In the history of boxing, there was never a fighter who combined ring IQ, fearlessness, technical skill and savagery better than the Panamanian legend Roberto Duran. Duran, like the vast majority of great fighters, grew up in impoverished conditions. As an adolescent, he engaged in street fights with grown men on the streets of Panama City for meager change. This led to Duran turning pro after only 32 amateur fights at the tender age of 16. With the guidance of wealthy Panamanian millionaire Carlos Eleta as his manager, Duran’s hunger and savagery inside the ring saw him destroy everyone thrown at him in Panama. Eleta then brought “Manos de Piedra” to the United States and in his 25th fight, Duran destroyed lightweight contender Benny Huertas in only 66 seconds. This fight took place in the hallowed Madison Square Garden and immediately Duran caught the eyes of boxing fans and the media. Around this time, Duran hooked up with two trainers who would refine his skill, Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown. They would bring both discipline and fatherly figures; two huge gaps in the then 20-year old Panamanian dynamo’s life. It would all come to fruition on June 26. 1972, just 10 days after Duran’s 21st birthday when he stopped WBA 135 pound champion Ken Buchanan to become a world champion for the first time.
Fast forward five years later and after successfully defending against two excellent but light hitting fighters in the Dominican Vilomar Fernandez and the Puerto Rican Edwin Viruet in 1977, Duran was increasingly having problems making 135 pounds. He had an extreme bad habit of gaining 50-60 pounds between fights due to excessive eating and partying. Duran decided to fight one more time in an attempt to become the undisputed lightweight champion of the world. That fight occurred in Las Vegas on January 21, 1978 against the WBC champion and the only man to ever defeat him, Esteban Dejesus.
Unlike their first two meetings, Dejesus decided to stand and slug with Duran. There has never been a lightweight fighter in existence who could defeat Duran in a slugfest. Duran battered Dejesus for 12 rounds before Dejesus’s corner threw in the towel after Duran dropped him twice. Just a few months later, Duran vacated both belts, ending the greatest reign in lightweight history. Duran reigned as 135-pound champion for six years and 12 successful defenses and at the age of 27, it was time for him to move up in weight and justify my ranking him the 13th greatest fighter of the last 45 years.
A week before his June 22, 1979 Madison Square Garden fight with former 147-pound world champion Carlos Palomino, Duran appeared with Larry Holmes at a Don King New York City Central Park press conference that was open to the public. My father took me and my five-year-old sister to see Duran and Holmes speak. After the press conference ended, my father tried to get Holmes’ attention. Holmes completely ignored my father as he left the rest of the huge crowd with his entourage. Duran saw Holmes ignore my father and walked over to us. Pop and Duran engaged in a lively five minute conversation in Spanish about boxing. Duran then took a picture with my father’s Polaroid camera with my sister and I and autographed the back of it. It was one of the many mementos I would lose when the tenement we lived in the Bronx burned to the ground 16 months later. To see my father glowing while talking to one of the greatest fighters of all-time is a memory I’ll never forget.
Duran’s performance against Palomino one week later saw Duran using his underrated boxing skills at his highest level. Duran uncharacteristically used movement and pinpoint counterpunching to thoroughly outbox the Mexican slugger to win a decisive 10-round decision. A year later, on June 20, 1980, Duran would challenge the undefeated biggest star in boxing, Sugar Ray Leonard for Leonard’s WBC welterweight title.
There have only been a handful of times that the consensus two best boxers in the world have faced each other. One of the times occurred that evening in Montreal. Heading into his fight against Leonard, Duran had amassed an incredible record of 71 victories with only one defeat. Leonard himself was undefeated in 27 fights. There was incredible bad blood coming into this fight on both sides. Duran felt that Leonard was an overrated pretty boy. Leonard was livid at the fact that Duran made several derogatory comments to both him and his wife during the press tour promoting the fight. Duran was the master of psychological warfare. Through his comments, he baited Leonard into fighting his fight.
My father took me to see this fight at the same Puerto Rico Theater in the South Bronx. As usual, for a closed circuit showing at this venue, over 90 percent of the audience were Hispanic. It goes without saying that the place was almost entirely rooting for Duran. What was more amazing was that the site the actual fight took place in, Montréal, and over 40,000 fans in attendance at Olympic stadium, were predominantly in favor of Duran. Leonard had been the darling of the 1976 Summer Olympics that were held in Montreal. Despite this fact, when the fight began, the Montréal fans were firmly behind the Panamanian superstar.
The first round saw both fighters feel each other out. There was almost no lateral movement by Leonard. Leonard’s style was reminiscent of Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali. He would dance, move and land rapid like combinations. Against Duran in round one, he stayed in the pocket and tried to box Duran without any lateral movement. In round two, Duran landed a booming right cross, left hook combination that badly hurt Leonard. Leonard didn’t go back to moving. Instead, he stayed inside and held as much as possible while clearing his head. For the next five rounds, Leonard engaged Duran in a phone booth war, which was Duran’s forte. Duran blasted Leonard with several hard hooks to the body. Duran was also able to smother Leonard’s patented combinations while both were inside.
Round eight was the first round in which Leonard dominated Duran. He used movement for the time which allowed him to land several combinations and keep Duran from smothering those same shots. Leonard was unable to keep the momentum going in the next three rounds as Duran was able to use his jab to get inside Leonard and once again punish him to the body. Leonard was visibly tired, a result of the punishment he had taken the entire fight. My father, who had put big money on Duran to win the fight, told me after the 11th round that the only way Leonard was going to win was by robbery. He reminded me that Duran had a granite chin and his stamina was second to none.
Round 12 saw Duran land several hard hooks to both Leonard’s head and body. The 13th round was the best round of the fight as both men stood toe-to-toe and landed bombs to both each other’s head and body. The 14th was more of the same as it had become an all-out war. The Puerto Rico Theater was rocking with people screaming at every exchange. Going into the 15th round, Leonard had to know he needed a knockout. Only no one back then could hurt Duran, never mind knock him out. Leonard easily won the 15th round as he fought in desperation while Duran mocked Leonard as he felt he had the fight in the bag. Duran won the decision and Leonard’s title. His celebration however would be short lived.
On November 25, 1980, Duran and Leonard fought an immediate rematch at the New Orleans Superdome. My father took me to see this fight on the closed circuit screen at Madison Square Garden. This time, Leonard utilized his superior speed and footwork to thoroughly frustrate Duran. Duran was unable to engage inside against the Sugar Man. As a result, Duran grew increasingly frustrated to the point where towards the end of the eighth round Duran quit. As a result, the fight has gone down in boxing lore as the “No Mas” fight. Immediately after the fight ended, boxing fans and writers blasted Duran. The ultimate warrior did the unfathomable in quitting in the middle of a fight. Duran was even ostracized in his own Panamanian homeland. When Duran did resume his boxing career, he looked listless in back-to-back losses against Wilfred Benitez and Kirkland Laing. Going into 1983, for all intents and purposes the 32-year-old Duran seemed completely done as an elite boxer.
1983 was Duran’s year of redemption. The year began with Duran putting former world 147-pound champion Jose Pipino Cuevas out to pasture with a fourth-round destruction. This win resulted in Duran getting a shot at the 24-year-old Bronx WBA 154-pound champion Davey Moore at Madison Square Garden on June 16, 1983. This was supposed to be Moore’s coming out party as a legit boxing star. Instead, the exact opposite occurred.
That night my father took me to MSG to see what we both thought would finally be the end of Duran’s career. We were in absolute shock as Duran on the night of his 32nd birthday turned back the clock in giving one of the greatest performances of his illustrious career. By the fourth round, Moore’s right eye was completely shut as he was unable to fend off Duran’s savage offensive assault from the opening bell. After finally knocking Moore down in the seventh round, Duran would stop the Bronx champion in the following round to win the WBA jr. middleweight title and become a three-division champion. Despite fighting in Moore’s backyard of MSG, Duran had damn near the entire sold out 20,000 fans in the arena heavily rooting him on. When referee Ernesto Magana stopped the fight in round eight, the Garden was the loudest I’ve ever heard an arena as they cheered in unison for Duran’s victory. Still one of the greatest comeback stories in boxing history.
Duran ended his career defining 1983 by challenging Marvin Hagler for his undisputed middleweight title on November 10, 1983. In one of the toughest fights of his phenomenal career, Hagler barely defeated the rejuvenated Duran by a slim unanimous decision. Going into the 15th and final round, two of the three judges had the fight dead even. Hagler delivered one of the best rounds of his career in completely dominating that round to retain his 160-pound crown. Despite the loss, Duran was as marketable as ever as a fighter. He would immediately sign to fight the WBC 154-pound champion Thomas Hearns on June 15, 1984 in what would potentially be the biggest fight in the history of that division as well as a unification title fight.
Going into the fight, Hearns was the WBC 154-pound world champion and Duran the WBA champion. Unfortunately, the fight was not a unification title fight as the WBA stripped Duran for his refusal to fight their number one contender, Mike McCallum. I never understood this as McCallum was under Emmanuel Steward’s tutelage like Hearns was. This fight would lead to a breakup between McCallum and Steward. Despite the WBA stripping Duran of the title, everyone in boxing agreed that this would be the crowning of the real world junior middleweight champion. When the night was over, there wasn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind who the true 154-pound champion was.
That night my father took me to Madison Square Garden to watch the fight on closed circuit, almost exactly a year to the day that Duran had knocked out Moore in resurrecting his career. The MSG crowd was overwhelmingly rooting for Duran and my father, being completely intoxicated by the ring walks, was taunting all the Duran fans around us. I tried to calm him down but Pop wouldn’t shut up. He even coaxed three Duran fans into betting him 50 dollars that Duran would win. They had a better chance of winning the lottery.
Round one saw exactly what Pop and I expected to happen. Hearns came out fighting Duran the same way he fought Pipino Cuevas four years earlier, pumping his left jab and walking Duran down. He dropped Duran twice in the opening stanza and when the round ended Duran walked towards the wrong corner. Pop and I were laughing outrageously at everyone around us. By this point, I was so excited by what my idol was doing in the ring that I no longer cared what the Duran fans thought. After round one, they had become very silent.
The second round was more of the same with Hearns battering a helpless Duran. Less than a minute into the round, Hearns landed a spectacular right cross that resulted in the Panamanian legend falling face first to the canvas. Referee Carlos Padilla immediately waved off the fight and Duran’s handlers had to pick Duran’s lifeless body off the canvas. The three men who bet my father threw the money at him and ran off. On our subway ride home Pop and I were laughing our asses off about the fools he suckered in to betting him.
After the Hearns fight, Duran won seven of his next eight to secure a WBC world middleweight title fight against Iran Barkley. Barkley had won the title by shockingly knocking Hearns out in the third round back in June of 1988. The 28-year-old Barkley was a definitive favorite over the 38-year-old Duran. Many felt this would be the final nail in Duran’s coffin. Duran had other plans.
The fight started off surprisingly as a boxing match between the two fighters. Barkley was a fierce brawler with power in both hands. Barkley was 6’1” tall and towered over the 5’7” Duran. The native of my South Bronx stomping grounds attempted to use his reach and height in the first round. For the majority of round one, Barkley outboxed Duran by using a very good left jab. With less than 10 seconds in the round, Duran hurt Barkley with a surprising right cross. Rounds two and three saw Barkley continue to box from the outside and land his jab and several hooks to the Panamanian legend’s midsection. The fourth round finally saw the expected slugfest, as both men landed several hard power shots throughout the round. They fought inside for the next four rounds, with Barkley stunning Duran in rounds seven and eight with tremendous left hooks. Duran showed his legendary chin by quickly recovering and although Barkley was hammering him, Duran was able to land hard right hands of his own. After eight rounds, Barkley was ahead on all three judges’ scorecards. Duran needed to win the last four rounds of the fight to win a decision.
Remarkably, Duran came storming back and out-slugged a very fatigued Barkley throughout rounds nine, ten and eleven. Barkley’s left eye was almost completely shut. The result being that he couldn’t see Duran’s overhand right. Late in the 11th round, Duran landed three crushing right crosses out of a five punch combination that knocked down the champion. Barkley got up but was now hurt, fatigued and fighting with essentially one eye going into the 12th and final round.
As expected, both men gave whatever they had left in final round. Duran landed several clean right crosses. Barkley had nothing left on his punches due to both fatigue and the amount of punishment he took, especially during the latter part of the fight. Duran had done what he needed to do in winning the last four rounds of the fight, earning him a split decision victory and the WBC title.
Once again Duran had risen from the ashes of what seemed to be a dead career. Duran would then fight Leonard in a third and deciding fight on December 7, 1989. In one of the most abysmal super fights of all-time, my father and I again sat in MSG to watch the final fight between two members of the legendary four kings (Duran, Hearns, Leonard and Hagler). Leonard easily won a 12-round decision in a fight that was the final coffin in both legends storied careers.
Over the next 11 years, Duran would fight 26 more times, winning 18 of those fights before finally retiring at the age of 50 after losing to Hector Camacho on July 14, 2001. Duran’s legacy included winning world titles in four divisions and being universally viewed as the greatest Latin fighter who ever lived. Between 1977-1989, he accomplished more than enough to solidify being the 13th greatest fighter of the last 45 years.