Iran “The Blade” Barkley vs Roberto “Hands of Stone” Duran represents a very special page in the history book of boxing. This intense and historic battle is nothing less than a benchmark for how violently beautiful pugilism can be when the right ingredients are combined. Spirited action, high drama, impressive ring skills and amazing courage were all on display the night the underdog Duran narrowly defeated Barkley for the WBC middleweight title in the obvious choice for 1989’s Fight of the Year.
Roberto Duran had been through many ups and downs by this time, having tasted both glory and defeat on several occasions, including the disgrace of “No Mas” nine years earlier when he abruptly quit against Sugar Ray Leonard in their rematch. But the more relevant episode to Duran’s challenge of Barkley was the vicious, humiliating, second round knockout he suffered at the hands of Tommy “The Hitman” Hearns five years before. Ever since, the public viewed Duran as washed up; a decision loss to Robbie Sims in 1986 only reinforced the feeling that the sun had finally set on the great Panamanian’s career. But Roberto refused to retire. With more naysayers than supporters surrounding him, he kept fighting, determined as he was to become a champion once again.
Iran Barkley had won the WBC middleweight title by knocking out the same “Motor City Cobra” who had dispatched Duran five years before. “The Blade” was feared for his punching power, which emanated from his tall frame and intimidating physical build. His knockout of Hearns had been emphatic and there were those who gave Duran no chance to overcome a younger, bigger and stronger opponent. After all, lightweights don’t move all the way up to middleweight and then win world titles. Barkley was the solid favorite to bust Duran up and end his storied career.
But there were those who thought otherwise and they believed in the Panamanian’s experience, ring smarts, and cunning, as well as the unique aura of “Manos de Piedra.” More than any other champion of the 1980s, and despite the disgrace of the “No Mas” fight in 1980, Duran inspired adulation and fervent belief and his fans sold out Atlantic City’s Convention Center that cold, February night. Still, most thought Barkley’s physical advantages and punching power would be too much for the aging Roberto to overcome. But shortly before the opening bell, Barkley decided to change his tactics. Instead of attempting to overwhelm Duran with his greater size and strength, he elected to box the former champion and use his reach advantage to keep Roberto at a distance.
The strategy proved relatively successful for “The Blade,” as he posted one of his best career performances. But if Barkley put up a spirited fight, Duran was genuinely inspired. He used his pugilistic wits to close the distance and find openings for his punches, while his confidence and courage allowed him to take the champ’s best shots and keep battling back. As early as the opening round, Duran let Barkley know this was going to be a special night. Just before the bell to end round one Iran threw a lazy jab and the challenger slipped it to counter with a perfectly timed right hand to the temple that stunned Barkley and brought the crowd to its feet.
Duran vs Barkley was fast-paced and grueling from start to finish, hard-fought and thrilling. The challenger was tagged hard and often by the much bigger man, his head snapping back from Barkley’s heavy jab, plus the occasional walloping right. Barkley also committed himself to a spirited body attack and thudding shots dug deep into Roberto’s midsection. But Duran ducked and weaved to get closer to Barkley and by the mid-rounds he was dishing out his own heavy artillery at close quarters. Utilizing his often over-looked defensive talent, he made Barkley miss and then made him pay with perfectly timed counter shots.
And increasingly, as Duran warmed to his task, the former champion looked like the “Manos de Piedra” of old, using savvy hand and head feints to set up his attack and shaking Barkley with his powerful right. Behind on points, Duran astonished everyone by seizing the initiative in the late going. Round nine, by Barkley’s own reckoning, was the turning point. It was a slugfest as Duran came on strong, landing perfectly timed right crosses with all his weight behind them. But the champion connected with bombs of his own, one of which Roberto walked right into, increasing the velocity of the impact. Barkley later stated that Duran should have gone down from that punch, but he willed himself not to because if he had, he wouldn’t have gotten up.
The final rounds saw the fighters give and take tremendous blows as the sell-out crowd stood and roared its approval. And, against all expectations, it was Duran’s power which proved decisive, not Barkley’s, as evidenced by the dramatic knockdown Roberto scored near the end of round eleven.
“It was his heart,” said Barkley later. “It just wouldn’t go.”
As everyone waited for the judges’ decision, all knew it was an extremely close affair. But Duran’s late round surge had stoked the high emotions of the fervent pro-Roberto crowd and those closest to the ring girded themselves for the chaos sure to follow if the verdict went Barkley’s way. Luckily for all (except Barkley) two of the judges scored it for the challenger and the jubilant crowd celebrated as Duran’s handlers carried him about the ring in triumph. Against the odds, Roberto Duran had added another incredible chapter to his legend, winning his fourth divisional title with an amazing performance in a truly remarkable contest and further cementing his status as one of the greatest boxers who has ever lived. — Rafael Garcia