Thomas Hearns had the fight won; all he had to do was stick and move and be content to further batter his rival’s ruined face and await the timely intervention of the referee. Instead, The Upset Of The Decade unfolded.
The legendary “Hitman,” fresh off his history-making four-division coronation – belts won at 147, 154, 160 and 175 – signed to make the first defence of his recently acquired WBC middleweight crown against Iran Barkley.
Stung by the claims that has chin was a suspect one, one that had been close to being dented in his middleweight title fight win, by Juan Domingo Roldan (interestingly, Roldan being a fighter a retired Hearns would later say was the single hardest puncher he ever faced) Tommy came out determined to stick it to “The Blade” from The Bronx. A more cautious approach would have served Hearns far better.
Barkley, who had come up short in an earlier shot at 160 pound glory, the classy Sumbu Kalambay knowing too much for him over 15 rounds in Italy, was known as a gutsy operator, a hard puncher, but he was a big underdog against Hearns. And for two-and-half rounds the spectators in Las Vegas could easily see why.
Hearns, looking sleek, sharp and deadly, hit his challenger with everything – left jabs that landed smack in the face, hard right hands, lefts to head and body. Soon Barkley was a bloody mess, his face in real danger of doing something has heart would never do and let him down; the fight so close to being stopped.
Then it happened.
Making the mistake of staying just close enough for his wounded but still upright – and therefore still dangerous – prey, Hearns was made to pay the price. Barkley, firing on blind instinct, unleashed a shot from hell (later the landed shot, and it’s devastating effect, was referred to as the boxing equivalent of catching lightning in a bottle ) and Hearns went down, his long body recoiling in what almost looked like slow motion.
Although Hearns – arguably the fighter of the past 30 years with the most staggeringly enormous heart and raw courage – somehow tried to get up and fight on, this one was over. Hearns’ career had reached its end as Barkley’s had been thrown one big lifeline (one Barkley grabbed with both hands, his right hand in particular).
Instead, and quite astonishingly, both men would fight on, at elite level, for years to come – with both men having the chance to go to war for a second time – and both greats would capture more world titles. But on the night of June 6 none of that was even a notion. Hearns was finished and the ultra-hittable Barkley’s reign would surely be shortlived.
Hearns, mere seconds away from a TKO win, was the victim of one of the most shocking come from behind wins in boxing history. Barkley, who lost around four or five fights’ worth of blood, pulled off the single biggest win of his hugely thrilling roller coaster career.