Iran Barkley - A Sad End To An Honourable Man’s Career

07.02.06 - By James Slater: The MGM Grand, Las Vegas - 2003: “You Know Jim, I ain’t even got a ticket for this here fight, I ain’t makin’ no money Jim.” Although I felt flattered being spoken to on a first name basis by one of my all-time favourite boxing heroes, what he was saying was clearly not good news. He seemed down, not at all like all the other boxers I’d met, who seemed to positively shine when recognised. He then, only half jokingly, asked me to buy him lunch and I was at a loss. I blurted out something like, “Let’s go get a drink, I’ll buy you a drink.” But an already turning away Iran Barkley muttered, “I don’t drink Jim” and then he was gone.

The above paragraph relates to the latter part of a conversation I had with the great Iran Barkley. I was fortunate enough to have met him while in Vegas for the De La Hoya v Mosley rematch. And although it was still a thrill to meet him, it was also saddening to a degree due to some of the things he said. He clearly wasn’t reaping the rewards his incredible career should have guaranteed him and I sensed he wished he could turn the clock back.

Iran fought practically every top opponent around during his time in the ring, but despite great wins over the likes of Tommy Hearns (twice), Michael Olijade, Darrin Van Horn and others, he isn’t financially sound today. He should be.

Iran’s career had already been written off at least twice going into his fight with Van Horn, for the IBF super middleweight title back in 1992, but he rejuvenated his money earning capacity with a brutal second round KO win over “Schoolboy." This victory led to two big money fights for “The Blade." The First, a rematch with Hearns, was a savage and damaging war. I personally think neither guy was ever the same afterwards and it would have been a good time for both to call it quits. But who could ever tell Barkley such a thing? Especially as by beating Hearns, in a fight for the WBA light heavyweight title, he had gained access to an elite club, where membership is only granted to men who have won world titles in three different weight classes. Also, the second of his two high paying bouts, this one against James Toney, back down at super middleweight , figured to be Iran’s best ever payday (he subsequently got $1 million, his only million dollar purse), so of course he carried on. Some even had him tipped to be the first to beat James Toney. Sadly, however, when the fight started it was basically all one way traffic and Toney was way too fast and sharp for him.

Barkley had had trouble making weight and entered the ring drained and weakened. He probably should have remained at light heavyweight in hindsight, but after the Hearns fight Iran found himself in a position to be able to choose which of his two belts he wanted to defend, either his super middleweight or light heavyweight title; he chose the latter, thus the fight with Toney. And, apart from a few decent body shots that he dug into Toney’s ribs, he was never in this fight. He took a steady beating and it was sad to watch. After nine one sided rounds, over the protests of Iran, again displaying heart way beyond the call, his corner threw in the towel and pulled him out. Barkley was gracious in defeat as was Toney in victory, who respected Iran as a great warrior.

The great warrior definitely should have called it a day now though. But, Iran was in a place that many boxers find themselves. They are near the end and know it, yet cannot bring themselves to hang ‘em up. Many boxers will tell you that the hardest hurdle they’ve encountered in their career was knowing when to retire. Lennox Lewis likens boxing to a drug, saying there is always one more fight offered to you, just one more, and how most simply cannot resist the temptation (Lennox looks as though he may be one of the exceptions however, retiring, à la Rocky Marciano, while still on top, never
to return).

Iran was one of the many that couldn’t resist though and he decided to soldier on through all the minefields that lay ahead of him in the ring. Incredibly he would have another twenty-five fights! He did get one more crack at a title, this time in Germany against IBF light heavyweight champion Henry Maske, but it was another one sided affair and you wondered how much more he could take. He decided to try his hand up at heavyweight. Iran had actually joked about this in an interview once, saying he was willing to fight anybody, heavyweights included, and now he was actually doing just that. But he was no match for the big boys and, although he did manage a win over Gerrie Coetzee, the ancient former champion who had been destroyed by Frank Bruno in one round years ago, it was mostly defeats he suffered.

One of these defeats was inflicted by Trevor Berbick (yes, the same Berbick who Tyson had demolished in two rounds back in 1986), in Canada. Barkley went home with an eight rounds points loss on his record. Often though, Barkley was used as fodder for the young up and coming fighters who wanted his name on their records in the hope that it would enhance their ring careers. He was fighting for purses of only a few thousand dollars in five different countries and as many as fifteen different states across America. Barkley had become one of the fight game’s saddest entities; the Trial Horse. His fight against a boxer named Keith McKnight in July 1999, in which he again shipped heavy punishment, and was stopped in six rounds, was mercifully his last and he finally retired.

It shouldn’t have ended like this for a great fighter like Iran Barkley, one of only a relative few to have ever captured world titles at three different weights. Who knows why he carried on for so long? Iran always needed money, he did have some bad luck with investments and also had two costly divorces. Whatever the reasons, financial or otherwise, he found himself being lured back into the ring time and again. His final career record ( I say finally but, shockingly, Iran has seriously considered fighting again while in his mid forties! Hopefully he will not do so ) reads - 63 bouts, 43 wins (28 by KO), 19 defeats and 1 draw.

Today, I believe Iran is living with his mother in the Projects in the Bronx, the same place he was born, (the same apartment) and much of his time is spent looking after her, she unfortunately suffered a stroke a few years ago. He is surprisingly lucid and his faculties, including his speech, are in good working order. I say surprisingly because of the number of wars he engaged in as a prize fighter. And after all he’s been through in life, inside and outside the ring; the triumphs, the tragedies (Iran sadly lost his father and two brothers to cancer) and the disappointments, he shows no bitterness whatsoever. Certainly the promoters could have treated him better - how about a breather every once in a while? He should have definitely been paid more than he was, especially when you consider the astronomical purses fighters can earn these days, some who never produce anywhere near the effort Iran did. Yet today he carries himself with grace and dignity and I consider it one of the most privileged occasions in my life to have met this great man in person.

Article posted on 07.02.2006

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