The Flame and The Blade

By Dennis Taylor on January 5, 2016
The Flame and The Blade
Either this guy had just robbed a bank, or he was one of the toughest men on earth.

“You have to do exactly what I tell you to do,” he told the former champ. “If you do that, I’ll make you a world champion again…”

It was noon in Las Vegas, and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, a freshly retired boxer turned trainer—was driving over asphalt that was sizzling under a 120-degree sun.

The former light heavyweight king squinted through the rising heat waves at a black man who was running down the road dressed in heavy clothes. Either this guy had just robbed a bank, or he was one of the toughest men on earth. Nobody runs in this kind of heat.

“I pulled up next to him, looked over, and saw that it was Iran Barkley,” Muhammad remembers. “So I rolled down my window and said, ‘Hey, champ … what’s goin’ on?”

Barkley—a Brooklyn native, like Muhammad—slowed to a walk. “Man, I’m just trying to get my life back together,” he answered.

“The Blade” had fallen on hard times in the three years since he’d beaten Tommy Hearns for the WBC middleweight crown. He lost his title by split decision to Roberto Duran just eight months later in The Ring magazine’s Fight of the Year. Then he got a shot at the IBF belt held by 33-0 Michael Nunn, and dropped a majority decision. Then came those wild two minutes and 57 seconds he’d spent exchanging bombs with WBO middleweight king Nigel Benn. Both fighters were hurt in that one-round fight, which Benn won by TKO.

If Barkley’s three-fight losing streak wasn’t a death knell to promoters and matchmakers, surgery for a detached retina probably was.

So, here he was, 31 years old, dead-broke, insignificant, and dripping with sweat on a desert highway that probably was only a couple of degrees cooler than Hell.

“Will you help me?” he asked Muhammad.

Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, nicknamed “The Flame,” had ended his own career less than three years earlier after suffering the first and only TKO loss of a 60-fight journey that had included memorable clashes with Victor Galindez, Jesse Burnett, James Scott (at Rahway Prison, where Scott was an inmate), Marvin Johnson, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Renaldo Snipes and Michael Spinks. He held the WBA light heavyweight crown for 16 months.

“I made a promise to myself that I’d walk away if I was ever stopped in the ring,” he said. “If I’d been stopped in my first full fight, I would have quit then, but as it happened, I didn’t get TKO’d until my 60th fight. By then, it was time to go do something else, anyway.”

What Muhammad did, at least for a couple of months, was fly to Monte Carlo with a buddy for some well-earned R&R. That’s where he was in April of 1991 when his friend Mike McCallum showed up to fight Sumbu Kalambay for the WBA middleweight crown.

“I was sitting at ringside that night, screaming and hollering, telling Mike what to do, how to beat Kalambay,” Muhammad recalls. “Mike would come back to his corner between rounds and look straight at me in the audience, like he wanted my advice, then he’d go back and do exactly what I’d told him to do.”

Promoter Bob Arum also was watching. He approached Muhammad right after the fight with a suggestion.

“Hey man,” Arum said. “You need to come back to the States and become a trainer.”

So three years later, Muhammad was in Las Vegas, training random fighters at Arum’s Top Rank Gym, but without a marquee guy in his stable.

Yes, absolutely, he would help Iran Barkley … on one condition.

“You have to do exactly what I tell you to do,” he told the former champ. “If you do that, I’ll make you a world champion again.”

Their relationship clicked, despite a few bumps in the road. Barkley was simultaneously one of the most-disciplined and undisciplined fighters Muhammad had ever met—a guy who would bust his hump in the gym, but often party till sunrise.

There were times, the trainer recalls, when he’d be waiting his fighter’s front steps at 4:30 a.m. when Barkley would stagger home from an all-nighter.

“Hey, I’m retired—I don’t have to do this stuff no more,” Muhammad explains today. “If I’ve got to get out of my nice, warm bed that early in the morning so you can do your roadwork, believe me, you’re going to run. If I’ve got to go drag you out of the club where you’re partying, you’re going to run. And he ran. It took him 10 minutes to change into his running hear, and he ran. No problem.”

After tune-up victories over two club fighters, Barkley cashed in on the promise he’d received from his trainer: He knocked out IBF super middleweight titleholder Darrin Van Horn, 42-2, in two rounds, and became a world champion again.

Sixty-nine days later, he captured the WBA’s light heavyweight championship by split decision over Hearns, becoming the only fighter in history to beat “The Hitman” twice.

Barkley and his trainer eventually parted ways. “When Iran stopped listening to me, that’s when it ended,” Muhammad explains today.

But Muhammad has since built a legacy that has included training stints with Michael Bentt (who took Tommy Morrison’s WBO heavyweight crown with a first-round KO), Joan Guzman, Danny Romero, Johnny Tapia, Carl Daniels, Hasim Rahman, Shannon Briggs, Jimmy Thunder, Paul Vaden, Chris Avalos, and Chad Dawson, among others.

His current hot property, Badou Jack, won the WBC super middleweight crown by majority decision over undefeated Anthony Dirrell in April, and successfully defended the title in September with a split-decision win over George Groves.

Eddie Mustafa Muhammad was inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame in November of 1999, and the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame in August of 2015.

Dennis Taylor is editor/publisher of www.ringsideboxingshow.com and host of The Ringside Boxing Show every Sunday at www.radiomonterey.com, beginning at 4 p.m. Pacific, 5 Mountain, 6 Central, 7 Eastern.

Information for this article came from a live interview conducted with Eddie Mustafa Muhammad onJan. 3, 2016. To hear the entire interview, visit http://ringsideboxingshow.podbean.com.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. Dennis Taylor 03:00pm, 01/05/2016

    Here’s the in-depth interview we did with Iran Barkley on The Ringside Boxing Show in September of 2013, not long after he’d been discovered living homeless in New York,  a topic Iran asked not to discuss that day. He’s had rough times, but he’s a proud guy. Iran gave us a great interview. Enjoy. http://ringsideboxingshow.podbean.com/e/in-depth-iran-barkley/

  2. AKT 02:11pm, 01/05/2016

    Great piece Dennis.

  3. peter 09:41am, 01/05/2016

    Iran and Eddie are two stellar NYC Golden Glove graduates. Back then, Dennis Milton, fighting out of Webster PAL,  had the boxing skills, (and the trainer, Manard Stovall),  to beat a rough-and-tumble Iran in the finals…Eddie was much too slick for a young, raw Vito Antuofermo, easily beating him in the finals. Back then, both were welterweights. (I was sitting ringside, the next fighter to box—me, a middleweight. While I watched them, I could see both boys were good, but I never would have thought the skinny Eddie Gregory would fill out to become the light heavyweight champ, or that rugged Vito would become middleweight champion.) Hat’s off to both!

  4. Dennis Taylor 09:02am, 01/05/2016

    Iran Barkley was born in Brighton Beach

  5. Mike Casey 07:34am, 01/05/2016

    Another good one, Dennis. What a fine guy Eddie seems to be. Good luck to him.

  6. Pete The Sneak 06:23am, 01/05/2016

    Nice write up Dennis, on one of the real good guys in Boxing, Mustafa Muhammad. Always has time to stop and chat with folks at any event in which you run into him and is always a gentleman. Not to mention he’s a pretty damn good trainer too…Just one thing if I may. Iran Barkley is a Bronx native, whereas Mustafa is indeed a Brooklyn product….Peace.

  7. Eric 06:09am, 01/05/2016

    I remember the ill-fated attempt at securing a unification bout between Saad & Mustapha back in ‘81, would have been interesting to see the two in a rematch. As talented as Mustapha was, he was one of my least favorite of all those 175lb killers back in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Eddie always seemed a bit lazy and sometimes it seemed he did just enough to win. James Scott totally dominated Eddie in their ‘78 fight and Spinks pretty much had things all his way in his championship victory over Mustapha. Braxton/Qawi vs. Mustapha was one of those matches that should have been made back then. I see the Camden Buzzsaw being just too much fighter for the very talented but often disappointing Mustapha to handle. Mustapha might have been the most talented of the very talented light heavies of his era but he just didn’t have the desire or work ethic.

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