It ended with a sharp crack—as WBA/IBF welterweight champion Donald Curry's left fist, a red blur, slammed against the right side of Milton McCrory's head. McCrory, Curry's WBC counterpart, collapsed to the canvas. Gamely, if not wisely, he got to his feet. Curry marched forward. Crack! This time it was Curry's right fist that caught McCrory's head, snapping it violently sideways and dropping the fighter into the world of losers for the first time in his 29-bout pro career.
In less than five minutes of one-sided combat on Friday night at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel, Curry unified the 147-pound title for the first time since 1982, the year in which Sugar Ray Leonard abdicated. What's more, the quiet, shy 24-year-old from Fort Worth established himself as a rising superstar.
For the unbeaten Curry it was his 24th win (his 19th KO), and it came against a man who had never even been off his feet as a pro. "I thought I had a steel chin," McCrory said after the fight, Curry's sixth defense of the WBA title he won in February 1983 against Jun Sok Hwang.
The publicists had called this one the Tossup, which it was only if you count the coins the two fighters flipped during the days beforehand; Curry was, in fact, the heavy favorite (4-1). They tossed to see if they would fight 12 rounds (WBC protocol) or 15 (WBA); to see who would speak first at the prefight press conference; to see who would weigh in first (both came in at 146¾); to see who would enter the ring first.
Curry won the second and last tosses, and McCrory went into the ring first. Along with manager Emanuel Steward and a contingent from the Kronk Gym in Detroit, McCrory came down the aisle laughing and dancing. Curry, watching a TV monitor in his dressing room, was shocked.
"Where does he think he is?" Curry asked his manager, Dave Gorman. "He must think this is an easy fight. He's not even loosening up. He's cold. I'm going to jump right into his face."
A fire had been building inside Curry for several days. On Wednesday heated words had been exchanged between the two camps. There had been a suggestion that Curry lacked heart. "You bring your heart into the ring," Curry snarled at McCrory, who had been a friend since both were amateurs. "I'm going to take it from you, and then I'm going to knock you out." The fighters' dressing rooms were side by side. Before McCrory went out, additional taunts were shouted through the walls.
As he climbed into the ring, Curry's face was frozen. Only his narrowed, gun-fighter eyes betrayed the rage.
McCrory got in the first punch, a hard jab, the traditional opening gambit of Kronk fighters. "They all fight like Tommy Hearns," Curry scoffed. "All Kronk fighters hold their left hands too low."
Curry responded to McCrory's jab with three flashing rights. Hardly had the battle been joined when Curry became convinced he couldn't lose. "I knew I was stronger, but I didn't know I was that much stronger," Curry said. "I don't think he knew, either. After the first 20 seconds I could see the confusion in his eyes. I knew he was mine."
Two minutes into the round, Curry snapped McCrory's head back with a left hook. He fired two more punches, then drove his quarry into a corner with a straight left. McCrory grabbed and held. When he tried to fight his way out of trouble, it was clear that his punches had no snap. "I couldn't believe how slow he was," Curry said.
For all his quickness and power, Curry is also a brilliant defensive fighter. Instead of slipping punches, he intercepts them with his open gloves, reacting and neutralizing while the blow is still on its way. And he can catch a punch and then counter. Most fighters, in order to counter, have to slip the punches.
At the end of the round, after hurting McCrory again with an overhand right, Curry nodded as his cornermen advised patience. He was angry with himself for having been overeager in Round 1. Discipline has been one of his trademarks. No movement is wasted, neither of fist nor foot.
Across the way Steward was telling McCrory: "I believe he's gonna burn himself out.... Keep the left out there. He's fighting a lot more tighter than he normally does."
McCrory tried dutifully to hold off Curry with the left as the second round started, but to little avail. At 1:24 Curry fired the left hook, and McCrory tumbled. He was rising when the count from referee Mills Lane reached five; McCrory slipped down to his left knee and rose at seven. Lane asked him if he was O.K.
"His vision was clear and his eyes were focusing," Lane said later. After getting a coherent response from McCrory, Lane let the fight continue. Curry walked straight in, fired the right hand, and turned and walked away. McCrory went over on his back. He struggled to lift his head; twice it fell back. His eyes rolled to the left, away from his corner. Then, straining to focus on Lane, McCrory saw the referee's fingers flash eight, nine and 10 over him.
McCrory stayed down for another 2½ minutes as Dr. Donald Romeo examined him. Later, when McCrory had made it back to his corner, Dr. Romeo asked him where he was.
"Out West," said McCrory.
"What gym do you fight out of?"
McCrory glared at the physician. "Kronk," he spat out.
"He'll be O.K.," said Dr. Romeo.
Seven hours later, at 2 a.m., McCrory knocked on the door of Curry's suite on the ninth floor of the Hilton. "What did I do wrong?" he asked after Curry invited him in. "I couldn't get off. But that's no excuse. You're the better man."
Curry tried to console him. He urged McCrory not to quit. He told him he was a good fighter and that one loss shouldn't ruin his career. McCrory made no response, but simply left.
"I wished they had stopped it after the first knockdown," Curry said quietly the next day. "He could have come back from that. But after that second one his confidence level is zero. They should have stopped it. For his sake, I really wished they had."
He is a nice young man, this Donald Curry, outside of the ring. He cares about people. The hard look was absent from his eyes even when he talked about Mike McCallum, the WBA junior middleweight champion, whom he'll probably fight next. And about Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the middleweight champion, whom he hopes to fight in 1987.
"If he's still there," Curry said, smiling. "That would be a nice fight."
No one asked the undisputed champion for his definition of nice.