'The Blade' is still gleaming
Neither homelessness nor hospitalisation has been able to blunt ‘The Blade’. Iran Barkley has overcome these trying times with the same inner steel and trademark toughness that saw him blow away Thomas ‘The Hitman’ Hearns in three rounds in June 1988. Despite many a travail, ‘The Blade’ is still gleaming.
In December, Barkley featured in an impressive line-up of WBC champions who visited Richard Steele’s gym in downtown Las Vegas to provide inspiration for the local kids who boxing has turned away from the streets down a more productive path. These boys and girls were too young to have witnessed the brooding Barkley causing mayhem in the 160lbs, 168lbs and 175lbs divisions in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but peered at him with child-like curiosity. As the formidable looking Barkley stood to address them, the kids suddenly fell silent.
“My name is Iran ‘The Blade’ Barkley and I’m a multiple world champion and the only man to beat Thomas Hearns twice,” said the hulking fighter with a glint in his eye. The kids broke into rapturous applause as a grinning Barkley sat down, clearly revelling in the spontaneous ovation from the aspiring young fighters.
Nothing ever came easy for the former WBC middleweight, IBF super-middleweight and WBA light-heavyweight champion, during and after a 17-year boxing career. Since his belated retirement in 1999, the tough New Yorker has fought different battles, no less arduous than his time in the ring. Yet Barkley, 55, remembers what it was like to be a hungry, young scrapper and watched intently as kids from the gym worked on the pads for the assembled audience of dignitaries and ex-fighters.
“I remember going through all of that,” Barkley told Boxing Monthly the following day at The Mirage hotel in Las Vegas. “Looking at them just reminded me and I was like ‘wow’. I wish I could just start all over and do it again. In spite of all the stuff that’s gone on. When you learn the boxing business, it becomes a business and then they take all the fun away. You get to see how boxing is and you start to lose money. You try to save money, but they don’t teach that part. I hope that these kids don’t fall into the traps.”
Last October, Barkley suffered a stress-related illness (incorrectly reported as a stroke) that caused him to spend 10 days in the Lincoln Memorial Hospital in the Bronx. Concerns were high for the well-being of the former champion, but after a period of convalescence he is now, thankfully, in far better health.
“I am fully recovered,” Barkley told BM. “Everything is good and I’m healthy and I’m strong. Just looking to see what I can do next. Maybe an ambassador for boxers – just try to find a new job and another way. The WBC has helped me very well. They do their part as I do my part to help them.”
Back in 2010, after a run of bad luck, Barkley lived on the subway for three months, but now has an apartment in his native Bronx. A few blades have been spotted on the New York subway over the years, but nothing like this one. “I was in the subway for a few months. It was crazy, but it was something I had to go through,” said Barkley. “But God made it better for me, someway and somehow. He had some friends who came for me and put me in the shelter and now I have got my own place and I’m cool.”
The New Yorker, like so many fighters, grew up in an uncompromising background and rose through the boxing ranks with friends and fellow champions Davey Moore and Hector Camacho Sr, both sadly no longer with us through tragic circumstances.
“Everything. Gangs, drugs, I had to hold myself up to a lot of things,” recalled Barkley. “But I had a good support growing up, family and certain friends and all the people who said ‘do something’. Davey was more like a brother to me. Him, Hector Camacho and me, we grew up together. They were just two special guys. I got my nickname from my trainer when I used to box with Davey. I said, ‘I don’t have a nickname’. He said, ‘How about calling you Blade?’ It stuck with me.”
After losing a vacant WBA 160lbs title shot against the clever Sumbu Kalambay in Livorno, Italy, in 1987, Barkley rebounded in style with the fight that would define him – a three-round destruction of WBC champion Thomas ‘The Hitman’ Hearns in front of a shell-shocked crowd at the Las Vegas Hilton. The badly cut New Yorker exploded into life in the third, flooring Hearns twice in a stunning upset. Barkley reflects on his signature win with justifiable pride, but feels he did not receive his dues from that contest.
“I didn’t get the same thing Thomas Hearns got when he won the title. Everyone jumping for glory,” said Barkley. “They bought him this and he got that. I didn’t get 10 million dollars when I fought and won the title. I was lucky to get a million or something. I had to make good on that. The whole thing was frustrating.”
Now a name fighter in his own right, Barkley was suddenly propelled into marquee match-ups against Roberto Duran, Michael Nunn and Nigel Benn – with a different version of the middleweight title at stake each time.
“The best guy I fought was Roberto Duran,” said Barkley, who he battled in 1989’s consensus ‘Fight of the Year’. “He was more experienced and the one I had to watch out for. After watching him fight my old friend Davey Moore [Duran had triumphed in eight rounds], I knew he was crafty and [felt] he would try to thumb. But he kept it a clean fight. I revenged what I had to do for Davey, I felt, but I just didn’t get the decision. I know why I didn’t get it because Ray Leonard did not want to fight me and he was calling the shots. Bob Arum did not want his poster boy to get beat by me. Me and Duran are the best of friends now. We hang out, we talk, we laugh, everything. Me and Marvin Hagler are cool. Ray Leonard we good now, too.”
After dropping a contentious split decision to Duran and losing his WBC crown, Barkley pushed talented IBF title-holder Nunn to a majority verdict on the scorecards before a first-round technical knockout defeat to the hard-hitting Benn via the WBO’s old three knockdown rule (Barkley’s first fight after surgery for a torn retina). “So much has changed over time with the three knockdown rule,” reminisced Barkley before breaking into a wry smile. “They gave Nigel Benn the fight, but I know that he slipped through the cracks.”
With his glory years seemingly behind him, Barkley was pitched in as a name ‘victim’ for young IBF super-middleweight title-holder Darrin Van Horn in January 1992. This supposedly ‘safe’ defence spectacularly backfired when the bull-like Barkley bludgeoned Van Horn inside two rounds. “He didn’t have the power to beat me and I knew that he couldn’t keep up with me,” said Barkley of his career renaissance. “So I knew once I started punching him I was going to get him out of there first and everything would turn out better for me.”
It didn’t end there. Old rival Hearns had since won the WBA light-heavyweight title by upsetting long-reigning champ Virgil Hill and Barkley once more proved the Hitman’s kryptonite beating him again via split decision in March 1992. “I knew I was going to win, but also that it was going to be a hard test,” said Barkley. “It wasn’t like he was a piece of cake to walk through to get to the gravy train. I had him from the first time so coming up to light-heavyweight I knew what to expect. This time he would go home with some bruises.”
Two fights later, Barkley was outboxed and outpunched by a masterful James Toney and lost his IBF super-middleweight crown on his stool with a damaged left eye after nine tough-to-watch rounds. The New Yorker’s career at top level was effectively over when he was defeated in a subsequent IBF 175lbs title challenge against Henry Maske (also l rtd 9) in October 1994. Barkley finished with a misleading 43-19-1 (27) record after campaigning as a cruiser and heavyweight in his twilight years including a 10th round stoppage of former WBA heavyweight champion Gerrie Coetzee in 1997.
Yet the flame still burns within Barkley and, while respecting the new wave of middleweight champions including Gennady Golovkin and Miguel Cotto, he dearly wishes he could fight in this era. “I don’t have to be 26. I could be the age I am now and I would love to fight those guys,” he said wistfully. “[The fighting spirit] goes, but you just got to make up for past mistakes. I was in the golden era. They are good guys. Cotto is a good fighter, great fighter, but I reckon [I’d be] in there.”
Now Barkley hopes that youngsters, like the ones we saw spar in the gym, take inspiration and also guidance from his story. “I like to give them hope and let them know you can be anybody you want to be,” he reflected. “I want to be remembered as a great fighter and man. A good guy who wasn’t well managed and handled.
“I perceive myself as being right up there as one of the greats,” continued Barkley. “It’s just a matter of recognising it and keeping hold of it. I deserved to be number one, but I don’t worry about it. I can’t change it. That was then. This is now. I have just got to keep the memories.”