The 29 January, 2014, marks the 20th anniversary of Nicky Piper’s second and best chance of becoming a world champion, a challenge to WBO light-heavyweight champion Leeonzer Barber that – had he won – would have seen him become just the sixth Welshman to have claimed a world crown.
The cerebral Cardiff man was a natural light-heavyweight, but had dropped to super-middleweight as he chased his first shot at a world title. That chance came against the formidable Nigel Benn in December 1992, Piper performing well but fading in the championship rounds and falling to the Dark Destroyer’s onslaught in the 11th.
Now back at light-heavyweight, Piper had been doing body-building training and felt confident that the extra weight allowance would improve both his power and endurance.
What’s more, the Welshman would be fighting on his home turf, the Barber showdown taking place at the now-levelled National Ice Rink in the centre of Cardiff.
But he would again be trying to dethrone a formidable champion, Detroit hard-man Barber having learnt his trade in the city’s Kronk Gym.
Such a warrior had no fear of fighting in the UK, having won the vacant crown against Tom Collins in Leeds in 1991. He had since made three title defences, winning all of them in venues as far-flung as Beijing and Pesaro, Italy.
Both fighters were aged 27, Piper’s 23-fight record showing two defeats and two draws, while Barber’s only setback in 19 fights was a four-round points defeat in his fourth professional fight back in 1989.
Despite the obvious quality of his opponent, though, Piper was in confident mood from the outset. He largely controlled the fight with his left hand and built up a significant points lead, although Barber was always competitive and his ability to land big shots signalled danger.
From the early rounds the champion’s right eye began to show signs of damage. Barber had been suffering problems with that eye for two years and would later be diagnosed with detached retinas.
As the rounds wore on, the right side of the American’s face began to swell grotesquely, a development that must have contributed to Piper’s growing confidence that saw him raise his hand in triumph at the end of the seventh.
Interviewed at ringside at that point, the challenger’s promoter Frank Warren said that his fighter was winning well but that he was concerned that Piper kept dropping his left and getting caught.
Back in the corner, Barber’s seconds looked closely at his swollen face and seemed to be considering a stoppage. They would later admit that they had sent their fighter out for just one last round.
The champion came out for the ninth pawing at his eye, Piper seeming only to have to stay on his feet to claim the title. But as the round approached the halfway point Barber threw the sweetest of left hooks, a shot that travelled just a few inches, angling upwards onto the point of the challenger’s chin.
The raucous arena fell immediately silent as Piper dropped heavily to the floor. He climbed to his feet but was on unsteady legs, incapable of defending himself as Barber finished the fight with an accurate left and right that dropped the Welshman back to the canvas.
“I did lose concentration,” Piper would later admit. “But it was because I was getting tired. I used to have problems with cramp, particularly in my shoulder, and I wish now that I’d taken proper medical advice about it.”
He would recover to win the Commonwealth light-heavyweight belt, but when he got his next chance at world level – against Barber’s conqueror Dariusz Michalczewski in 1997 – he was ready for retirement. Piper admits that he took the fight for money, and he was stopped on his stool after seven one-sided rounds.