The All-America junior tailback for the Penn State Nittany Lions, strong and swift at 5-foot-11 and a chiseled 229 pounds, is a force to be reckoned with when he runs inside the tackles, gaining impressive yardage after first contact and occasionally taking it all the way to the end zone if he finds a bit of open space. He is no less impressive when he goes wide, where his 4.38 speed in the 40-yard dash and array of shake-and-bake moves make him a threat to score at any time and from any position on the field.
With each new “Did-you-see-that?” addition to his personal highlight reel and impressive victory by his undefeated and third-ranked team, the groundswell of support grows a bit louder for Saquon Barkley to become Penn State’s second Heisman Trophy winner, an exclusive club whose sole member is 1973 honoree John Cappelletti. But whether or not Barkley takes home the Heisman, it seems certain that the 20-year-old will be the first running back selected in the 2018 NFL draft and be hailed as the most accomplished athlete in his extended family, a distinction he might already have wrested from his great-uncle Iran Barkley, 57, the former middleweight and super middleweight boxing champion of the world who twice defeated Hall of Famer Thomas Hearns.
The first of those signature triumphs came on an exclamation-point third-round technical knockout of the then-WBC middleweight titlist on June 6, 1988, at the Las Vegas Hilton. That bolt-from-the-blue reversal of fortune by the elder Barkley, who was bruised, bleeding and seemingly on the way to being stopped himself, was named Upset of the Year by The Ring magazine.
There are certain qualities that apply to the more accomplished participants in both physically and mentally demanding sports. Toughness, for sure. Quickness, for another, as well as the ability to strike hard and fast, and to endure pain without complaint when fatigue sets in and the mind is screaming at the body to stop and rest. Talent can only take an athlete so far; beyond that, perseverance and a refusal to let the other guy get the better of you at crunch time separates champions from everyone else, whether it’s in the late rounds of a give-and-take boxing match or third-and-one in the fourth quarter of a tight football game.
“I cannot imagine that there’s a better player in college football,” Penn State coach James Franklin said after his most dynamic weapon accounted for 305 yards from scrimmage (211 rushing yards on 28 carries and 94 receiving yards on a career-best 12 catches) in a last-second, 21-19 victory at Iowa on Sept. 23. “I’ve been doing this for 23 years. The guy is special.”
Saquon Barkley might have been special with padded gloves on his hands as well. His father, Alibay Barkley Jr., now 48, was a Golden Gloves boxer in his native Bronx, N.Y., and a pretty good one until an injury to his left shoulder that never quite healed caused him excruciating pain whenever he threw a jab and ended his dreams of matching the success of his uncle Iran.
Saquon, who was just a toddler when he and his five siblings moved to Pennsylvania with his father and mother, Tonya Johnson, in June 2001, knew of his dad’s thwarted boxing aspirations, and for a time he hoped he would allow Alibay to live that dream through him. But his gift for running with a football tucked under his arm was such that it caused him to envision another path to greatness.
“Boxing was forced onto me,” Saquon, recalling the path he eventually chose, said in an interview with USA Today before the start of the current football season. “I truly, truly, truly believe that if I didn’t fall in love with football, I would’ve ended up being a boxer.”
Truth be told, little Saquon’s first sports hero was not his dad or his great uncle but Curtis Martin, a former standout running back for the New York Jets. Watching from the stands in Giants Stadium as Martin had another big afternoon, the then-three-year old Saquon confidently told Alibay, “When I grow up, I’m going to be just like No. 28 (Martin).”
But Saquon’s periodic bouts with asthma, brought on by poor air quality in the Bronx, obliged his mother to carry a rescue inhaler in her purse at all times. The situation became so worrisome that, after a visit to Bethlehem, Pa., where the air quality seemed better and there was more green and open space for the kids to run around in, Johnson decided the family should move out of New York City. And with that, everything began to change for Saquon, who by and by shifted his athletic allegiance from the ring to the gridiron.
Iran Barkley perhaps could have gone that route as well. He said he enjoyed all sports as a kid growing up in the Bronx. “I played football and baseball,” he recalled. “Pretty much everything, really. But when I went to the gym with my cousins and uncles, I said, `That’s it. Boxing is what I want to do.’ I gave up the other stuff and stuck with it.”
Are the comparisons between football and boxing valid, or at least somewhat so?
“There are some similarities,” Iran admitted, “but in other ways they’re different. In football, you have 10 other guys on your team on the field to help you. In boxing, you’re in there by yourself. I didn’t have anybody to help me but me.”
Although Iran speaks to Alibay “now and then,” he said his contact with Saquon is more sporadic. Still, blood ties run deep.
“Football is the gift that God gave Saquon, just like boxing was the gift that He gave me,” Iran said. “We all try to do the best with what we’ve been given. I’m proud of Saquon and will support him in any way I can. And if he wins the Heisman, I’d be ecstatic.
“I know he has dreams, same as I did. My dream was to become a world champion, which I did twice, and to fight Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran. I wound up fighting two of them (losing to Duran). All in all, I think I did pretty well.”
With undefeated Penn State ranked No. 3 and undefeated Georgia, where Evander Holyfield’s son, Elijah Holyfield, is a backup running back, at No. 4, there is a possibility that Saquon and Elijah could wind up on opposite sides of the field if their teams make it to the College Football Playoff or even square off for the national championship.
“Wow, wouldn’t that be something,” said Iran, who bulked up to heavyweight as he fought into his 40s and expressed interest in a career-twilight matchup with “The Real Deal.” “It just goes to show you that anything is possible.”
*ESPN did a nice job with Tommy, its 30 for 30 documentary on the late Tommy “The Duke” Morrison, the former WBO heavyweight champion whose career essentially ended when in February 1996 he was diagnosed as HIV-positive, the virus that causes AIDS. Somehow, Morrison – who was 44 years old and a shell of his formerly robust self when he died on Sept. 1, 2013 — managed to fight twice more, once in 2007 and once in 2008, despite his medical situation.
What is not as widely known is that Morrison was not the first fighter to test positive for HIV, just the most widely publicized. Lamar “Kidfire” Parks, the IBF’s No. 1-rated middleweight, was only days from a title shot at WBC champ Gerald McClellan when it was revealed in October 1994 he had tested positive for HIV. In a blatant act of selfishness Parks unsuccessfully tried to conceal the test result; he never fought again. Colombia’s Ruben Palacios was the WBO featherweight titlist when he was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1993, an event that drew little news coverage in the United States. Like Parks, Palacios never fought again and he died on Nov. 14, 2003, at 40. All these guys serve as reminders of one of the first rules of boxing: protect yourself at all times and, yes, your sexual partners, too.
*The most recent movie I saw in a theater was Battle of the Sexes, a look-back at the much-hyped tennis match between 29-year-old feminist Billie Jean King (played by Emma Stone) and 55-year-old “male chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) in Houston’s Astrodome on Sept. 20, 1973. BJK won in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3 and 6-3, before a live audience of 30,472 and 90 million gender-partisan television viewers. What I don’t expect is Hollywood doing a similar look back at the Oct. 9, 1999, female vs. male boxing match between Margaret MacGregor, a 36-year-old landscaper from Bremerton, Wash., and Loi Chow, a 33-year-old male jockey from Vancouver, British Columbia. The 5-foot-5½ MacGregor, who towered over the supposedly 5-2 (but seemingly much shorter) and indisputably inept Chow, won a four-round unanimous decision before a sellout crowd of 2,768, comprised mostly of pro-MacGregor women in a small arena in Seattle. If what was reported is correct, MacGregor left the ring with a 4-0 record while Chow fell to 0-3.
*There was a division of Golden Boy Promotions known as Golden Boy East, which seemingly existed for the sole purpose of having Bernard Hopkins’ Philadelphia-based nephew, super lightweight Demetrius Hopkins, fight at the Borgata Hotel Casino in Atlantic City, which he did three times. But it wasn’t long before Golden Boy East ceased to exist as a subset of its parent company, perhaps because D-Hop, who wasn’t bad, was not really in his uncle’s league or maybe because founder and CEO Oscar De La Hoya simply preferred doing business out west.
All well and good, but for the life of me I can’t understand why the Oct. 19 main event of the Golden Boy Boxing on ESPN, which pits Gabriel Rosado (23-11, 13 KOs) against Glenn “Jersey Boy” Tapia (23-4, 15 KOs) at the Monte Carlo Resort in Las Vegas, is not being staged somewhere in the Eastern Time Zone. Each fighter’s fan base is concentrated a couple of thousand miles closer to the Atlantic Ocean than the Pacific, with Rosado, a Philadelphian, fighting 30 times in venues bunched from New York to Washington, D.C., and Tapia, from Passaic, N.J., making 18 ring appearances in Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
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