by Fox Doucette
Wilfred Benitez was a master of defense, they say. Better than Mayweather, better than Whitaker, the equal of Pep or Greb. If that’s the case, then why did it always look like he was easy to hit? Why did Sugar Ray Leonard drag him into one of the most epic three-minute wars the sport has seen in the 15th round of their championship fight? How did Tommy Hearns, Mustafa Hamsho, and even Davey Moore beat Benitez from pillar to post when Benitez was still very much in his athletic prime, and what the bloody hell was that Matthew Hilton fight? Benitez was 27 years old when Hilton knocked him around and stopped him.
The possibility exists that Benitez was just overrated. The Temporal Commission wanted to know how he’d fare against a guy who was as durable when hit as he was potent when dishing out the punishment, and when they told the boys to gas up the time machine, it was an easy call:
Get to 1986 and go get Mike McCallum from his stoppage in two rounds of Julian Jackson.
McCallum was still a ways away from fighting a solid boxer who would give him fits; Sumbu Kalambay was the closest thing to Wilfred Benitez ever to step into the ring with McCallum, and the two men split their fights in 1988 and 1991. In point of fact, Kalambay may very well have been the harder puncher.
When the books opened the fight, McCallum was the early favorite. Is Benitez as good as his reputation or as ordinary as his record against elite competition? We’ll find out.
Meanwhile, in the co-feature, it’s a barn-burner between two guys who come into this fight under Here’s To the Losers rules. Iran Barkley comes in fresh off his loss to Roberto Duran in the 1989 Fight of the Year, where he found himself on the floor in the 11th round against a 37-year-old guy whose best days were 15 years and 25 pounds behind him.
John “The Beast” Mugabi, on the other hand, comes in after having given his all in a straight-up war against Marvin Hagler, quite possibly the toughest challenge Hagler ever faced in his reign as middleweight champion, the last man Hagler would defeat before a you-gotta-be-kidding-me loss to Ray Leonard ended Marvelous Marvin’s career. For Mugabi, it was his first loss; he had been 26-0 with 26 knockouts up to that point. There’s a big difference between getting hit by Iran Barkley and getting hit by Marvin Hagler. Would the Beast be up to the challenge?
From the Historical Fight Night Arena Presented By You, If You Donate On Patreon, in San Dimas, California, these fights are scheduled for 12 rounds using the Unified Rules of the Association of Boxing Commissions. Scoring is on the 10-point must system, there is no three knockdown rule, no standing eight count, only the referee can stop the fight, and a fighter cannot be saved by the bell in any round including the twelfth and final round.
Now, for the thousands in attendance and the millions watching from around the world…
Let’s Make History.
John Mugabi (3/10/1986, 26-1, 26 KOs) vs. Iran Barkley (2/24/1989, 25-5, 16 KOs)
One of the hardest punchers in the history of the junior middleweight division, Mugabi came into the Hagler fight (and moved up in weight off his natural size to do it) undefeated and having never sniffed the distance. He managed to back Hagler up on more than one occasion, and absorbed a ton of punishment before he finally cracked in the late stages.
Barkley’s chin was a bit suspect; Duran was not a great puncher at middleweight but managed to drop Barkley and nearly knock him out. He had a ton of heart and was very hard to keep down, but you get hit by enough big shots, you’re going to break eventually…and if Nigel Benn taught us anything, Barkley could be broken pretty quickly if you hit him hard enough.
Barkley came in behind his jab, looking to outbox Mugabi and try to take the steam out of him by frustrating him from the outside.
Mugabi came out with the attitude of “you’re going to have to hit me harder than that to keep me off you.” His attitude was more like it was in the Earl Hargrove fight, when he threw left hooks and looping overhand rights from the get-go.
It made for an interesting contest, because while Barkley wanted to hang back and counter after seeing what was coming at him, the need to keep from getting caught clean led him to be more inclined to block rather than dodge the shots.
Mugabi settled down a little, tightening up that hook and throwing it from in closer, walking through a couple of jabs to get there, and throwing the straight right hand down below to the body behind the big lead left hook. He was effective, but the problem came in that once he was done punching, Barkley was in perfect position to throw a few shots of his own, and Mugabi found himself being tenderized down low as Barkley, looking to the long game, started working downstairs.
The other problem with Iran Barkley’s jab was that he had a bad habit of getting lazy with it, floating it rather than snapping it, and with Mugabi coming after him with everything he had trying to smother and overpower him, Barkley’s weak jab was not something he could afford to fall into.
Mugabi uncorked a big right hand behind which he tried to close range, and he caught Barkley right on the face with it. That punch did a bunch of damage to the left eye of Barkley and began to swell almost immediately; the swelling that was such a factor in Duran being able to pour on the right hands late in that fight was going to be a factor here.
Mugabi went back to the right, throwing it every chance he got, and that was a mistake in its own regard. Barkley, knowing it was coming, snapped out a double hook and caught Mugabi first on the chin and then smack on the right cheekbone, and Mugabi’s legs got wobbly.
Barkley gave chase, pushing Mugabi into the corner and opening up, the hook to the body, the hook to the head, the straight right, a left hook, a right hook, a north hook, a south hook, the Beast is confused, the Beast is groggy!
The Beast…is down.
Referee Mills Lane took up the count, which Mugabi beat with three to spare; shortly thereafter, Lane yelled eight at the standing man and resumed the round, all four seconds of it before the bell rang and Mugabi, unsure quite where he was, wandered into the neutral corner before his seconds were able to retrieve him.
The left hook was a punch that many a fighter learned could be used to stop Mugabi; four years after Mugabi got in the time machine in the prime timeline, Terry Norris would use it to put an end to their scrap in one round.
Iran Barkley had no way of knowing that, but he had plenty of empirical evidence of his own that Mugabi could be caught by the wide shot. He went straight after the Beast, looking to land that left hook and close the show, doubling it up the way he did to such effect when he hurt Roberto Duran in the eighth round of his own time machine moment…
…and out of nowhere, Mugabi countered him with the right. The entire timbre of the fight changed. This time it was Barkley on wet noodle legs, and Mugabi opened up and went right after him, throwing the left hook up top, the right hand down low, the uppercut between the guard, the entire steamer trunk full of Assorted Swell Things to Hit Dog On Head…and finally, the kitchen sink. A four-punch combination put Barkley on the floor before the man from the Bronx was able to rise at the count of six, admittedly far more aware of his place in the world than Mugabi had been of his a round prior. The judges would just have to learn to count by eights, as the bell rang and the round came to an end.
All pretense of defense or strategy were abandoned in the fourth, as both men, knowing that the longer the fight went on, the more exposed each would be to the machinations of the other, seemed to come to a mutual understanding that “this ring is not big enough for the two of us” and let the fight degenerate into a brawl.
And a brawl was exactly what the Beast needed to finish the fight on his terms. Barkley, who had a tendency to throw arm punches on the inside when he got square and off balance, ran into a guy for whom infighting was as natural as breathing. Mugabi set his feet and poured on the right hand, and Barkley’s eye, which was still swollen from the events of the second round, grew from a mouse into a rat.
The swelling only further disadvantaged Barkley, who stopped being able to see that right hand coming, and once again Mugabi kept pouring on the punishment, trying to get that eye swollen shut, either by way of setting up a knockout punch or winning the fight by a stoppage due to the opponent being unable to continue.
The ringside doctor took a look and allowed the fight to continue for the last minute, and Mugabi just battered Barkley from pillar to post. The Beast set his feet, moved to his right into the blind spot of Barkley, snapped out jab and hook targeted right on that eye, and as the bell rang, it simply fell to Barkley to either land one big shot or be betrayed by the body’s reaction to being hit in the same spot a time too many.
Mugabi came out, fighting at what could be argued was a slower pace, even though the circumstances of the man in front of him prescribed a recipe that just so happened to call for dancing and pot-shotting, and dance and potshot Mugabi did through the whole fifth round. Stick and move, float like a butterfly, sting like a pissed-off Japanese hornet—and in Japan, 30 to 40 people die every year after being tagged with the searing pain and vicious venom of the ozumebachi.
Barkley wasn’t going to die; he just wished he could with all the punishment he continued to take. Every shot, every effortless dodge of an incoming shot that Mugabi pulled off when Barkley tried to punch back, every attempt Barkley made to fight with one eye swelled shut, it was a payoff that diminished as the Beast began to turn this from a contest into a public execution.
After the fifth round ended, the ringside doctor took another look, referee Mills Lane took another look, and both were in agreement. It was time to put a stop to this before Iran Barkley went back to his own time in a box.
Mugabi, jubilant, celebrated heartily; Barkley, believing in his heart that he could still fight on, seethed and demanded the chance to do more. But nobody in attendance in San Dimas thought the stoppage premature; this was one ugly case of a fighter getting the worst of things.
RESULT: MUGABI TKO5 BARKLEY.
Wilfred Benitez (1/30/1982, 44-1, 28 KOs) vs. Mike McCallum (8/23/1986, 27-0, 24 KOs)
Benitez might be the single greatest example of wasted talent this sport has ever seen. He’s spoken of as an all-time great, but it’s mostly a legend without a hell of a lot to defend it. The “great defensive fighter” who got caught and stopped more than once, the guy who always seemed to be easy to hit, the guy who fought with his feet nailed to the floor in his own corner, was a “defensive mastermind”. There’s a reason he never summited the mountain of the “Four Kings”, after all. Leonard stopped him, Hearns schooled him, and plenty of people thought Duran beat him too. Hagler? Benitez wanted Hagler, but Marvelous would have eaten his lunch, there is absolutely no question of that—Benitez had his chance to get that title shot and got pounded like a cheap steak against Mustafa Hamsho.
Meanwhile, there’s Mike McCallum, a guy who unfortunately reigned over the junior middle and middleweight divisions when there really weren’t enough great guys there to elevate himself to an all-time great status. Leonard and Hagler were pretty well finished, Duran was moving into the last-hurrah-as-champion stage of his career (see the Barkley fight in ’89 for an example), and Tommy Hearns was already floating around between super middle and light heavyweight as early as 1987. Sumbu Kalambay, Iran Barkley, Donald Curry, all great guys, but they weren’t the Four Kings and they weren’t as good as the Toney/Jones/Hopkins axis that would take over at 160 pounds as hair metal turned to grunge and Reagan/Bush turned into Bill Clinton in the White House.
So you’ve got one guy who’s criminally overrated and put in the time machine after a disputed win over the greatest fighter he ever beat, another guy who might just be criminally underrated coming off a two-round destruction of Julian Jackson, so…
McCallum was a victim of his own power sometimes, and that’s not to say he knocked himself out by hitting himself in the head. A great boxer with knockout power tends to be remembered more for the big shots he landed to get the wins and less for the great setups that got him there.
Look at that record. Mike McCallum knocked out 24 of 27 opponents before he got in the time machine, and if his career is extended further to the eve of the Kalambay fight, he got to 32-0 with 29 stoppages before he lost for the first time. That’s Gennady Golovkin, Marvin Hagler, John Mugabi stuff right there.
Ask Donald Curry what happens when you get in with a guy who’s managed to get a reputation as a puncher when in reality he’s a disciplined, well-skilled boxer. Curry made one mistake—in the fifth round, he pulled back awkwardly and dropped his guard—and with one shot, he never got a second chance because McCallum knocked him out cold.
Now imagine Wilfred Benitez trying to fight off the ropes against a guy like that. McCallum was a slow starter sometimes, and he didn’t want to start walking into counters before he even had a chance to break a sweat, but if Benitez was going to obligingly stand in the punching range of a guy whose nickname, “The Bodysnatcher”, was a reflection of his style? Well, who wouldn’t start throwing a few punches to the midsection, always behind the jab and always with a mind toward avoiding the incoming retaliation shot? Sugar Ray Leonard himself, who knocked Benitez out, could learn a thing or two from that.
Benitez, for his part, kept his composure, but things did not augur well.
McCallum’s deadly accurate onslaught continued, although Benitez did for his part get better about throwing some good shots back. The strategy was beginning to become clear to those in attendance; McCallum was going to use Benitez’s three major weaknesses against him.
See, Benitez had one obvious weakness—that whole fight-on-the-ropes thing, which was more dollar-store knockoff of Ali’s rope-a-dope than brilliant defense. His second weakness was that he lacked the power on the counter to bother a bigger and stronger man, something Hearns exploited and Hamsho used to bully Benitez in their fight.
And, of course, Benitez had a third weakness, which was his at-times shocking lack of stamina, especially later in his career after his welterweight title reign. Benitez was a partier. After the Davey Moore fight, the article in Sports Illustrated, by William Nack, told the tale of a man who had squandered his fortune, and it is an open secret in boxing-history-fan circles that Benitez had a lax attitude to training, preferring luxury to hard work. McCallum knew this only too well, and those body punches were going to drain whatever even a 2015 training camp had given the Puerto Rican originally from the Bronx.
The body attack continued, and the counter punches coming back at McCallum slowly lost their snap. In the Hamsho fight, Al Michaels, calling the fight for ABC, continually hammered on the point about just how much Benitez tended, for a “defensive” fighter, to contest the action in a phone-booth-sized section of his own corner. McCallum was perfectly content to put rounds in the bank if that was the way Benitez wanted to play this game, and so each of the next three rounds went exactly like the first two.
McCallum, as the fight advanced, began to get the timing right on Benitez, aided by all those body punches adding up. It was only a matter of time before the timing matched up with the power, especially since as Benitez continued to get his guts tenderized, he steadily lost interest in throwing anything back with bad intentions.
McCallum was also wholly unafraid of Benitez at this point; he knew very well that he could land at will, and he began to mix in a bit more headhunting to his very steady diet of body shot after body shot. Referee Mills Lane commanded Benitez to “show me something or I’m gonna stop it” for the first time as the assault continued.
Curiously, this did not inspire Benitez, but it did inspire McCallum, who seemed to decide at that point that better to give the fans something to talk about. He brought the hook to the body upstairs and doubled it with a shot to the head from the same angle, finishing the three-punch combination with a right.
Benitez, for his part, simply absorbed the punches, unable to solve a man whose defense was as good as his own and whose offense was many miles ahead.
As the second half of the scheduled distance began, Benitez finally cracked. Only 24 seconds into the round, McCallum landed a honey of a straight right, and Benitez, exhausted by the body shots and broken mentally by the constant one-sided assault, went down, and as Lane counted, Benitez watched the fingers the way an infant would, reacting not to the message being sent by the steady count toward ten but to the movement of the hands, and when the final flourish of Lane waving his hands signaled an end both to the show-in-miniature in the corner and the greater show of the actual fight, Benitez rose from his knee, utterly beaten by a guy whose power so often belied just how well he could out-box even a guy whose informed abilities outweighed the reality of his career.
At 34 seconds of the seventh round, referee Mills Lane reaches the count of ten. Your winner, by way of knockout…
RESULT: McCALLUM KO7 BENITEZ.
Well, if I’m not set upon and murdered by the Benitez fans, we’ll have ourselves some lightweights next week. Your columnist has been accused of criminally underrating Roberto Duran; that’s not actually true, we’ve just kept throwing him in past his prime and above his ideal weight.
It is time to rectify this, as Duran gets his first chance at 135 pounds to make the case that he was the greatest lightweight of all time. His first challenge in that pursuit? Manny Pacquiao, who made a brief pit stop at 135 to lift a title off David Diaz before climbing toward welterweight. Duran gets into the time machine after one of his greatest victories, the demolition of Esteban de Jesus in their third and final fight.
Your co-feature? How about Vinny Pazienza, ladies and gentlemen? The big guy, as in the super middleweight version of the man, gets into the time machine fresh off a win over Robbie Sims in 1993 to take on Donny Lalonde, who is brought in from a 1987 win over Mustafa Hamsho and given eight weeks of training to drop three pounds and join the 168-pound party in San Dimas. There’s no two-division title shenanigans on offer here—we’ll leave that crap to Ray Leonard—just two guys who were maybe a tick or two shy of greatness in the all-time sense having a good scrap as an appetizer before the main event between a pair of legends.
As always, we’re on at 6 PM Eastern, 3 PM Pacific, every Friday, right here on The Boxing Tribune, and a few hours after the conclusion of the fight (it’s usually up there by 7 Pacific most weeks), you can check out Let’s Make History, our behind-the-scenes column and impromptu pledge drive, over at Patreon—just click on “Creator Posts”, it’s now a free feature for all, not just for donors, but it gives you a chance to help support the show.
Thanks for reading, and see you next week!