Late last year Bruce Trampler, the matchmaker for promoter Bob Arum, took a phone call from TVKO. The boxing pay-per-view network was looking for a Jan. 10 opponent for Darrin Van Horn, the IBF super middleweight champion. "Give me a minute to think," Trampler told the caller. Trampler placed a hand over the phone's mouthpiece.
Sitting across from him in Arum's Las Vegas office was Iran Barkley, the 31-year-old former WBC middleweight champion who had fallen on hard times. "Can you make 168 pounds for a title fight?" Trampler asked him.
"No problem," replied Barkley, a former street fighter from the Bronx.
"I got just the guy," Trampler said into the telephone. Barkley stopped Van Horn in the second round at Madison Square Garden to earn $60,000, some $440,000 less than Barkley made last Friday night when he completed his resurrection by upsetting WBA light heavyweight champion Thomas Hearns in a bloody and brutal split decision at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
Barkley needed almost four years to come full circle. In another bloody slug-fest, on June 6, 1988, he had stopped Hearns in the third round to win his first title, the WBC middleweight crown. However, disaster soon followed. First, Barkley had an operation to remove scar tissue over both eyes. Then came successive losses to Roberto Duran, Michael Nunn and Nigel Benn. Finally, in December 1989, he underwent surgery to remove a cataract and repair a retinal tear in his left eye. Barkley was reduced to fighting for pin money. Before the Van Horn bout he earned $6,000 for beating Jesus Castaneda in Great Falls, Mont., on Oct. 3, 1991. For his next fight, against Kevin Watts, he was to be paid $7,500.
Barkley, a free spender, was financially strapped when he sat in Trampler's office. "I had knocked out a legend [Hearns], and I went home and waited for the applause," he said a few days before last week's fight. "It never came. I kept thinking about the legends: Hearns, Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Duran. They had their own clique, and they would never let anybody else in. Well, I busted in and knocked one of them out. I beat another one, Duran, and they stole the decision. I was very bitter with boxing. I almost quit. But I'm still here. Hearns will find that out Friday night. He busted me up good the first time. Now he better worry about that. He better not make me bleed."
Barkley, who entered the Hearns bout with a 28-7 record, is an angry brawler who jumps in an opponent's face and hangs on the way a Doberman hangs on to a piece of red meat. To keep Barkley at arm's length, where he becomes a mediocre club fighter, an opponent needs either firepower or legs. On Friday, in his 55th pro fight, the 33-year-old Hearns had neither. He chose not to run, or was unable to. Hearns's vaunted right hand, which had stopped 40 opponents, was all but nonexistent. His adviser, Harold Smith (SI, March 23), later said that Hearns had injured the hand two weeks before the fight and that for a few days the pain had Hearns considering a postponement.
"You don't have to be a genius to know what Barkley is going to do," said Hearns's strategist, Alex Sherer, a few days before the fight. "I look for him to come barreling out with no respect, shooting those big punches. With that mean stick of his, Tommy should bust him up, close his eyes and get him out early. I'm not one for making exciting fights. I'm for dissecting it and getting out. That's all I want Tommy to do—punish him, take him down, take him apart and win."
As Sherer predicted, Barkley came barreling out with no respect. With his shaved head, Fu Manchu-style whiskers and eyes squeezed nearly shut in anger, he had the chilling look of a Mongol warrior. Hearns met him casually, gracefully relaxed.
Hearns had promised a boxing exhibition, but Barkley's first rush carried the champion back into the ropes. There they stayed, trading fierce body shots, a sniper inviting a knife fighter to a duel in a foxhole. Each man took turns sending volley after volley of hard punches into the other's midsection.
In the fourth round, a moment after he had dropped Hearns with a short counter hook over a right to the jaw, Barkley began to bleed from a wound over his left eye. As Hearns, who had gotten up quickly, returned to his corner after the round, Sherer told him, "Stay off the ropes. The man's eye is wide open, you got me?"
Still, in the fifth Hearns returned to the ropes. Barkley's attack was relentless, but most of his punches bounced off Hearns's arms. Though not scoring blows, they were the sort of punches that can take a severe toll in later rounds, when the arms that are catching the punches begin to come down, leaving the chin exposed.
Sherer again pleaded in the seventh for Hearns to stay away from the ropes, and Hearns tried—for 30 seconds. Then he went back to where he did not have to use his legs. Across the way, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Barkley's trainer, was yelling, "He's dead. His——legs are gone." After seven grueling rounds both men had started to run down. In Round 8, Hearns's nose, swollen to twice its normal size, began splashing blood on his trunks. His left cheek was twice the size of the right. Barkley's eyes were swollen, and he was leaking blood from his mouth. More blood flowed in the 11th when Hearns opened a cut on the top of Barkley's head.
As the pressure from Barkley cased in the late rounds, Hearns tried to pick up the pace. His hard jab ripped into Barkley's face, and he hammered hook after hook to the body. Barkley left immense openings for Hearns's right hand, but few were thrown. "You got to pump that right hand," Sherer told him quietly between rounds. "Throw it with all your power."
But the right hand wasn't there. Meanwhile Barkley was concerned about his own left hand. He had injured it in training, and somewhere in the middle of the fight—he doesn't know in which round—he broke it. "Don't ask me when I broke it." he growled after the bout. "I just kept throwing it and throwing it."
When the final bell rang, Hearns had his back against the ropes. He slumped back and then walked slowly to his corner.
The fight was tough to score. Hearns threw fewer punches than Barkley, but a higher percentage of Hearns's blows scored. Barkley was the aggressor and got the only knockdown. The judges saw it this way: Chuck Giampa (115-113) and Jerry Roth (114-113) had Barkley winning, while Lou Tabat (114-113) thought Hearns had prevailed.
It was Hearns's fourth defeat, and the first by decision. All his losses, half of them to Barkley, have come in Las Vegas. As for Barkley, the former $6,000 fighter, Arum said, "His next fight will make him a millionaire."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," said Barkley. "Now let's go party."