At midday the projects in the South Bronx, where Iran Barkley lives, have a sour, gritty, derelict look, a little like Barkley in the morning. At midnight—with pimps on the street corners mumbling checkitout, checkitout, checkitout, women in short shorts getting in and out of cabs, men prowling in buddy packs like old soldiers who have shared occupation duty—the neighborhood flashes hot and jittery, full of frenetic longing that never seems fulfilled.
Until June 6, Barkley's career, too, was a tale of undelivered promise. On that night in Las Vegas he won the WBC middleweight crown with a stunning third-round knockout of four-time title-holder Thomas Hearns, a 4-to-1 favorite. Bleeding around both eyes, reeling from Hearns's booming blows to his body, Barkley let fly a huge right from somewhere in the streets of the South Bronx. Suddenly he was a champion.
For more than five years Barkley had been dismissed as a slow, swarming, back-alley bruiser. He built a 24-4 record despite a brow that seemed to pop open every time he scowled. He absorbed as many punches as he threw. He looked flat last October in losing a 15-round decision to Zaire-born Sumbu Kalambay for the vacant WBA crown in Leghorn, Italy. But Barkley won his next two bouts—one a fifth-round TKO over favored Michael Olajide—to earn his shot at Hearns.
"Iran's story is full of pathos," says his manager, John Reetz, a onetime member of Julian Beck's avant-garde Living Theatre. "He had to box his way out of the ghetto, was ridiculed for not being good enough to be champ and won the title three days after his best friend died. It has all the elements of classic Greek tragedy."
Perhaps, though the phrase odd couple best describes Barkley and Reetz. Barkley, 28, is a battle-scarred pug with a menacing countenance set off by a lot of gold jewelry. His hobbies, he says, are "eating carrot cake and riding around in limos." Reetz, 36, was educated at Bard College, looks like Mike Doonesbury and sprinkles his conversation with references to popular and unpopular culture. Barkley was the youngest of eight kids in a South Bronx tenement. Reetz was raised in the elegant New York suburb of Bronxville.
Reetz, who walks around with copies of Oil & Gas Journal under his arm, was a wildcatter before dipping a toe into the fight game. "I was drawn toward the spectacle of boxing," he says. "It's true acting in the Brechtian sense: the Theater of the Alienated. But I expect Iran's playlet will have a happy ending, like Strawberry Fields Forever." Barkley savors the thought. "I like strawberries," he says, adding, "I like grapes too."
Iran isn't sure how he got his name but says it has never been a problem, even during the hostage crisis. "Everybody called me I," he recalls. "They all thought my real name was Ivan."
Iran was a passive child, and his older sister, Yvonne, had to make him fight. In grade school a bully named the Bear used to take his lunch money, so Iran went to Yvonne for help. Yvonne may have been only 5'3" and 135 pounds, but, Barkley recalls, "Yvonne found the Bear and whipped his butt. I knew how to fight; I just didn't like to."
He preferred running. At 14 he ran his own numbers operation; later he ran with a gang called the Black Spades. He learned to use a switchblade, but he was never much of a criminal. The one time he stole something, he got caught and was tossed in a cell with dope dealers, looters and assorted felons.
"What you in for, kid?" asked one hardened con.
"Thievin'," bragged Iran.
"What you steal?"
"A Mister Softee truck."
When Yvonne tired of beating up Iran's enemies, she took him to a gym so he could learn how to beat them up himself. He became a successful amateur, but decided not to try out for the 1984 Olympic team. "I could have made it," he says. "But I was determined to feed India." Iran is talking about his daughter, now 5, not some altruistic pursuit. He also has a newborn named Brittany. "When we married, I decided all our children would be named after countries," explains his wife, Pam. "I didn't like Borneo or Yugoslavia." Iraq was out, too. "Iran and Iraq would always be al each other's throats," she says.
Barkley could have used some artillery support against Hearns, who was bombing Iran from the opening bell, clubbing his body and cutting up his face. As the second round ended, rills of blood trickled from both eyes and out of Barkley's mouth. His trainer, Al (Potato Pie) Bolden, informed him, "You're bleeding. You've gotta step up the pace."
Hearns resumed the attack in the third, pummeling the challenger with left hooks. Just when it looked as if Barkley couldn't withstand another barrage, his desperation right caught Hearns on the chin and stopped him in his tracks. The champion toppled backward, and Barkley followed with another right that sent him to the floor. Hearns somehow wobbled to his feet at eight, but Barkley landed several more shots, dumping him over the ropes. Referee Richard Steele stopped it at 2:39.
At the postfight press conference Barkley wept for his 32-year-old brother, Alfred, who is dying of bone cancer, and for his close friend Davey Moore, the former WBA junior middleweight champ, who was killed two weeks ago when an unoccupied car rolled over him in his driveway. "I thought about calling off the fight," Barkley says. "But Davey's wife called to tell me he wanted me to win the title and defend it."
That first defense is likely to be an autumn rematch with Hearns—after Barkley has plastic surgery to reduce the scar tissue over his eyes. The new WBC middleweight champion is just as eager to take on Kalambay again, though not in Italy, his adopted homeland. "I'll fight him in Las Vegas or the Bronx," says Barkley, "but I ain't going to Italy."
"Even if we don't go to Italy," says Pam philosophically, "it's not a bad name for our next daughter."