Iran Barkley: The Man Who Beat The Man

By Adam Berlin on January 14, 2012
Iran Barkley: The Man Who Beat The Man
“Before his fights, Blade was always confident. Before his fights, he was captain of the ship.”

Perhaps Iran, so tough, so fearless, so uncompromising in the ring, was damaged by these same qualities outside the ring…

New York City was a real fight town in the ‘80s, and the Felt Forum, Madison Square Garden’s smaller stage, hosted once-a-month shows, cultivating young prospects into champions. It was at the Forum that I, a new kid on Manhattan’s blocks, first saw Iran Barkley. He was a sight to behold, impatiently pacing the ring, waiting for the bell to unleash him so he could start punching. I didn’t know Iran then, and I guessed he would lose, because he was facing the man who beat one of the big men at the Forum’s Thursday Night Fights. New York’s Anthony Holt was a 12 and 0 middleweight who looked like he had real promise. But on a late June night, Chicago’s Randy Smith stepped into Holt’s backyard and knocked him out in the third. The crowd was shocked. A year later, Randy Smith was back at the Felt Forum ready to do it one more time. Enter Iran Barkley. 

Anyone who remembers Iran Barkley will remember his pre-fight antics. Head bent low, glowering at the canvas, the hairy-chested 6’1” middleweight with the fearsome face would walk from rope to rope. He looked unhinged. He looked like he couldn’t wait to hit whatever was in front of him. But posing and posturing, while sometimes entertaining and sometimes intimidating, means nothing when the bell rings. Iran had already lost three fights, and I figured Randy Smith would prove the road warrior once again. I was wrong. Iran took the decision and showed boxing skills, power and, most impressive, an intense will to win. He’d beaten the man who’d beaten the local man and with the victory, Iran brought middleweight bragging rights back to New York City. 

Iran Barkley stumbled once 11 fights later, when he lost his first title shot to Sumbu Kalambay. But Iran, nicknamed “The Blade,” had solidified his reputation as a fighter crowds loved to watch. When Iran fought, it was a fight. He could brawl, he could box and he was always busy. And his left hook could be as devastating as his pre-fight scowl.

Despite his 15-round decision loss to Kalambay, Iran was the reigning middleweight king of New York City. And he seemed to epitomize both the bad and good qualities of the city. He’d grown up a tough kid, caused some trouble, fought in gang wars, but when he turned to boxing, he dedicated himself to the sport and learned to be more than a mere banger. And like many New Yorkers, who put on that hard-guy front just to get through the day, when Iran’s fights were over, he put away his scowl and smiled a genuine, disarmingly sweet smile, happy that he’d won, that his hard work had paid off, that he was moving forward towards achieving his American dream of fame and money. 

In 1988, two fights after his loss to Kalambay, Iran was back in the spotlight when he signed to fight another “New Yorker” named Michael Olajide, a pretty-looking fighter with skills and a sharp jab. While the bout was not for any belt, it captured the city’s attention. The fight was billed “Big Apple, Bad Blood,” but Iran didn’t consider his opponent Big Apple material. “He ain’t from New York, he from Canada,” Iran brashly told the press about the kid who’d really grown up in Vancouver, where lakes and snow-capped mountains provide a setting far different from the backdrop of a South Bronx project. Perhaps their ring monikers said it all. Blades inevitably cut Silk. While Michael Olajide showed some boxing finesse in the ring, and scored a flash knockdown against Iran, Silk was eventually beaten down by the true New Yorker, a man from a Bronx family famous for being tough in that toughest of boroughs. The Felt Forum crowd went crazy for their hometown, homegrown fighter and Iran smiled his wide smile. He had made it here, to borrow Sinatra’s famous lyrics, and he believed he could make it anywhere. 

The Olajide win set up Iran’s second shot at the title. The Blade was matched against one of the truly big men in the sport. Thomas “Hitman” Hearns had the marquee name; he was a formidable fighter with a devastating right who put most of his opponents to sleep. Experts didn’t feel Iran Barkley had the pedigree to beat the Hitman. I was a big Barkley fan and for once, I wish I had bet my money where my heart was. Iran Barkley showed the world he could be a giant killer. During the pre-fight introductions, when Barkley paced the ring in his trademark style, something felt right. Hearns was just a man, just like Iran, and Iran feared no man. My guess is that Hearns overlooked the Blade. In the third round Iran Barkley knocked out Thomas Hearns in the upset fight of the year. The Bronx fighter who’d been overmatched too young, who’d never been considered the real deal, who was never given a break, was suddenly the WBC middleweight champion. “I had his number. There’s no lucky shot in boxing. Some people said he was old, but if Tommy knocked me out, he’s the greatest guy in the world.” That night, Iran was the greatest guy in the world. The Blade was lifted in the air and for that moment, he was truly on top. It’s a moment that can never be taken away from Iran, who hates the term ex when ex precedes the word champion. Iran’s thinking is that if a man wins the title, no one can take the title of champion away from him, ever.

Perhaps Iran, so tough, so fearless, so uncompromising in the ring, was damaged by these same qualities outside the ring. The powers-that-be seemed against him. Boxing chooses its darlings and while Iran was a true boxing fan’s favorite, he wasn’t groomed as a star. Early in his career he was matched too tough and after he won the belt, he wasn’t given a single “gimme” fight—his next three opponents were Roberto Duran, Michael Nunn, and Nigel Benn. Even today, Iran shirks political correctness and tells it like it is, criticizing boxing’s glaring problems and corruption, and continuously reciting his favorite mantra about his life, “I gotta do what I gotta do.” In any other man’s mouth, this easy cliché means nothing. But Iran did what he had to do, as best he could. John Reetz, who managed Iran early in the Blade’s career, elaborates on this mantra. “Before his fights, Blade was always confident. Before his fights, he was captain of the ship.” 

Captaining his ship, doing what he had to do was not always enough for Iran Barkley and some of the blame can go to the judges and to the referees. He lost a split decision to Roberto Duran, a fight many, including Iran, believe he won. He lost a controversial majority decision to Michael Nunn. And he was knocked out in the first round by Nigel Benn in what was clearly a freak stoppage. The three-knockdown rule was in effect that night and Barkley went down three times. But the third knockdown was highly controversial. Benn hit Barkley while he was down for the second time, referee Carlos Padilla didn’t give Barkley time to recover, and when Barkley went down a third time, the fight was over. Barkley got up immediately, he was ready to continue fighting, and there were only three seconds left in the round, but rules were rules.

Iran is a big man. Standing in front of him today, it’s amazing that he fought as a middleweight.  That alone shows the discipline this hungry fighter once had. The discipline started to fade as he moved up in weight. At first, he filled in his body and took the super middleweight title from Darren Van Horn, schooling the schoolboy in a lopsided second-round destruction. Then he fought Hearns again, this time as a light heavyweight, and became the only man in boxing to beat the Hitman twice. Again, he was the man that beat the man. But at the end of his long career, Iran fought as a heavyweight, usually outmatched by mediocre competition. He should have hung up his gloves, but half of the American dream, the financial half, had eluded him. Like too many fighters, Iran was uneducated about the business of boxing and he lost most of what he’d earned. So Iran did what he had to do. He fought.

I’ve had the privilege of spending time with Iran Barkley. My brother is his lawyer and the two of them have become friends. I’ve hung out with Iran at several boxing functions and I’ve traveled with Iran to fights out of town. Wherever he goes, from Philadelphia to Phoenix, he is always the star. People constantly approach Iran to shake his hand and reminisce about Iran’s days of glory, and Iran will nod his head, wait patiently for them to tell their own stories, and wish them well. And invariably, when Iran is in attendance at a fight and the stars of yesteryear are announced, it’s Iran who receives the most vigorous applause. Even the fighters, professionals who have seen it all, consistently make a bee-line for the Blade, happy to touch, for a moment, this man who was always the warrior.

Iran still dreams of fighting, but in recent years he talks less and less about making a comeback. Recently, my brother and Iran, done with a day in court contesting a housing issue, met me at an uptown bar. Iran held a plastic bag and in it was his championship belt. He’d brought it to court to show the judge he really had been champion. Holding the belt in front of him, not to show off, simply to show it, he talked of selling the belt to any buyer who’d make him a decent offer. Iran Barkley, beer in one hand, belt in another, is one of those images I’ll never forget. It speaks to the present and the past. It speaks to a life that didn’t turn out the way a fighter hoped it would, but that belt, that title, those titles, and what they represent, insure Iran’s immortality for anyone who watched him fight. And when Iran Barkley flashes his winning smile, confident, seemingly at ease with himself and what he has accomplished, he still looks like the captain of the ship. He still looks like the man who beat so many men.

It remains to be seen what Iran Barkley’s final legacy will be. Right now, he is still not a member of boxing’s Hall of Fame, but I think a case could, and should, be made for his induction into Canastota. If there were the boxing equivalent of an all-star team, where fans picked the stars, Iran would be a shoe-in. If there were the boxing equivalent of an MVP trophy chosen by players, Iran’s fellow fighters would certainly present Iran with such an award. When “The Blade” fought, he fought. There were no Roy Jones-style debates about how good Iran really was. There were no manipulations by boxing’s powers-that-be to make Iran’s career easy, no too-smooth roads given to this Bronx warrior. Iran forged his own way and fought everybody. A three-time world champion, a participant in a Ring Magazine Fight of the Year and a Ring Magazine Upset of the Year, a consistently entertaining fighter who never coasted and who never let his opponents coast, a warrior beloved by fans and fellow fighters, Iran Barkley deserves the ultimate recognition. I look forward to the day when Iran Barkley steps up to the podium, looks around at the Canastota crowd, and realizes he no longer needs to pace the ring, rope to rope, no longer needs to scowl. And then, deservedly, Iran Barkley will smile the ultimate winning smile.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Iran Barkley vs Michael Olajide April, 1988

Thomas Hearns vs. Iran Barkley

Roberto Duran vs Iran Barkley (Full Fight)

Nigel Benn v Iran Barkley

Iran Barkley v Darrin Van Horn 1992

Iran Barkley vs Tommy Hearns 2 - 1/4

Iran Barkley vs Tommy Hearns 2 - 2/4

Iran Barkley vs Tommy Hearns 2 - 3/4

Iran Barkley vs Tommy Hearns 2 - 4/4

James Toney vs. Iran Barkley

Thomas Hearns Iran Barkley Arsenio Hall 1992

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  1. bikermike 05:30pm, 06/21/2014

    Iran Barkley should be a HOF Fighter.  Sad to hear he has financial hardship.

  2. Pete The Sneak 07:35am, 01/23/2012

    Grew up in the same neighborhood as Iran and he was a revered fixture in the hood (heck, he had a sister who was 10 times tougher than he was). Always a gentleman who loved giving autographs, taking pics and just shooting the breeze with his fans and pretty much anyone who wanted some of his time. The Blade truly was one of our own in the Bronx and he never forgot that. I agree Adam, it would be something to be able to see Iran rightfully inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame, as he so richly deserves that honor. Great article. Peace.

  3. the thresher 07:52am, 01/15/2012

    Tell it to the young kids who vote people into the HALL.  Nuff said.

  4. Iron Beach 05:54am, 01/15/2012

    I’ll just co-sign with Gajjers…nuff’ said.

  5. Gajjers 01:46am, 01/15/2012

    Come on, are multiple titles so easy to win that a 3-division world champ can only visit the IBHOF as a spectator? Barkley is a shoo-in for me; the man with mediocre boxing skills showed us what developing an iron will can help one accomplish. I have nothing but respect for that…

  6. mike schmidt 06:06pm, 01/14/2012

    Met him at Gleason’s just before Cotto vs Margo II - you beat me to the punch on this one Adam - a lovely guy to talk to and a guy that should get in the Hall

  7. the thresher 03:21pm, 01/14/2012

    Iran Barkley vs Michael Olajide = holy moley

  8. Don from Prov 11:51am, 01/14/2012

    A very well written article.
    Who couldn’t love watching Barkley?

    Good stuff.

  9. the thresher 09:18am, 01/14/2012

    My favorite Barkley fight was against Van Horn who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  10. Big T 05:07am, 01/14/2012

    Iran had one of them careers. He could be a great fighter, then get beat from an OK fighter. He always came to fight and gave hell to many. Toney counter punching was too much. Hearns OK chin set him to be KOed from Iran…The Van Horn fight I remember big time. you could see the Fear in Van Horn before the fight. Always loved to watch this man fight…wish there where more Iran Barkleys in boxing now.

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