THE KRONK WARS
Former WBO light-heavyweight boss Leeonzer Barber talks to James Slater about his career and those famous Kronk Gym wars
Former WBO champ Leeonzer Barber opens up about the famous gym
LEEONZER BARBER all but vanished after his loss to Dariusz Michalczewski, which occurred 24 years ago last month. His three-year reign as WBO light-heavyweight champion was over and, four low-key comeback bouts aside, so was his career. Today when looking back the 52-year-old is happy he got out “with all of my faculties,” but there is obvious remorse about the heights he never quite scaled. Barber, who finished with a 21-4 (13) record, talks about those tough sparring sessions inside the Kronk Gym and also recalls his key fights.
Why did you not fight for four years after the loss to Michalczewski?
I have quite a lot to say about what happened, but at the time I never did say anything, I never did publicise things. But I had retinal trouble in both eyes, and I never said anything because my plan was to come back. But I had serious injury and the doctor said to me that, basically, I had to call it a day or else I’d be blind in my thirties. The doctor told me that in his entire career he had never seen an eye injury quite so bad as mine. Thankfully my eyes did heal, but it took a good three years. Also, I must say I never did think my management team and myself saw eye to eye. I could have had things done better for me. I’m not going to come across too negative about [trainer] Emanuel [Steward] as he moved things for me and my career, but he had so many fighters all wanting the spotlight at that time. I was a world champion who won the belt when fighting in another guy’s country, I defended it on the road, and eventually I lost it on the road.
When did the eye injury occur?
It was in the Michalczewski fight when I lost the sight in my right eye, I guess for the last four rounds of the fight. That was when I knew I had to go to see a real eye doctor; not just the optician. But the lights went out in that fight in Germany – for real! In the late rounds, when Michalczewski was fading, the lights went out, it was total darkness. Nothing was said afterwards, nobody appealed or anything. Emanuel wasn’t with me for that fight, neither were my people, and I kind of felt naked. I’m not saying Michalczewski wouldn’t have won anyway – he is one of the best lightheavyweight champions ever - but I certainly don’t think I lost that fight by the big margins the judges had it [119-107, 116-111 twice].
‘I JUST WANTED THE CHANCE TO PROVE I WAS SUPREME’
Tells us about the legendary Kronk Gym sparring wars
I sparred so many tough fighters, great fighters – and not all of them made it big, name-wise: Leon Spinks, Tommy Hearns, Gerald Mcclellan, Dennis Andries, Duane Thomas, and so many others. Every Monday, I knew I had to go in there and not slip one bit, not at all. Over the weekend, knowing I would have to spar on the Monday, I couldn’t have any pizza, I couldn’t eat and drink what I wanted and let myself go. No way would I risk getting embarrassed, not in front of Emanuel. And it was the same for the other fighters too. We all made each other suffer! Dennis, he was a real tough guy, as was Gerald. Dennis is one of the most accomplished fighters ever to have come out of the UK.
What do you remember about winning the WBO title against Tom Collins in Leeds?
The first round I came out to get him. I had struggled to make the weight and I put it on him early, to let him know I was the boss. Then, all of a sudden, it all went black for a second! I ran into a right hand. But I was in great shape and I recovered. I think he was the betting favourite to win that fight, as he had had way more fights than I had had. Back then, my goal was to unify the belts.
What stopped you from unifying the belts in your opinion?
There were too many of us [champions]! There was Dennis, there was Prince Charles Williams, there was Virgil Hill. I wanted all the belts. Looking back, as champ for over three years, my activity level wasn’t great. Again, I think my people could have moved me better, kept me more active. That’s what I wanted, to be an active word champion. But things turned out the way they turned out. I know Emanuel did a lot for me but my feeling then was, I’m as good as the other guys you have in your corner, who you are working with - I’m wearing those gold shorts too. I wanted the chance to prove I was supreme.
Emanuel, he wasn’t with me for my two toughest fights: the one against Nicky Piper and the loss to Michalczewski. The Piper fight, in Wales, that looked like the toughest fight of my career, but Michalczewski really was the best I fought. Piper, I was badly swollen around the eye and they were close to stopping the fight. They could have stopped that fight quite easily, but I think Frank Warren and everyone, including Piper and his team, felt they were just seconds away from getting a clean knockout win. But then I put Piper’s lights out.
REFLECTIVE: Barber is pleased to have his sight and a clear mind 14 years after his last bout