Almost 30 years ago, Fort Worth’s Donald Curry stormed boxing’s center stage, unifying the welterweight title with punches as subtle as an incoming hand grenade, which, for a brief moment, closed Milton McCrory’s eyes while permanently opening up those of the many watching on HBO.
A ferocious left hook in the first round and a stiff right thrown with pinpoint precision finished off McCrory only a few brief moments into the second.
Curry raised his arms in triumph, his arrival manifested as the first undisputed world champion in his class since Sugar Ray Leonard relinquished the title.
Even a moony Curry that night of Dec. 6, 1985, said, bring on Marvin Hagler.
Proclamations from boxing’s ruling class of wise men and women came pouring in.
Curry was selected fighter of the year by several publications. His finish of McCrory was rated knockout of the year. He was, many believed, the second coming of Leonard. Others pronounced The Lone Star Cobra as “pound for pound” the best boxer in the world.
“Donald Curry is on the precipice of greatness,” said referee Mills Lane the night of the McCrory fight. “When history tells the story of him, he may go down as one of the greatest.”
Curry is indeed beyond compare among Fort Worth’s stable of elite boxers who have stepped into the ring in the more than 80 years since boxing was again made legal in Texas.
In this city, the Paschal High School graduate is legendary. To those who knew him, he was a freakish talent possessing all the tools of the sweet science, a gift given to him by God and God alone.
“You could throw a handful of pebbles at him and not hit him, he was that quick,” said Phil Sawyer, who boxed with him when both were in high school.
He is, simply put, The Greatest in Cowtown.
Long before there was Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquaio, who meet in next Saturday’s much-hyped welterweight world championship unification battle, there was Curry.
Today, Curry, 53, lives in Fort Worth with family. He speaks more slowly and deliberately, but there’s still a sparkle in his eye, enhanced likely because his mind is at peace with how it all worked out.
The fortune he earned in 40 professional bouts, including 14 for titles, from 1980-91 and two more in comeback attempts in the late 1990s — somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million — is gone, the last of it winning his greatest struggle, successfully fighting a federal drug conspiracy charge in the mid-1990s.
“He was in the conversation” of best in the world at the time, said Teddy Atlas, an ESPN boxing analyst. “Whether that’s a group of five or six, he was in there.
“Curry was a good, technical fighter. He had a good skill set, good physicality, good hand speed and power. He could engage you, set up from the outside. He was very versatile.”
Curry’s boxing career was a success, but Lane’s prophecy proved short-sighted. For a variety of reasons, history does not recognize Curry as one of the greatest of even his own era.
First, Curry, one of this country’s best amateur boxers ever, would have almost certainly won the gold medal at the Moscow Olympics in 1980 had international politics not intervened and led to the U.S. boycott. He had already beaten the top contenders in his weight class.
But instead of the publicity and endorsements that come with such an achievement, Curry was left out.
Secondly, after he won his titles, he struggled to maintain his weight as a welterweight and never could find a comfortable class to fight in, even after winning another belt in the junior middleweight division.
Lastly, his management team became a distraction, and he said he finally tired of the business of the sport and his desire withered under the strain.
The center stage also never fit his personality, said Curry, the youngest of three boxing brothers, Graylin and step-brother Bruce, seven years older than Donald and a world champion in his own right.
Many remember Curry as quiet and reserved, almost shy.
“I got a taste of the limelight and that’s not really who I am,” said Curry. “I’m sort of a low-key guy who likes to stay in the background and do my work. That’s who I am.
“I learned quite a bit about myself and other people. It worked for me, but it really didn’t.”
Even through the hardships that followed — he also ran afoul of the law in back child support — Curry cherishes the memories of the glory of his time, and he has new dreams.
He wants back in the sport as a coach and trainer of young pro fighters.
Curry is asking for a chance and if someone gives it to him he’ll have plenty of experience and knowledge to impart, there’s no doubt about that. He has seen it all on just about every continent.
“I needed a break from the game,” Curry said. “Why wouldn’t I want to stay in boxing?
“I’ve been pretty successful. I really feel like I can be a contributor. I’m good at what I do and can be an asset to the game.”
A champ’s confidence
A debate emerged some years ago about whether Curry merited inclusion in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
No, the naysayers contend, because his prime was too short. Yes, his supporters assert: Though his professional shelf life was short, there is no debating his ability as a boxer.
And his amateur career was second to no one.
Curry’s preparation for becoming a world champion — which he first accomplished with a unanimous decision over Jun-Suk Hwang for the WBA world welterweight crown at the Fort Worth Convention Center in 1983 — included 404 amateur bouts.
His trainer, Paul Reyes, said Curry was 400-4 in those bouts. (That’s a record that is widely accepted as accurate.) In two of those losses, he won in rematches, including a second time against 147-pound Golden Gloves national champion Ronnie Shields, who was seven years older than Curry. Curry lost the first bout in a decision in the Golden Gloves state tournament at Will Rogers in 1979 in a fight some longtime observers recall as the best ever in the Gloves tournament.
Curry’s camp believed they won that fight, but that Shields’ status as national champion gave him an edge among the judges.
“That was the only time I saw Donald cry, that Shields fight,” said Reyes, Curry’s trainer from the age of 7 to the end of his career.
That summer at the Amateur Athletic Union national tournament (now the Junior Olympics), Curry again ran into Shields. And this time he won.
“I’m not a big-time gambler, but I went up to [Shields’ trainer],” Reyes said, “and I said ‘I bet you $100 we beat you this time.’
“He wouldn’t take it.”
Curry, the youngest competitor, won the AAU title that year, one of five national titles in his career, including the 1980 Olympic Trials. Curry defeated Davey Moore to win a berth to Moscow.
Reyes recalls the beating Curry took against older and more experienced boxers at the AAU tournament.
“He was just a kid and he was fighting against men in the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines,” said Reyes, who added that he first recognized Curry’s true potential at about 12 years old. “I said, ‘Donald, you don’t need to do this.’
“He said, ‘Paul, I’m going to win it.’ That told me a lot about Donald. I knew he had the heart. He was something special. It was his first year against the big boys.”
As the Soviets poured troops onto the Afghan border, Curry and Reyes turned their attention to the 1980 Golden Gloves — the only national title he hadn’t won and then finally did that May — and the Olympic Trials and, ultimately, Moscow.
President Carter’s order to boycott the Moscow Games was formally affirmed by the U.S. Olympic Committee’s House of Delegates. Whether or not the decision harmed the Soviet Games is hard to tell, but it definitely hurt the U.S. Olympians, particularly people such as Curry, who wouldn’t have another chance at the Olympics or the boost it gave to emerging professional athletes.
Especially in terms of endorsement opportunities, an Olympic gold medal had become by that time an early nest egg and went a long way in marketing professional fights.
If Curry has a regret about the boycott, it’s those missed opportunities.
“I made the team; there was nothing else I could do,” Curry said. “So, I had to move on.”
Said Reyes, who was more terse: “That shouldn’t happen. Politics shouldn’t be involved in the Olympics. There’s no doubt in my mind Donald would’ve won the gold medal.”
If the Olympics turned out not to be a life-changing event for Curry, a decision in his hands turned out to be.
Curry was asked to join the U.S. team of amateur boxers for an international dual meet in Poland in March 1980.
Curry asked Reyes to decline the invitation so that he could concentrate on the Golden Gloves, the avenue he planned to take for a berth in the U.S. Olympic Trials. The Polisher airliner the team took from New York crashed about a half-mile from Warsaw’s Okecie Airport.
Among the 77 killed were 14 boxers and eight coaches, trainers and staff members.
“I don’t like to think about that,” Curry said. “That was a horrible experience for me … a hard time in my life emotionally.”
Curry moved on from the heartache of the plane crash and the Olympic disappointment.
He turned pro and chose another mentor, David Gorman, to manage his career and Reyes to be his trainer.
Curry said he signed with Gorman because he was most comfortable with him.
Comfort was significant because Curry was jumping into the uncharted waters of professional boxing. He had had a taste watching his brother Bruce in the pro ranks, but “I had no expectation of what it’d be like to be a professional.”
The comparisons to Leonard that shadowed Curry intensified after he knocked out McCrory to unify the welterweight. That victory, in which Curry was paid $750,000, promised even better riches in the future, though nothing like a fight with a guy such as … Leonard himself, which promised a payday in the multimillions.
Leonard had retired initially because of an eye injury.
Rumors swirled, but a fight never transpired. Reyes said the Curry camp twice offered Leonard a fight, only to be turned down twice.
“I think Donald would’ve beaten him,” Reyes said.
“Truly, in my heart, I just never thought that fight would happen,” said Curry, whose brother lost to Leonard in the 1976 Olympic Trials.
“Ray had a lot of respect for me as a fighter. Ray was a smart fighter. That would have been a mental fight.”
Instead of a Leonard fight, Curry’s handlers then envisioned their boxer moving up to junior middleweight and then the middleweight division for a shot at Marvin Hagler. That was a move Leonard, according to the Curry camp, advised Curry against making.
Curry’s advisers, who by now included Gorman and Akbar Muhammad, alleged in a federal lawsuit that Leonard conspired with this attorney and lied about his comeback plans so as to assure that Curry was not in the way of a Leonard-Hagler fight. Leonard defeated Hagler in April 1987.
It turned out to be a moot point.
Curry lost his welterweight titles in a stunning upset to Lloyd Honeyghan in Atlantic City, N.J., in September 1986. Curry, struggling to make weight, lost 10 pounds in the days preceding the bout.
“Anybody would’ve have beaten him in that fight,” Reyes said. “He was weak.”
Reyes said he had urged Curry to move up in class, but “I don’t think he wanted to give up his titles, but he did anyway. He lost it to a nobody. Honeyghan wasn’t in Donald’s class.”
Curry eventually did move up, winning a junior middleweight (USBA super welterweight) title with a victory over Tony Montgomery. He defended it against Carlos Santos before being knocked out by Mike McCallum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in a fight for the WBA belt.
A fight against Michael Nunn for the IBF middleweight crown in Paris ended in a knockout loss in the 10th round.
“I’m not going to say that was a mistake, but it could’ve been,” Curry said. “I’m not a middleweight. I should have stayed.”
The end game
Some believe Curry’s decline started when he moved Gorman out and Muhammad in as his manager. It was a move intended to enhance his earnings opportunities.
Gorman, who had been a friend for years, had been in construction before becoming Curry’s manager and earning reportedly a 28 percent share of Curry’s purses.
Muhammad was a vice president of Bob Arum’s boxing behemoth, Top Rank Inc.
“A fighter reaches a point,” Curry told a reporter at the time, “where he thinks of putting away money. I want to restructure my contract so I get to keep 80 percent of what I earn.”
Curry offered to keep Gorman on as an adviser at a significantly lower price.
Curry and his trainer, Reyes, disagree over whether the controversy hurt the boxer, though Curry acknowledged it was a difficult period, which coincided with the Honeyghan fight.
“Akbar, I did not know the guy when he came in,” Reyes said. “I told Gorman, ‘you better watch him because he’s going to move you out of the way.’ He was up to no good. ”
Though Reyes said he understood why Curry made the change, he wished that he hadn’t.
“David always did what was best for Donald. Akbar just wanted to make money off of Donald.”
Reyes said Muhammad “interfered too much” in the relationship between trainer and boxer.
Muhammad “wouldn’t let me do what I wanted to do,” Reyes said. “To me, that was Donald’s downfall. He quit listening to me and more to Akbar.”
After the Nunn fight in which he lost, Curry, a couple of months shy of his 31st birthday, faced Terry Norris for the WBC world super welterweight title in Palm Springs, Calif. A battered Curry succumbed in the eighth round.
That was it.
Curry insisted that the change did not alter the course of his career in the ring, though he admitted that he was left a bit broken by the business of boxing.
“I guess I lost a lot of my faith in the sport, just the people in the business.”
It all affected his desire, he said, adding that he had lost confidence in being able to fight 12 rounds.
“I was tiring by the 10th round. I was exhausted.”
“If you’re a fighter and you don’t’ have a passion for it anymore, it’s time to exit,” Atlas said. “It’s understandable, everything runs its course, especially when you put a lot into it, and he did. It’s a natural process.”
Today, Curry has no regrets. If someone wants to put him in the Hall of Fame, he’d be happy.
And for the record, he believes he belongs, but “I can’t put myself in the Hall of Fame.”
Curry can’t imagine his life without boxing and the experiences the sport gave him.
That’s why he wants back in.
Boxing “was the best thing to happen to me,” Curry said. “It made me who I am today. It was the best. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”