By Matthew Hurley: It was a left hook from hell. One of the most precise knockout punches thrown in a major bout in the 1980s. And once it found its target, Milton McCrory, the WBC welterweight champion, collapsed in dramatic fashion, as it appeared as though his body fell apart in sections.
McCrory, a very good 147 pounder out of Detroit’s Kronk Gym, somehow got to his feet and then walked oblivious into a straight right cross that left him prone on the canvas – his head lifting off the mat instinctively, while his body was sapped of all strength and will.
Were it not for Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s titanic battle with Thomas Hearns earlier in the year, Donald Curry would have been the sole recipient of fighter of the year honors for 1985. Instead, he shared the distinction with the Marvelous one.
But at that moment there were many who felt it would be Curry, now the undisputed welterweight champion, who would be the one to knock Hagler off the top of the mythical pound for pound list and eventually beat Hagler in the ring.
And then it all unraveled.
Donald Curry was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1961. His amateur career is near legendary. He finished with a record of 400-4, racking up several national AAU championships, culminating in a national Golden Gloves welterweight title. He then defeated Davey Moore in the Olympic Trial Finals but, unfortunately, he did not get to compete in the Olympic Games because of the US boycott in 1980. He turned professional soon after.
Curry’s welterweight supremacy started with decision victories over the vastly underrated Marlon Starling, a future belt holder, and Jun-Suk Hwang, a rough and tumble fighter from South Korea who took Curry the full fifteen round distance before dropping a decision to the ‘Lone Star Cobra.’
Subsequent victories over Starling again and the likes of Colin Jones and James ’Hardrock’ Green led many to compare Curry to the then retired Sugar Ray Leonard.
But Curry was a shy, reticent young man. He wasn’t flashy either, simply quick and precise. He was as handsome as Leonard, but that lack of charisma, something Leonard exuded, was non-existent. Curry’s entire career lacks even one quotable sound bite.
He simply went about his business like a consummate professional and everything led up to that showdown with McCrory in Las Vegas. No, it wasn’t Sugar Ray Leonard against Thomas Hearns, but it was one of the most significant bouts of 1985 and Curry rose to the occasion.
He looked like the perfect fighting machine. He had balance, a good crisp jab, elbows always tucked in tightly, fists chin level and he had power in both hands. His game was to jab his way into an opening and then counter with slashing left hooks and that straight as an arrow right cross. At his best he looked almost unbeatable.
But there was always a flaw, and it would prove disastrous. He kept his head up and rarely moved it. Everything else was text book, but his chin was always there, high up, almost waiting to be hit.
For a long time Donald was just too quick to be caught – until he was.
The welterweight limit wreaked havoc on Curry’s body. He should have moved up to the junior middleweight division right after the McCrory victory. Instead, he opted to drain himself down to 147 one more time in order to face the United Kingdom’s Lloyd Honeyghan. It was a colossal mistake that altered his career and signaled the end of his fistic prime.
He was also in the middle of a heated contract dispute with his head trainer David Gorman that further muddled his training regime.
Emaciated and weak, Curry simply didn’t have the strength to keep the onrushing Honeyghan off him. There were flashes of brilliance but they were systematically pummeled into irrelevance by the Englishman’s onslaught. And Honeyghan, brash and better than most people thought, was having none of the then burgeoning Curry myth. To him Curry was an obstacle, and he didn’t jump over it, he ran right through it.
Broken and battered, Curry surrendered on his stool after the sixth round, a terrible gash bleeding profusely above his left eye. The small crowd at Caesars Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, most of whom had no idea who Lloyd Honeyghan even was, sat in silence.
That eerie calm by a stunned collective would be repeated four years later when Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson in front of a sedate Tokyo crowd.
Nothing was ever the same for Donald Curry after that.
He finally made the move up to junior middleweight and engaged in two back to back fights in which his opponent’s, Tony Montgomery and Carlos Santos, were both disqualified in the fifth round for head butts. Then he was favored when he took on future hall of famer Mike McCallum for ’The Bodysnatcher’s’ WBA crown.
But before the bout more distractions seemed to muddle his thinking. He blamed Ray Leonard for giving him improper advice about staying at welterweight. Curry was supposed to face McCallum earlier but, according to a rather frivolous lawsuit he filed against Leonard and his attorney Mike Trainer, Donald maintained that Leonard had purposely sabotaged his career once Leonard came out of retirement and signed a deal to fight Marvin Hagler, who Curry had been positioning himself to fight. The lawsuit would go nowhere.
In a pitched battle of two technically sound fighters, Curry looked like his old self. McCallum later remarked that Curry had one of the best jabs he had ever encountered and the straight right that nearly dropped him in round two was the hardest punch he ever took as a professional.
Early on Curry’s left eye began to swell. He seemed unperturbed by the injury and began opening up – keeping McCallum off balance with left hooks and counter right hands. But his weakness, that lack of head movement, would prove to be his downfall.
In round five Curry looked to take over, but McCallum, already fighting like a veteran, was timing him and staring at that chin that just seemed to be slightly out of reach. He searched for it, missing, then recalculated the distance and waited.
And then. . . BOOM! A sweeping left hook, not as pretty as the one Curry concussed Milton McCrory with, but equally powerful, nearly tore Donald’s chin off. And he fell. He fell hard, flat on his back, a bewildered look stamped on his face.
He did not beat the count.
And just like a shooting star in the black night sky, Donald Curry was done as an elite fighter.
He would win the WBC belt in 1988 against non-descript Gianfranco Rosi but his future ring battles would be punctuated with clear cut losses to the likes of Rene Jacquot, Terry Norris and Michael Nunn. All the fire in his belly that had brought him to the pinnacle of his profession was gone. He seemed a weary fighter and a weary soul until his final bout against Emmett Linton. Curry had nothing left and was stopped in round seven. Even a bear hug from Thomas Hearns when it was all over, who was cheering him on from ringside, was of little consolation.
It was later discovered that Curry had been suffering from pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas that can produce nausea, vomiting, fatigue, high blood pressure and a tenderness of the abdomen, among other symptoms if the disease is acute or chronic.
Curry’s dreams of being the next Ray Leonard, the next big thing, were now long gone and his entire professional career became questionable.
But Donald’s defenders, this scribe included, can’t forget how brilliant he was at his apex. He was about as good as it gets for a short period of time.
His name on the International Boxing Hall of Fame ballot is a tricky one because the boxing hall of fame does not hold its entrants to the same strict standards as, say the baseball hall of fame. There is a need for living recipients to be at the ceremonies every June to make it worthwhile for all the boxing fans that descend on the small town of Canastota for the festivities. The town’s commerce counts on it.
Voters should also be held accountable for some of the inclusions in the hall, the most egregious of which is probably the plaque for WBC president Jose Sulaiman.
There are fighters in the hall that deserve respect but maybe not a plaque. From Ingemar Johansson to Curry’s contemporary Barry McGuigan. Curry has been on the ballot for as long as I can remember. I didn’t vote for him initially, he’s not a first ballot contender, but I have voted for him the last four years.
As a Boston sports fan I’ve often felt Curry was like the underrated Boston Celtic Dennis Johnson. Both may have been held to a higher standard because of who they kept company with during their respective primes and subsequently often get lost in the mix.
Curry fought in the midst of the so-called Fabulous Four – Leonard, Hearns, Hagler and Roberto Duran. People wanted a new Ray Leonard, but Curry simply wasn’t that guy because Leonard was an all-time great, whereas Curry can’t measure up to that lofty standard. Still, the now defunct KO Magazine would vote him the third best welterweight of the eighties, behind only Leonard and Hearns.
His accomplishments deserve reconsideration and his possible enshrinement in the hall deserves the same.
Donald Curry keeps a pretty low profile these days. But if you keep your eyes searching you might see him at the hall of fame in June. Just don’t blink, he’s as shy and retiring as he always was so you could just walk right past him, as I did a few years back until I realized my mistake and extended my hand. And like nearly all fighters, he respects his fans and always has a smile and a handshake at the ready.
Donald Curry retired in 1997 with a record of 34-6 with 25 knockouts.
Matthew Hurley is a full time member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His first book on boxing, Ringside Reflections, can be purchased at Amazon.com and Barnes&Noble.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.