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A shocker over cocktails
Hugh McIlvanney
October 06, 1986
In a Boardwalk lounge, an unknown knocked off Donald Curry's crown
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October 06, 1986

A Shocker Over Cocktails

In a Boardwalk lounge, an unknown knocked off Donald Curry's crown

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The brief, harsh dramas that change the lives of fighters are often enacted in memorably peculiar places, but few have been as jarringly inappropriate as the setting provided by the Atlantic City Boardwalk last weekend. There, in 18 minutes of astonishing action, Donald Curry was transformed from an undisputed champion of the world into a battered former welterweight, with lacerations and violated bones where his aura of invincibility had been.

Both the deposed champion and his successor, Lloyd Honeyghan, the London-based Jamaican whose swiftly destructive hands painfully convinced Curry that he can no longer defy nature by forcing his tall frame into 147 pounds, were clearly too preoccupied to worry about where they were doing business. But spectators did not have to be burdened with an exaggerated sense of history to feel that a boxing upset of such magnitude should have been witnessed somewhere other than the gaudy showroom at the Caesars Atlantic City Hotel Casino. Any genuine fight fan in the invited audience of around a thousand was in danger of having his cheek distractingly brushed by the leading edge of one of the cocktail waitresses going about her chores as if Buddy Hackett held the stage.

Admittedly, many Americans had imagined in advance that there might be an element of comedy, perhaps even of farce, in the proceedings. If they cared at all, they shared Curry's skepticism about the value of the names that constituted Honeyghan's list of 27 straight victories as a professional. They also reflected reassuringly that in the course of this century only two challengers from Britain—Ted (Kid) Lewis in 1915 and '17 and Alan Minter in 1980—had left the U.S. with world titles.

Curry appeared to have the perfect credentials for maintaining that inhospitable tradition. After enduring only three defeats in more than 400 bouts as an amateur, he had matured into a beautifully controlled, consistently lethal professional. Hunting his victim by sight, never resorting to the crude Braille readings of opponents that are favored by too many boxers, Curry picked and executed his shots with a devastating economy. It took him only 16 professional fights (11 of them won by knockouts) to earn the World Boxing Association welterweight title in 1983. After he made himself the undisputed master of the division last December, with a two-round demolition of the World Boxing Council champion, Milton McCrory, there was a widespread willingness to accept that in any pound-for-pound assessment of contemporary fighters, only Marvelous Marvin Hagler was in Curry's league.

While the Curry legend was growing, however, so was the man. From his home base in Fort Worth came persistent hints that Curry, who looks every bit of the 5'10�" inches given as his official height, found sweating down to 147 pounds an increasingly arduous process, and so last year he began to take matches at the junior middleweight limit of 154 pounds. But, having dropped back to welterweight and having proved strong enough to destroy McCrory, he overrode the opinion of his manager Dave Gorman that it was time to move up permanently. The omens implicit in the long hours he had spent in plastic sweat suits were forgotten amid the acclamation of the violent triumph over McCrory. Although Honeyghan could not possibly have known it, his time was coming.

As it happens, the 26-year-old West Indian has never been one to lack faith in his destiny. At the age of 12, three years after moving to England, he saw a telecast of one of Muhammad Ali's wars with Joe Frazier and announced to his father, Sylvester, that he had decided to be a world champion fighter. From that moment nothing—not even the considerable talent he had shown for cricket—interfered with his declared ambition. But a personality that is sometimes more interesting than endearing, one in which extrovert loudness coexists with obsessive privacy, has troubled his pro career. It was teaming up lately with Mickey Duff, the most successful entrepreneur in European boxing, and Bobby Neill, a Scotsman who was British featherweight champion from 1959 to 1960 and is now the country's best trainer, that gave Honeyghan's career its decisive impetus.

When he arrived in Atlantic City most observers reckoned that all he had to commend him was an eighth-round knockout of Horace Shufford of Las Vegas, in May, and that did not count much for someone planning to get in the ring with the likes of Curry. But the challenger bellowed his confidence all over town and backed up his vaunting by betting $5,000 on himself at 5 to 1, this despite more commonly quoted odds that put his chances at 6 to 1 or more. "I want people to know how much I believe in myself," he said. "I can't wait to start punching Curry on the head. I'm going to smash his face in."

Honeyghan came fairly close to fulfilling that coarse prophecy on Saturday night. He and Neill had agreed that the essence of their strategy must be to force Curry to back up, and their plan took immediate effect as the challenger attacked with surging verve and a variety of accurate punches to take the first round easily. Then, early on in the second, Honeyghan caught Curry with a tremendous driving right that hurled the champion across the ring. Curry managed to close and hold long enough for his head to clear, but he was already bleeding from the mouth. Honeyghan compounded the champion's miseries with a sharp combination to the head before the end of the round.

Curry reached far into a substantial spirit to try to turn the fight in the third and fourth rounds, but although he won both, he was never for a moment in total command, never recognizable as a man who came to this job with seven straight knockouts behind him. By the end of the fourth round, an awareness of imminent calamity was seeping into Curry's head. "I had been too relaxed all day," he recalled later. "I usually want to get a little nervous, but I didn't feel that way. I couldn't get into the rhythm, and during the fight I was weak and sluggish. I had no strength in my legs, and my timing just wasn't there. I wasn't myself."

That wasn't surprising since he had burned down from 168 pounds to meet Honeyghan. Curry was not himself because part of him had been left in puddles on the floor of a gym. What remained might easily have been deposited on the floor of the ring in the fifth round, which saw Honeyghan punishingly regain control. Curry looked a beaten fighter before an accidental butt from his opponent's cropped head in the sixth opened an alarming gash under his left eyebrow. Honeyghan worsened the cut with ripping head punches, and ringside doctors were merely endorsing the view of Gorman, and of the loser himself, when they ruled that Curry should not come off his stool for the seventh round. Instead, he went to a nearby hospital to have some 20 stitches applied around the damaged eye and one to his lower lip.

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