Iran Barkley—A Career Remembered

By Thad Moore on April 22, 2016
Iran Barkley—A Career Remembered
“He had great determination and willpower and was a never say die guy in the ring.” (RING)

“Iran was a tough, tough, street type of guy inside the ring. If you hit me, I’m going to hit you harder…”

Iran Barkley, win or lose, always provided for an entertaining fight. Whether beating James Kinchen, Thomas Hearns, or Darrin Van Horn, or losing to Roberto Duran, Nigel Benn, or James Toney, Barkley was a warrior among warriors inside the ropes.

Often, people remember Barkley for the menacing scowl that he exhibited when entering the ring before a fight. Others recall the ring wars as being Iran’s lasting impact on The Sweet Science.

As Barkley’s professional career progressed, he established wins over the likes of Wilford Scypion and Mike Tinley. After losing his first world title try at middleweight against Sumbu Kalambay, Barkley scored the biggest win of his career. He defeated NBC darling and part-time model, Michael Olajide. Olajide was a flashy boxer, who wore colorful robes, tassels on his shoes, and had a Jheri Curl hairstyle. He was everything that Barkley was not. Olajide had proven his wares in the ring with wins over Don Lee and Troy Darrell, but was coming off a decision loss to Frank Tate.

Barkley controlled most of the action in the early rounds landing right hands and mean-intentioned hooks, one of which knocked Olajide down in the second. As Barkley charged ahead in the fourth, Olajide caught him with a left hook and scored a knockdown of his own. Olajide’s advantage was short lived as Barkley connected with a left to put “The Silk” down again in the fifth. After getting up, Barkley cornered Olajide and peppered him with lefts and rights until the fight was called.

“I said, once I knock off Olajide, I want the best. He had good boxing skills, but had no power. I knew Olajide wasn’t strong enough. I was licking my chops, knowing I was going to have him for dinner. I said, let me get rid of this punk and move on.”

Matchmaker Ron Katz of Star Boxing, worked with Barkley during his career. Even though this fight was difficult to make, Katz, who was with Top Rank at the time, has fond memories of the Barkley-Olajide clash at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum.

“When Barkley stopped Olajide at the Garden, it was special. It was sold out. The Garden was buzzing. Olajide was a good boxer, a good solid fighter. Barkley went out there and annihilated him.”

Olajide stresses that Barkley was more skilled than he thought and was able to capitalize on mistakes that he made.

“I didn’t think he had the boxing ability in order to beat me. I saw toughness in Iran. I knew the fight was going to be a real rumble.” Olajide continued, “He showed some intelligent counterpunching. He pulled back from the right hand with the left hook. He had good timing. He did everything he had to do”

The significance of this victory for Barkley’s career cannot be overstated. The win propelled him to a title shot against Thomas Hearns. His confidence grew and he felt like he could topple anyone, including an all-time great like Hearns.

“The motivation was always there for me. Tommy was talking about me that I wasn’t in his league. Manny Steward was saying Tommy was going to knock me out in three rounds. That’s when I decided I was going to knock Tommy out in three rounds. I knew Tommy would get tired in the third round. He ain’t going past that.”

Hearns was the first fighter to have captured world titles in four divisions. As a 4-1 favorite, Hearns came out swinging in round one landing lefts and rights almost at will. Barkley was responding, but Hearns was landing often with power shots. In the second round, Hearns boxed a bit more and Barkley was able to begin landing his left jab. The exchanges were entertaining, with once again Hearns taking the round. In fact, all three judges scored the bout 20-18 after the first two stanzas. As the third round unfolded, Barkley was battling a bad cut over his left eye and was bleeding from his mouth. Hearns was digging shots to the body that were affecting “The Blade.”

All of a sudden, Hearns dropped his left hand and Barkley landed a looping right hand over the top, and a chopping right hand that dropped the “Hit Man” like a ton of bricks. Somehow, Hearns was able to get up, but couldn’t survive the round. Barkley cornered him and knocked him through the ropes to end the bout. Barkley describes how he was able to pull off the upset and become the new WBC middleweight champion.

“I felt his power in the first and second round. In the first two rounds, it was a war. Tommy would throw and his left hand would move lower. That’s what happened. If you timed it right, you had an opening. That’s when I landed the right to knock him down. Tommy was so good because he had a lot of power early in the fight. He could knock you out with one punch.”

Barkley made the first defense of his title against living legend Roberto Duran. The fight was to take place in Atlantic City, Barkley’s favorite fight town. There was a revenge factor for Barkley heading into this bout. His friend, mentor, and fellow Bronx native Davey Moore was the WBA junior middleweight titleholder when he lost his crown to Roberto Duran in 1983. Moore was killed less than a year before Barkley’s bout with Duran.

“I wanted to get respect for Davey. When Duran fought Davey, he thumbed him in the eye. I told Duran that I’m going to make you respect me.”

The champ, who was named Iran by his father who was in the military, strategically fought using a different style than we were used to. Duran was the aggressor and Barkley used his boxing skills in this battle.

In a brutal war, both fighters were involved in some unbelievable exchanges. Barkley used his left jab and worked Duran’s body, while Duran threw and landed right hands and uppercuts. Barkley stunned Duran with a vicious left hook late in round seven. Duran’s best round of the fight took place in the 11th when a strong combination sent Barkley to the canvas. In a match that ended up being one of the sport’s fiercest battles, the contest was named Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year in 1989. Two judges scored for Duran, 116-112 and a surprising 118-112 and the third judge scored for Barkley, 116-113. This ringside observer scored the bout for Barkley, 115-113.

Barkley’s reaction was that he was not at all surprised by the split decision verdict. “It was a great fight. I know that I won. I knew that they weren’t going to give me the decision. Duran’s strength is (that) his body work was efficient. He was fast hitting to the body. I knew I had to be faster to the body and to the head. He was crafty enough and smart enough to know how to do dirty things to you.”

The best sequence of Barkley’s career took place in 1992. In January of that year, Barkley would challenge reigning IBF super middleweight king, Darrin Van Horn. “The Schoolboy” had previously secured wins over Robert “Bam Bam” Hines and Lindell Holmes. Barkley steamrolled Van Horn by registering three knockdowns in scoring a second round TKO win. Barkley had just claimed his second world title and was about to go for three in his next bout, a rematch with Hearns.

“I said, I’m going to take him 12 rounds and beat his ass. Tommy never lost a 12-round decision,” said Barkley.

This time, the WBA light heavyweight title would be on the line as the rematch would not disappoint. Hearns came into the fight as a 2-1 betting favorite and was looking to avenge his loss in their first fight. Hearns had good boxing skills, but as we saw against Hagler and in the first Barkley fight was happy to go toe-to-toe and slug it out. The majority of this contest was fought on Barkley’s terms. Barkley was the aggressor and often forced Hearns into the ropes. Hearns gladly obliged by trading shots with his back against the ropes. Hearns’ corner implored him to stay off the ropes to no avail.

Round four was the first knockdown of the bout as Barkley nailed Hearns with a left hook. Hearns got up and resumed the battle that continued in close quarters throughout the second half of the fight. Both fighters traded hellacious blows to the body and head as each refused to give an inch. Barkley sustained a cut to the head and had swelling around both eyes by fights end. Hearns was bleeding from the nose, which had become an obvious target. “The Motor City Cobra” tried to pick up the pace in the final rounds and did have success landing his left jab and hook. However, Barkley managed to evade enough of Hearns’ last minute power shots while firing back to warrant a split decision victory.

The scores were 114-113 and 115-113 for Barkley, and 114-113 for Hearns. The fourth round knockdown proved decisive in the bout’s outcome. The bout, shown on pay per view by TVKO, saw Barkley connect on 222 of 904 punches (25 percent) and Hearns landed 217 of 578 (38 percent) of his blows.

Barkley, who at times in his career was thought of as an opponent, was able to accomplish something that no other fighter did. Barkley, a three-time world champion, was twice able to defeat Hearns. Even the great Sugar Ray Leonard was unable to achieve this.

Perhaps Katz sums up Barkley best. “He could’ve competed in eras before him. He made the most of what he had and did very well with it. Iran was a tough, tough, street type of guy inside the ring. If you hit me, I’m going to hit you harder. He had great determination and willpower and was a never say die guy in the ring.”

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Thomas Hearns - Iran Barkley 1

Roberto Duran vs Iran Barkley 24.2.1989

Nigel Benn v Iran Barkley 18/08/90

Iran Barkley v Darrin Van Horn 1992

Thomas Hearns - Iran Barkley 2

Iran Barkley vs James Toney 【Full Fight】

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  1. Pete The Sneak 10:30am, 04/22/2016

    “What fight was the judge who scored Duran over Barkley 118-112 watching?? This fight should have been decided by 1 or 2 points regardless the victor.”

    Eric, totally agree!...Peace.

  2. Eric 10:27am, 04/22/2016

    The Duran-Barkley fight could have gone either way. Barkley always looked like a light heavy to me even when he was at 160lbs, big looking middleweight, amazing that Duran pulled that victory off. What fight was the judge who scored Duran over Barkley 118-112 watching?? This fight should have been decided by 1 or 2 points regardless the victor.

  3. Pete The Sneak 08:58am, 04/22/2016

    Wow, great write up Thad on one of my all time faves, Iran ‘The Blade’ Barkely. Growing up in the same neighborhood as Barkely (South Bronx), we claimed him as our own and when he beat Hearns the first time, it was as all out celebration in the Patterson Projects. I thought the Duran fight was one of his best boxing performances and though it was close, thought Duran pulled it out. I ran into Iran at Frankie & Johnnies Pine restaurant in the Bronx several months ago and though he’s walking/talking slower these days, he is still gracious and will make an effort to provide you with that infamous scowl when you take a picture with him…Peace.

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