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‘It was his heart. It just wouldn’t go’: Duran vs Barkley, 30 years on

Still a legend.

The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

During this arduous night in Atlantic City, perhaps the words “no mas” went through the mind of Roberto Duran. It was nine years after he’d turned from Leonard, told the referee he’d had enough and, in the eyes of many, committed a fighter’s greatest sin. His homeland’s furious response showed people can be unforgiving when their heroes err.

Reputation wounded and rumoured to be near broke after his 1982 split with his manager, Duran also seemed diminished in the ring. He was beaten five times in 12 bouts after Leonard but then managed to string together five wins, no big names but enough to show that he could compete at middleweight. It earned him a title bout and a chance to become a four-weight world champion. Not, however, much of a chance.

Iran Barkley was a huge middleweight, the younger man by nine years and had won the title with an impressive victory over Tommy Hearns. Yet Duran was why 7,000 fans braved a blizzard to ensure a sell-out and it was his name that boomed out around the arena. Many of them thought the old Duran was gone but they still hoped.

The pair’s plans are clear from the first round. With a mean left hook to the chest, Barkley announces his intention to go to the body whenever he can. It’s a plan built on respect; Barkley knows Duran’s slickness makes his head a tricky target, as proved by the number of Barkley’s jabs that drift harmlessly past the ducking and slipping Panamanian. Duran rips an overhand right over the top of a lazy Barkley jab and rocks the champion. We’ll see this combo of “Barkley jab, big Duran counter right” again and again. Much of the crowd is on its feet already. Three minutes in and they already believe it’s going to be one of those nights.

Barkley is the busier and more effective fighter over the opening half of the fight, with a display that is tactically savvier than many expected. He must hope that his thudding bodywork will eventually take its toll. A war breaks out in the fourth. We’ve had plenty of action already but up to this point, it’s been calculated. All of a sudden, two boxers testing each others’ skills becomes two fighters testing each others’ mettle. It’s frantic and evenly matched.

A left hook from Barkley early in the eighth leaves Duran spinning, stumbling but remarkably still standing. Duran would later say that the punch threw him off balance without hurting him but he offers little for the rest of the round. Barkley raises his arms to the crowd and smiles. He knows that, though his opponent has had highlight reel moments, it’s he who has consistently done more. Barkley will later point to the ninth as the turning point. He starts well, light on his feet and fighting at range. He’s then tempted to come in close and Duran takes charge and Barkley starts to look tired.

“Let’s go. Suck it up.”

Barkley’s corner tries to rev the champion up and the Blade comes out fast at the start of the eleventh to try to rediscover his authority. Duran is content to let his opponent expend his energy, knowing that he’ll have opportunities when the champion tires. Barkley’s near closed left eye is proof of how many of Duran’s rights have got through and the reduced vision means even more land. Early on it seemed impossible that a fight with so much action could go the distance but after the resilience we’ve seen, it’s a shock to see a fighter fall. A Duran right lands and then a left leaves Barkley out on his feet — he makes no attempt to hold, get away or fire back. Two more rights from Duran and the champion goes over. He’s up quickly and survives but looks lost at the end of the round, wandering away from his corner.

“Iron Hands” hasn’t overpowered Barkley; he’s outlasted him. He’s endured a sustained and brutal assault to his body. He’s kept up in a high tempo all-action fight with a bigger and younger man. All those pundits who had said a longer fight would be best for Barkley had got it badly wrong. A broken sound system means a long wait for the scores and eventually Michael Buffer has to shout out Duran’s split decision victory.

Duran called it the greatest fight of his life. Close to 22 years after his career began, he was a world champion once more. “I am like a bottle of wine. The older I get, the better.” A man with his success and still loved by so many didn’t need this title for redemption. Still, an almighty statement that Roberto Duran had never gone away.

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