Throwback Thursday: the legacy of Roberto Duran

Roberto Duran takes to the ring

The date is the 24th of February, the year is 1989 and I am just a twinkle in my old man’s eye somewhere in South Wales, UK.

Across the pond, two gladiators are about to go to war in Atlantic City. One will cement his legacy as a legend of the ring and the other, despite fighting the fight of his life will never again reach the lofty heights of WBC world champion. 

When 37-year-old Roberto Duran stepped into the ring against fearsome WBC middleweight champion Iran Barkley, he was considered a threat in mostly name only. 

Barkley was on a string of impressive wins, boxing 3 times in 1988; including wresting the title from superstar Tommy Hearns with a spectacular 3rd round TKO. 

In contrast, Duran had not boxed for a title since his back-to-back losses against Hagler and Hearns in 1983 & 1984 respectively. In 1986 he lost to Robbie Sims before building up 5 consecutive wins against lesser-known opposition. 

With public reports of financial problems and sitting 4 divisions north of where he’d previously stood as a lightweight God, Duran could do the only thing he had ever known; fight. 

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An underdog tale

Starting as more than a two to one underdog, someone had forgotten to give Roberto Duran the script for how this fight was supposed to go.

As early as the opening round, the Panamanian caught Barkley with a fearsome right overhand which staggered the champion. Never one to take things lying down, Barkley whipped spiteful shots into the body of Duran throughout the second and third rounds and it appeared as though Duran’s initial spirited effort may prove to fall short. 

The subtext of the fight was that Roberto Duran was using every bit of his 22-year ring experience to lull Barkley into making mistakes. The end of the third round saw the champion again caught with a telling right hand to the head over top of a lazy left jab. 

Spitting defiance at every turn Roberto Duran unleashed fury in the fourth round, showing why he was considered one of the most macho boxers ever to lace up a pair of gloves. The two men went to war, and Duran came out on top. 

Barkley, considered a big punching middleweight, couldn’t miss his target in the fifth round. But, to the surprise of everyone ringside, the ageing challenger shook each punch off. 

The crowd threw up chants of ‘Duran, Duran’ as he showed no signs of slowing down. 

The sixth round followed much the same pattern as the fifth with Barkley taking control and Duran taking it all in his stride. 

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Roberto Duran has a strong seventh round

Seemingly revitalised, Duran came out for the seventh round like a man possessed; attacking the younger champion with relentless body shots, always finishing with a right hand over the top. 

As the intensity flared once again, it was Iran Barkley who looked worse for wear; breathing heavily and taking mostly unanswered punishment in the final 30 seconds of the round. 

Continuing the roller coaster theme of the fight, Roberto Duran found himself stunned with a big left hook from Barkley one minute into the eighth round. Perhaps the punch of the fight, the shot saw Duran spectacularly pirouette before firing back at close quarters. 

The rest of the round could have taken place in a phone box with no quarter given by either man. 

The intensity seemed to take more out of Barkley than Duran as they moved into the ninth round. 

Tellingly Barkley took to his toes and seemed more reluctant to engage than in previous rounds. Duran stalked his man, winning his most convincing round of the fight. 

Barkley’s eye was heavily swollen and the champion was beginning to look the worse for wear. Building on this success, the relentless Roberto Duran pressed an increasingly tired Iran Barkley throughout the 10th as they moved into the final two rounds.

Barkley knocked down in the 11th

The 11th round proved pivotal with Barkley badly hit and knocked down for the first time in the fight. 

As clinical as a surgeon, Roberto Duran unleashed a perfect combination to send his rival to the canvas. 

Barkley survived the round, but only just; struggling to find his way to the corner. 

The final round was an all-out war. Barkley, who was now noticeably the more shopworn of the two, fought on nothing but heart. 

Duran bounced on his feet looking more like a fighter in his 20’s. He stung the weary champion with hurtful shots. At the closing bell, Barkley raised his hands and Duran’s corner rushed to carry him aloft. 

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The suspense of a split decision

Suspense built following the final bell. MC Michael buffer was unable to work his microphone causing a delay to proceedings. 

When the matter finally resolved itself, the judges’ scorecards read a split decision victory for the new middleweight world champion Roberto Duran. 

Despite a malicious build up between the fighters they embraced after the decision was read out. 

Duran was ecstatic in victory and Barkley was gracious in defeat. Both men would continue to box for more than a decade afterwards but never again would a crowd bear witness to the spectacle that Barkley and Duran produced in 1989’s fight of the year. 

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