ATLANTIC CITY - Daniel Geale unleashed a left hook in the sixth round that thudded against Darren Barker's side late Saturday night at Revel Casino-Hotel.
Barker, a London native, sagged to the canvas in Revel's Ovation Hall, air whooshing from his lungs, pain surging through his midsection, while referee Eddie Cotton started counting.
"To be honest," Barker said, "I couldn't breathe."
One. ... Two. ... Three. ...
Geale (29-2, 15 KOs), a native of Tasmania now living in Australia, retreated to a neutral corner and prepared to celebrate a knockout that would enable him to retain his IBF middleweight championship.
He had just landed a hook to the liver, the most powerful punch in boxing. The blow does not pack the excitement and drama of a straight right to the jaw, but can be much more effective. It virtually paralyzes a fighter, frequently leaving him writhing on the canvas with no chance of recovering in 10 seconds.
"That," promoter Gary Shaw said, "was one vicious liver shot."
Four. ... Five. ... Six. ...
Barker dropped to his knees and forearms, then pitched forward until his forehead rested on the canvas.
He tried to inhale but couldn't. His legs felt like rubber. The pain wasn't going away.
A few more seconds and he would suffer his second defeat in as many fights in Atlantic City. Two years earlier, he incurred an 11th-round knockout to middleweight champion Sergio Martinez at Boardwalk Hall.
"People thought I was mad for coming back here," Barker said. "They were saying, 'Atlantic City is no good for you.' "
Seven. ... Eight. ... Nine. ...
Over in the corner, Geale raised his gloves to his waist and was ready to thrust them over his head while Cotton continued to bark out the count to Barker.
One more second and Geale would keep his title.
Suddenly, the British fans among the crowd of 3,000 began to scream as Barker climbed onto all fours.
Although his face was still contorted in agony, he somehow forced himself to rise just before Cotton reached 10.
"I thought it was over," Geale said. "But I came up one second short. Give Darren credit for being able to take that shot."
There was slightly more than one minute remaining in the round when Barker got up.
Geale charged out of the corner and began firing body shots while forcing Barker into the ropes. One more punch in the same area of Barker's midsection would end the fight.
Barker crouched and lowered his elbows to his waist in an attempt to fend off the blows while keeping his gloves pressed against his chin.
Thirty seconds later, he began to fight back.
Barker spun off the ropes and retreated to the center of the ring. Geale chased him and they began trading hooks, overhand rights and crosses while the fans roared.
"I've been around boxing for a long time and when a fighter takes a liver shot like that, he almost never gets up," Shaw said. "And he surely doesn't get up and finish a round like that. I was shocked."
* * *
The next six rounds provided more thrills.
Just when one fighter seemed ready to seize control of the 12-round bout, the other would rally.
Blood began to seep from Barker's nostrils, then he was cut above his left eye. He had enough bruises on his face that he wore sunglasses afterward, even though it was 1 a.m.
Geale's lower lip was sliced open, and he sported a golf ball-sized welt under his right eye.
"I thought it was a great night for boxing," Shaw said. "These are types of fights boxing needs to keep it in the forefront. It was great for boxing, for New Jersey, for Atlantic City and for Revel. It was just a spectacular performance by both fighters."
At the end of 12 rounds, judges Alan Rubenstein (114-113) and Barbara Perez (116-111) both scored the fight for Barker, while Carlos Ortiz (114-113) favored Geale.
Upon learning that he had won the championship on a split decision, Barker jumped for joy and then dropped to his back and covered his face with his gloves while promoter Eddie Hearn and his corner celebrated in the ring.
Later, Barker kissed the belt and posed for pictures. He dedicated the fight to his late brother Gary, who died in a car accident in 2006 at age 19.
He was thinking of his brother, as well as his daughter, Scarlett, when he was on the ground in the sixth round.
"It seemed like I was down there for a long time," Barker said. "But I wanted this so much. There was no way I wasn't getting up."
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