Nobody knew it then, but separate boxing matches on Feb. 24 and 25, 1989, might have made for a classic representation of the familiar two-ships-passing-in-the-night theme, even if those ships were 2,500 miles apart and one of them was sailing in the Nevada desert.
On Feb. 24 of that year, the seemingly stalled career of Roberto Duran, 37, was revived with his exhilarating, 12-round split decision over WBC middleweight champion Iran Barkley in snowy Atlantic City, N.J., a fight which the “Hands of Stone,” a 3-1 underdog, would later call “the greatest of my life.” And why wouldn’t he? Not only did the Panamanian legend capture his fifth world title in four weight classes when many were suggesting he was a shot fighter, but Barkley was coming off his championship-winning third-round technical knockout of the great Thomas Hearns, who had smoked Duran in two rounds on June 15, 1984. The Ring magazine would later select Barkley-Duran as its Fight of the Year.
One night later, at the Las Vegas Hilton, heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, just 23 years old and just eight months removed from his 91-second destruction of Michael Spinks, did as expected, stopping British challenger Frank Bruno in five rounds. But this was not the same Tyson who blew away Spinks as if he were a rusty trailer in a tornado; the first tiny cracks in Iron Mike’s armor were revealed, cracks that would widen and eventually split wide-open on Feb. 11 of the following year in Tokyo, when Buster Douglas took a wrecking ball to the notion of Tyson’s invincibility with his 10th-round TKO victory as a 42-1 longshot.
Given the fact that Tyson was the Michael Jordan or Babe Ruth of boxing then, most fight writers from around America and the world were in Vegas 26 years ago, their respective news organizations sending backups to A.C., or simply relying on wire-services coverage. As a courtesy to large group of reporters on hand, the Hilton had set up a spacious hospitality tent in a parking lot with the closed-circuit feed of Barkley-Duran available for those who wanted to see it.
As Duran, who had taken off nearly 40 pounds in preparation for one of the several crossroads bouts he would be involved in during his remarkable pugilistic journey, reached back in time to summon some of that old magic, a lot of us in that tent were thinking that maybe, just maybe, we were at the wrong fight site. But nobody could have known or predicted the ramifications of those two February nights in the first year of the George H.W. Bush presidency. Who could have said with any degree of certainty that Duran would fight on for 13 more years? Or that Tyson would come back from his three-year incarceration on a 1992 rape conviction a husk of his former self, still good enough and scary enough to beat fringe-type fighters but exposed against elites like Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis? Could anyone who saw the young, fearsome Tyson crush Spinks have then believed that it would all end with him quitting on his stool against somebody named Kevin McBride?
When the opening bell for Barkley-Duran rang, my overriding sentiment was that I was glad I was in much-warmer Vegas, and had not been obliged to make the 65-mile trip by car from Philadelphia to Atlantic City during the worst snowstorm of the winter. A colleague of mine at the Philadelphia Daily News, Paul Domowitch, whose regular beat was pro football, had drawn the assignment, perhaps grudgingly, to drive through the blizzard to pinch-hit for me at ringside in Boardwalk Hall.
But as the rounds unfolded one by one, it became apparent to those of us at the Hilton that Duran had again found something within himself that for so long had stamped him as a very special fighter. The Duran we were watching on TV in the hospitality tent clearly had rediscovered his passion for boxing, and the exclamation point to his bravura performance came when he connected with three right hands to the jaw in Round 11, flooring a stunned Barkley for the bout’s only knockdown.
For this story, I contacted Erie, Pa.-based promoter Mike Acri, who took a chance on Duran when few believed he had much left to give after 91 bouts and nearly 22 years in the pro ranks. In his most recent outing prior to Barkley, an out-of-shape and seemingly disinterested Duran had struggled to a 10-round split decision over the unintimidating Jeff Lanas.
“People thought he was just in there to get a payday,” Acri recalled. “But I knew better. At breakfast that morning, me and him and all of our guys were sitting there eating and Roberto said, `I feel like fighting tonight.’ Right then and there I thought, `This is going to be my first world champion.’ I had no doubt Roberto would win that night.”
Others had their doubts, and plenty of them. Even though Duran weighed in at a trim 156¼ pounds, 3¾ below the middleweight limit, everyone knew that his best days were at lightweight, a division in which he just might have been the best that ever was. But Duran liked to eat, a lot, when he wasn’t in training, and he had trouble keeping the weight off as he got older. At 5-7½, he looked like a stumpy, black-haired Buddha when he puffed up to the 200-pound range, as he had in the months before he was to square off with Barkley. Acri, however, said that with Duran, appearances could be deceiving.
“In December, we got the contract,” Acri said. “Duran wasn’t that crazy with the weight then, maybe 180 or 190, but a lot of it was water weight that came off easy. The first 10 or 12 pounds came off real quick. And once he started sparring, the weight came off even quicker.
“People would say he’d get up to 220 between fights. Total b.s. Well, maybe later. But he didn’t take diuretics. He didn’t use Ex-Lax or anything like that. He didn’t trust it.”
Once he worked himself into fighting trim, though, Duran was an absolute beast. Retired AP boxing writer Ed Schuyler Jr., who like Duran is an inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, recalled his first glimpse of the human dynamo, on Sept. 13, 1971, in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Duran was 23-0 with 20 KOs at the time and making his U.S. debut, against a credible opponent, Benny Huertas, on the undercard of a show headlined by WBA lightweight champion Ken Buchanan.
“Huertas wasn’t a great fighter, but he was a tough guy who could have gone 10 rounds with 82nd Airborne Division,” Schuyler said. “Duran got him out of there in a flash. You could see he was evident to me that this was someone who was just born to fight. As a lightweight, Duran was the best fighter I’ve ever seen. He’s the best lightweight that ever lived, in my opinion.”
Acri shared Schuyler’s opinion that Duran, when in shape and motivated, deserved to be any best-ever conversation.
“Some people are just meant to become what they became,” Acri told me. “With Roberto, I think God said, `I’m going to make this guy a real badass. I’m going to make him a great fighter.’”
Tyson, for a more abbreviated period, bore the same unmistakable mark of greatness. He had Duran’s finishing instincts, for sure, but also the same tendency to put on a lot of unwanted weight – especially if there were complications in his personal life. And there were more than a few of those during the stretch between Tyson’s demolition of Spinks and the first of his two fights with Bruno. His marriage to actress Robin Givens had broken up, and he had replaced longtime trainer Kevin Rooney with Jay Bright, whose ineptitude in that role was starkly evident when Tyson fell to Douglas.
Believing he had been wrongly terminated, Rooney filed a $10 million breach-of-contract lawsuit against Tyson in the leadup to the Bruno fight, further poisoning the waters.
“I had nothing personal against him,” Tyson had said of Rooney after the legal action that ensured that the two never again would work with each other. “What he did was unprofessional, that’s all. But now the suit makes it personal. As far as I’m concerned, he’ll never have a chance of working with me again. Never.”
Perhaps, had Rooney been his chief second instead of Bright, Tyson wouldn’t have gorged himself up to nearly 260 pounds before he went into training. Like Duran, he did take the excess poundage off – he was a ripped 218 at the weigh-in – but physically and emotionally, hints were being dropped that the guy who destroyed Spinks and so many others was being transformed into a lesser version of himself. But few picked up on the evidence Tyson was providing of his dissolution, if only because what we all were seeing was still far better than whatever the crystal-chinned Bruno brought to the table.
Tyson had always seemed, well, a bit unhinged, which added to his aura of danger, but in retrospect his actions at the weigh-in for Bruno were indicative of a deeper disturbance. For whatever reason, he dropped his shorts and exposed himself to Bruno, an act of public lewdness that was minimized only because three security guards swiftly moved in to form a human shield.
Whether he was or wasn’t at his very best, Tyson, a 7-1 favorite, was still too much for the Jamaican-born Bruno, whose popularity in the United Kingdom was such that nearly 3,000 of his supporters were on hand to be eyewitnesses to what even they had to believe would be a ritualistic execution. Many other Brits watched the fight on closed-circuit in the UK, despite the fact the fight didn’t begin until 5 a.m. local time.
It ended, as it surely had to, as referee Richard Steele stepped in to protect a clearly buzzed Bruno from further damage. But sometimes it takes only a single loose thread to begin a garment’s unraveling. Tokyo and Douglas awaited Tyson a year later.