Interview by Mike “Rubber Warrior” Plunkett
“I earned my own way to the top, just me and God.”–Iran “The Blade” Barkley
The business of boxing is often the dirtiest and most difficult aspect of the sport for those that fail to catch the eye of the power brokers that look for sheer marketability. An Olympic medal and a heartfelt story of rags to riches has a way of giving a known name the momentum needed for all of the right opportunities, but what of the diligent pro whose only route is laden with bumps and endless obstacles? The pay is at best poor and the road to success is filled with potholes and hazardous side routes that ultimately lead nowhere. It’s a sport that quickly uses up the best of an earnest soul, if the disappointment and heartbreak, both in and out of the ring, doesn’t first take away one’s spirit.
Iran “The Blade” Barkley is an example of one of the rare ones that came up the hard way, forcing the negatives to become positives; able to ignore the pain and despair of his chosen profession while accepting and learning from the hard knocks along the way. Demonstrating incredible faith in his creator and in himself, he managed to earn the big opportunity most fighters only ever dream of, a kick at the can on the world stage. Incredibly, despite the odds, he managed to become a three-division world champion, proving his most ardent critics wrong and forever linking his name to a decidedly competitive and colorful period in the sport.
MP: Tell us of your beginnings in the sport of boxing and of your amateur career.
I was on the US Olympic team. It was me, Dennis Milton and a couple of other guys. As an amateur I won like ninety-four bouts and lost four. I had about twenty-something knockouts, thirty-something knockouts. When my daughter was born I chose to turn professional. That was in ’82, and I turned pro with Top Rank and I couldn’t wait the two years, so I took the hard road. The guys that went to off to the Olympics, they won their gold medals and stuff, and got million dollar contracts. I worked my way all the way up to the top. I didn’t get any bonuses or anything. The bonus I got was when I beat Thomas Hearns.
MP: You paid your dues early as a professional fighter facing among others talented veterans such as Robbie Sims and Frank Minton. Later, key wins over rated contenders such as Mike Tinley, Wilford Scypion and James Kinchen served notice that you had become a force to be reckoned with in the middleweight division. Describe that period and some of the obstacles you had to overcome in order to move forward.
To move forward, Mike Tinley was one of those obstacles. James “The Heat” Kinchen was another one, as well as Michael Olajide and Wilford Scypion. Those guys were in my way and I knew that if I beat them I would advance to go further, and hopefully Top Rank would give me a bonus and I’d be a force to be reckoned with, but you know, they didn’t come through.
MP: You felt that they didn’t do the best that they could have for you?
No they didn’t. Everything that I had done I earned. I earned my own way to the top, just me and God. I didn’t ask anybody for anything. They didn’t apply me no help like all the rest of the guys that I’ve seen that were pampered all of the way up to the top like Oscar De La Hoya and……
MP: “Sugar” Ray Leonard?
Well, “Sugar” Ray Leonard, he was pampered but you know what? Ray, he had a force. He had Bob Arum’s ear. You know what I’m saying? I kind of felt that I was like the black sheep .The more and more I learnt of the business, which it is a business, I learned the business. I just felt Arum didn’t do with me what he did with the rest of those guys. In a way I’m glad I earned my way to the top because I don’t owe him nothing and they say they don’t owe me nothing, which is a lie, ‘cause I was promised something I never got. He promised me that after I fought Roberto Duran I’d get “Sugar” Ray Leonard. I knew Ray Leonard wasn’t going to fight me because Ray told me to me face – he said “I’ll never fight you Iran.” He said “you hit too hard and I’m not looking for that kind of fight.”
MP: You lost a 15-round decision to Sumbu Kalambay for the vacant WBA Middleweight title in October 1987. What do you recall of that match?
Well, see that’s another thing. Bob Arum sent me over to Italy to fight Sumbu Kalambay. I was like the last fifteen-round fighter. He sent me when he had Michael Nunn. It was originally Michael Nunn that was supposed to go over there, but they chose not to send him. They kept him in Vegas because Arum and Nunn’s manager were good friends and all of that stuff. But I was willing to go wherever it was that it would take me to win that title.
MP: Next came the network TV war with fellow contender Michael “The Silk” Olajide. Relate to us what went down in that bout and how it set the direction of your career for the next several years.
I had seen Michael Olajide when we both were fighting at one time in the Felt Forum. I used to see him at a lot of Felt Forum fights and the guy that was building him up was Stan Hoffman. Olajide, his father and Stan had a falling out, so Stan came and got me to beat him.
MP: In June 1988 you proved the critics wrong, defying the odds and taking the WBC Middleweight championship with a dramatic knockout over highly favored defending champion Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns. What do you recall of that key moment in your life?
That was the most exciting moment of my career right there, but I had a lot of obstacles to overcome. That day, my brother was sick in the hospital, really sick bad in the hospital. My friend Davey Moore had just got run over by his jeep. His jeep backed-up on him and crushed him. So you know, I was really feeling down and really feeling hurt, but I knew that I had a big fight coming and I had to just forget about that stuff, and I have to hold up and just do it.
It was like Davey’s spirit and my brother’s spirit came inside of me and they just pushed me forward, not to cancel the fight. Most guys would have cancelled the fight or they wouldn’t have gone on to do it. All of that I just blacked out of my mind, just went forward and got strength from that….and God.
(Davey Moore won the WBA World Light Middleweight champion in February 1982, losing it to Roberto Duran in June 1983)
MP: Hearns cut you badly in that match and you were getting hit a lot. Did you feel as though time was short and that the opportunity was slipping away?
I felt like I was in a daze in the second round because the simple fact that I was trying to box with Tommy, I knew that he was a good boxer, but after I got cut and everything, that motivated me. That was the spirit of Davey and my brother inside of me, telling me to forget about boxing him, just go out there and slug and do what I had to do. I just blacked everything else out of my mind and said let’s just go for it.
I was ready and in perfect shape for Tommy because he hit James Shuler with that same body shot that he hit me with, the left hook to the body, and Shuler crumbled. I had tough guys to spar with and my body was in perfect shape. When I got hit with that body shot it woke me up to get him out of there.
MP: Next up was Roberto Duran in February 1989. You lost the WBC Middleweight title by a very controversial split decision in an all-time classic middleweight encounter. Tell us about it.
What I remembered was the fight that Duran had with my friend Davey Moore, which I was training back then with Davey. I was his top sparring partner for their fight. I started to think back and I thought wow, I never thought the day would come when I would be fighting Duran. I had four champions in my world; Tommy Hearns, Roberto Duran, “Sugar” Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler. I said to myself that one day I would fight one or two of these guys, but I didn’t know which two. But God set me up to that. When I fought Duran, I remembered his fight with Davey and told myself if he fights a clean fight I’d fight a clean fight. If he fights dirty then I was going to fight dirty. But he fought a good calm, clean fight. I know that I won, but the politics of the game, took it away. “Sugar” Ray Leonard said he wasn’t going to fight me so I knew that I got robbed. I don’t want to say that I got robbed, Duran fought a heck of a fight with me but I know that the money fight was for Ray Leonard and then for Tommy Hearns for the second time to the winner.
MP: Early on your left jab and movement seemed to trouble Duran but as the bout progressed you seemed to get off track, fighting more on the inside. Why?
I started to try and fight because I knew I wasn’t going to win a decision, which was rightfully so. The little knockdown he gave me, he caught me but I was off balance and that gave him the lead that he needed.
MP: In August 1989 you challenged Michael Nunn for the IBF Middleweight title. Nunn was considered the class of the division at that point but you managed to take him the route, losing a very close majority decision. What happened in that bout and share with us your impressions of Nunn as a fighter.
Michael Nunn wasn’t a big puncher. I just knew that he was a boxer but I knew that I could beat him. He was with Arum and I was with Arum and Bob was going with them any old way if it went to a decision.
MP: After taking a year off to deal with a serious eye issue, you were stopped in less than a round by Nigel Benn for his WBO Middleweight title. What happened?
Nigel Benn hit me with a dirty shot. He should have been disqualified. He wasn’t disqualified. I didn’t know then, at that time, my father, he passed away the very same day I fought Benn. I was feeling funny all day, but at the time I didn’t know what it was that I was feeling funny for. But after I lost that fight my manager told me that my father had died. He died that same day.
I remember going to see my father in the hospital. He was in the veteran’s hospital. He was a veteran, and I told him you aren’t going to be at this fight, but I know you’ll be there with me. He said “yeah I’m going to watch it on TV.” He never even got a chance to see the fight because he died that same day.
MP: You were in the right place at the right time in early 1992 when Bob Arum asked you if you could still make 168lbs after a year fighting at 175lbs. From that you had one of your biggest career wins, and a moment that re-established you as a key player in the sport, a two-round blowout of Darrin Van Horn for the IBF Super Middleweight title. Describe to us what that opportunity meant to you and how it felt to get back on top.
It felt good but it wasn’t Bob Arum. It was his decision, but the one who put that fight together was me and Bruce Trampler. I just happened to be sitting in the Top Rank office talking to Bruce. Bruce and I were friends just talking when a telephone call came in Van Horne’s father was looking for someone for his son to fight. Bruce offered me as a challenger. Then he asked me if I could make 168lbs. and I said sure. I asked him how long I had to do it and he said one month. I told him I’d make it and be ready. I had just come off of a fight and I only weighed about 172 pounds at the time, so I had a month to go and I was way ahead of myself. That day when I left his office I started running day and night and when the time came I made the weight comfortably.
MP: You destroyed Van Horn, a talented fighter.
Yeah. Bob Arum didn’t think I could, though. He told Bruce I couldn’t make the weight and that I was too big and Bruce told him we’ll see. After I won, Arum got all of the credit when it was really Bruce Trampler and I that put that fight together.
MP: Just a few months after winning the IBF Super Middleweight title, you won the WBA Light Heavyweight title by again defeating Thomas Hearns, this time by dramatic split decision in a brutal war, making you a three-division champion. Was this the high point of your career for you? Was Tommy the same fighter he had been years before at middleweight?
This was the high point because I knew Bob Arum didn’t believe in me. Everybody thought it was a lucky punch in the first fight, but there is no luck in boxing. I beat the man because I was ready for him. But you know what, since they all thought it was a lucky punch, I told them I was going to take him twelve rounds and I’m just going to beat him up, and then I’m going to see what they all got to say. When I did that, they said Tommy had just gotten old, but if Hearns had knocked me out they would have said he was the greatest thing in the world.
MP: How did Hearns’ power rate with the other big hitters you faced over your career?
Tommy’s was the only punch that I really got to feel. Most other guys I fought, they didn’t hit like he could.
MP: Including Benn?
Yes, even Nigel Benn. I was just glad that I was in the shape for him the way I was for the first fight.
MP: You gave up your light heavyweight title and opted to stay at super middleweight, ultimately losing your IBF championship to James “Lights Out” Toney in February 1993. What happened?
I didn’t give the WBA title up. They told me I couldn’t keep two titles at that time and I had to give up one. I opened up the door for guys after me like Oscar De La Hoya. They didn’t have to give up their titles. They got to keep two belts in two different weight classes. When they lost they still had a belt. I had to give up my belt. You know what I’m saying?
MP: Ray Leonard won two belts in one night back in 1988.
Yeah, all of that too! But Ray was the prince of boxing. Ray could do anything he wanted to do. If anybody else wanted to do it they couldn’t do it.
MP: Describe the Henry Maske bout of 1994.
With Henry Maske, you know the story with that. In his country, Germany, you got to knock him out. If you didn’t knock him out, you ain’t winning. He wasn’t a big puncher or anything. That was the story.
MP: Compare for us, Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns, Roberto “Hands of Stone” Duran, Michael “Second to” Nunn and James “Lights Out” Toney. Who was the slickest? Who was the strongest and who hit the hardest?
Believe it or not, the slickest and the hardest to fight, to me, was James Toney. He had that little slickness. He had that little way of not getting hit.
MP: Who was the biggest puncher of those guys?
Tommy was the biggest puncher….besides me.
MP: You moved all the way up to heavyweight to close out your career in 1999. Along the way you stopped Gerrie Coetzee, a former WBA Heavyweight champion from the 80’s. What are your recollections of that bout and of Coetzee?
It was during a time when I was in Top Rank’s office, again. I told Bob Arum that I can’t make these little weights anymore. I said let me move up to heavyweight and I’ll fight those big guys. He said you aren’t a heavyweight. Those guys will eat you up. He then told me if I wouldn’t fight at the weight he wanted me to fight at, he’d drop my contract. So he dropped my contract and I went out and proved to him that I was a heavyweight.
I got the opportunity to fight Gerrie Coetzee for a little belt that they made up, and I beat him. He had been a world class name. Before Coetzee, I even fought Trevor Berbick.
MP: Style-wise and strength-wise, were they much harder than middleweights?
No. I felt their power but I had power too. It made me stand with them and do the things I had to do. Most of these guys at heavyweight, they weren’t really in shape. They were just fighting there because they were big.
MP: What is Iran Barkley up to today?
Iran Barkley is really trying to get with the President, Barack Obama, to get a union organized for boxing. Not really a union, but a pension fund. That’s really needed now. Guys like Bob Arum and Don King have made a lot of money off of fighters and if they want to continue on in the game, the President should let them know that they need to pay a fee into the fighter’s pension.
MP: That would be hard to organize.
It could be, but it’s desperately needed. Boxers should have been the first ones to get it. All those football players and baseball players have these big contracts and they got four-hundred guys to help them. We only got ourselves.
MP: You mentioned God a few times. You have a very strong belief system. Tell us about that.
I believe in God because I know the things I have done and the things he has done for me. When men tell you something, they usually lie. The only one you can trust in is the Holy Spirit and God’s word. Nine times out of ten people will tell me I’m finished in boxing. I don’t let people tell me when I’m finished. I’m finished when I decide I’m finished and when the Holy Spirit of God tells me I’m finished. When he tells me to move away from the game, I will.
MP: Is there anything you wish to say to your many fans around the world?
Don’t be surprised if you see me win another title and do the things I chose to do.
MP: You still plan to continue fighting?
The fight has never left.
MP: We could be seeing Iran “The Blade” Barkley in the ring again?
It’s a possibility. You never know.
(Interviewers Note: I would like to thank former New York Golden Gloves champion and world middleweight title challenger Dennis “The Magician” Milton for his faith and invaluable assistance in setting-up this interview)
Nickname: “The Blade”
Division: Middleweight – Heavyweight
Professional Record: 43-19-1, 27 KO’s
Date Opponent Location Result
1982-12-09 Larry Jordan Atlantic City, USA W KO 2
1983-01-06 Bruce Starling Atlantic City, USA W KO 2
1983-01-29 Donnie Williams Atlantic City, USA W TKO 1
1983-02-18 Donnie Franklin Atlantic City, USA W UD 4
1983-03-31 Osley Silas Atlantic City, USA L PTS 6
1983-06-18 Jose Torres Atlantic City, USA W UD 6
1983-08-18 Frank Minton Atlantic City, USA W TKO 5
1983-12-15 Marciano Bernardi Atlantic City, USA W TKO 1
1984-01-06 Robbie Sims Atlantic City, USA L KO 6
1984-07-05 Esteban Pizzarro Atlantic City, USA W UD 10
1984-08-23 John Ford Atlantic City, USA W TKO 5
1984-11-01 Eddie Hall Atlantic City, USA L SD 8
1985-02-21 Osley Silas Atlantic City, USA W TKO 6
1985-04-26 Norberto Sabater New York, USA W TKO 2
1985-05-24 Randy Smith New York, USA W UD 10
1985-07-11 Carlos Betancourt New York, USA W KO 1
1985-08-08 Bill Lee New York, USA W TKO 3
1985-08-29 Norberto Sabater New York, USA W KO 2
1985-11-01 Wilford Scypion New York, USA W KO 8
1985-12-06 Mike Tinley New York, USA W SD 12
WBC Continental Americas Middleweight Title
1986-06-19 Tony Harrison New York, USA W KO 3
WBC Continental Americas Middleweight Title
1986-07-24 Basante Blanco New York, USA W TKO 4
1986-10-17 James Kinchen Detroit, USA W SD 10
1987-02-20 Stacy McSwain Atlantic City, USA W PTS 10
1987-04-03 Jorge Amparo Las Vegas, USA W UD 10
1987-10-23 Sumbu Kalambay Livorno, Italy L UD 15
vacant WBA World Middleweight Title
1988-01-29 Sanderline Williams Atlantic City, USA W SD 10
1988-03-06 Michael Olajide New York, USA W TKO 5
1988-06-06 Thomas Hearns Las Vegas, USA W TKO 3
WBC Middleweight Title
1989-02-24 Roberto Duran Atlantic City, USA L SD 12
WBC Middleweight Title
1989-08-14 Michael Nunn Reno, USA L MD 12
IBF Middleweight Title
1990-08-18 Nigel Benn Las Vegas, USA L TKO 1
WBO Middleweight Title
1991-08-16 Juan Hernandez Las Vegas, USA W UD 10
1991-10-03 Jesus Castaneda Great Falls, USA W TD 8
1992-01-10 Darrin Van Horn New York, USA W TKO 2
IBF Super Middleweight Title
1992-03-20 Thomas Hearns Las Vegas, USA W SD 12
WBA World Light Heavyweight Title
1992-12-05 Robert Folley Atlantic City, USA W KO 4
1993-02-13 James Toney Las Vegas, USA L RTD 9
IBF Super Middleweight Title
1993-08-30 Dino Stewart Kansas City, USA W TKO 9
1993-10-20 Adolpho Washington Bay Saint Louis, USA L TKO 6
1994-05-24 Rick Enis Tulsa, USA W TKO 4
1994-07-22 Gary Butler Tulsa, USA W UD 8
1994-10-08 Henry Maske Halle, Germany L RTD 9
IBF Light Heavyweight Title
1995-05-14 Tosca Petridis Melbourne, Australia L UD 10
1995-08-18 Rocky Gannon Las Vegas, USA L MD 8
1996-02-02 James Baker Des Moines, USA W TKO 1
1996-06-03 Brian Yates Kansas City, USA W UD 8
1996-07-27 Craig Payne Rochester, USA W MD 8
1996-09-06 Dan Kosmicki Onawa, USA W UD 8
1996-11-14 Frankie Hines Virginia Beach, USA W TKO 1
1996-11-20 Caseny Truesdale Raleigh, USA W TKO 4
1997-01-22 Dave Fiddler Rochester, USA W KO 1
1997-06-08 Gerrie Coetzee Hollywood, USA W TKO 10
1997-09-13 Marcelo Aravena Mandan, USA W TKO 3
1998-08-22 Tony LaRosa Rosemont, USA L UD 10
1998-09-30 Dan Kosmicki Kansas City, USA D TD 4
1998-10-22 Caseny Truesdale Atlanta, USA W TKO 4
1998-11-06 Tue Bjorn Thomsen Copenhagen, Denmark L UD 6
1999-01-27 Joey Guy Nashville, USA L PTS 10
1999-03-19 Thomas Williams Ocala, USA L TKO 4
1999-04-19 Tony Halme Helsinki, Finland L SD 12
1999-06-29 Trevor Berbick Montreal, Canada L UD 8
1999-07-31 Keith McKnight Lula, USA L TKO 6