Insurgents in the kingdom: Six forgotten fighters of the 1980s
The 1980s was a memorable decade for all those who remember it. Saturday morning cartoons, crazy fashion, MTV and the rise of the cultural phenomena known as Hip-Hop. For boxing fans, the 80s was an amazing decade. Some have argued that it was boxing’s last golden-age. In an era that featured so many great fighters, the landscape of the welterweight, super-welterweight & middleweight divisions were ruled over by four particular fighters. These fighters went on to become legends of mythical proportions. One man was Marvelous, the other was sweet as Sugar. One man had the Hands of Stone and the other was known as The Hitman.
Like the Knights of the Round Table of Camelot, the careers of the four kings are now the stuff of boxing legend. But as is always the case with boxing history, there is more to the story than what usually gets told. While it is true that the four kings ruled over their kingdoms with fervor, there were insurgents who waited in the wings to usurp their thrones. Today we take a look at these insurgents of the kingdom, today we look at forgotten fighters of the 1980s.
EL RADAR: Puerto Rican prodigy Wilfred “El Radar” Benitez is known to hardcore boxing fans as the fifth king. A boxing virtuoso, Benitez would turn pro at the age of 15. This amazing fighter accrued a body of work so impressive that it almost sounds made up. Wilfred would go on to win his first world title, by unseating the legendary Antonio “Kid Pambele” Cervantes at the age of 17. Wilfred Benitez was known for his counter-punching prowess, his accuracy and most notably, his near super-natural defense. To watch Wilfred slip & evade punches, was almost like watching Neo dodge bullets in The Matrix. Benitez was particularly dangerous off the ropes. Whereas most counter-punchers want the fight in the center of the ring, Benitez would dare his opponents to follow him to the ropes, here he would counter and break guys down with brilliant defense & accuracy. It was that defense and skill that would carry him to titles in three weight classes, a classic bout with Sugar Ray Leonard, he gave Thomas Hearns fits and he thoroughly out boxed the great Roberto Duran over 15 rounds. Benitez would retire with a record of 53-8-1 with 31 Kos. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall Of Fame in 1996.
THE MAGIC MAN: In King Arthur’s Camelot, one of the most well-known characters was the wizard Merlin. The kingdoms of the 80s sported its own wizard…Marlon “The Magic-Man” Starling. Turning pro in 1979, Starling would win his first 25 fights. Employing a difficult to penetrate high-guard, quick hands, great footwork and power; Marlon Starling was quickly making himself a force to be reckoned with in the early 80s. Despite his obvious talent, he would never get a shot at one of the four kings. Marlon Starling would not win his first world title until 1987, when he knocked out the highly-touted Olympic Gold Medalist, Mark Breland. On July 29th 1988, Starling would lose his WBA welterweight title in controversial fashion, when his opponent Tomas Molinares hit him after the bell. The bout would be reversed to a no-contest but Molinares was not allowed to keep the title. The Magic-Man would work his charm once again in 1989, when he would beat the very talented Lloyd Honeygan for the WBC welterweight title. Marlon Starling would retire with a record of 45-6-1-1 with 27 KOs.
Photo Credits: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
SECOND TO NUNN: No fighter of the 80s was perhaps more physically gifted than middleweight Phenom Michael Nunn. Standing at a rangy 6’1, Nunn had speed, power, skills and guts. Nunn would turn pro in 1984 and after winning his first 30 bouts, he would challenge Frank Tate for the IBF middleweight crown in 1988. Michael Nunn would KO Tate in the ninth round and solidify himself as the man to beat at 160. Nunn would go on secure big wins over the aforementioned Frank Tate, Sumbu Kalambay as well as close win over Marlon Starling. But it was the fighters he didn’t fight that stick out like a sore thumb. Michael Nunn was quite vocal about his frustration to secure a fight with Ray Leonard & Marvin Hagler; sadly those fights never materialized. Michael Nunn would go on to win the WBA super-middleweight title in 1992. Michael Nunn fell on hard times in his personal life and would finish his career with a record of 58-4 with 37 KOs.
THE HAWK: When it comes to punching power, no discussion is complete without one Julian Jackson. After turning pro in 1981 he would become one of the most feared men in the 154lb division, Jackson would use his subtle skills and insane power to win his first 29 fights, before failing in his first title bid against the legendary Mike McCallum, in 1986. Not one to be deterred, Jackson would challenge and beat Korean fighter In-Chul Baek for the vacant WBA super-welterweight title in 1987. Jackson would defend his title against the likes of Buster Drayton and the legendary Terry Norris. Julian Jackson would go on to win the WBC middleweight crown by beating talented British fighter Herol Graham. What makes his win over Graham all the more impressive, was the fact he did so with retina damage that was surgically repaired. Julian Jackson would retire from boxing with a record of 55-6 and 49 KOs. Julian Jackson is seen my many boxing historians, as one of the greatest pure punchers the sport of boxing has ever seen.
Photo Credits: Holly Stein /Allsport
THE LONE STAR COBRA: No fighter on this list was as highly touted and more shrouded in mystery, than Donald “The Lone Star Cobra” Curry. In 1983, Donald Curry (whose real name is Donald Sample) won the WBA welterweight title that Ray Leonard vacated after his first retirement. After a rematch with Marlon Starling; whom he had previously defeated, he annexed the IBF title to his resume. In 1985 after beating Milton McCrory he became the first undisputed welterweight champion since Sugar Ray Leonard. After this great achievement Curry’s career began to go on a roller-coaster ride. On September 27, 1986 Donald Curry would lose his title to Lloyd Honeygan; a fighter that Curry was 5-1 favorite against. Leading up that fight personal problems as well as trouble making the 147lb limit would see Curry suffer the first loss of his career. The year 1987 would prove to be a trying one in the life & career of Donald Curry. On April 6, he would sue Sugar Ray Leonard and Leonard’s attorney Mike Trainer claiming that they conspired to keep him from fighting Marvin Hagler for the middleweight title. That same year, Curry challenged the legendary Mike McCallum for the WBA Jr. Middleweight title. Donald Curry was a 2-1 favorite to beat McCallum, when the bell rang he showed why he was favored. He took control of the fight from the onset, and was ahead on the scorecards after four. But in the fifth he was put down by a picture perfect left hook, and he was handed the second loss of his career. The Lone Star Cobra would hold a grudge towards Leonard for some time, prompting him to call out Sugar Ray. When asked if he would fight Curry, Leonard responded “I’d prefer to settle it in court”. Donald Curry would go on to win the WBC Jr. Middleweight title in 1988 in a dominating win over the underrated Gianfranco Rossi. He would finish his career with a record of 34-6 with 25 KOs.
THE BODY SNACTHER: He’s been mentioned several times on this list and for good reason. No fighter of the 80s was more avoided than Mike “The Body Snatcher” McCallum. One of the slickest, most complete fighters in the history of boxing; Mike McCallum turned pro in 1981 and won the WBA Jr. Middleweight title in 1984. He would defend that title six times, all of those defenses via the short route. His wins over high profile fighters Milton McCrory & Donald Curry helped to put the world on notice. Unfortunately for McCallum, many did notice and they looked the other way.
It has been said time and time again that the four kings wanted no part of McCallum. The WBA title he won from Sean Mannion, was the same title that Roberto Duran took from Davey Moore. On April 10th 1984 the WBA ordered Duran to defend his title against McCallum, but Duran opted for a much more lucrative bout with McCallum’s former stable mate Thomas Hearns. The Body Snatcher had racked up wins over two former Kronk stable mates… Milton McCrory & David Braxton and he wanted a third… Tommy Hearns.
Legendary trainer Emmanuel Steward and Mike McCallum would have somewhat of a falling out because of McCallum’s desire to fight the Hitman. When McCallum told Steward he wanted Tommy, legend has it that Steward handed Mike a picture of Hearns, and told him that’s the closest he would get.
Marvin Hagler was in the twilight of his career when McCallum’s career was gaining steam. As far as Ray Leonard, he was pretty much a part-time fighter by the late 80s, regardless neither of these men expressed any desire to fight The Body Snatcher at any point in their careers.
Mike McCallum was a true boxing savant. He was a complete fighter who possessed all the tools, and could fight from any range & would always find a way to outthink his opponent. Adding to his amazing skill-set was his granite chin and elephant sized heart. His list of opponents read like a who’s-who of the time; Donald Curry, Julian Jackson, Milton McCrory, Herol Graham, Sumbu Kalambay, Michael Watson, Steve Collins among others. In his twilight he would draw and lose a controversial decision to future great James Toney. And at 40 he would challenge a prime Roy Jones Jr. Mike McCallum would go on to win titles at middleweight & light-heavyweight, he would retire with a record of 49-5-1 with 36 KOs. Mike “The Body Snatcher” McCallum was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003.
If you’re a true fan of boxing, I highly encourage you go watch footage of these great fighters. The Four Kings of boxing deserve recognition, for the greatness that allowed them to sit on their respective thrones. But time has not been very kind to the fighters on this list; let’s change that by giving them their place in the kingdom of boxing royalty.