It was when a thirty-seven year old Roberto Duran challenged Iran Barkley for the middleweight title that things seemed to be getting a little ridiculous. Duran was 12-7 since his loss to Sugar Ray Leonard. He'd eaten himself from lightweight up to middleweight and was always the smaller man in the ring. He'd recently been starched brutally by Tommy Hearns, causing some to question his well regarded chin, and even his famous Hands of Stone seemed to have eroded at his new weight.
Iran Barkley was a huge middleweight. Fresh off of his shock starching Tommy Hearns, Barkley was a terrifying figure. Not the best technical boxer in the world, but he had power for days and could take anything and throw it back.
When Duran got face to face with Barkley, everyone's worst fears were confirmed. Barkley dwarfed the former lightweight. Duran, who couldn't get past the reach of Tommy Hearns and had never shown the same punch at middleweight, seemed to be walking into a fight in which he'd take a beating, win or lose.
Fist of a Nation
There's a reason that when you ask the pundits about their favorite fighters, they'll wax lyrical about Ali, Robinson and Pep, but when you ask a fighter—a Ricky Hatton—they will say without hesitation, Roberto Duran. Duran was a fighter's fighter. The embodiment of machismo, but never stupid enough to take one just to give one. What was especially fascinating about Duran was how, despite his reputation as a rough fighter, and occasionally outright dirty, fans adored him. Al Bernstein put it best when he said that as a fight progresses, any crowd becomes a home crowd for Duran.
But the people never went to a Duran fight to cheer on an underdog. They went to see the fury of a man who, on first sight, had inspired Sports Illustrated and New York Herald Tribune writer, Pete Axthelm to remark in awe “What terrible past had produced this furious machine of destruction?” Certainly, no-one could have known that an impoverished child from the streets of Panama, who only took up boxing because he was jealous of his friend's amateur uniform, would turn into arguably the greatest lightweight of all time.
Boxing is not like the traditional view of martial arts. The smaller man does not often overcome unless there is a serious skill disparity. Weight, reach, power, they all mean too much. Of the few fighters who have excelled against large opponents, there have been a couple of different approaches. Manny Pacquiao would combination punch and tie up or circle off to stay out of trouble. Henry Armstrong would stay chest to chest with his opponent and pour on the pressure. Duran, well, he only really knew how to fight.
When Duran, at age thirty-seven and looking for that elusive fourth world title, got face to face with Barkley, everyone's worst fears were confirmed. Barkley dwarfed the former lightweight. Duran, who couldn't get past the reach of Tommy Hearns and had never shown the same punch at middleweight, seemed to be walking into a fight in which he'd take a beating, win or lose.
Fight of the Year
As the fight began, Duran went to his standard tactics to compensate for a lack of reach. He'd flick a jab out and immediately slip. If the opponent fired back they'd miss, and Duran would be in position to hook to the body and either clinch up or duck out again.
But Iran Barkley's length clearly bothered Roberto Duran. Barkley's jab had gone under-rated because he was known as a banger, yet against an opponent with such a vertical disadvantage, Barkley started to look like Larry Holmes. That was, until Duran got the timing down. Near the end of round one, Duran let a jab pass over his left shoulder, and countered with a powerful overhand which put Barkley on rubber legs.
As the round ended, Barkley returned to his corner, leering at Duran but panting for breath. The fight had changed. This wasn't the small, wizened old timer against the young, athletic banger. Duran could hurt Barkley.
In the second round, things started to go more Barkley's way. Duran would get to the inside and land a couple of chopping punches, but he'd eat a booming hook to the midsection in return. Al Bernstein pointed out that Duran's mouth was already open. Barkley was taking his toll on the smaller, weaker, older man.
It's worth discussing some of Duran's tactics here. It was not the speed of Duran's jab, or the fact that—as he put it—he had the right hand of Ingomar Johansson that made Duran so special. It was that he had a trick for every range of the fight, every area of the ring, and every time of the round.
Duran's jab was sharp enough to annoy the smoothest boxers, but that was its entire purpose. He didn't look to out jab opponents, he looked to have them counter him. Jab, dip, and attack the body, it was Duran 101. Here are a couple of instances from his bout with Davey Moore.
Against Barkley, it was that right hook underneath the jab that caused havoc. When Barkley jabbed firmly, Duran ducked under and cracked his exposed ribs. When Barkley jabbed tentatively, Duran would pull back and fire a right hand over the top of it. And it all stemmed off of Duran's absolute comfort at both long range and short range. Men with a significant height and reach disadvantage are not normally able to read distance and allow the jab to fall short as well as Duran did in this bout.
Make no mistake, this was not a clinic in the art of boxing. Barkley had Duran in serious trouble through the middle of the fight. His punishing body punches and his terrific left hook to the head took their toll. Duran fought on the inside excellently, snapping off punches in pairs and ducking returns, using his palm to pin Barkley's left hand to his chest at any opportunity, but where many opponents would get drawn into throwing at Duran's elusive head, Barkley focused much of his work on Duran's stationary midriff. Barkley also showed technical nuances he hadn't demonstrated before, such as this lovely shuffle off to an angle before throwing a shortened left hook.
But Duran's work paid off. Through effective head and body work on the inside, he'd convince Barkley to use the reach advantage, then Duran would counter punch effectively. After rallying to put on fine showings in the ninth and tenth rounds, Duran wobbled the gigantic middleweight champion in the eleventh round. That primal rage bubbled up in Duran. There is talk of many fighters being “throw backs” to bygone eras—when Duran had a man hurt, he looked like a throwback to another species. It's exactly what Axthelm had seen in him ten years earlier. Duran had puffed out, overeaten and overindulged, but under that small gut and behind the sprinkled grey whiskers, there still dwelled a man with the instincts of a killer.
Roberto Duran had found his famous Hands of Stone again, and they had saved the fight. Duran took a close decision in a bout which was awarded Ring magazine's Fight of the Year honors. Not only that, but Duran's performance won him Ring's Comeback of the Year award (for the second time). Ten years after vacating the lightweight title, and almost twenty after first winning it, Duran was a middleweight world champion.
We get hung up on the ins and outs of the strategies and techniques used, but Duran didn't come in with a special strategy for Barkley. He did exactly what he had been doing for a decade and a half. And what he had done to Barkley's close friend, Davey Moore. There was no magic, all of Duran's tricks hide in plain sight. But even for someone with the skill of Roberto Duran, it all would have come to naught if he couldn't weather the ludicrous punches of Iran Barkley.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to think about, when we talk about Roberto Duran (and I hope to do more of that in the future) is that almost all of what most fans know Duran for—his bouts with Leonard, his close loss to Hagler, his wins over Davey Moore and Iran Barkley—happened long after what those in the know consider Duran's prime.
To learn more about Roberto Duran, I recommend watching my study of his bout with Davey Moore.
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