30 Years Ago: The Barkley-Hearns Rematch; A War That Ruined Both Men

As great as he was – as in super-great – Thomas Hearns never could get past Iran Barkley and his “Blade.” It was the upset of the 1980s when a battered and bloody Barkley sensationally turned the fight on its head in June of 1988; KO’ing “The Hitman” in the third round to become WBC middleweight ruler.

Hearns, always full of fighting pride, craved revenge. It looked for a time that a return fight would not happen. Hearns struggled mightily in his next fight after the Barkley disaster, getting up from a knockdown to decision common opponent James Kinchen. Then Hearns got the rematch he REALLY wanted; this the return with Sugar Ray Leonard, the first man to have ever beaten him. Hearns looked great in “The War” yet he walked away with a draw, not a win. Hearns then moved up to 175 pounds and, in a fight that saw the 32 year old roll back the years, he beat Virgil Hill to rule at light-heavyweight.

After the stunning win over Hearns, Barkley lost to yet another common opponent in Roberto Duran – this in a classic fight that saw both men elevate their reputations – and Iran then lost back-to-back fights with Michael Nunn and Nigel Benn. Worse still, Barkley’s eyes were betraying him, with retinal surgery required. Many felt Barkley was done. But then, in a comeback to rival Hearns’ return to glory, Barkley smashed Darrin Van Horn to take the IBF super-middleweight belt in early 1992.

There was only one man a jubilant Barkley called out in his post-fight interview/celebrations. “Tommy, I want you, I want you!” Barkley yelled into the camera.

The rematch was on.

After a hugely entertaining appearance from both greats on the Arsenio Hall Show, this hyping the fight big time, Barkley-Hearns II was the talk of the town. Once again taking place in Las Vegas, “Bombs Away” as the sequel was dubbed, turned out to be a seriously damaging fight for both men. In fact, the vicious, punishing, injury-laden war pretty much ended both fighters as elite operators.

This time meeting at 175 pounds, Barkley and Hearns fought a different fight to the first encounter. Barkley knew he had to get in close, the condition of his eyes still not clear; the inside stuff, where he could “feel” his opponent serving Barkley. Hearns, who possessed the faster hands and the greater boxing IQ, knew what he wanted to do, yet his age and long career saw to it that Tommy had to retreat to the ropes; he had to takes rests and fight in spurts.

Against a rampaging, relentless Barkley, this was almost suicidal. Only Hearns’ fierce fighting heart saved him from being overwhelmed. Hearns was knocked down in the fourth round, this from a counter hook slung by Barkley, but otherwise Hearn’s famously suspect chin held up.

Both men banged away as best they could, the fight having turned into a basic, I’ll hit you, you’ll hit me affair that, if fans didn’t know who they were watching, they would think they were seeing a fight between two gutsy club fighters who each had the occasional nice move. By the end, both men were busted up bad. Barkley’s eyes were in really poor shape, swollen and now even more damaged. Hearns’ nose had been all but hammered flat and it was tough to look at him during the post-fight interview.

Neither fighter was ever the same again, although they both carried on. Barkley took a career-best payday in the form of a 168 pound fight with James Toney, with Toney dishing out a brutal beating. After that, Barkley crazily engaged in a further 25 fights; some of them up at heavyweight, with plenty of them being damaging ones for the former gang member.

Hearns took a year-and-a-half off before coming back as a cruiserweight. For a short time, it looked as though “The Hitman” had, quite astonishingly, reinvented himself yet again. Soon, though, Hearns was taking revolting punishment in a 1994 fight with Freddie Delgado (look the fight up on YouTube, if you dare or don’t care). Hearns engaged in seven wholly unnecessary fights after barely surviving Delgado – before the all-time great made a worrying comeback in 2006, this at age 47. Somehow, Hearns won both of the fights he took.

But in terms of leaving it all in the ring, both Barkley and Hearns did exactly that on this day 30 long years ago.