Latin Legends: A Look Back at the Night Roberto Durán Won His Fourth World Title

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His last good time in the ring took place over 25 years ago, February 24, 1989, in winter-strewn Atlantic City, whose glitzy neon lights had been dimmed by a snowstorm that nearly shut the Boardwalk down. Two decades after his pro debut, Roberto Durán, “Manos de Piedra,” some gray in his beard, was trying to win his fourth world title. Only Iran Barkley, a sullen brawler with a blunt nickname, “The Blade,” stood in his way.

For years, Durán had been a national hero in Panama (and the epitome of machismo), but after muttering “No mas” against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980, he became a national shame. Indeed, Durán, who had won his first title as a lightweight in 1972, returned to Panama a couple of weeks after losing to Leonard to find that his house had been stoned.

Over the next few years, he won some and lost some, but by the late 1980s, Durán had hit bottom. When Thomas Hearns left him flat on his face in 1984, Durán retired, seemingly for good, and slipped into a depression. Again, Durán had somehow managed to enrage an entire country. “That was the fight that most affected me,” Durán told Peter Heller, “because when I got to Panama City the police grabbed me and they put me in jail because I had lost that fight.” But Durán returned once more, and in 1989 he set his sights on Barkley, who was coming off of a shocking knockout of the same Thomas Hearns who had left Durán in pieces.

Iran Barkley could have been an extra in The Warriors, Fort Apache, the Bronx, or The Wanderers. Once a member of The Black Spades, the notorious street gang whose membership also included Mitch “Blood” Green, Barkley was 160 pounds of menace, malice, and maladjustment all wrapped up in one sneering package. Barkley had struggled throughout his career for riches and recognition, and he decided that a win over another legend like Durán would be a good way to achieve both simultaneously.

In addition to a big payday, Barkley had another reason for wanting to face Durán: revenge. In 1983, Durán had pummeled Davey Moore in seven one-sided rounds at Madison Square Garden. Barkley and Moore, who died in 1988, had been good friends, and “The Blade” promised to avenge his fallen brother. Nor did Barkley think highly of the aging idol. “If I was drunk, weak, stumbling across the street,” he said before the fight, “he wouldn’t take this title off of me.”

Notorious for ballooning up to 200 pounds between fights, Durán trained with gusto for one last chance at rejuvenation. He weighed in at relatively streamlined 156 1/4 pounds for Barkley, and when the opening bell rang at the Convention Center, he was ready to summon up the ferocity of years ago the way a warlock conjures demons.

Almost immediately he made it clear that Barkley was not in the ring with a creaky pushover. Late in the first round, Durán, a 3-to-1 underdog entering the bout, rocked Barkley with an overhand right that sent him stumbling into the ropes. From then on, it was a dogfight, and Durán was wobbled twice along the way. A wade-in banger with a crippling left hook and a do-or-die attitude that was much more fact than fiction, Barkley was bigger, stronger, and younger than Durán. But finesse was not part of his arsenal, and by the late rounds, the reckless Barkley, 25-4 with 16 knockouts, was being picked apart by the savvy ringmaster many had written off as little more than a nostalgic hangover.

“A jubilant Durán was now the first Latino fighter in history to win titles in four different weight classes.”

For nearly half an hour the two men waged fierce hand-to-hand combat in close until Durán floored Barkley with a combination punctuated by a jarring right. After 12 spiteful rounds, Durán, 85-7 with 61 knockouts, was announced the winner by a split decision. A jubilant Durán was now the first Latino fighter in history to win titles in four different weight classes, and his thrilling victory over Barkley was named “The Fight of the Year” by Ring magazine. Although he continued to fight—with dispiriting results—until 2001, when he was 50 years old, Durán was last Durán in 1989. “I don’t remember when I felt this good,” Durán said after the fight. Twenty-five years later, how can we forget?

You can watch the whole fight here:

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Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing Digest Magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World Magazine, and Esquina Boxeo.