From New York: Barkley vs. Olajide/Jacobs vs. Quillin

By Adam Berlin on December 5, 2015
From New York: Barkley vs. Olajide/Jacobs vs. Quillin
I watched the fight with biased eyes, which meant I kept my eyes on Iran the whole time.

It was a great fight. And the outcome was fitting. Iran Barkley, really from New York, fought like New York…

Tonight at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn two New Yorkers are facing off for Big-Apple bragging rights. There’s some real buzz around this fight, partly because it’s a good match-up, partly because both men can be hurt, but mostly because New York City is a fight town with a great boxing history. To become king of New York’s middleweights is a special brand of royalty. 

Many bouts have been billed as NYC rivalries, but none compare to the fight between Iran Barkley and Michael Olajide in 1988. That fight took place at the Felt Forum, Madison Square Garden’s kid-brother venue housed in the lower floors of MSG with its entrance off Eighth Avenue. Going into that fight, Iran Barkley was 24-3. His losses were against men with winning records, the toughest Robbie Sims who owned some of Marvin Hagler’s DNA and a seasoned record of 18-3 against Barkley’s scant 8 bouts—bottom line, Barkley was put in way too tough way too early. Iran Barkley was a fighter’s fighter, a man who paced from ring post to ring post before a fight, body hunched, ready to uncoil and punch his opponents into oblivion. I’d already seen Barkley fight live at the Felt Forum, against a tough guy from Chicago named Randy Smith, and after the Bronx’s own Barkley dominated the man from the Windy City, I believed in Iran’s talent. Iran could move (and most of his movement was forward). He could stick. He could punch. And he was happy, almost too happy, to take one to give one. He never doubted he’d win and this unwavering confidence made him fight with abandon, not recklessly (because Iran was a skilled boxer even if his reputation pegs him a puncher), but as close to the edge of reckless as any prizefighter dared. 

Iran’s opponent was Michael Olajide, a flashy boxer who wore glittering robes and called himself The Silk, whose fluid footwork belied heavy hands—he was 25-1 going into the fight with 17 KOs. In looks, in styles, in temperament, these two men could not have been more opposite. While both 6’1”, Iran was cut the way fighters with big bones and lots of discipline are cut—his stomach was six-pack flat but his arms and shoulders looked ready to burst—while Michael was long and lean with a 77-inch reach to Iran’s 74. In styles, Iran came forward, the kill always on his mind, his right hand cocked with bad intentions, while Michael jabbed and flash-danced before he killed. In temperament, Iran glowered while Michael grinned. Before the fight, Michael sounded exuberantly upbeat. Iran’s voice was full of measured disdain, not just for Olajide’s boxing chops but for Olajide’s claim that he represented New York City. When asked about this bragging-rights bout, the man called Blade cut through the bullshit, saying, “He ain’t from New York. He from Canada.” Iran was right. And in those days, when I was a young fan with young enthusiasm, Iran could do no wrong. 

I have many live-fight memories, but this one remains most vivid. I was with my brother and my Dad, and we were sitting close enough to see every punch thrown, far enough to see a good swath of crowd before the ropes started. We could gauge the excitement in the ring and the excitement outside the ring. When the fighters were introduced, the noise was electric, and that’s not just a figure of speech. Like before any big fight where you’re truly invested, the decibel level shot through my body, a thrill that every true fight fan understands. During those moments you can pretend (and almost believe) you too are fighting for a title.

I watched the Barkley/Olajide fight with biased eyes, which meant I kept my eyes on Iran the whole time. In Round 1, I watched Iran stalk and scowl, throwing mean left hooks and rough right hands. His black trunks, simple red stripe down the side, red like a heart, red like courage and blood and rage unleashed, made Olajide’s sparkling silver trunks look like so much glitter. In Round 2, I watched Iran land a short, textbook hook that put Olajide down and lifted the crowd up. In Round 3, I saw more dominance, the glimmer of a smile behind Iran’s scowl. In Round 4 Iran hurt Olajide again. Silk’s dancing legs looked shaky while Iran’s legs steadily stalked. And then, bang!  A left hook thrown from the waist nailed Iran flush, sent his body spinning in a drunk’s half-circle, and put him down. This time Olajide’s fans rose. In the minute of rest between rounds the crowd was alive. 

It was anybody’s fight.

But it wasn’t. 

In Round 5, I watched Iran, always confident, always the captain of the ship as his one-time manager John Reetz described him, come out smiling. His smile wasn’t false-cocky. It was sea-worthy. A few seconds later, Iran nailed Olajide with a brutal hook that stretched the Canadian across the canvas. The crowd was up again. To his credit, Olajide stood. But after a barrage of unanswered punches, Arthur Mercante, Jr. stopped the fight they’d billed as Big Apple, Bad Blood. Iran Barkley, the real New Yorker, Bronx’s own Blade, was king of New York.

That was a pivotal fight for both men. Iran’s win set up his legendary war against Thomas Hearns, a punishing fight that defied the odds and showed the world that Iran was not just a fighter from New York but a world-class pugilist. Iran went on to fight Hearns again, as well as a slew of marquee fighters, including Roberto Duran, Michael Nunn and James Toney. For Michael Olajide, his loss led to the end of the road, two small payday victories, three consecutive defeats and retirement.

Tonight’s fight may be in the Big Apple, but leading up to this fight the blood did not seem so bad until the weigh-in. During the now-requisite stare down after the scales had been tipped, a whole lot of jawing started and my brother, the Executive Director of the NY State Athletic Commission, a man whose natural inclination is to step away from the cameras after he reads off the official weights, stayed put and stepped between the fighters before they started throwing punches for free. I don’t know how much actual venom had built up in these two men, but it’s only natural that fighters come to weigh-ins testy. The discipline it takes to make weight can be anger-inducing. Iran Barkley used to tell a story about sitting down with his entourage in Las Vegas for a pre-weigh-in meal. While he picked at a salad, his buddies were devouring roast beef and shrimp at the all-you-can-eat buffet. A starving Iran looked around the table, scowled his famous scowl, then cleared all the plates with his mighty arm, the sound of breaking dishes against floor drowning out the slot machines, if only for a moment. Yesterday, as Quillin and Jacobs faced each other, they were both hungry, hungry for food, hungry for the kinds of high-stakes possibilities a victory will create.

I don’t believe tonight’s fight will be as spectacular and exciting as 1988’s battle, and I’m saying this even as I take off my rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. Iran Barkley was a true warrior, a warrior’s warrior. Proof positive is that anytime Iran is in the house and his name is announced, he gets the loudest cheers and fighters, current fighters and fighters long retired, approach him to shake his hand, hoping some of Iran’s spirit will rub off. Iran pushed the fight against Olajide the way I don’t see either one of tonight’s fighters pushing. But I do think this will be a good fight. Like Olajide, Peter Quillin “ain’t from New York,” not really, he grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but he’s been in NYC a long time and has earned Brooklyn street cred. Danny Jacobs is the real New Yorker, Brooklyn born and bred. But that’s where the parallels end. I see Quillin as more Barkley in this fight—he’ll be the puncher to Jacobs’ mover. Both fighters are flawed, and both men can be hurt. That’s what makes this an anticipated bout. I pick Quillin over Jacobs by TKO. While hard-hitting Andy Lee put Quillin down hard, Kid Chocolate was able to get through the fight, even if it meant suffering his first blemish, a draw that broke his undefeated streak. Jacobs has gotten through his own moments of adversity, in the ring and, as has been well-documented, out, battling back cancer. But when a relatively feather-fisted Sergio Mora can hurt you, your chin has to be suspect. When these two men engage, and eventually they’ll have to engage as the loud Brooklyn crowd pushes them together, Peter Quillin will emerge victorious.

Tonight’s bout is for one version of the middleweight title, but let’s be honest—this isn’t a middleweight championship bout. The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, the only rankings body I trust, puts Saul Alvarez at the top of their list, justified because he’s the lineal champion even if Gennady Golovkin seems to wear the real crown of the middles. If Canelo indeed steps up to fight Golovkin at 160 instead of a catch-weight, and if he wins (an impossibility the way I see it—Canelo does everything very well, but nothing spectacularly), then he’ll be completely undisputed. If Golovkin wins (which I believe he will since he punches spectacularly), Triple G will be undisputed. But tonight, bullshit belt or not, we have a fight for NYC bragging rights. The victor will be New York’s undisputed middleweight king, and that’s a title worthy of remembering. I’ve seen many fights, but I remember, indelibly, the day Iran Barkley beat Michael Olajide. It was a great fight. And the outcome was fitting. Iran Barkley, really from New York, fought like New York.

Adam Berlin is the author of the recently published boxing novel Both Members of the Club (Texas Review Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize). His other novels are The Number of Missing (Spuyten Duyvil), Belmondo Style (St. Martin’s Press/winner of The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award) and Headlock (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). For more, please visit

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Iran Barkley vs Michael Olajide Part 1 of 2

Iran Barkley vs Michael Olajide Part 2 of 2

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  1. peter 07:08pm, 12/10/2015

    Two summers ago, I spotted Michael Olajide doing road work in Central Park. He sprinted past me at an amazing clip—up hill. He was cruising at about 5:30 minute pace. I’m sure he couldn’t keep that pace up for long, but what I did see was very impressive.

  2. Pete The Sneak 05:35am, 12/07/2015

    Great write up Adam…You certainly did bring me back. I too was at that fight at the Felt Forum back in ‘88 and I tell you, Iran did indeed not like Michael Olajide one bit. Everything from his Gerri Curls to his claim about being a native New Yorker would make the Blade bristle. Iran was truly a fighters fighter…Ironically enough, I ran into Barkley a couple of weeks ago at Frankie & Johnny’s Pine Restaurant in the Bronx and wouldn’t you know it, it was the Olajide fight which I referenced to him about seeing and enjoying. Thanks for the memory Adam! Peace.

  3. raxman 08:06pm, 12/05/2015

    great piece Adam - sullied for me only in your praise of the TBRB. Any rankings organization that has an allowances for the subjective opinions of a few has no creditability in my eyes. also I believe it awards knock outs with greater points than decision wins - this to me is unacceptable as well. although we all like a ko (and fighters with ko power) at the days end that one wins and not how is all that matters
    both flaws threaten to make this ranking system half a popularity list.
    the only system that would truly work in boxing is the one we don’t have. a system much like that used by the ATP - where one is awarded points based on your ranking and that of your opponent

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