Long Road to Glory

By Daniel Attias on October 24, 2014
Long Road to Glory
"They told me 'That’s Lester Ellis' and I said, 'That kid’s going to be a world champion.'”

Barry Michael’s story will forever be one of perseverance and his name will always be synonymous with that of his mate Lester Ellis…

Lester Ellis was a boy, a mere 12 years old when he first came across Barry Michael. Ellis had dreams of becoming a world champion boxer and his encounter with Michael, a professional who was ten years his senior, would forever change both of their lives and would inextricably link the two men forever.

The older man, Michael, saw something special in young Lester Ellis that day but never would he imagine what would come to pass some eight years later.

“I’d actually sparred with Lester when he was 12 and I was 22. I got in the ring, I’d sparred about eight guys that night and when I got in there I said who’s this kid? They said that’s Lester Ellis and I said that kid’s going to be a world champion.”

Michael would take Ellis under his wing after that first encounter, keeping a watchful eye over the young man, giving him pointers and encouraging him.

Barry Michael, like Lester Ellis, had his own ring idols when growing up, as Australian boxing was experiencing a golden run with champions Lionel Rose and Johnny Famechon leading the charge.

“When I was 13 Lionel Rose won the world bantamweight title and by then I was already watching Ringside every Monday but Lionel was the key to it all. Lionel was definitely my main inspiration.”

Unlike Lionel Rose however, Michael was to walk a much harder path when it came to finding his success in the ring. He lost his first shot at a “title” when he fought Billy Moeller on the 22nd December 1976 for the Australian and Commonwealth super featherweight titles. It would be two years before Michael fought for a national title again.

In 1978 Michael was set to fight Billy Mulholland on the undercard to the WBC light middleweight bout between Elisha Obed and Rocky Mattioli for the Australian lightweight title but Mulholland pulled out just days before the fight.

“Finally got that shot in 1978 at Mulholland for the Australian lightweight title, which was one of my first major goals. He pulled out three days before the fight and I went on a bender, serious bender on the piss, and took a fight on short notice against Jeff Malcolm who I should never have lost to, although a very good fighter. I lost the ten-round decision and ended up in hospital for four days with an eye hemorrhage and while I was in hospital got the offer to fight Mulholland again for the title.”

Michael won the bout in a 15-round points decision and never lost the title with seven defenses of it throughout his career but the Australian title was never the ultimate goal for Barry.

“My goal was always to fight for a world title. That was always the dream and that was the goal, I never looked beyond that. I’d always wanted to hear the man saying, 15 three-minute rounds for the championship of the world.”

The road to a world title wasn’t exactly paved in gold for Michael and with the boxing game at an all time low in Australia by the time the 1980’s had rolled around he was forced to fight abroad just to make a buck in less than stellar circumstances.

“Things really dried up in Australia so then I started taking fights overseas. I was taking fights anywhere I could, Indonesia, the Philippines, Hawaii, basically anywhere so I could get the experience and get a break.”

The next break for him came when he faced Langton Tinago for the Commonwealth lightweight title on the 6th May 1981. Tinago came into the fight off the back of what was arguably his greatest win over former lightweight world champion Ken Buchanan but Michael had the better of the contest winning a 15-round decision.

A successful defense of the Commonwealth title followed against Dave McCabe before Barry faced the big punching world rated Al “Hurricane” Carter.

Carter was a feared puncher and many believed Michael was mad for taking the fight but he withstood the early onslaught and won a ten-round decision. The win was one that piqued attention from the boxing world, but rather than get Michael closer to his dream of world title shot it actually did the opposite.

“The lightweight division was where I always wanted to win a world title and I really think I would have beaten Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini and I got very close to that. I got told by David Wolf (Mancini’s manager) that before I beat Al Carter I was on the shortlist of contenders to fight ‘Boom Boom.’ He said we looked at you very closely because you were white and marketable but when you beat Al Carter we weren’t going to fight you because we didn’t fancy Ray with Carter and Carter’s people told me too that now no one else is going to fight you either.”

Another successful Commonwealth title defense followed against Willie Tarika before Michael lost the title to former WBA lightweight champion Claude Noel in a bout that he promoted himself, much to his detriment.

“I promoted it with every cent I had, my whole life savings was on the line and three days before the fight I was still in the red and I lost a 15-round split decision to him. A lot of people don’t think I lost to him and the fight ruined him so bad that he couldn’t walk or talk straight after the fight.

“Two days before I was still in the red and shitting myself. I really wasn’t thinking about the fight, I had a crook hand and I was running around promoting it, taking phone calls and going to publicity things and I got in the ring on the night and looked around and thought shit, the joint’s packed. The last 24 hours it went mental cause I was calling him uncle Claude and saying it’s the ex-champ versus the next champ and all this stuff. So I was thinking shit, I’ve made a fortune, then he got in the ring and the crowd went wild. He slipped his dressing gown across and I looked across the ring and thought fucking hell he looks fit!”

The loss wasn’t enough to deter Michael and he continued to rack up victories over some quality fighters. The Australian light welterweight title followed with a win over Frank Ropis in 1983, then Michael won back his Commonwealth title with a win over Graeme Brook in early 1985.

Lester Ellis, that same kid who had been so awestruck watching Michael in the gym eight years before had been busy in his first few years as a pro as he racked up 14 straight wins between 1979 and 1984 which culminated in a shot at the IBF world super featherweight title against Hwan-Kil Yuh.

Ellis had the backing of certain underworld figures in Melbourne which undoubtedly gave him the opportunity to fight for a title at just 19 years of age while Michael had fought all comers with no offers for a title shot coming his way, so he did what he felt he had to do and challenged Ellis for his crown in what was to become one of the biggest fights in Australian boxing history.

The problem for Michael now was making the weight limit for super featherweight. He had fought at the lightweight limit and above for the majority of his career and most of the people around Barry doubted his ability to do it but there was no way Barry Michael was about to give up a shot at the world title he had so desperately wanted.

“They all thought I was crazy because they didn’t think I could make the weight. My dad didn’t think I could do it, no one did. I went and had my fat content weighed under water and they worked out I could do it fairly safely if I dieted really strictly, 1000 calories a day for a couple of months.”

The two men who had been so close over the years now became bitter rivals. The defection of Dana Goodson—who came to Australia to train Michael—to the Ellis camp only magnified the bitterness that was growing between the pair.

The camps of both fighters traded insults in the lead up to the bout and the press and public were firmly on the side of the fresh-faced youngster Ellis.  Ellis felt as though Michael had grown jealous of his early success while Barry felt as though the barbs from the Ellis camp were unwarranted.

The atmosphere was electric the night of the fight and when Michael began his walk to the ring it was clear the 10,000 odd people in attendance weren’t supporting his cause but Barry just smiled. Joe Bugner, the man who went the distance with both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was part of the commentary team that night and commented that he liked the smile from Barry. “That’s the confidence of a man who’s come here to win a fight.”

It would be a full fifteen minutes before Ellis made his way to the ring with the mind games now in full effect but it was clear that nothing would put Barry Michael off his game on this night. After toiling away for twelve long years all over the world he finally had his shot at a world title and there wasn’t anything Ellis or his camp could do to take that away from him. He bounced around the ring with a beaming smile, shadow boxing and raising his arms to the crowd who showed their obvious disdain for him every time he did so.

The fight itself began at a blistering pace with the younger Ellis getting the better of the early going but it was the ring smarts and experience of Michael that ensured him victory after a brutal 15 rounds. The judges scored the bout 145-140, 147-140 and 147-139 all in Michael’s favor.

Michael went on to defend his IBF super featherweight title three times before losing it to Rocky Lockridge in 1987 and retiring afterwards.

His story will forever be one of perseverance and his name will always be synonymous with that of his mate Lester Ellis. The two reconciled their differences following the fight and remain friends to this day.

“I’m indebted to Lester for giving me the opportunity until the day I die.”

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Lester Ellis v Barry Michael 12 July 1985 Festival Hall, Melbourne, Australia

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  1. George Thomas Clark 02:05pm, 10/26/2014

    Lindy mentions Brett Summers who I remember covering in the Golden Bear Boxing Tournament in Sacramento about 35 years ago.  I’d written a feature about Brett before the event, and his father came up the first night and shook my hand.  Brett lost a close and very exciting fight against a slick boxer in the final of his weight division.  Around that time I met Emanuel Steward and asked him about Brett and he said he would “try to discourage” him from turning pro, indicating he didn’t see a championship future.  Years later Brett briefly worked for my stepbrother’s electrical contracting firm near Everett, Washington.

  2. Daniel Attias 01:06am, 10/26/2014

    Thanks for sharing Lindy, Carter was a fearsome puncher when he fought. For anyone interested in the Barry Michael Lester Ellis fight there is a magnificent documentary entitled ‘A Melbourne Story’ that is worth checking out.

  3. Lindy Lindell 11:44am, 10/25/2014

    What a wonderful story.  In mentioning Al “Earthquake” Carter, you evoke the following memory:  As a matchmaker, I made arrangements for Carter to engage in a fight in Detroit, possibly against Brett Summers.  His manager assured me he would take the fight, but was having trouble locating Carter because he didn’t show up for his job as a janitor at a truck stop on the Ohio turnpike.  The following day, his manager called that Carter had committed suicide.

  4. Peter 05:26am, 10/25/2014

    Thank you for this excellent story. I’m now a Barry Michaels fan.

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