30 Years Ago Today: Roberto Duran Beat Iran Barkley In Perhaps The Greatest World Middleweight Title Fight Of The 1980s


Heaven knows, the decade that was the 1980’s saw some truly magical, beautifully epic and violent middleweight wars unfold in the ring. Who can forget the three-round slugfest to end all three-round slugfests, Marvelous Marvin Hagler Vs. Thomas Hearns? Or the financially huge Sugar Ray Leonard-Hagler fight, a bout that generated even more controversy than it did cold, hard cash? Or from the perspective of a British boxing fan, that wild fight inside the “super-tent” between Michael Watson and Nigel Benn provided one of the fiercest 160 pound battles of the time, even though this one did not contest a world title.

But for many fans, the best middleweight world title fight from the ’80s, the most special, the most memorable, is the classic that took place thirty years ago today: Roberto Duran’s spellbinding upset win over the rough and tough Iran Barkley. Duran, at age 37 and deemed by most to be washed up, scored perhaps the finest win of his long and hard career. Certainly, all these years later, “Hands Of Stone” smiles most brightly when he recalls this fight.

A near 3/1 underdog when entering the ring with the defending WBC champ in Atlantic City, Duran, as he revealed years later, did not even have the backing of his own country when taking the Barkley fight – such a dangerous and unrealistic challenge was he making. But the old master, for many THE finest fighter of all-time, and today THE greatest living fighter, had one more masterpiece inside him.

Barkley had scored his own stunner that March, when he wrecked Thomas Hearns in the third-round to take the green belt; this after “The Blade” had been busted up and left bloodied by Hearn’s razor-sharp blows. In no mood to either lose his belt or get beaten by a man as old as Duran, Barkley had added motivation to win. The Bronx warrior’s good friend, the late Davey Moore, had been badly beaten up by Duran back in 1983 and Barkley vowed revenge, insisting that he would make the man who had “thumbed” Moore and had used other illegal activities pay big time.

Outside the arena that was packed with almost 8,000 fans, a blizzard raged, but inside the ring it was furnace-hot. A brilliant fight was underway, with Duran boxing with the zest of a man ten years his junior but with all the veteran tricks he had picked up since his 1968 pro debut. It was as close as it was thrilling and Barkley, so much the bigger man than the former lightweight king, hung tough with Duran, generally giving as good as he got.

There were a number of rounds that were easily Round of The Year material and a couple of times it seemed 28 year old Barkley might overwhelm Duran. But the Panamanian legend, in the best shape he’d been in in years, came back each time he was stunned. It was thrilling two-way warfare with scarcely a clinch or a lull in the action to be seen.

The difference was the heavy knockdown Duran scored in the 11th-round, this basically the signature on his masterpiece. Barkey got up smiling but he was bleeding, he was dazed and he knew his title was in serious jeopardy. Still, it was close and everyone watching knew it; including ringside commentators Al Bernstein and Gil Clancy (who had a friendly on-air bet; that of whether or not the two bitter rivals would embrace at the conclusion of the fight – Clancy winning the wager when Duran and Barkley did indeed show mutual respect).

In the end, it wasn’t ‘that’ close on the cards; on one score-card especially. Even back then (in fact long before this fight) some head-scratching examples of how not to score a fight were threatening to ruin an otherwise magical night of boxing. And the 118-112 card of one judge was, as Barkley put it, “crazy,” whereas the score of 116-112 for Duran was closer to the mark if not a little wide itself. The third judge scored the battle 116-113 for Barkley. In reality, this was pretty much a one or two-point fight, but no-one (aside from Barkley and his team) cried robbery. The right man won and he was back on top of the boxing world.

Barkley wanted a rematch but Duran had a different rematch, in fact a rubber-match, in mind: one with his nemesis, Sugar Ray Leonard. This fight, which took place in December of ’89, was one big dud, yet the vast purse he picked up got Duran out of trouble with the tax man.

Duran had an overall very good year in ’89, while fight fans got a Fight of The Decade contender on February 24th of that year. And to think, between them Duran and Barkley did not net a $million dollars. Both gladiators were severely underpaid for their efforts.