LAS VEGAS -- In most areas of public life these days, you can say just about anything one day and announce the next, "I misspoke," and that's the end of that. That being the case, all Iran Barkley hopes to point out to Thomas Hearns is that there is more than one way to say, "That's the end of that."
Like unconsciousness, for one.
Several days ago, Hearns, the six-time world champion who will risk his World Boxing Association light heavyweight title against Barkley at Caesars Palace in a nationally televised pay-per-view fight tonight, met Barkley at a press conference and informed him, "In my neighborhood in Detroit, everyone calls me Big Daddy. After this fight, you'll be calling me Big Daddy, too."
Many fighters would be impressed by such a suggestion. A few -- like former light heavyweight champion Virgil Hill, who was dominated by Hearns in a lopsided loss that cost him his title last year -- might be paralyzed by it.
But Barkley comes from a neighborhood in the South Bronx with a face harder than the one Teddy Roosevelt is wearing on Mt. Rushmore. Pain is his neighborhood's major export. In this place, Iran Barkley has a nickname, too. They call him The Blade, and when he heard Thomas Hearns' words, The Blade reacted sharply.
"Friday night is his retirement party," Barkley said Wednesday. "This is the whole thing. He don't respect me. Don't nobody respect me. But Friday night I'll be the only guy to knock him out twice. He'll make me champion twice."
That, in fact, is what is so surprising about Hearns' position concerning Friday's affair de fisticuffs. In 1988, a bloodied and apparently beaten Barkley laid Hearns low with one crushing punch, a mind-bending hook that knocked Hearns cold and crowned Barkley a most unexpected middleweight champion.
Six months later, Barkley will tell you, the powers in boxing took that title from him when he lost a close decision to Roberto Duran after he was dropped late in the bout. Since then, Hearns has gone on to win a passel of world titles while Barkley appeared finished two years later after World Boxing Organization middleweight champion Nigel Benn destroyed him in one round.
Barkley has had three eye operations to repair a detached retina and cataract problems, lost all his money, fallen into tax trouble and generally seemed finished in the fight game. In other words, he followed the widest path in boxing. He went downhill.
But a few months back, someone decided to throw Barkley a bone. It was a gold watch with fist attached. It was a black-and-blue parachute into retirement. It was one last chance to fight a world champion for short money. Or so the champion thought, until a half-blind Barkley beat International Boxing Federation super middleweight titleholder Darrin Van Horn, stopping both the titleholder and, he hoped, the funereal talk that had surrounded his career the past three years.
"After the Benn fight, everybody abandoned me," Barkley said. "I was left out in the cold. They talked about my eye and blew it all out of proportion. I don't have no 20-20 vision, but I got better vision than Van Horn. I didn't get hit."
Indeed, he didn't, but judging from Hearns' words, the skeptics were not convinced even by such lopsided destruction of a world champion. If they had been, that victory would not have secured Barkley a $500,000 payday, a chance at a third world title against Hearns and another opportunity to make a point he has made before.
"That second title was the greatest thing to me," Barkley said. "They thought I was finished. They thought I'd never be in this position again. But I'm here.
"A lot of guys I've fought are gone, but this is something I have to do. I have to prove that I still belong.
"I know they don't respect me. Hearns don't respect me, but I'm ready to dent his dome. We got to get rid of legends like Hearns. They're hogging the game while guys like me who paid their dues are being phased out. I got to phase him out."
Barkley (28-7, 18 KOs) intends to do that the only way he knows how. He will bore in as relentlessly as a termite, tearing away at Hearns (50-3-1, 40 KOs) and willingly paying the price of being peppered by the champion's lethal left jab and relentless straight right coming behind it in exchange for the opportunity to dish out his own brand of misery. His theory in all this is simple: When he lands a shot on Hearns' china chin, one of the legends of boxing will realize he misspoke about the wrong folk.