By Patrick Kehoe: Perhaps, only a brush with death could have forced Panama's boxing legend Roberto Duran out of the ring. In October 2001, the 50 year-old Manos de Piedra suffered broken ribs, a collapsed lung and head injuries in an alcohol related car crash while in Argentina. The fighter named the Boxer of the Decade for the 1970s, who turned pro in 1967 and won his first of four world titles at lightweight on June 26, 1972 with a 13 round savaging of Scotland's savvy Ken Buchanan, finally admitted he could not box anymore. Even as this heavyhearted admission to the inevitable echoed out, those who have long followed him remember another Duran statement of truth. "I live to box!"
As far back as 1980 - training for his first encounter with then WBC welterweight champion Ray Leonard - Cholo referred to himself as a living legend - and he was right. His ring journey from menacing championship stalker, to defrocked bully, to lackadaisical cartoon, to redeemed hero, to aging showman, to one-person burlesque sideshow and then finally to youthful spirit sums up the panoply of boxing's incarnations.
"I really love boxing. You have to be in love with the sport to achieve what I have achieved."
Yet Duran remains above the mitigation of his final decade in boxing, beyond any easy summary judgement based on him having lost roughly once ever 7 fights to the likes of Kirkland Laing, Robbie Sims or even Vinny "The Paz" Pazienza. Why? Because we might recall 65 fights into his career tha his average fight only lasted about 5 and a half rounds or that he was 71-1 (55) after defeating Sugar Ray Leonard at age 30. Though statistics generally fail to capture the essence of the man or the fighter, let alone the champion.
Let us acknowledge that after 120 mercurial fights, 104-16 (69), and countless exhibitions his forced retirement marks the end of an era. True, boxing still has some centurions in Julio Cesar Chavez and Jorge Castro, to name two, but Duran's 34 year ring career dwarfs all other current pretensions to iron-man longevity. With deference to Benny Leonard, he was peerless at lightweight, having defended his title 12 times, the first 10 via knockout over a period of 5 years and 7 months as champion. If ever a fighter fought to the creed of the macho ring hunter, brining pain and vengeance with rapier thrusts of power hitting volleys and suffocating, in your face brawling, it was Roberto Duran.
Never did he neglect to attack the body. Firing power shots from all angles, he could take you out cold in round one or wear out even the most resilient foe over the distance. In his best years, his combination of physical presence, deft defensive quickness and inside strength prove a perfect pedestal for his thrusting right hand and left hook to the body. "He was the king of macho!" promoter Mike Acri once said of Duran. Indeed!
"When I first stepped in the ring with Roberto, I felt a numbness," fellow ring great and rival Ray Leonard once admitted. "I was in a state of awe."
"The guys a real cutie on defense," Hall of Fame trainer Angelo Dundee said in 1979. "Fighters think he's right there to be hit, then he gets past you and he's dialed in on you."
How his menace did swagger through the lightweights and on into the welterweights. Over time, his warrior's spirit survived a flu depleted first career loss on November 17, 1972 to lightweight rival Esteban DeJesus of Puerto Rico, the No Mas implosion against Leonard, November 1980, career indifference throughout the 1980s and beyond. "Other fighters say: "I was," "I did!" "I say, 'I am Duran!'"
The snarling grin slicked black hair, coal coloured eyes blazing, with below a furnace of raging hunger to destroy the man in front of him is pure Duran. The former street musician and thug was loved and mocked by fans, his stock soaring and plummeting as he won only to lose only to win again and yet he was always held in a form of ritual awe. He told America he wasn't interested to learn their language fluently and they loved him anyway. Fans were enthralled by the crash and burn glory of his egomania, devouring domestic US gods was all right, for he was beyond national borders. Duran was primal theatre, winning and losing, in the ring or out of it. By the time he became a ceremonial "fighter" c.1990, people came to his fights as some souls venture to shrines.
Hitting the speed bag with his head, walking his pet lion, doing magic tricks for kids, not paying his tax bills, punching an opponents irate wife, playing the bongos in his hotel room, swimming miles of ocean and surviving a small plane crash, the man was an original. The poverty of his street brawling boyhood was honed into a professional artillery by his mentoring cornermen - legends both - Benny Leonard's own Ray Arcel and the cigar chewing Freddie Brown, aided faithfully by assistant trainer Nestor Quinones. Yet even this holy trinity could not always contain the life force known as Duran. His carnality was his character and his ruination more than anyone could count. Few fighters ever partied and fought their way to the Hall of Fame as surely as Duran did. If Ali popularized weight crashing to make weight targets Duran mastered the debilitating art form. At 135 he blew up to 160, at 154 he blew up to 190! All on his 5'7" frame, leading Michael Katz to speculate that had he trained like Julio Cesar Chavez he might have been immortal.
As he ate, so did he spend. One accounting reported that in 1985 - for example - after raking in some 7.5 million between Hearns and Hagler he spent $625,000 for a house and nearly $400,000 on antiques to fill it up, all whilst supporting a cast and crew of 10 merry men and purchasing 8 Mercedes to boot! Excess was his game and fame, always.
After crushing long time rival Esteban DeJesus, Duran gave up his lightweight crown February 1, 1979 and never looked back to the best years of his career. Duran's encounters with Palomino, Leonard, Benitez, Cuevas, Moore, Hearns, Hagler, Barkley became the filament of the Reagan-Thatcher decade. Only Hearns was able to obliterate Duran, doing so in just 4:07 of action June 15, 1984 at Caesars Palace before a shock crowd. As the No Mas humiliation had forced him out of Panama to Miami, so the Hearns defeat sent him toward a final restitution of his own image of "Roberto Duran" as a champion. When he at last got back in a ring to face a champion he took Iran Barkley to school to win an improbable belt at middleweight. At 38, when most top fighters are announcing or planning illusory comebacks, Duran was for a final time a belt holder.
If toppling Leonard in Montreal was the nexus of his wins, and the rematch his career self inflicted disaster, his birthday bashing of Davey Moore June 16, 1983 in front of 20,000 chanting fans was his masterpiece of vindication, with the Barkley annexation at the end of the 1980s his life after ring-death statement. He'd proved he was the stuff of Greek tragedy, with a knife twist of Martin Scorsese.
The man-child that Carlos Eleta had weaned and divorced, that Don King had promoted and released, that Teddy Brenner and Bob Arum repackaged in 1982, that Luis Hernandez disinformed us about, was an archetypal survivor more than a simple conqueror.
He once stated that he'd been in about a 1,000 street fights by the age of 15.
The violent young bodies hammering themselves for the bloodlust of adults who gambled and stared. "The toughest fight I ever had lasted over and hour no resting and it was for a $1.50; so who is DeJesus or Palomino or Leonard to me?"
Grit in his veins, Duran never knew his father until he'd won the lightweight world crown. His wrath is also legendary. After his March 1975 torturing of the skilled Ray Lampkin he told the world, "If I had been in better shape he wouldn't be in the hospital. He would be in the morgue." Even as business and routine replaced ego fueled performance excellence, Duran could summon enough to last 15 rounds with a prime Marvin Hagler. His camps T-shirts read only: Duran is Duran! And 15 rounds with Hagler added to the antidote for the No Mas meltdown, putting it out of public currency. Losing rounds 14 and 15 on all 3 cards he lost 2 judges cards by one point and the third by 2 points! But the legend of his adrenaline rushes for days after fights, was already a thing of the past by the mid-1980s. So was savaging sparring partners, though he still would give them the last 20 bucks in his pocket.
For so long now he's been the fat former world-beater trying to make an honest buck. It's been hard to imagine him gaunt, selling thickets for firewood, stealing coconuts for his family, singing on the corner in Guarare, Panama and Panama City's slum of Chorrillo. Occasionally, his ring genius would be replayed on TV as in his third fight with DeJesus, Jan. 21/1978. An eerie and eloquent form of controlled aggression resulting in a thirteenth round knockout. Sometimes his first real welterweight firefight on June 22,1979 with Carlos Palomino - UD 10 - flickers past. More often it's the sacrificial figure of Davey Moore on June 16, 1983 slumping before the 76-4 Duran already celebrating his birthday, with Madison Square Gardens almost in a state of collective madness. CBS analyst Sugar Ray Leonard came into the ring to raise Duran's hand in triumph. Duran was back, again; he lives and reigns!
But of course he could never have left it all end there and then. Duran was never going to be about perfect and neat and sparkling and untouched. He had to go on and on and that's partly why we loved his unyielding defiance, love the bitter sweetness of his impetuous cool. Duran is Duran and we don't have to pretend he's still with us.
Contributing Editor Patrick Kehoe can be reached at pkehoemailto:pkehoesprint.ca