22.06.04 – By Matthew Hurley: Right from the outset Barry McGuigan exuded charisma. A handsome little Irishman with a sunny disposition and a wicked left hook, the young fighter united Ireland like no political figure could. Something as simple as a nice young man with no political agenda winging punches in a fury brought a country together. Catholics and Protestants alike rallied around the “Clones Cyclone” and hoisted pints of Guinness when his father Pat sang “Danny Boy” before each of his ring battles. He was a unifying force and his fights attracted huge crowds. So enormous was his popularity that Kings Hall in Belfast was reopened for boxing just to host the huge throng ready to cheer on their hero.
In June of 1985 in London before a highly partisan crowd of more than 25,000 people Barry lifted the WBA featherweight title from Eusebio Pedroza in a rousing 15 round decision. The bout was televised in America and instantly Barry became a hot commodity. Bob Arum saw a potential superstar and put McGuigan on the under card of the Thomas Hearns vs. Mark Medal junior middleweight fight. Barry was set to face Fernando Sosa of Argentina but a detached retina forced him to pull out. Up stepped unheralded Texan Steve Cruz.
Cruz was a stable mate of then reigning welterweight champion Donald Curry and the two often sparred together. Steve fought in a straight up, orthodox style and fired precision punches with quick hands. Still, he was unknown outside of his hometown. He was brought in by Arum as fodder for McGuigan’s American debut and the promoter was hoping that an electrifying McGuigan victory would set up a featherweight super fight unification match with WBC champion Azumah Nelson. Arum gave Cruz 70,000 dollars to fold underneath the bright lights of Caesars Palace, but Cruz knew this would probably be his only shot at a world title and he rose to the occasion. What resulted was the fight of the year.
There was really nothing about Cruz to worry McGuigan. His record consisted of 25 wins and one loss and he wasn’t a big puncher. But Barry was always a bit philosophical about his opponents and he admitted concern about the humidity of fighting in Vegas and the strategical shift in his training preparation when the stocky Sosa was replaced by the lanky Cruz. He wasn’t worried but he admitted concern.
It was brutally hot on June 23, 1986 and the heat would eventually drain the little cyclone from Ireland as much as his opponent did. At the opening bell Barry characteristically charged after his opponent, slinging left hooks and burying his head in Cruz’s chest. Cruz attempted to keep McGuigan off with stiff left jabs and counter right hands. He kept his hands high and occasionally looped right hands over Barry’s guard.
The fight raged on with Barry maintaining the upper hand with long left hooks and sheer aggression. His body punching seemed to be wearing on Cruz as the sun beat down like fire on both fighters. Then in the fifth round McGuigan seemed to slow down and Cruz seemed to go into another gear. Whether it was the heat that was sapping Barry’s strength or those looping right hands the champion suddenly found himself in a pitched battle he hadn’t really expected. When the round ended Barry fell back onto his stool and told his handlers, “It’s the heat. It’s getting to me.”
The McGuigan faithful began to chant “Here we go, here we go,”, oblivious to what was happening to their hero. Barry charged out of his corner and continued to rake Steve with left hooks to the body but the punches were becoming noticeably slower. Cruz, however, seemed unaffected by not only the heat but McGuigan. He was calm and precise. He began to rock the Irishman with straight right hands and opened a cut over Barry’s left eye. Slowly he started to take over the fight.
McGuigan finally roared back in the ninth round, pinning Cruz to the ropes and keeping his head low and buried in his opponents chest. A nasty bruise surfaced under Cruz’s eye and the fight’s momentum swung back in favor of the champion.
Cruz surged in the tenth round but Barry shook the Texan with a hard left hook and the momentum shifted again. Barry moved in for the kill and just as he was about to launch another left hook Cruz caught him with a left hook of his own that caught the champion on the jaw and sent him to the canvas. McGuigan was up at nine and waved to his corner. Now it was anybody’s fight.
With McGuigan in retreat Cruz took over, pressing forward, ignoring the imploring chants of “Here we go, here we go.” In the twelfth McGuigan, flailing away in apparent desperation, was penalized a point by referee Richard Steele for a low blow.
The fight was slipping away from the champion. He roared out of his corner for the thirteenth round and pinned Cruz to the ropes, wailing away on him with everything he had left. In the fourteenth he continued his assault, trapping Cruz in corners and refusing to let him get away. It was to be Barry’s final championship run. It would prove his championship heart, but it wouldn’t be enough to save his championship.
At the bell for the fifteenth and final round both fighters touched gloves, but Barry looked completely drained. Cruz looked fresh. A minute into the round Barry’s legs gave out. A left hook caught him flush on the jaw and he staggered across the ring. Cruz launched an eight punch combination that finally sent the champion to the floor. McGuigan staggered to his feet but within seconds Cruz clubbed him with a left-right combination that sent him down again. Barry took a count of four and smiled wanly at his corner. When Cruz charged at him again the tired champion grabbed him and held on for the final thirty seconds. He survived.
After a long wait the scorecards were finally read – 142-141, 143-142, 143-139, all for the new champion Steve Cruz. The young kid from Texas, the one who was supposed to lay down, had pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the year.
McGuigan would later say that the heat was his biggest enemy in the ring that night. “I never did get used to the heat,” he lamented. “Right from the start. I don’t want to make any excuses because Steve fought a great fight.”
Cruz also admitted later that he was affected by the heat. “I faded early,” he said. “My feet hurt, my back was burning. It was bad.”
The two fighters would never again participate in anything quite so extraordinary. Barry would retire in 1989. He is now a boxing commentator in Britain. Steve Cruz kept the title for nine months before losing it to Antonio Esparragoza then fading away into boxing purgatory. But both of them achieved a piece of boxing immortality on that glorious night of June 23, 1986.