At midday the projects in the South Bronx, where Iran Barkley lives, have a sour, gritty, derelict look, a little like Barkley in the morning. At midnight—with pimps on the street corners mumbling checkitout, checkitout, checkitout, women in short shorts getting in and out of cabs, men prowling in buddy packs like old soldiers who have shared occupation duty—the neighborhood flashes hot and jittery, full of frenetic longing that never seems fulfilled.
Until June 6, Barkley's career, too, was a tale of undelivered promise. On that night in Las Vegas he won the WBC middleweight crown with a stunning third-round knockout of four-time title-holder Thomas Hearns, a 4-to-1 favorite. Bleeding around both eyes, reeling from Hearns's booming blows to his body, Barkley let fly a huge right from somewhere in the streets of the South Bronx. Suddenly he was a champion.
For more than five years Barkley had been dismissed as a slow, swarming, back-alley bruiser. He built a 24-4 record despite a brow that seemed to pop open every time he scowled. He absorbed as many punches as he threw. He looked flat last October in losing a 15-round decision to Zaire-born Sumbu Kalambay for the vacant WBA crown in Leghorn, Italy. But Barkley won his next two bouts—one a fifth-round TKO over favored Michael Olajide—to earn his shot at Hearns.
" Iran's story is full of pathos," says his manager, John Reetz, a onetime member of Julian Beck's avant-garde Living Theatre. "He had to box his way out of the ghetto, was ridiculed for not being good enough to be champ and won the title three days after his best friend died. It has all the elements of classic Greek tragedy."
Perhaps, though the phrase odd couple best describes Barkley and Reetz. Barkley, 28, is a battle-scarred pug with a menacing countenance set off by a lot of gold jewelry. His hobbies, he says, are "eating carrot cake and riding around in limos." Reetz, 36, was educated at Bard College, looks like Mike Doonesbury and sprinkles his conversation with references to popular and unpopular culture. Barkley was the youngest of eight kids in a South Bronx tenement. Reetz was raised in the elegant New York suburb of Bronxville.
Reetz, who walks around with copies of Oil & Gas Journal under his arm, was a wildcatter before dipping a toe into the fight game. "I was drawn toward the spectacle of boxing," he says. "It's true acting in the Brechtian sense: the Theater of the Alienated. But I expect Iran's playlet will have a happy ending, like Strawberry Fields Forever." Barkley savors the thought. "I like strawberries," he says, adding, "I like grapes too."
Iran isn't sure how he got his name but says it has never been a problem, even during the hostage crisis. "Everybody called me I," he recalls. "They all thought my real name was Ivan."
Iran was a passive child, and his older sister, Yvonne, had to make him fight. In grade school a bully named the Bear used to take his lunch money, so Iran went to Yvonne for help. Yvonne may have been only 5'3" and 135 pounds, but, Barkley recalls, "Yvonne found the Bear and whipped his butt. I knew how to fight; I just didn't like to."
He preferred running. At 14 he ran his own numbers operation; later he ran with a gang called the Black Spades. He learned to use a switchblade, but he was never much of a criminal. The one time he stole something, he got caught and was tossed in a cell with dope dealers, looters and assorted felons.
"What you in for, kid?" asked one hardened con.