Mountains to Climb, Pebbles in Your Shoe
“I always say that was my Ali vs. Frazier match.” That was how Michael Nunn began a letter he sent to me recently detailing his memories of his third IBF World Middleweight Title defense against Iran Barkley.
Coincidentally, Nunn vs. Barkley (dubbed ‘Thunder in the Night’) was officiated by Carlos Padilla who also served as the third man in the ring for the ‘Thrilla in Manila’, providing Michael’s analogy a tangible connection. “I was Ali and Barkley was Mr. Frazier. Barkley could have fought in any era. I’m glad I got the chance to rumble with Barkley. My loving mother, brothers, sisters, family, and friends and a lot of local supporters from Davenport flew out and it was a great night fighting and beating one of the meanest middleweights in the world.”
Although the fight game has left behind some irritating old scabs which both men occasionally pick at, the bad blood between one another has long since dissipated. “Michael was a good boxer and you know he’ll do what he got to do to get his job done. We learned how to respect each other after we had the fight and everything, over the times of him being away and me not hearing from him,” said Iran.
During our daily correspondence through the Federal Corrections email system, Michael and I had planned on putting this piece together for a few months and both of us thought it would be fun to reach out to Barkley and ask him to tell his side of the story.
“I don’t have mixed feelings, I just know that I ain’t been inducted,” Iran told me regarding his thoughts on the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, which is where I first approached him with the idea of the three of us working together on telling this tale back in June when he once again traveled upstate from the Bronx to attend the induction weekend at his own expense, as a civilian and not a special invited guest. He was very receptive to the concept, especially after learning that I was in touch with Michael who had asked me to pass along his personal greetings to his brother in arms.
A few months, a couple of phone calls, and a slew of circuitous subway rides later, Iran and I got together at Gleason’s Gym where he works out most mornings and maintains an obvious celebrity status if the handshakes, back claps, and cries of “Blade is in the house!” were any indication. “I should have been inducted with Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns and them, but I know why I wasn’t,” Barkley speculated on the topic of his exclusion from the Hall of Fame which has also curiously yet to include Nunn on its ballot. “Because Bob Arum, those was his final four guys and he never really figured that I would get that far. After I knocked out Tommy and beat up on Duran, he didn’t acknowledge me like that.”
Any trace element of bitterness that may rise to the surface is betrayed by the easy smile that often smooths out the hard edges of Barkley’s face, a countenance that in and of itself tells you almost everything you need to know about the wars waged inside the ring and the hard times experienced in the world outside. Almost everything.
“I always considered myself the fifth king,” declared Iran with that big grin and boyish enthusiasm. “They didn’t say it, but I did.”
“Marvin was not much for words, he was an action guy. I remember back in 1985 we were downtown at one of those 5-star hotels with the Hearns vs. Hagler press conference,” recalled Michael Nunn in a follow-up email. “It was really big for me. As you know, I had just turned pro and signed a deal with Mr. Arum and Top Rank so Arum invited me, Dan and Joe (Goossen) to the event. It was such an honor to see two of the greatest middleweights in any era do their thing. I remember Hearns putting his head on top of Hagler’s head and Hagler threw a left hook at Hearns. It was not for show. Hearns was talking shit about how when the bell rings he will be the giant and, when they fought on that historic night at the Palace, Marvin was the giant. He knocked Hearns silly within three rounds. The name on the event was ‘War’ and, believe me, Hagler was the general that night.”
“He invited me to go to Johnny Tocco’s Gym to watch him train in private. Him and his managers were always very humble and nice to me. I think that they might have seen some of Marvin in me,” Michael pondered. “I also remember running five miles with Mr. Hagler at the Sands Hotel on the golf course. Hagler told me to meet him in front of the hotel at 5.00am. If I was for real, we could run and have breakfast afterwards. I will remember that day for a lifetime. I love his attitude. He told me if I wanted to be world champ, what I would have to be willing to do is get up early in the morning and get your work done when everybody else was sleeping. Marvin said that when he clears the middleweight class out and retires, he told me to take over. Those words were truly spoken by a true spartan. Mr. Hagler taught me a lot.”
Because only the WBC would sanction 1987’s ‘Super Fight’, which the WBA and IBF refused to endorse, the fallout of Marvin Hagler’s controversial loss to ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard was impactful and widespread. The high-ranking middleweight contenders of the late 1980s were sent on a scavenger hunt to collect the scattered title belts representative of all three major alphabet organizations which had previously been in the possession of the Marvelous One alone.
Frank Tate was the one degree of separation between Michael Nunn and Marvin Hagler. The 1984 Olympic gold medalist decisioned Michael Olajide for the vacant IBF strap and successfully defended it only once, against Hagler’s former challenger Tony Sibson, before being dominated and knocked out by the flashy youngster from Davenport, Iowa who was relegated to the role of Olympic alternate to essentially make way for Tate but had since established himself as ‘Second To’ Nunn.
“I wanted to knock his ass out because of the games that was played when the folks in Colorado wanted me to move up to 165 pounds at the trials so that Tate would have a free ride to the games in LA,” Michael wrote about his decisive title victory. “Me and Tate had split bouts before all of this and when he gave me the chance to get things right, it was our focus not to win a 15-round bout but was to knock him out because if the bout would have went 15 rounds they would have been trying to screw me. So, my mission was to bring my own judges and knock him out.”
The WBA stripped their belt from around the waist of Sumbu Kalambay because he made the ill-fated decision to take part in what would have been a unification bout with Nunn in March 1989 rather than face Herol Graham, his mandatory challenger. Kalambay had won the title left unclaimed since Hagler’s departure by outdistancing over fifteen rounds Iran Barkley, who was competing in his first of ten world championship matches.
“Bob Arum was kind of penny-pinching me back then,” Barkley responded when I asked how he was treated by Top Rank. “It’s ridiculous the money that’s thrown around now and I could never get. All I could ever get was promises. ‘The next fight is going to be a big, big fight. Duran or somebody and you’ll get big, big money’ and they would give me half a million dollars and the other guy’s getting ten. He was dangling carrots and lying,” Iran spoke of Arum in resentful tones.
Furthermore, Barkley found himself involved in an adversarial partnership with Top Rank’s reputed matchmaker. “Teddy Brenner was putting me in with all the hard guys and it was like he didn’t want me to win. Me and him had a little discrepancy,” recounted Iran. “He told me, ‘You’re never gonna win the title. I’m gonna be your worst nightmare.’ I said, ‘Yeah? Well, everybody that you put me up against, I’m gonna think about you. What you’re saying to me right now is for me to do what I gotta do.’ When he thought he was hurting me, he was helping me a little more.”
Iran undoubtedly helped his own cause toward another world title-winning opportunity by rebounding from his loss to Kalambay with a split decision over Sanderline Williams, followed by a fifth-round TKO of Michael Olajide as ‘The Blade’ cut clean through ‘The Silk’ at New York’s Felt Forum. After Ray Leonard temporarily retired for the second time without having defended his newly-won title, ‘The Hitman’ knocked off Juan Roldan for the WBC championship which was the only one ‘Sugar’ Ray was awarded by beating Hagler.
Michael Nunn told me he could “remember being at his (Iran) and Hearns’ bout and he was taking some real hard shots. The average man would have gotten his paycheck and called it a day,” he recalled. “He hung in there and kept punching and he was able to land one of his bombs and got Hearns out of there.”
Barkley sustained multiple poisonous strikes courtesy of the ‘Motor City Cobra’ but managed to spit out the venom and caused the boxing world to sit up and take notice with a stunning upset which earned him the coveted green and gold world title belt. Even so, all was not well behind closed doors at Top Rank.
“It worked against me because, when I knocked out Tommy, Ray Leonard said, ‘He ain’t getting no fight.’ Hagler said, ‘He ain’t getting no fight.’ So, Arum said, ‘He ain’t getting no fight because I’m gonna save Ray and Hagler and everybody for each other.’ They kind of blacked me out and just gave me whatever they wanted to give me,” explained Barkley. “I knew a lot of stuff that he’d been into back then, I seen a lot of stuff with my own eyes that Arum didn’t even know I’d seen. I could’ve barbecued him at one time but I didn’t put him on blast like that, because I know if I did, I’d be done. Blackballed altogether. So, I didn’t say nothing, I let God handle it for me.”
Likewise, Michael Nunn knows for certain that his spectacular first-round knockout of Sumbu Kalambay forced Arum’s hand in “trying to milk them legends before I got a chance to mess his meal ticket up.” Particularly Ray Leonard who, as a member of the HBO broadcast team that evening, got an up-close and personal look at Nunn’s vastly underrated punching power and decided that ringside was as close as he wanted to get to the kid from the Quad-Cities who pundits, fight enthusiasts, and more than likely Leonard himself perceived to be his mirror image in nearly every way, except younger and hungrier. “I would have jumped off the Empire State Building for a chance to fight those guys,” Michael emphasized.
Iran had done the improbable and knocked the crown from the head of one of the legendary Four Kings. After an eight and a half-month hiatus, he would relinquish the throne to another. As well as surgically removing the scar tissue which would open up and bleed with ease during fights, Barkley also “had two detached retinas and I got them repaired and everything. I didn’t really worry about the eyes, you know? As long as I can see, I can get ‘em,” Iran laughed off a rather serious situation.
“With Duran, I knew that I had to knock him out or something because of what he done to my friend Davey Moore,” said Barkley about the infamously crude tactics employed by ‘Manos de Piedra’ to dismantle Moore in brutal fashion at Madison Square Garden in 1983. “After that, Bob Arum was building it up on that. He was saying, ‘Iran’s mad at Duran because he thumbed Davey Moore.’ Yeah, I was mad at him because he thumbed him and Dave couldn’t see at the time and it was for the title and Duran knocked him out. That stayed with me all the years that I knew Duran and I was like, ‘I’m gonna get this mother, I’m gonna get him.’” Iran smacks his huge right fist into the open palm of his left hand for emphasis as he relates this.
“When I fought Tommy Hearns, he had a freak car accident,” Barkley recalled painfully. Davey Moore should have been sitting ringside to witness his buddy from the Bronx win his first world title but died tragically in his own New Jersey driveway five days earlier at the age of 28. “The car rolled him over and killed him. So, I was like…man, everything was just going crazy.”
To make matters worse, there were hypotheses being bandied about by rather uncharitable boxing insiders and followers that Iran had beaten Hearns with a “lucky punch” and lacked the ability to finish off a plumped-up, past-his-prime Duran. “So, Arum put me against Michael,” said Barkley. “Me and Michael could fight each other but we never got the big paydays. He made us earn ours but he was giving those guys ten million dollars, eight million dollars. I didn’t really like Michael at the beginning because he had that slick mouth and he thought it was all about him. He was with the Goossens and I knew the Goossens was in bed with Arum so, for me, it was to beat him and get him out of the way.”
Barkley apparently wasn’t privy to the “pissing war”, as Nunn referred to it, that Bob Arum and Michael’s manager Dan Goossen were involved in at the time. Then again, neither was Nunn until after the fact. “It was crazy, I never knew Dan and Bob were into it until after the bout. Dan never aired it out to the public until after me and Iran had fought. Dan broke off his agreement with Arum because Arum kept saying that he would let me fight Leonard, Duran, and Hearns and it was all a silly, sad story.”
Bert Sugar had written about Nunn’s sad, silly story around that time. “Because Michael Nunn’s career has had the misfortune of being covered up by boxing’s senior citizens blanket,” commented the cigar-chomping scribe, “he’s the most unrecognized superstar in the history of boxing.”
It should come as no surprise that Michael agrees wholeheartedly with Sugar’s evaluation. “Those guys knew I was young and hungry and that they could not punk me,” he wrote in a recent email, unpacking the strategies he would have used to dethrone the three remaining kings, reduced down from four when Marvin Hagler officially announced his retirement in June 1988 after watching his half-brother Robbie Sims drop a unanimous decision to Sumbu Kalambay in a squabble over his old WBA Middleweight Title held in Ravenna, Italy.
“I would love to have fought Hearns. I knew that he was a monster for five rounds and after that he would peter out. I could box with him for a few rounds and as he would start to fade I would do nothing but stay to his ribcage,” theorized Michael. “He did not like body contact. I would have outpunched him and stopped him inside the distance. With Mr. Duran, I would have just boxed his ears off and, if he made a mistake, I would stop him late. With the Sugar man, I had that being a very hard fight but I would have kept Ray at the end of my stick, hoping to catch him in the later rounds with a good shot and try to get him out of there.”
Before you jump to the conclusion that Nunn is somehow attempting to make court jesters out of the Four Kings, be mindful of the fact that he never got so lost in his own hype that he was unable to see the forest for the trees. “I’m very thankful to have been able to be around all those legendary middleweights: Hearns, Hagler, Duran, and Leonard. It was a joy whenever I bumped into them, they always had the utmost respect for me. They all inspired me to want to be a world champ, as well as the greatest that ever done it, Mr. Ali,” Michael added humbly.
“I understand that it was business but Dan got tired of the games that they played,” conceded Michael, returning to the backroom promotional squabble between Bob Arum and Dan Goossen. “Arum lost out on a lot of dough. I guess he thought Barkley would beat me but it did not happen like they planned. My duty was to always be in the best of shape and kick ass and take names because, at the end of the day, that is how you weigh the results. It was always easy for me to handle my business because, first and foremost, I knew that as long as I was in shape there was no middleweight on earth that could beat me over twelve rounds.”
“When me and Iran signed the contract to fight, I knew it was going to be a battle with Iran being the tough guy that he is. He always fought with his heart,” Nunn recognized. “Joe (Goossen) made sure that we had a good amount of time to prepare and be ready because Iran had grand plans to try and defeat me. He was just coming off the Duran loss and he thought if he could knock me off that would put him back in the saddle.”
“I know that we got some good sparring partners and hit the mountains real hard. Our training was always good,” continued Michael. “Joe always ran a tight ship. He always seemed to pick the right type of sparring for whatever opponent we were going to be facing. I used Michael Weaver’s brothers, the three of them. There was Lloyd, Floyd, and Troy. Mike was the former heavyweight champion of the world and he was a class guy, big and could really punch. His three triplet brothers were also good boxers and always got me in the best condition for all of my world title bouts. I wish they could have progressed, they were super tough in the gym. As you know, it’s a different animal when you have to fight in front of live crowds, TV cameras, and a lot of folks screaming at you, some wanting to see you win and some wanting to see you get your ass kicked all over the ring.”
“They all had different ways they fought but whatever opponent that we were going to be facing, they could fight my opponent’s fight. They had good speed and each one could punch like crazy. We all would train like madmen all week and then on the weekend we would all go out and have a nice dinner. We were up in the mountains, close to Mexico, and we could cross the border and eat and shop and sightsee in Mexico. Boy, those were some good old days.”
Iran Barkley, meanwhile, utilized the services of Dennis Milton who, having bested Iran in the 1981 New York Golden Gloves finals, held the very rare distinction of having beaten both Nunn and Barkley as amateurs. “That was good because Dennis was telling me that he was just a boxer. ‘He can’t punch, Iran.’ He was right about that but, you know, he was a slick boxer but I was banging him up profusely, trying to get him.”
“I didn’t know that they used Milton as a sparring partner,” Michael replied when I told him I had read that during my research and Iran confirmed it for me. “They forgot when we fought it was only for three rounds. You know me, I don’t make excuses. In both our bouts, they were super close and I thought that I won but the judges must have seen it different. I would love to have fought Mr. Milton in a pro fight but he never reached the heights as being one of the best middleweights in the country.”
Milton had dealt Gerald McClellan his first professional defeat and posted subsequent wins over Robbie Sims and Michael Olajide (in a bizarre, controversial decision that took two weeks to render) but was knocked out in the first round by WBC Middleweight Champion Julian Jackson in his one and only world title bid. “He was a tough kid that also fought with a lot of heart. He put a lot of pressure on and he would let his hands go,” Michael said of the man they called ‘The Magician’.
“Before we fought, me and Iran had a press tour,” Nunn mentioned in his letter to me. “I remember Mr. Arum was pumping the bout big time.” Michael referred to Barkley as “Bark-Bark” because he felt like his challenger was flapping his gums to the media a little too much. Verbally, Nunn was plenty busy himself, calling Iran a “robot man” with the “IQ of an onion.”
In turn, Barkley accused Nunn of failing to conduct himself like a true champion by virtue of his personal insults, then went on to claim that the champion “hit like a flower”. He cautioned Michael during the final press conference, “Just don’t get on your bicycle.”
Nunn’s predominately stick and move offense inspired some admittedly creative media stunts before some of his bigger bouts. Frank Tate, most famously, presented him with a pair of pink nylon running shorts prior to their title fight. As detailed earlier, things didn’t turn out too well for Frank as a result. Nunn not only took home Tate’s IBF title but held onto the pink shorts as an additional keepsake. He put them in a nice frame and displayed them on the wall of the Ten Goose Gym back in Van Nuys.
Michael thought he recalled Iran’s sister Yvonne, among the first female boxers to be licensed in New York State in the 1970s, heckling him at one of the press events so, naturally, I had to question Barkley about it. Iran indeed remembered her “taunting him”, approaching the podium in a menacing way and screaming what amounted to a challenge of Michael’s manhood: “Here comes the real thing! You just have to deal with it!”
As if growing up in the South Bronx wasn’t tough enough for your average adolescent, Barkley was sometimes singled out just because of his unusual first name and the connotations that came along with it. “My father gave me that name. He was in the service and it meant a lot,” Iran explained to me. “He just thought the name was different.” So did the unforgiving neighborhood kids and violent gang members. Fortunately, Yvonne was around to watch over her kid brother whose affiliation with the Black Spades was a cause of great stress to her.
“My sister was known to be hanging out with my brothers and my cousins and she was a born fighter,” said Barkley. “She looked out for me, made sure I was staying straight. I was running around with gangs and everything and she got me into boxing with my cousins. Then I started staying away from the gangs and started putting my effort into that.”
Yvonne and Iran made history as the first brother and sister to simultaneously compete as professional boxers. “She was one of the pioneers of ladies fighting because there was only three ladies out there that was fighting at the time,” Barkley told me. “The three ladies was Jackie Tonawanda, Lady Tyger (Marian Trimiar) and Yvonne Barkley. My sister taught Tyger how to fight and got her into it and then she went out to California and lived out there. She started boxing out there and then they met up with each other again and they fought each other and she won and everything went from there.”
With the pressure valve between Barkley and Nunn threatening to blow before fight night, the two were given a welcome opportunity to loosen things up a little as well as build the box office. “Me and Iran had the chance to be on the Arsenio Hall Show and we got a lot of attention,” said Michael who was featured on the guest couch with Barkley seated in the front row of the audience. “It was a really big thing for me living in Los Angeles and Iran being from New York.”
The television cameras catch Iran laughing at multiple points of the interview, particularly during Nunn’s spot-on Mr. T impersonation. “It was crazy, a fun time for me going into the build-up of the fight,” Barkley recalls. “Yeah, Mr. T was his man and stuff.” The badass with the mohawk, gold chains, and cool catchphrase (“I pity the fool”) famous for portraying Clubber Lang and B.A. Baracus was also managed by Dan Goossen and a member of the ‘Second To’ Nunn inner circle. Lawrence Tureaud had been previously employed as a nightclub bouncer before working as a bodyguard at various times to Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and Leon Spinks.
Dan Goossen alleged that Roberto Duran walked away from the negotiating table, leaving on it a $7 million offer to put the WBC title he had taken from Iran Barkley up against Michael Nunn’s IBF belt in a middleweight unification bout. Instead, Duran would sign on the dotted line for a third fight against ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard that December and, as a tune-up of sorts, appeared on the Nunn/Barkley undercard in a lackluster three-round exhibition opposite ‘Irish’ Danny Morgan which drew a combination of laughs, oaths, and boos from the crowd gathered at the Lawlor Events Center.
Consistent with his history of wild weight fluctuation in between bouts, the ‘Hands of Stone’ had been busier lifting a knife and fork than a dumbbell or jump rope and Roberto ballooned to 182 pounds, prompting a rightfully chagrined Duran to admit that “I took this very lightly.” Nunn’s personal advisor and father figure Bob Surkein was less diplomatic in his assessment. “This was a farce. He’s in no physical condition at all. I feel like Duran was the best lightweight I ever saw. Now he’s a heavyweight.”
Barkley entered the arena as a 10-to-1 underdog, but being underappreciated if not disregarded was a common condition that Iran was forced to fight past. “He was basically running and moving and doing what he had to do to win,” reckoned Iran. “Me, I was just trying to put on the pressure and keep coming, you know?”
True to Nunn’s comparison of this being his “Ali vs. Frazier fight”, the first few rounds saw the defending champion recline on the ring strands, slipping or riding out the worst of Barkley’s volleys rope-a-dope-style before pivoting away, engaging in head-to-shoulder combat, pulling back, stepping around and scoring nearly at will with short right hooks and the left uppercut that had lumped up Juan Roldan and put Curtis Parker and Sumbu Kalambay to sleep. Blood was soon streaming from both of Iran’s nostrils and he spent the remainder of the fight swallowing what must have been a sickening quantity of plasma produced by the cuts inside his mouth.
“I knew our bout would be rough and tough,” remarked Michael who uncharacteristically threw almost 300 fewer punches than Barkley but, proving himself to be the more accurate if not the busier fighter this night in Reno, connected with half of his total shots as opposed to Iran’s 25%. “I had to show him that I could stand up under his pressure because he applied a whole lot of it. This guy was not the quickest but was very strong and could take a lot of punishment. He did not mind getting hit and I did not mind giving it to him.”
Daring and teasing Barkley by holding his hands down around his waist while gliding around the perimeter of the ring, if part of Nunn’s gameplan was to frustrate his adversary into losing his composure, it seems that mission was successfully accomplished. “I was trying to tear his head off. I was furious with him,” conceded Iran, taking exception as well to the way Michael would literally keep him at arm’s length by repeatedly pressing his right glove against Barkley’s forehead. “I was angry and mad at him for certain things going the way they was.”
Sure enough, there was a good deal of mugging and mockery, dismissive laughing, playful bobbing and weaving, and aggressive shit-talking going on between Iran and Nunn as the fight progressed and both men sought a psychological edge over the other. Michael as if to say, ‘you can’t catch me’ and Barkley retorting, ‘you can’t hurt me.’ As round nine expired, both fighters were forcibly guided toward their respective corners by Carlos Padilla who issued a warning to Nunn in the twelfth and final stanza to quit talking and keep boxing. Public sentiment shifted overwhelmingly in Iran’s favor as the action (or lack thereof, depending upon one’s perspective of the old adage “any port in a storm”) unfolded, with chants of “Barkley! Barkley!” resounding throughout the Lawlor Events Center.
“Iran left everything in the ring,” Nunn is eager to point out, giving Barkley every bit of his due credit. “His name looks good on my record. He was tough and hard-hitting and very relentless but my cool and calm attitude got me over the hump. Anybody who knows or has ever seen him fight will know that he will fight to the bitter end.”
Michael retained his title via majority decision with judge Keith MacDonald splitting the point total right down the middle at 114 apiece while Nunn was awarded advantages of two and three points on the scorecards of Glen Hamada and Art Lurie respectively.
“Nope, there was never talk of a rematch,” Iran Barkley informed me matter-of-factly. “Bob Arum didn’t really treat us like he did Hagler and everybody. Those was his sacks of money, you know? They’d give me the look-good money. I was still under contract for the (Michael Nunn) fight but Bob Arum…well, he dropped me.”
Iran wasn’t the lone promotional casualty. Even the victor found himself tossed out onto Top Rank’s doorstep. “I knew that beating Iran that night in Reno, Nevada would show the world that I was ready to tackle Duran, Hearns, and Leonard,” asserted Nunn. “I don’t care what the media or Arum or anybody else says.”
Bob Arum had quite a lot to say on the topic of Michael Nunn following his victory over Barkley. As reported in a recap of the fight for Sports Illustrated, Arum “grumbled that he had given Nunn a $1.25 million paycheck for a 99-cent performance.” Though he complimented Michael on being “a wonderful, nice kid”, Arum gave his contradictory version of events, stating in summation, “We had a promotional agreement for one more fight and we’re going to release him from it. People who go to boxing matches are no different than people who go to any other entertainment. They want to be entertained. He won technically, but who gives a damn? It’s not just winning, it’s winning with panache.”
Nevertheless, Michael maintains to this day a pride in his performance against the “fearless” Iran Barkley with his “cement chin” that he feels helped bolster his legacy. “I proved to the world that I was the champion. I sure wish it would have gotten me closer to Leonard, Duran, and Hearns but it seemed to push us even further apart. Too bad that Dan and Bob could not get their act together.”
Indeed, a proposed defense against Thomas Hearns remained wishful thinking despite Emmanuel Steward stating publicly, “I’m tired of waiting on Ray Leonard (for a possible third decisive matchup to settle their disputed draw that June). If Michael Nunn is the biggest fight out there, let’s get him.” Hearns instead defended his WBO Super-Middleweight Title against Michael Olajide before moving up the scales to the light-heavyweight division where he would win the WBA championship from Virgil Hill and promptly lose it to Iran Barkley who, in March 1992, would earn another distinct place in boxing history as the only fighter to claim two victories over ‘The Hitman’.
By climbing out from and transcending the personal pitfalls they both descended into, Iran Barkley and Michael Nunn have gained a greater measure of clarity and tranquility which also allowed for the burial of the remnants of their mutual animosity.
Mismanaged money and a few failed business ventures set into motion the downfall that saw Barkley hit bottom when he became homeless, aimlessly riding New York subways just to have temporary shelter and a relatively safe place to sleep. “My niece had an apartment that my mother had raised us all in. She put me out but it was a good thing because it made me find my way and get my own,” reflected Iran.
Ever the resilient fighter, he picked himself up off the proverbial floor to come back swinging with the help of some good folks who stood in the champ’s corner when he needed their guidance the most. “I had some friends that was politically inclined and they knew how to get me housing. Ring 10 allowed me to get on my feet and stay positive,” Barkley said in reference to the New York-based nonprofit organization whose mission statement is “Helping retired boxers through the toughest fight of their lives.”
“When they told me he was locked up, I knew what it was like with the feds and being locked up,” Iran said about learning of Nunn’s incarceration. “I had an uncle and brothers that were locked up in the feds, doing 15, 20, 30 years. So, they was telling me some things and you never really want to see somebody get locked up that was in the fight game. You got to do what you got to do, but I don’t think he had to go that way.”
Barkley got to reconnect with Michael in July of last year during a phone call orchestrated by John ‘The Iceman’ Scully during one of his frequent amateur boxing reunions. “That was a surprise for me and a surprise for him because he was like, ‘Who is this?’ and I said, ‘This is Iran, man.’ He said, ‘Oh wow, Barkley, what’s going on, man?’ I said, ‘How you doing, man?’ and he was like, ‘I’m hanging in, man. I’m doing the best I can.’ I said, ‘Just hang in there, man. Don’t worry about it, you know?’”
When I asked if he had a personal message he would like to relay to his old rival and newfound friend through this collaborative effort, Iran responded, “I hope he’s doing well and getting out soon. Stay strong. Boxing’s not like it was when me and him was fighting, you know what I’m saying? We opened up the doors for certain guys to get paid.”
Not in spite of, but because of, everything he has battled his way through both between the ring ropes and out in the mean streets, Iran retains a favorable outlook on life. “I stay positive. Whatever God got for me, he makes sure I see the blessing.”
They say of prison inmates that either you do the time or the time does you. Fifteen years into what Michael Nunn describes as a “nightmare” has failed to harden his heart or embitter his spirit. As it stands now, his official release date is in December 2019 but Michael is hopeful that his torment will be over even sooner which will allow him to be back amongst his family, friends, fans, and comrades. “I understand that before battle things are said but after the bout we can sit down and have a Coke and a smile and even dinner. That is why I like Scully and Iran so much and also Mark Breland that reached out to me, even guys like Milton and Alex Ramos. As you know, I boxed all those guys,” Michael wrote in one of his recent emails.
“I have a heck of an East Coast connection with all the guys that I fought. Tell Marlon (Starling) I said thanks a lot and I will be out there soon so that I can extend my hand. Give all the guys my greetings and it won’t be much longer, we will be watching some good boxing matches and talking about the old times.”
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