/2014

    Princess ScumWeather Jr. pee’d in his pants after witnessing how Sleeping Beauty Pookquiao destroyed Cotto, demolished Margarito, and annihilated Algieri. When asked if he wants to fight Pacquiao, JailWeather replied:
    - Quack Quack
    - Quack Quack
    (If ScumWeather Jr. is allowed to repeatedly ‘grab & hold’ Pookquiao like ref. Kenny BrainLess did in Maidana 2 then it’ll be a long night for Manny

  4. Floyd ScumWeather Jr. 06:38am, 11/25/2014

    Hearns had the skills but NOT the heart & will.
    Whenever the fight was down to in the trenches and its gut-ck time, Hearns always succumbed to pressure.
    He had the skills and usually won against tomato cans with his length & reach. He beat up a physically & mentally unprepared Duran, won vs. Alcoholic Virgil Hill, and against Space Cadet-Washed Up Benitez (Sugar Leonard softened him up for Tommy).
    Hearns didn’t have the heart & the brain !!!

  5. Carlos 12:15pm, 11/24/2014

    There is no question that Barkley did not have the skill set of some of the better known fighters, but there is no debating that Barkley had the fortitude to fight these better known fighters. If Tommy Hearns would not have lost to Hagler and Leonard,  Hearns in many people’s minds would be considered as possibly the best pound per pound fighter of all time. Barkley beat Hearns twice, and that is no easy task. Barkley if given the opportunity would have done well against the better known fighters of his time. In my opinion Barkley is one of the toughest fighters I have ever seen, and one of the most avoided.

  6. Eric 08:43am, 11/24/2014

    “The Fifth And Forgotten Champion” isn’t Iran Barkley but Wilfred Benitez instead. Benitez became a champ in 3 weight classes before Leonard, Duran or Hearns. Benitez boxed well against Leonard & Hearns, and nearly shutout Duran for 15 rounds. Barkley just did well against Hearns, kind of like Norton-Ali, styles make fights. No way is Barkley in the same league with those guys.

  7. Eric 07:59am, 11/24/2014

    Never saw Barkley vs. Page, but Barkley STOPPED Coetzee, and he was clearly beaten by Berbick. Coetzee was staggering around the ring in the 10th and final round as much from exhaustion as from Barkley’s looping punches. Up until then it was a pretty even fight between the two overweight fighters. Berbick vs. Barkley was another contest featuring two grossly overweight, and totally out of shape fighters huffing and puffing through every round. Barkley wasn’t robbed at all, he clearly lost that fight. Hard for me to sympathize with fighters like Barkley who end up broke. Don’t know what Barkley’s total earnings were while he was fighting but I’m sure it was 7-figures. If you are stupid enough to blow that kind of money than you have no one but yourself to blame. Look at the money that Leon Spinks went through, and now he’s a janitor in Nebraska, or doing something like that. These guys were set for life without having to worry about working or fighting another day in their life if they had managed their money right.

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