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Freeman “The Natural” Barr was born in the Bahamas on October 12, 1973. He is one of fourteen children, six brothers and seven sisters. All but two still live in the Bahamas. Freeman left his homeland, after a short but spectacular amateur career, to pursue his ambition of becoming a world champion. He moved to Florida in early 1994 and signed with Steve Canton, of the SJC Professional Boxing Team of Fort Myers, Florida.
As an amateur, Freeman was a two-time national champion at 147 lbs. He was also the All-Caribbean Title holder. He competed in the 1992 Olympic Trials for the Caribbean Zone, losing a controversial decision to a Venezuelan who was unable to advance due to injuries and cuts he suffered in that bout. He accomplished all this in an amateur career which only consisted of nine total bouts! After his heartbreaking loss in the Olympic Trials, he decided to turn pro. He was nineteen at the time. His first three fights were in the Bahamas, all scheduled six rounders, before he moved to Florida.
After training in Florida, Freeman went back to the Bahamas for his fourth professional fight, a successful six round decision over journeyman Glen Major. He has been fighting in Florida ever since, capturing the Florida State Middleweight Title with an impressive win over tough southpaw Tony Brooks, in September of 1996.
It was in this bout that Freeman showed his character, sustaining an injured right thumb in round two, a bad cut on his left eye lid from a head butt in round four (requiring fourteen stitches), liniment in his eye in round five, temporarily blinding him, and becoming dead tired in rounds seven and eight, before catching a second wind to finish strong. (He had never fought beyond six rounds prior to this bout). In spite of these adversities, he won eleven of twelve rounds on all three of the judges’ scorecards.
He was beginning to catch the eye of many knowledgeable boxing people who all predicted big things for him, not only for his ability, but because of his dedication, attitude and work ethic. He had been included, by the respected Don Carnahan, in “Boxing’s Top Prospects,” as listed by the International Brotherhood of Prizefighters. Hank Kaplan, who has seen every one of Freeman’s U.S. fights, and has watched him train and spar in the gym, feels he has the tools to go to the top. Jose Torres and Emanuel Steward were both extremely excited about his prospects, after they saw him perform. Jesse Reid, trainer of seven world champions, after watching Freeman spar with Hector Camacho for fifteen rounds (over three days), exlaimed, “He’s one helluva prospect.”
After defeating Tony Brooks, Freeman Barr appeared in the NABO ratings and was offered a title shot against champion Rito Ruvalcaba, of Mexico. Freeman wanted to fight so badly he hid his sickness from everyone just prior to the fight. He had disappeared for two days before showing up for the weigh-in. It wasn’t found out unil afterwards, but he had collapsed in bed with a 103 degree temperature. Despite his weakened condition, Freeman won five of the first seven rounds before his gas tank ran completely dry and he was trapped against the ropes in round eight by Ruvalcaba, with the referee stopping the fight.
He rebounded from this loss with an impressive performance against Andres Arellano, stopping him after the tenth round (unable to answer the bell for round eleven), to win the IBC Americas Middleweight Championship. He successfully defended his title on May 23, 1997 against Roosevelt Booth (12-6-1), with a sixth round TKO. He next defeated Johnny McClendon via unanimous decision on August 9, 1997 and followed that with a victory to capture the IBO Middleweight Championship of the world by winning a unanimous decision over tough “Downtown” Jerry Brown. He had become only the second Bahamian ever (Elisha Obed was the first) to be a world champion. His title winning effort was in Nassau, Bahamas, on September 20, 1997.
On January 31, 1998, Barr successfully defended his IBO world title as he TKO’d former WBF world junior middleweight champion Tommy Small, in round seven. Barr dropped Small in round one with a short right hand and completely dominated the bout until its conclusion. It was the first pay-per-view live boxing event ever televised in the Bahamas.
Freeman captured the NABO middleweight title on June 2, 1998, by defeating Lee Fortune. Fortune was the former WBC Intercontinental champion. Freeman scored a knockdown in round eight with a body shot, and pitched a shutout on the scorecards after twelve rounds. He successfully defended this title on September 15, 1998 by stopping Scotty “The Body” Smith who was unable to answer the bell for round eight. Barr displayed a great jab and a viscious body attack.
After an unsuccessfull attempt at winning the WBO World Title against Bert Schenck, Barr was out of action for one full year. He had seven months of serious eye infections, caused by a substance that got into his eyes during that fight. He still trained regularly, and after a few fights fell out, he was offered an opportunity to fight for the NABO 168 lbs. title. Despite no tuneups, moving up in weight, and injuring his hand in the first and third rounds, he captured this title with a unanimous decision of 120-107 on all score cards.
After six months of rehabilitation on his hand, Freeman had a mandatory defense of his NABO Super Middleweight title against undefeated, (16-0)Ricky Ramirez. The bout took place in Punta Gorda, Florida, on November 21, 2000. Freeman was very impressive, destroying Ramirez in round three, after dropping him for an eight count in the second round. Next,he took on the hard punching Roni Martinez, 19-3, with 15 K.O.’s. Once again, Freeman was very impressive, ending matters in 35 seconds of round 4, in a bout televised by Direct TV. Unsuccessfull in landing his “mandatory” title shot at Champion Joe Calzaghe, Freeman stopped Michael Coker in the sixth round on the pay-per-view undercard of Christy Martin vs. Mia St. John, December 6, 2002, at the Pontiac Silverdome, in Michigan. He followed with an impressive sixth round tko of Danny Thornton on an HBO Latino Oscar De La Hoya promotion at the Level Nightclub, in Miami, on March 6, 2003. Freeman Barr was formally ranked as the #1 super middleweight in the WBO world rankings for twenty five months, and was top ten ranked in the other organizations as well. He is now campaigning as a light heavy weight. Currently, his record is 29-4 with 15 K.O.’s. Freeman is a slick boxing, hard punching fighter, with a great chin. He is thirty six years old, is managed and trained by Steve Canton.
One month after winning the IBO title, Barr, who had relocated to Naples, Fla. four years earlier, and his trainer-manager, Steven J. Canton of SJC Professional Boxing, Inc., were invited back to the islands for a celebration. “We didn”t expect much,” says Canton. “We actually went back reluctantly, because we were giving up a few days of training, and he was giving up a few days from his job.
“Well, when we got to the airport, there were actually three marching bands waiting for us. There was a limousine with the prime minister of the islands, and we rode around in a motorcade for two hours….When we’d come to a group of kids on the side of the road, the motorcade would stop, Freeman would get out, he would sign autographs, and they’d take pictures. It was two hours like that, all over the islands.”
Barr, who had only nine amateur bouts, is now 17-1 with seven kayoes since turning professional in 1993. That he comes from a boxing family has not hindered his progress. Three of his cousins–Ernie (The Androsian Tiger) Barr, Sammy (Kid) Barr, and Richard Barr–were all respected pros in the 1970s. “All of my boxing family, they all think highly of me,” says Barr. “They encourage me and want me to continue what I’m doing.”
Not that what he is doing is easy. An electrician’s apprentice by day, Barr does his road work at 4:30 a.m., drives an hour to work, and toils for eight hours under the punishing Florida sun. All this before training at the SJC Boxing Gym in Fort Myers, Fla. with Canton at night. Couple his workload with the fact he has already gone twelve rounds on seven occasions, and one wonders if Barr will be weakened by the draining schedule. Not likely, say Steve Canton and co-trainer Carmen Richards.
“I’ve been around this business for forty years, and he’s the best prospect I’ve seen,” says Canton. “I’ve been around Tommy Hearns when he turned pro; I’ve been around Aaron Pryor as an amateur and pro; but Freeman Barr is the best prospect I’ve ever seen.” “Freeman is developing into a complete fighter, “says Richards. “His capacity and desire to learn are unparalleled.” But perhaps a more objective viewpoint is in order.
“You’d have to say that this kid has a helluva potential,” says boxing historian Hank Kaplan, who has seen Barr from ringside on several occasions. “Right now, the way I feel about it is that he could go with many of the prominent middleweights in the world…”
Following a successful defense against Tommy Small in January, Barr relinquished the IBO throne to face Southern circuit toughie Lee Fortune for the North American Boxing Organization belt–a steppingstone to the more prestigious World Boxing Organization title–in June. Barr beat Fortune handily, winning the NABO title, as well as a possible date with WBO middleweight champion Otis Grant, on scores of 120-107 (twice) and 119-108.
“I’ve been watching Otis Grant,” says Barr. “I know he’s a difficult fighter, being a southpaw, but I’ve sparred with Hector Camacho, and if I can dominate a good southpaw like Camacho, I think I can do well with Otis Grant.”
He has two jobs; wiring the electricity for a new Publix grocery store in North Naples and trying to take back what a mysterious organ-attacking disease took from him six years ago: a world title. Tuesday, two years after doctors cleared him to fight, the 36-year-old Barr will headline a cluster of boxing bouts at “War on the Peace River” at the Charlotte Harbor Events and Conference Center in Punta Gorda.
Barr said he first started to feel strange in 1999. By that time, he already had racked up several boxing championships, including two world titles; the IBO middleweight and IBC middleweight titles. But he constantly was dehydrated, chronically fatigued and would experience unexplainable bouts of shortness of breath. “Sometimes I ask myself how I did it,” Barr says. “A lot of times I couldn’t breathe. But I pushed myself anyway.”
The doctors thought he had allergies, yet even as his health deteriorated, Barr continued to disassemble his opponents with a devastating jab. Nobody could tell he was ill; Barr fought through the symptoms. He became the No. 1 WBO super middleweight world contender, a spot he held for 25 consecutive months.
In 2004, his vision became blurry and he continued to lose strength. Eventually, he found himself unable to swallow and was hospitalized. Doctors diagnosed him with sarcoidosis, a disease in which inflammatory nodules form in the body’s organs. The disease can affect any organ, and symptoms can range from shortness of breath, fatigue and weight loss to a collapsed immune system and even death. Recently, the sarcoidosis gained headlines when comedian Bernie Mac died from complications of the disease.
Under doctor’s orders, Barr left the ring and retreated back to Naples in 2004 to make his living as an electrician. He supported his two boys, now 6 and 12, as he tried to muster a comeback. He also took time to coach the younger fighters at the SJC Boxing Gym in Fort Myers. After two years in and out of the hospital, and countless cycles of medications with debilitating side-effects, Barr was cleared in 2006 to return to boxing. He fought and won two comeback fights in 2006. Then the phones stopped ringing.
Steve Canton, the owner of SJC Boxing and Barr’s trainer and manager for the past 16 years, marvels at how his fighter, who he considers the best talent he’s ever coached, held two world titles with this debilitating disease, beat the disease, made a comeback and then watched his career stall because of politics. By politics, Canton means an inability to book Barr a match for the coveted WBO title as he sat in virtual purgatory as the No. 1 contender for the belt. It was business, Canton says. Why would the big-money promoters give an unknown Bahamian the chance to dethrone their ticket-selling fighters?
Freeman Barr relaxes on Steve Canton’s sofa after a long day at work. Every day, Barr drives from Naples to Fort Myers to train at SJC Boxing Gym on Fowler Street in Fort Myers. He often stops by Canton’s home along the way to check his email and visit with his trainer. “I got him into the world rankings with nine professional fights. That’s faster than any middleweight in the history of boxing,” Canton says. So Canton and Barr waited, and Barr wilted under the weight of sarcoidosis. After he beat the disease, he still wasn’t a big enough name and didn’t offer the financial incentive for the “money men.”
Canton wistfully remembers the shy kid from the Bahamas who wandered into his gym 16 years ago and said: “Make me a world champion.” “When I saw him he was a very strong, stiff straight-ahead puncher,” Canton says. “I told him ‘the way you are it’s going to be a short, exciting career.’” But Canton has a knack for recognizing talent. He has trained 10 world champions, and last year was inducted into the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame. He saw the potential in Barr, and the coach and fighter embarked on a deep friendship and career in-tandem. Now, after 16 years together, Canton considers Barr like family. When Canton was hospitalized in 2007 with pneumonia and a collapsed lung, Barr took over the responsibilities of running the gym. And when Canton’s ex-wife said she would help find Barr new management if Canton didn’t survive, Barr declined. “Freeman stated that if I didn’t make it he was going to retire,” Canton recalls. “He wouldn’t go with anyone else.”
And despite a career on pause, Barr refused to cast blame on anyone for the hand he had been dealt. He says he should have communicated how he was feeling as the disease took a mounting toll. “It was more my fault,” Barr says, adding that he was so fixed on winning the belt that he would compete “under any condition.” “Sometimes you make a bad decision and you have to live with that. I’m grateful I didn’t get hurt,” Barr says. “It’s dangerous to fight when you’re not 100 percent. I know better now.”
Jason Gant, of Bonita Springs, is a 33-year-old former Florida champion from the SJC Boxing team and Barr’s current sparring partner. He says that while Barr is a casualty of boxing politics, he has a good chance to win another title. “There’s no greater good-‘ol-boys club in the planet than top-notch boxing,” Gant says, adding that Barr’s allegiance to his manager, while noble, and resistance to signing with big-name promoters kept him out of the headlines and out of reach of the WBO title shot he deserved. Gant says now, six years later, Barr may be able to fly under the radar and get another title shot. “He might have a better chance at 36,” Gant says. “As far as getting a title shot, his chances are better. As far as winning it, that’s up to him.” Gant says he cherishes his time spent with Barr in the ring. “If I got a black eye, it was a badge of honor,” Gant says. “This was a way to get beat up and still be proud. Not like getting beat up by some drunk in Bonita.”
As Barr prepares for Tuesday’s light heavyweight fight in Punta Gorda against Kansas City’s Dion Stanley (10-3), who also is the great-great-grandson of famed lawman Wyatt Earp, he says he feels better than he has ever felt coming into a fight. “I don’t get nervous,” Barr says. “The only thing I care about is I need to get the ring rust off.” Canton says his team feels no pressure, despite the long hiatus and high expectations. He also says their recent partnership with former NFL player and fight promoter Jeff Brady has him optimistic for Barr’s chances of securing a title bout.
“You do your hard work in the gym. During fight night you reap the rewards of all that hard work,” Canton says. He says he hopes to book Barr for two or three “tune-up fights.” “2011 could be a big year for him. They might gamble and give us the big shot,” Canton says. “And he just might have enough left to upset the champion. If he’s anything like he was before, he’ll take the title.”
Back at the SJC Boxing Gym in Fort Myers, Gant gasps for breath after trading punches with Barr for four rounds. He takes his headgear off and climbs out of the red, white and blue ring that sags under the sweat and heat. “He’s still got it,” Gant says. “Fighters like Freeman are dangerous. They’re still in it because they are hungry.”
After 16 years of driving to the gym in Fort Myers every day after work, watching his diet, the roadwork, the pushups, the sit-ups and a life devoted to throwing punches, Barr is single-minded as he prepares for Tuesday’s fight. “I ain’t never going to give up,” Barr says.
Freeman “The Natural” Barr, of Naples, warms up in the ring with his trainer and manager of 16 years, Steve Canton, of Fort Myers, not pictured, before a public sparring session in the parking lot of John Hall’s Goal Post Grill and Sports Bar in Port Charlotte on Sunday, August 15, 2010. Barr, a two-time middleweight world champion who had his career sidelined in 2004 by a disease that attacked his lungs, is set to fight a light heavyweight bout in the headlining match of “War on the Peace River” at the Charlotte Harbor Event and Conference Center in Punta Gorda this coming Tuesday. Tristan Spinski/Staff
NAPLES — There probably aren’t enough fingers and toes in all the world to count how many times Fort Myers gym owner Steve Canton stepped into a ring as a boxer’s chief second, or cutman, or manager. The list of champions Canton has worked with runs long, from featherweight king Tom “Boom Boom” Johnson to Hall of Famer Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns. But that’s just a fraction of the man’s lifetime bout with the sweet science. When it comes to boxing, Canton has done it all.
Tuesday night’s “War on the Peace River” card featuring Naples light heavyweight Freeman Barr at the Charlotte Harbor Event & Conference Center in Punta Gorda, offers evidence of Canton’s impresario ways. Besides acting as Barr’s manager, trainer and cutman, Canton also served as advisor to matchmaker Lee Anderson and promoter Jeff Brady, a former NFL linebacker, for the six-bout card.
For Barr (28-4, 15 KOs), it will be his first fight since 2006. Sarcoidosis, a disease due to inflammation most frequently found in the lungs, has kept the Bahama-born brawler on the ropes since 2004. In that time, Barr, a former IBO world middleweight champion, has had just three fights, including two knockout victories in 2006.
To face Barr, known as “The Natural,” Canton has brought in Dion Stanley of Kansas City, Mo., purported to be the great- great grandson of gunslinger Wyatt Earp.
“If you think my great-great grandfather made history with the shootout at the OK Corral,” said Stanley (10-3, 7 KOs), “wait ‘til you see my shootout in Punta Gorda with Freeman Barr.”
By day Stanley, 32, is a beer salesman, and Barr, 36, is an electrician. Both would have to live a thousand lifetimes to wear as many hats as the man who will bring them together.
Canton has been involved with the sport, one way or another, for 52 of his 64 years, first lacing up the gloves at the Police Boys Club in Brooklyn. He amassed a 122-3 amateur record, and went undefeated as a pro in 21 fights. It was a pair of brittle hands, his own, that KO’d Canton’s ring career.
Along his journey, Canton served a stint in Las Vegas as a co-host of a popular national boxing radio talk show, and has written articles for various fight publications. By his own account, Canton has either promoted or was a matchmaker for more than 800 fight cards contested throughout the world.
He was a technical adviser for the 1983 film “Tough Enough,” starring Dennis Quaid. In 2009, Canton, who also promoted the first live fight broadcast over the Internet, the first casino boxing in the state of Florida, and the first pay-per-view boxing event in the Caribbean, was inducted into the inaugural class of the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame.
All-time great junior welterweight Aaron Pryor once said Canton was the reason he became a fighter.
Still, even with that background, Canton is focused on two things — Barr’s fight Tuesday night, and finding Barr a fight after that.
“It’s very difficult finding an opponent for someone like Freeman,” Canton said. “World-class fighters and champions don’t want to gamble on losing their position.” If Barr wins, Canton said the plans are to have other fights in October and December, and then look for a major title shot in 2011.But first Barr has to get by Stanley, winner of his last two fights.
“We prepared well,” Canton said. “Freeman’s in good shape mentally and physically. He’ll look to read (Stanley) for the first two rounds and counter what he sees. “We’re looking for Freeman to stop him in four or five rounds.”
He took steroid injections directly into his eyes to stave off blindness. His hospital stays were numerous and, at times, lengthy.
Like this one…
Four days had passed this time before the doctors turned him loose, his sarcoidosis apparently in check once again.
He left the hospital, but instead of turning left, he went right … directly to the gym.
Once there, he demanded a sparring session against every man in the building. It went on for hours. He stopped throwing hands only when he ran out of chins to throw them against.
Florida Boxing Hall of Fame trainer Steven Canton still marvels at that day, when Freeman Barr shrugged off his life-threatening illness and resumed his boxing career.
Fast forward to August 31…
Dion Stanley rolled into Punta Gorda from Dodge City with the ballsy claim that he was a great-great, something-or-other to the legendary Wyatt Earp. He certainly had the look of a tomato can: wide and without definition. But he came armed with knowledge of his opponent, for that knowledge wasn’t hard to come by.
Everyone in the world of boxing knew of Freeman Barr, the man who came within a whisper of winning a major world title only to be felled by sarcoidosis. Few really knew what became of him in the intervening years.
No matter. Stanley had 10 bouts under his belt during the four years since Barr last fought. He came in hungry to make a name for himself against someone who used to be somebody.
And he almost did…
Rewind to a nameless steamy South Florida day in 2007 at the SJC boxing gym.
In a tattered ring stood Barr, stabbing at a sparring partner, picking at weaknesses while honing strengths. Canton kept a close eye on Barr until he saw an elderly man make his way into the building. The man grabbed a seat and watched Barr without uttering a word.
“What year is this?” the man finally asked Canton.
This guy’s got a screw loose, Canton thought to himself before saying, “it’s 2007.”
“That’s not a 2007 fighter,” the man said, pointing to Barr. “That’s a 1950s fighter.”
Turned out the elderly man once boxed as well — in the 1950s, when no boxer was known for one specific thing. That’s the difference between old-school boxers and today’s boxers in a watered-downed sport. Today, there are punchers. There are dancers. There are specialists. They are one dimensional Take away their one tool and they’re beaten.
Back in the day, the boxer who lost the first round came back in the second an entirely different man.
Freeman Barr rose to No. 1 contender status shortly after the turn of the century, shortly before falling ill. In between, offers stopped coming, because no one in their right mind wanted to deal with a boxer who could adapt as smoothly as Barr.
On that day in 2007, Barr was ready to resume his march to the top of the boxing world. Yet three years would pass and it all had to do with his success.
On Nov. 28, 2006, Barr felled Tony Menefee in the sixth round of an eight-round bout. It was his second victory just four months into his original return from sarcoidosis. Canton’s boy was back on track. People in the know said one more bout against a ranked foe would get Barr back in the rankings.
But here’s the problem with boxing. If you’re in the rankings, you want a shot at the champion. The one thing you don’t do is take a fight against someone who could take your place.
A former No. 1 contender with a clean bill of health, fresh off a pair of TKOs on the comeback trail?
Take a seat, Freeman Barr.
And so he did. He went back to his day job as an electrician. He played with his two sons. He sparred in Canton’s gym, occasionally swapping war stories with the old man who hungered for the good ol’ days.
Then, nearly four years later, a former pro football player who loved boxing almost as much as he crusaded against another deadly disease came upon Barr and Canton and hatched a scheme to help everyone.
Fast forward to August 31…
Jeff Brady’s first big boxing promotion involved reviving an old favorite. Brady revived the venerable “War on the Peace River” name and slapped Barr onto the featured spot of a six-bout card. In addition to bringing boxing back to Punta Gorda, Brady hoped to raise money to fight juvenile diabetes, an affliction that has stricken his family.
It also was supposed to be a celebration of Barr’s latest comeback, the first step in his second march to the top of the boxing world.
A scant 40 seconds into the bout and Barr found himself on the wrong side of 800 ringside critics. The Barr chants morphed into Dodge City catcalls. Unable to find sparring partners prior to the bout, Barr was rusty. He was feeling out this mystery plainsman and the crowd was having nothing of his patience, for it appeared akin to cowardice.
For two rounds Barr danced around Stanley, who chased him to every corner of the ring. In the third, everything changed. Barr no longer dodged. He jabbed, then moved. Stanley’s meaty hooks and right hands began missing their target, enraging him so until one point when he missed everything and lost his balance.
Barr could have moved in, but didn’t. He waited for Stanley to right himself, then tapped Stanley’s gloves with his own in a gentlemanly display of old-school boxing etiquette.
Barr kept dancing and jabbing. Stanley kept swinging and missing.
At bout’s end, the judges’ cards went Barr’s way. The crowd booed, for it thought Stanley’s rare connections had been enough.
Barr smiled, for he had used his vast experience and savvy to survive on a night in which he had nothing.
“Being rusty, I couldn’t put it together and finish it,” Barr said. “(Stanley) knows to come after me, with me coming off such a long layoff. I knew I had this fight because he missed a lot of punches and I landed just enough to win.”
Now, look to the future.
Barr knows he’s a long way from championship form … but what happened on August 31 against a pasty tomato can is the reason why Canton has so much hope for his soon-to-be 37-year-old protégé.
“What he realized was he had no energy, no snap and no power,” Canton said. “The thing about Freeman is he’s so versatile that, when nothing’s there physically, he can win a fight with nothing more than heart and experience.
“He could see everything coming, but he couldn’t throw anything. What he did was throw just enough to win the rounds. When everything is going good, you’re supposed to win. It’s when everything goes wrong but you still find a way to win that defines a champion.”
So now, Barr will wait. Hopefully there will be another bout in October. Until then, he will try to regain the strength that made him so formidable a decade ago. He’ll also go about his electrician’s gig, wiring up a new Publix grocery store in north Naples. He’ll play with his two little boys.
And he’ll spend countless hours in Canton’s gym, where the old man who liked boxing the way it used to be will occasionally drop by to reminisce.
He’s a long way from the burning fields of his Bahamian home … but with each passing day, Freeman Barr is moving ever closer to achieving his ultimate dream.