Graham Houston’s fight flashback: A look at boxing in June 1994

IBHOF inductee Graham Houston looks back at the vibrant fight scene in June 1994 with memories of Marco Antonio Barrera, Arturo Gatti, Wayne McCullough, Vinny Pazienza and a veteran Roberto Duran.

Fight fans of a certain age — and purists of all ages — no doubt lamented last weekend’s exhibition between Floyd Mayweather and Logan Paul. Back in the 1990s, You Tube would have seemed like something out of science fiction, so the term “social media sensation” wasn’t around. The idea of a husky novice and a 44-year-old ex-champion making millions for an eight-round no-decision bout would, back then, have seemed an impossible concept. 

This is 2021. Things are different now.

But what were the fans watching, say 27 years ago, in this same month of June, in the year 1994? Let’s get out our loose-leaf folder of fight reports for a trip back in time.

Highlight of the month for me was being ringside at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on June 25 to see Vinny Pazienza get off the canvas to win a unanimous 12-round decision over a 43-year-old Roberto Duran. The bout was for the vacant IBC 168lbs title. (The IBC was one of the sanctioning bodies that didn’t stay the course.)

Pazienza entered the ring wearing a native American headband with fake warpaint. I’m not sure that sort of entrance would fly today (cultural appropriation?) but Vinny just wanted to emphasise his warrior spirit, which he underlined by shaking the ropes and punching himself in the head as part of a psyching-up process. I noted that Vinny received a “roaring ovation”.

Duran, I noted, looked “lean-faced and mean” as he shadow-boxed to a salsa beat. Roberto sneered at Paz’s over-the-top entrance.

It was a good fight. Duran did damage with solid right hands. Pazienza suffered a cut over the right eye, his nose streamed blood and he had a cut lip. But Pazienza, 12 years Duran’s junior, was fast and flashy and he simply outhustled and out-volumed Duran in most of the rounds.

The fifth was actually quite a memorable round. Duran dropped Pazienza with a right hand but Vinny dominated the round before and after the knockdown. New York writers at ringside had Duran winning but I agreed with the judges, who had Pazienza ahead, 117-113 from Chuck Giampa and 117-112 from Dave Moretti and Jerry Roth.

“I always wanted to win a fight after getting knocked down,” Pazienza told the post-fight press conference. You had to love Vinny Paz.

As for the rest of the month, there were lowlights and highlights. Stars emerged. There was an unusual disqualification. Looking back, it was quite a month (as were they all, come to that).

The late Cedric Kushner was promoting a series of televised fights under the “Heavyweight Explosion” banner. There wasn’t much of an explosion in Cedric’s main event on an outdoor show on the grounds of the Hilton casino hotel in Reno, Nevada, when unbeaten Larry Donald knocked out a pudgy fellow from Argentina (but based in Brooklyn) named Juan Antonio Diaz. “Virtually an exhibition,” I wrote in my notes. 

A left hook counter dropped Diaz in the sixth. He got to a sitting position but seemed to allow himself to be counted out. I couldn’t blame him if he’d had enough. Diaz’ right eye was swollen and he was out of his depth. Donald showed an excellent left jab. “Almost Larry Holmes-like,” I noted.

On June 7, the USA Network’s weekly show came from South Padre Island in Texas, where Orlando Canizales, of Laredo in the Lone Star State, made the 15th defence of his IBF bantamweight title by knocking out Filipino southpaw Roland Bohol in the fifth round. Bohol fought gamely but a left uppercut had him in trouble in the fifth and a series of punches dropped him. Bohol got up but fell into the arms of referee Laurence Cole and the fight was waved off.

Belfast’s undefeated Wayne McCullough boxed in a WBC bantamweight title eliminator against tough Mexican veteran Victor Rabanales at the Trump Taj Mahal casino hotel in Atlantic City on June 17. McCullough won a unanimous 12-round decision. Rich Marotta (one of the best) was doing ringside commentary along with Barry McGuigan for America’s long-gone Prime Network.

Known for hustling, bustling, workrate and pressure, McCullough showed something different as he used what I called a “boxing and moving” style in the last three rounds. What do I mean by “boxing and moving”? Basically, getting off punches and not standing around for the receipt.

I described this as “by far McCullough’s toughest fight”. Rabanales was strong to the body but had a point deducted for a low blow. He looked the stronger man and he was able to catch McCullough with long, looping punches.

The ninth round was a rough one for McCullough. Rabanales really shook him with a right hand. McCullough lost the round on all three judges’ cards. But the Olympic silver medallist showed ring intelligence to change his tactics in the last three rounds, outboxing the oncoming Rabanales. (I described McCullough’s skilful boxing in the later rounds as “almost Walter McGowan-like”). And all through the bout McCullough had rallied every time Rabanales seemed to be coming on.

“This is a very, very close fight,” Barry McGuigan noted at the end of 12 hard-fought rounds but the Canadian and US judges had it clear for McCullough, 116-110 and 117-110, while a judge from Austria had it much closer at 115-113, more of less how McGuigan saw it.

Heavyweights were in action before a sparse crowd at the Grand Olympic Auditorium, Los Angeles, on June 24, and for the first and only time that I can remember seeing, a boxer was disqualified for continually losing his gum shield. The guilty party was Smokin’ Bert Cooper. He just couldn’t seem to keep his mouthpiece in place in his scheduled 10-rounder against Jeremy Williams. Referee Robert Byrd decided enough was enough in the seventh round and disqualified Cooper when his gum shield dropped to the canvas for the fifth time in the contest.

Cooper had a point deducted in the fourth round and he was trailing on all three judges’ cards, two of the judges giving him just one of the completed six rounds. Williams was a small heavyweight. He weighed only 207 ½ lbs for the fight with Cooper. Williams felt his speed would be an advantage against the big boys, but although he put together nine wins in a row after beating Cooper he was no match for Henry Akinwande in a WBO title bid in 1996.

Marco Antonio Barrera was another who was in action in June 1994. I looked forward to seeing Barrera on a show televised on Prime Network from the Great Western Forum, Inglewood, California, on June 24. Just 20 years old, the fresh-faced Barrera had already compiled a 30-0 (20 KOs) record and was clearly destined for great things. 

Weighing in at 121lbs, Barrera knocked out fellow-Mexican Miguel Espinoza in the sixth of a scheduled 10-rounder. Espinoza gave it a good try and gamely took the fight to Barrera in the sixth, only to be dropped face-down by a right hand. He was counted out as he struggled to rise. It was a perfect one-punch finish.

The month closed out with a show on the USA Network from Meadowlands, New Jersey on June 28 that saw an up-and-coming Arturo Gatti blast out a fighter from Alabama named Pete Taliaferro in the first round to win the USBA 130lbs title. Taliaferro was the defending champion and he had a respectable record (25-2, 18 KOs) but Gatti hit too hard for him. Taliaferro was down three times and simply overpowered.

It was something of a confused finish. Referee Jimmy Condon seemed to direct Gatti towards a neutral corner after the third knockdown but Arturo assumed the fight was over and jumped onto the ropes with arms thrust skyward. Condon then waved the finish, officially at the three-minute mark of the opening round. It was Gatti’s 18th bout and his 11th one-round win. “Gatti can bang,” I noted at the time. He sure could.

Main image: Pazienza vs Duran I, Boxrec.