Kevin Barry has become one of the most well-known sports figures in New Zealand after an action-packed and varied career in boxing.
Barry, the son of a Christchurch trainer of the same name, represented New Zealand in the light-heavyweight division at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane and at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He won a bronze medal in Brisbane and hoped that, benefiting from the experience gained, he would put up a good showing at the Olympics.
At Los Angeles he fought bravely to make his way into the semi-finals, where he ran into the star of the American team, Evander Holyfield.
They had a torrid fight and were both warned by the referee, Gligorije Novicic of Yugoslavia, for fouls, Barry for holding behind the neck, Holyfield for hitting after the referee’s call to “break”. A few seconds before the end of the second round, Holyfield again hit on the break and the unprepared Barry was knocked to the canvas. He rose groggily and the fight was stopped. Then a sensation: Holyfield was disqualified.
Subsequent American team protests were dismissed. The result stood, but Barry was deprived of his chance to fight for the gold. He had been declared a knockout victim and therefore, under amateur boxing regulations, was not able to fight again for 28 days. The gold medal went automatically to Yugoslav Anton Josipovic, the winner of the other semi-final. Barry took the silver and beaten semi-finalists Holyfield and Mustapha Moussa, of Algeria, shared the bronze.
Barry, who’d fought so bravely throughout the Olympics, left Los Angeles with a silver medal, but hardly feeling a hero, having been booed and jeered by the parochial American fans after the Holyfield fight, and again during the medal ceremony.
He had become only the second New Zealand boxer (after 1928 welterweight gold medallist Ted Morgan) to win an Olympic medal.
Afterwards Holyfield turned professional and there was an offer worth several hundred thousand dollars for Barry to fight him.
The Christchurch man declined. It didn’t worry Holyfield – he went on to win several versions of the world heavyweight crown. But Barry often reflected that he should have taken the money when it was on offer. Thinking back to the 1984 Olympics, Barry said he was proud of the way he boxed. “It seems strange, but I always rated myself a medal chance at Los Angeles and could always see myself fighting Holyfield,” he said.
“I’d fought at the King’s Cup tournament in Bangkok and at the world champs in Rome before the Olympics, so I had a firm foundation for Los Angeles. I’d fought a couple of world-ranked Russians and taken them the distance. I’d lost on points, but none of them had tipped me over. I thought I was capable of winning a medal, but when I achieved that, everything that was said focused on the way the semi-final had ended.
“I’m not saying I could have won that Holyfield fight – in fact, I knew I was coming second - but to still be on my feet at the end of three rounds mattered to me. And when the controversy blew up it was about Holyfield hitting me after the break. No-one remembers I had won my three fights leading up to that bout.
“First up I fought a guy from Trinidad called Don Smith and beat him 5-0. That fight was nothing special.
“My next fight was against the African champion, Jonathon Kirisa, of Uganda, a southpaw. He was a real awkward bloke and he gave me quite a hard fight. In fact, that fight was probably harder than my next one, which was the bronze medal bout.
“I fought John-Paul Nanga, of Cameroon, for the bronze and beat him 4-1. Up to that point everything had gone to plan.”
Then came Holyfield and the subsequent furore.
Barry remained close to boxing. He married Olympic gymnast Tanya Moss and the couple settled in Auckland, where Barry became a boxing trainer.
When heavyweight boxer David Tua won a bronze medal at the 1992 Olympic Games, Barry persuaded Tua (and his parents) that the best course of action would be to turn professional immediately.
Tua agreed and under Barry’s guidance, pursued a career in the United States. Barry was his manager from 1992 to 2003 and was so successful that he guided Tua all the way to a shot at the world heavyweight title, against Lennox Lewis in 2000. Though Tua lost easily on points, this was a huge day in the history of New Zealand sport, and for Barry it marked a significant achievement. From 2001 Barry not only managed, but also trained Tua.
The Tua-Barry partnership continued until the pair split after financial disagreements late in 2003. By this time Barry had under his wing several other New Zealand boxers trying to gain a foothold in the American fight scene.
Living in Las Vegas, he continued to make a name for himself in the American boxing scene, managing and training several big-name fighters. In 2013 he also took over the preparation of rising New Zealand heavyweight prospect Joseph Parker.