ROBERTO DURAN despised Sugar Ray Leonard and all that the flashy Olympic gold medallist stood for. Even after beating his rival in 1980, he aggressively rejected the traditional post-fight embrace, and preferred to blow mock kisses at his rival in interviews rather than impart any words of commiseration. But Duran was born to be wild; if compassion and kindness had interfered with his soul, boxing history would have been starved of one of its greatest warriors.
Duran was at his best during that June 1980 encounter with “Sugar”, but the sabre-toothed demons within conspired against him during the rematch that took place just five months later. His manager Carlos Eleta organised the return so quickly because he was concerned that Duran’s gluttonous living outside the ring could destroy him. But it was Leonard in the mood for destruction that night inside the New Orleans Superdome.
He changed his game plan from the first fight and taunted Duran’s proud psyche with an outrageous blend of skill and showboating. Boxing had never been so intoxicating. Although Roberto was still in the bout on the scorecards after seven rounds, his stamina and temper were making their escape. In round eight, with the session coming to an end, Duran signalled he no longer wanted to fight. Whatever his final words were – many dispute it was ‘No mas’ (‘No more’) – there can be no mistaking he was shaking his head and fists in surrender. Roberto knew he was being made to look foolish and wanted no part of it. But Duran made a fool out of himself and it nearly ruined him.
Born into poverty, Duran grew up in El Chorrillo, a filthy slum on the east of the Panama canal, and began boxing at an early age. He was a creature of the street, and his lawless habits fuelled his desire to fight. By the age of 13 he had been expelled from school for punching someone down the stairs. At 16, after a brief amateur career, the handsome youngster turned professional.
He scored 21 victories before wealthy landowner Eleta got involved, and hired top trainers Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown for Duran. Before long, the rough edges had been sharpened into lethal weapons; the animalistic young Roberto was 10 days beyond his 21st birthday when he challenged world lightweight champion Ken Buchanan in 1972.
Roberto began as underdog but he took the fight to the Scot from the start, decking him in round one. Buchanan struggled to resist the tide as Roberto roared towards victory and then, after the bell to end the 13th, the Panamanian caveman plunged a punch – Buchanan claimed a knee – deep into the champion’s groin. It turned out to be the winning blow.
Duran’s venom was already becoming legendary and sportswriter Leigh Montville described the stare that terrified many of his opponents. “That [stare] would send any sensible grown man home to change the locks and upgrade the security system,” he wrote.
But Duran was so much more than just an intimidator. His seven-year reign atop the lightweight ladder was perhaps the finest in the division’s history. Between his 12 defences, Duran crammed in several non-title fight victories, his love for fighting never more evident, but he did taste defeat in a 10-rounder.
Puerto Rico’s Esteban De Jesus dropped Duran in the opening round of their November 1972 encounter and won a decision in Roberto’s only lightweight reverse. Duran was dropped again in the early going of their 1974 rematch before he recovered to issue a beating, stopping De Jesus in round 11. Four years later, Duran claimed supremacy when he halted the gifted Puerto Rican in 12.
Many of Roberto’s challengers were just as demanding: Hector Thompson and Ray Lampkin, both stopped, were outstanding fighters; Ishimatsu Suzuki was a future world champion; and Edwin Viruet and Vilomar Fernandez talented defensive specialists. It’s hard to imagine any lightweight in history beating Duran at this point.
Following his rubber match success over De Jesus, though, Roberto relinquished his crown and moved up in weight. He was excellent while dominating former WBC champion Carlos Palomino, before outpointing champ Leonard over 15 scintillating rounds.
“I showed I could take a punch,” said Ray after being outfought. “I didn’t want to, but I had to.”
Duran’s surrender in the return triggered poor form that led many to believe he was finished, losing to WBC light-middleweight boss Wilfred Benitez on points in January 1982 before a stunning defeat to Britain’s Kirkland Laing in Detroit’s Cobo Hall eight months later. With Roberto’s reputation in tatters, Top Rank matchmaker Teddy Brenner handed him the recipe for repair.
In early 1983 Duran stopped a fading Pipino Cuevas to set up a shot at WBA light-middleweight boss Davey Moore. The fight fell on his 32nd birthday but as a 5-2 underdog he was not expected to celebrate. Still, Duran handed Moore a brutal beating, stopping the young pretender in eight and regaining his spot among the sport’s elite. “I was born again,” Duran purred after his win. “I’ve returned to be Roberto Duran. It’s been a long time.”
He then stepped up in weight again and gave fearsome middleweight champion Marvin Hagler an incredibly tough encounter over 15 before losing on points. He followed that by taking on Thomas Hearns in a light-middleweight unification showdown. Duran was treated with contempt, blasted around the ring like a punctured ball before a stunning right hand knocked him cold in the second.
Duran didn’t fight again for 18 months, his ride seemingly over. But there would be time, as there always is with the finest in history, for one more glorious comeback. He rebounded from a 1986 points loss to Robbie Simms with five wins against modest opposition. The run – quite different from his fearsome rampage towards lightweight glory – set up a shot at IBF middleweight boss, Iran Barkley.
Entering in fine shape, Duran fought at an incredible pace for a seasoned 37-year-old veteran. He dropped Barkley and won a deserved 12-round verdict, once more unleashing his inner gladiator.
“It was his heart,” said Barkley in the aftermath. “It just wouldn’t let go.”
Sadly, Duran refused to let go of his career, either. He fought for years past his best, losing a dire third showdown against Leonard in 1989, before a murky twilight unveiled losses to Pat Lawlor, Vinny Pazienza, Hector Camacho and a horrible pasting at the hands of WBA middleweight boss William Joppy in 1998. Even then, at 47 years old, Duran was winning far more than he was losing. Roberto loved to fight and if a car crash hadn’t caused career-ending injuries in 2001 – aged 50 and 119 fights down – he may still be fighting today. As his interpreter, Alvaro Riet, once said, “When Duran is 65 years old, he’ll be fighting for nickels in the street.”