By 1989 the overriding emotion in Iran Barkley's boxing career should have been one of untold pride. After all the Bronx slugger had finally risen to the summit of the middleweight division by knocking out the legendary Thomas Hearns on an astonishing night in Las Vegas a year earlier in one of the decades greatest boxing upsets. Now however, he was due to face another eighties legend in the form of Roberto Duran, with more than just his rising reputation to protect. Barkley wanted revenge. As a close friend of the tragic Davey Moore, a fellow Bronx fighter who had suffered a beating at the hands of the Panamanian and died tragically young at the age of 28, there was the heavy sense of retribution and menace in the air. Moore after all was one of their own - and Barkley intended on not letting Duran forget it.
Roberto Duran on the other hand had simpler wishes. He wanted his star status back. The eighties had been a roller coaster ride for the Panamanian legend full of savage highs and flatline lows. Whenever he scaled the heights of boxing, there was usually a symbolic thud waiting to bring him down again. An early defeat of Sugar Ray Leanord leading to the disgrace of the 'no Mas' return. A redemption of his admittedly brilliant talent usually followed by an unexpected loss to the likes of Kirkland Laing was par for the course throughout the decade. There was even talk by 1989 in boxing circles that he was on his way out. A crushing second round defeat to Tommy Hearns five years previously had seemed a lingering hangover to the Panamanian's undoubted legacy. Some boxing writers even questioned whether sending him in against the hard hitting, younger Barkley as he approached forty was something akin to a mismatch and arguably career suicide.
The wily Duran however was never a victim. Ever. Deep in his DNA was an ageless ability that was far from burning out and an experience of world title fights that understood the game, from the white heat of the main event to the hyperbole of the build up. He was wise to it all. In the press for the Barkley fight, whilst boxing writers were happy to lap up the Bronx fighter's lurid tales of his gangland adventures with New York's notorious Black Widow's and his threats to Duran over Davey Moore, he cast an alligator eye to the watching press and sneered. The Panamanian had never been a PR patsy anyway and he had a long memory of the shit thrown his way after the 'No Mas' debacle. His brooding presence was part pantomime of course but to hear that he had a punchers chance only against Barkley was an absolute nonsense and rankled him, given that in reality the absolute opposite was true.
Stylistically for one, there were holes in the assumption that Barkley was just going to blow Duran away in New Jersey. Far too much had been read into the Panamanian's KO by Hearns a few years earlier. He'd been caught with a sledgehammer of a right hand in a fight which he'd found it impossible to settle into. The truth of the matter was that Duran had an incredible chin considering he'd shifted up the weights to settle at the middle divisions. He thrived on an opponents aggression perhaps as well as any other fighter bar Hagler around at the time, therefore a toe to toe war against a slugger like Barkley was made for him. Ominously then for the Bronx fighter, he was heading into the barricades with an opponent ready to go to war. Not only that but on a ferocious night in New Jersey, the Panamanian would have other disparate elements to call on as his friend.
There were strange rumblings of discontent occurring on fight night in Atlantic City. Firstly the weather. A near blizzard consumed the outdoor Arena giving the place a weird, hallucinatory feel. If that wasn't enough to freak Barkley out, then the volume of Duran supporters turned the boilerplate atmosphere into a cauldron. Even by 1989, Duran was still a boxing superstar who was adored by his fans. His iconic status hadn't faltered because of a few unexpected defeats, in fact the opposite was true. Duran's constant boxing resurrection in the eighties, where he seemed to be constantly walking the gangplank in fights made him a hugely exciting watch. He never really lost his huge fan base throughout the decade because of it. Barkley on the other hand was a bit of an anomaly with fight fans. They eyed him curiously for his undoubted power but he was hardly a poster boy for the sweet science. He just didn't have the pedigree of the holy trinity of eighties fighters or the style to elevate himself over the glut of genuine but conveyor belt boxers around at the fight game at the time.
He did have a surprise up his sleeve though. As the bell sounded for the first round in Atlantic City it was a different Barkley that commanded the centre of the ring. Taking Duran a bit by surprise the younger man worked behind his jab and attempted to box with some success. Whether it was to silence the crowd or make Duran's older legs move in energy sapping circles it worked. Despite some counter punching success early in the fight for Duran, the opening rounds belonged to Barkley. Out of the first six three minute periods in fact, at least four belonged to the Bronx fighter. His controlled aggression was a masterstroke that no one in the Arena, least of all Duran had seen coming.
By round seven however, Duran's guile and street instinct began to pay dividends. An over the top right hand finally found Barkley's chin shaking him to his core. Although he survived and fired back it seemed to send his game plan out of the window. He began to stand and trade with the Panamanian fighter which played directly into Duran's hands. Even when he was shaken himself in the next round - Duran sensed the axis of the fight shifting. It was his time to take over. Holding back the years, he was by far the busier fighter, splaying Barkley with diamond cut combinations from rounds eight to ten that bullied his opponent mercilessly. By the end of the tenth round in fact, Barkley was showing the cavalry scars of battle, bruised and marked and blowing heavily as he trudged back to his corner. Compared to the almost sprightly Duran, it was he that looked like the veteran fighter.
Duran now sensed blood and it would be the eleventh round where the fight suddenly exploded into life for the Panamanian legend. After even early exchanges, the whole fight turned on its head in the final minute of the round. He again stopped Barkley dead with a huge right hand but now he turned back the clock with some of the finest punches he'd thrown for years. A left, right combination, a hook and another crushing right hand sent Barkley crashing to the canvass and looking at the stars. Although he somehow beat the count and returned to his corner - he looked stunned at the severity of Duran's punches.
It was all Barkley could do now to hold on. The final round saw Duran score freely as his opponent struggled to compose himself. Barkley was wobbling off little more than stiff jabs now - looking like a fighter constantly on the precipice. Duran, all murder eyes and South American energy pressed him brutally and efficiently, not allowing him to settle throughout the final three minutes. In a pressure cooker of a fight, it was a relieved and weary Barkley who was glad to hear the bell, whilst Duran bounced on his toes and shot a look of disdain to the watching cameras, letting the audience know in no uncertain terms that he thought he was the new world champion, which of course he was by majority decision.
In Atlantic City the Panamanian had turned the clock backwards to his glory days and silenced those who believed he didn't have the heart for the battle any more. And that was the ultimate irony. As much as Iran Barkley had the sheer hunger to stay at the top of the world and avenge the Bronx Angel Davey Moore, Roberto Duran just wanted it more. No one really stopped to consider that, although the clue in his nickname was there all along. Hands of stone.