Iran Barkley is indeed in the hospital after testing positive for COVID, but the three-weight champ from the Bronx told BLH that he is feeling decent. Once a fighter, always a fighter.
“I’m hanging in, buddy,” Barkley, age 60, told me on Wednesday evening. “I went to the hospital last week, because I started coughing, phlegm and stuff, and my son called the ambulance, and they kept me.
“They tested me right away, they said I had COVID, but not bad. They gave me some, I believe it was steroids; I’m good now. I will be out this week. I’m healthy, it’s great news.”
That it is for Barkley, an alumnus of the rugged Patterson Houses in Mott Haven, South Bronx, and certified NYC fight game royalty.
Barkley turned pro in 1982, having first thought to try for the Olympics, but making money seemed practical. He went in pretty tough, and lost in his fifth fight to Osley Silas, and his ninth outing to Robbie Sims, Marvin Hagler’s brother.
But Barkley, aka “The Blade,” was a grinder, and fought his way to a 1987 middleweight title fight against Sumbu Kalambay in Italy, though he lost a decision over 15 rounds. A win over Michael “Silk” Olajide earned Barkley a 1988 date with Thomas “Hitman” Hearns, who entered a 4-to-1 favorite for the bout.
But after being badly cut and losing the first two rounds, the 28-year-old Barkley roared back, and felled Hearns in the third.
Hearns thought he was building toward something as he ripped repeated left hooks to the body. However, Barkley knew what Gil Clancy had said a bit before, that Hearns would flurry, then drop his hands, without having re-set his distance to get out of range. A sharp right put a squared up Hearns on the floor, and he only barely beat the count. On rubber legs, “Hitman” wasn’t able to keep Barkley off of him. A right cross sent Hearns through the ropes, and Steve Albert shouted, “It’s over! Iran Barkley has upset Thomas Hearns here in the third round and he is the new WBC middleweight champion!” RING Magazine called it the upset of the year.
His next scrap came against another legend, 37-year-old Roberto Duran. “Some believed this would be a mismatch, for Barkley,” said Al Bernstein as the judges’ cards were tallied on Feb. 24, 1989. This was Duran’s 19th title fight, and “Hands of Stone” snagged a split decision in RING’s Fight of the Year.
Over his remaining years in the sport, Barkley — who retired in 1999 with a record of 43-19-1 (27 KO) — became known for his great will and warrior spirit. He won the IBF super middleweight title in Jan. 1992, and the WBA light heavyweight title just two months later, the latter another win over Hearns.
Like so many who experienced an epiphany when latching onto fighting as a reason for being, enjoying the surges of revenue and adulation, Barkley hasn’t always found it easy to transition from being a world class athlete in the most challenging sport in existence.
The ex-fighter is quick with a grin, though, whenever he makes the rounds at New York-area fight cards and boxing events. And I could hear that smile when I spoke to him on the phone Wednesday night.
And he set me straight, telling me that no, contrary to reports, he didn’t suffer a stroke in 2014.
“You can tell people I’m healthy, strong, I’m getting better every day,” Barkley told me. “ And I’m ready for this pandemic to get outta here, and get back to business!”