By Kieran Mulvaney
This Saturday, HBO Boxing airs its 1,000th fight. To commemorate the occasion, HBO Boxing Insiders selected their favorite fights from the HBO catalog and wrote about them.
February 3, 1996
By February 1996, I’d been living in the US for a little under two years. I’d been an HBO subscriber for somewhat less; I worked for a nonprofit organization and most of my income was spent on renting a furnished apartment in Washington, DC. It was boxing that prompted me to find a little bit extra to pay the cable company each month; the frustration of trying to watch a scrambled version of Oliver McCall’s shock defeat of Lennox Lewis was, if I recall correctly, the final tipping point.
I think I pulled the trigger in the fall of 1995, in time to see Lewis stop Tommy Morrison and Riddick Bowe win the decider of his three-fight series with Evander Holyfield. But the first HBO fight I vividly remember watching, the first to have me leaping to my feet and making the kind of excited noises that must have had my neighbors concerned, was on February 3, 1996, when Marco Antonio Barrera took on Kennedy McKinney in the debut of a new HBO boxing series called 'Boxing After Dark.' Almost 20 years later, BAD's first main event remains its defining contest.
The stakes for the 122-pound showdown were evident at the final pre-fight press conference, where the veteran American leaned toward the up-and-coming Mexican and declared that, “You cannot beat me! You cannot whoop me here in my town!” Whereupon the up-and-coming Mexican stood up, smiled at his team standing behind him, and promptly socked the veteran American in the jaw.
The prefight aggression spilled into the bout itself. McKinney started brightly, working behind a stiff jab and landing straight rights to the head of the oncoming Barrera, who ripped left hooks to his taller foe’s lanky frame. But the Baby-Faced Assassin began to reel him in, and in the sixth round the Los Angeles crowd was treated to three minutes of violence that was a microcosm of the entire fight to that point: McKinney landing right hands on what appeared to be a weary Barrera; Barrera coming back with vicious body shots that had McKinney reeling; and the two men stunning each other with near-simultaneous blows that had Jim Lampley laughing at the almost cartoonish perfection of it all.
“This is movie town,” noted Larry Merchant. “You've never seen a better round in a movie than the one you just saw.”
But the best was yet to come. Some fights smolder awhile before catching light; others never progress beyond the early but ultimately unfulfilled promise. Barrera-McKinney started red-hot and became a raging inferno, the end of the sixth round in hindsight the point at which the flames began to roar out of control, unstoppable until the fire burned itself out. So ferocious was the back-and-forth that Lampley almost conceded defeat in the seventh. “There has never been less need for a blow-by-blow guy,” he proclaimed. “I am just in awe.”
In the eighth, Barrera broke through. A right hand to the jaw and a left hook dropped McKinney to his back. A follow-up barrage sent him reeling into the corner where he slumped into the ropes for what should have been called a knockdown but wasn’t, and another fusillade sent his rump to the canvas for, officially, the second time. McKinney survived the round; he survived the ninth, too, despite Barrera putting him down again. Then, incredibly, in the tenth he rallied, stunning Barrera with a long right hand and knocking him backward, pouring forward in an effort to pull himself back on even terms.
“I could watch this fight for a week,” exclaimed Merchant in the eleventh, and then barely 10 seconds later Barrera was down for the first time in his career, the combination of a McKinney right hand a slippery logo causing him to touch his glove to the canvas. Barrera protested, but the knockdown was rightfully called; then, at the start of the twelfth, it was McKinney’s turn to feel aggrieved when a combination slip and stumble was called as another knockdown. There was no doubt about the next knockdown, or at least there shouldn’t have been: McKinney winced after absorbing a ripping left hook to the body and dropped to his knees, but this time referee Pat Russell declared it a slip and waved the American immediately back into action. That action, which had been relentless, would not last much longer: Barrera knew his prey was wounded, moved in for the kill and dropped McKinney with a fierce right hand, prompting Russell to wave the contest over.
“That was one of the better fights I have ever witnessed in my life,” said Roy Jones.
“I guess the time was right for Boxing After Dark,” noted Lampley.
Next year, five years after his last fight, Barrera will enter the Hall of Fame. On that night, a star – and an HBO boxing franchise – was born.