It was the first fight on HBO’s “Boxing After Dark” show. It was, co-commentator Roy Jones Jr said on air, “one of the better fights I’ve ever seen in my life.” It was the 122 pound war Marco Antonio Barrera and Kennedy McKinney put on a quarter of a century ago (Feb. 3, 1996). It is a fight that is celebrated today as one of the finest in super-bantamweight history.
Barrera, aged 22 and emerging, for some, as the next Julio Cesar Chavez, was the WBO super-bantamweight champ. McKinney, aged 30, was an Olympic gold medal winner and a former IBF ruler at 122. Barrera was perfect at 39-0, McKinney was 28-1-1 and he had never been stopped.
The two men got into a memorable near-brawl at the pre-fight presser. McKinney, at the podium, said to Barrera that there was “no way you can beat me, boy!” Barrera got up and soon unleashed a punch at his rival. The shot missed, yet the bad blood was real.
The fight at the Great Westerm Forum in Los Angeles started off at a fast pace and soon enough the punch-stats went through the roof. Barrera tested McKinney’s chin almost immediately, his heavy right hand slamming into the challenger’s head. McKinney, a smart boxer as well as a ferocious competitor, used his left jab to good effect. The second-round saw Barrera work McKinney’s body hard. “McKinney’s hurt,” Jones bellowed.
Round-four was the first epic round of the fight. The two men traded in a fashion that sent the fans into a frenzy. It was awesome stuff. McKinney was angered at the number of hard low blows Barrera had hit him with during the fight, and in the fifth he sent a furious message to referee Pat Russell; who did warn Barrera during the minute break.
Round six was savage.
For a solid minute in this round, the two men traded on equal terms, the two warriors knocking chunks out of one another. The speed, venom and relentlessness of the shots, from both sides, was incredible to witness. Both men had shown nothing but a granite chin.
McKinney’s face was swelling now, around the eyes and in his bleeding mouth especially. Both guys were feeling the effects of the red-hot, almost suicidal pace. Who would cave in first?
Barrera scored a heavy knockdown in the eighth, his big right hand to the head sending McKinney crashing. As the former champ got up, Barrera went for the finish, his blurring hands sending McKinney into a corner, the ropes keeping him up. This could have/should have been called a knockdown, yet Russell was unable to get in quickly enough to halt the action; Barrera blasting McKinney with shot after shot as his target was pinned up by the corner ropes. Then McKinney was sent tumbling again, this time for an official knockdown. How “King” Kennedy got through the round only he knows.
Barrera scored another knockdown in the ninth, with McKinney trapped in a corner and deciding he had nowhere to go but to the canvas to buy time. It was a miracle that McKinney was still in there. But then, stupefyingly, the real miracle came in the tenth round.
Somehow, the older man who had soaked up so much punishment, included amongst the damaging stuff those stiff low blows, came roaring back! A crisp right hand got home and Barrera’s chin had to again show what it was made of. Then the two settled back into their familiar position of trading, with neither side willing to budge an inch. McKinney even managed to score a knockdown of his own in the 11th, as a right hand spun Barrera to the mat for a split-second, the Mexican’s glove touching down.
Barrera claimed he had slipped, and then, seconds later, he did slip to the floor. The 12th and final round now. Barrera started the final three-minutes by sending McKinney to the mat yet again. McKinney, though, claimed he had got tangled up in Barrera’s feet. Soon after this, with the fight coming close to getting out of the control of the referee, Barrera dug in a nasty left hand to McKinney’s body and down he went one more time. Amazingly, Russell didn’t call it a legit knockdown, instead of waving the two men on.
But mere seconds later, one final, crushing right hand crumpled McKinney and the astonishing fight was finally over. The time was 2.05, and less than five minutes after the finish, McKinney was asking for a rematch!
This fight was special, and today, 25 years on, Barrera-McKinney would be celebrated even more than it is if it were not for the violent rivalry Barrera went on to engage in with countryman Erik Morales. But to some fans, Barrera-McKinney is just as epic.