DARREN BARKER laid aside long years of frustration and heartbreak to produce the performance of his life and edge out Australia’s defending IBF middleweight champion Daniel Geale in a pulsating title fight at the Ovation Hall in the Revel, the newest and plushest of the Boardwalk hotels.
Geale felt he had done enough to cling on to his belt but he had not: this was the kind of night where nothing was going to deny Barker – not even a shudderingly dramatic sixth round knockdown when a left hook to the stomach knocked the wind out of him could crush his single-minded determination to earn himself a world crown.
British fans know the Barker story well: he lost his younger brother, Gary, in a terrible car crash and for almost a year felt he could not box again. When he did, although he won British, Commonwealth and European titles, injuries sapped his self-belief. He was second best against world number one Sergio Martinez in a first appearance in Atlantic City in 2011, a right hand putting him over for the count in the 11th. More injuries left him ready to retire a year ago, before he decided on one last big effort to become a world champion.
His promoter Eddie Hearn said the next morning as we walked on the Boardwalk: “It’s unbelievable. When we heard the words ‘And the new..’ it was a dream moment. If you had told us this would happen a year ago, we would have said you were mad.”
Barker, bruised and swollen eyes hidden behind dark glasses, said: “It’s not sunk in yet. This moment has been 19 years in the making. It’s very emotional, I have needed my family around me. We’ve shared some tears and laughter and I’ve honestly been overwhelmed by the support I’ve received.”
Barker admitted he was on the brink of defeat in that sixth round. “I couldn’t breathe. I was in trouble but I wanted it so bad there was no way I was going to stay down.”
Geale’s trainer, Graham Shaw, said he thought referee Eddie Cotton was going to stop the fight – and Barker was under such pressure after the knockdown that another referee might have done that, but if he had, it would have been wrong. Barker proved that by coming back and getting the better of the second half of the fight.
At this level, in battles as close as this one was, there are sometimes very fine lines between the career-changing jubilation of victory and the heartbreaking frustration of failure. I thought Barker won 114-113, seven rounds to five, with Geale getting an extra point for the knockdown. Both Sky (Jim Watt) and HBO (Steve Weisfeld) saw it 115-112 Barker. Yet even though Barker acknowledged he might have lost the last round it was the decision of judge Carlos Ortiz to give him that session that turned a split decision defeat into a career-defining win. That is the way this business falls sometimes and nobody deserves this success more than the 31-year-old family man from Barnet. The official scores were 116-111 Barker from Barbara Perez, 114-113 Geale from Alan Rubinstein and 114-113 for Barker from Ortiz, the scoreline that set up Michael Buffer’s delivery of “And the new…”. The rest of the announcement seemed lost in the din as Barker’s fans and family set up a roar that might have been heard in New York. Tony Sims hugged him until it seemed he’d have no breath left, Peter Sims wept tears of joy as he leaned on the ropes, Mark Seltzer and Eddie Hearn almost ran around in celebration.
While it was Barker’s night, Geale took his loss with great dignity. He felt he had won, had blocked a lot of Barker’s punches and felt in control, but said: “I’m not going to whinge and cry. It didn’t go my way tonight. I’m just so disappointed.”
Geale had won split decisions in Germany over Sebastian Sylvester and Felix Sturm to win the IBF belt and then add (temporarily) WBA recognition, so has had his times of joy as well, but my feeling here was that in a close fight, he didn’t have enough consistent success to earn the verdict.
Both felt their way into the first round with Barker edging it with the cleaner work. Geale responded in the second with some clever sneak uppercuts although Barker closed it up again with right hands, then apologised for a low left on the bell. Barker won the third beyond doubt, attacking with a commitment that was never present in his Martinez challenge of nearly two years before, then Geale produced another cracking response to win the fourth. Barker needed a ‘time out’ after shipping a low blow, but then boxed better in the fifth. The intensity was relentless.
Both missed too much for their own comfort but then both were putting so much into the attempt to get the other under control. Barker drove himself on, but wound up his shots and seemed in danger of using up too much gas.
Then round six seemed to make worries about either man’s stamina irrelevant. Geale’s perfect left hook beneath the elbow sent Barker down in a heap, bent forward in obvious pain. It seemed all over midway through the count but only he knows how he managed to regain his feet at nine.
His nose bled as Geale went for the finish but he saw it through, then came out and took the seventh. After looking all over, it seemed as if we were back in for the long haul.
So it proved. Geale won the eighth, but then Barker slipped into another gear and reeled off rounds nine, ten (when he was cut over the left eye) and 11, his relentless workrate and driving finishes to each round putting him two up on my card with one to go.
It was Geale, 29-2 (15), who responded better in the last, starting fast and staying in front as they slugged it out with the crowd rising to their feet. At the final bell Barker, 26-1 (16), threw his arms in the air in, as it turned out a minute or two later, celebration of the win that will redefine his entire career. Both fighters weighed 11st 5 1/2lbs.