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Watching the boxing with Roberto Duran

Roberto Duran
REUTERS/Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun
Declan Warrington ventures to Panama to watch Joshua-Ruiz II with living legend Roberto Duran

ROBERTO DURAN is sat barefoot, on the edge of a modest sofa in his living room, surrounded at any one point by 21 relatives and friends and awaiting the start of the rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jnr. So infectious and audible is his enthusiasm he remains the centre of attention – even during what might have been the most significant fight of the year.

Boxing News, after fearing having arrived at the wrong front door in Panama City given the ease with which it could be approached by anyone tempted to reach perhaps its most famous resident and then experiencing how long it took for someone inside to open it, immediately understood the delay upon entering. If grander, flashier and colder properties can be found elsewhere within the city, at that point none of them would have been louder.

The two televisions – the bill in Riyadh is also on in the kitchen for those watching with less interest, including Duran’s wife Felicidad – are turned up to a volume that feels similar to that experienced when first entering a cinema screening. If during the quieter moments that volume initially seemed excessive, once in the living room that rarely felt the case. The instantly recognisable 68-year-old is as animated as those communicating incessantly around him – often as much with their hands as their mouths, and in smaller groups – drowning out not only the commentary but much of the wider scene.

Any interested in recording the scores for Alexander Povetkin-Michael Hunter would have needed to return to the kitchen to hear them. Until the main event BN, unable to follow the Spanish being spoken by all, has little understanding of what is being said if it does not involve hands being thrown to demonstrate the need for increased speed or work ethic, except when hearing the name “Luis Pabon” reveals that Ruiz-Joshua II is being broken down before its opening bell.

It is a home, and indeed a room, that absorbs visitors. One of the younger of those, Umberto, upon Duran’s orders brings BN some of the fish he had just cooked in the kitchen and, as soon as he also offers cutlery, Duran takes that cutlery out of reach before declaring, in one of his occasional forays into English, “In Panama we eat with our hands”.

Recognising someone on the significant television screen on the opposite wall, he shouts “mother f*****” before continuing to laugh and joke in Spanish with his guests and then vigorously slapping BN – who he insists sits next to him on that same sofa – on the back and asking, “You okay, brother?” There’s no disguising his excitement. At his guests, which include his grandchildren playing on the floor; at the prospect of watching a live fight; above all else at having so many he can interact with in his role as host.

Roberto Duran at home settles in to watch Andy Ruiz rematch Anthony Joshua

“Let’s get ready to rumble,” he shouts, comfortably before Michael Buffer. If his bulldog, sleeping lazily outside, were in the same room by that point it’d have been at its owners’ feet, wagging its tail and relishing his building excitement. Prior suggestions Duran may be hungover simply seem wrong. “I like Ruiz on points,” he informs BN, before adding: “I also sympathise more with him. I always back the Latin fighter.” It is when the defending champion is walking to the ring that Duran’s eldest son, also called Roberto and a trainer in Panama City, leaps off of his stool to imitate a stiff, immobile fighter, and there is little doubt it is Joshua he is referencing.

“Ah-viva Mexico,” shouts Duran senior before clapping, more quietly reminding BN, “He’s a Mexican-American”, and then needlessly apologising for his English. It remains so raucous, and everyone is so animated, that there’s no chance of truly focusing before the fight’s conclusion. When Ruiz suffers a cut over his left eye in the opening round, Duran makes sure his English guest is aware. “Gash,” he says. There is also movement between rounds when some of his 21 guests either sit elsewhere to talk to another of those present, or move to discuss what they have so far seen. At no point, however, is there any chance of Duran moving from what is clearly his favoured seat – the one he occupies regardless of whether he has visitors.

The perception that Ruiz had a successful fourth – the closer rounds are significantly harder to judge than they would be even at an atmospheric arena – meant that its conclusion is celebrated. The then-champion then punching his challenger on the back of the head as it unfolded was also met with Duran’s approval, and a further explanation for the sake of BN. “Bolo punch; very good.”

“The black man is nervous. The fat boy is strong.” Again, Duran laughs that most liberal of laughs. “No heart.” If that is the harshest of observations, it is also relatively consistent with those retired fighters often make. They can view a fight or a fighter through the prism of what they once were, and therefore consider the solution to be something they – but not necessarily the relevant fighter – once excelled at doing. Realistically neither Joshua nor Ruiz are capable of doing much that one of the very finest fighters in history once could, but that he is the one judging them means that there is little they can do to avoid their heart and desire coming under greater scrutiny than anything else.

By that same token there are no complaints in Ruiz’s favour about the size of the ring – or indeed about the fight being staged where it is. When in the seventh – before which further guests arrive – Ruiz again attempted to fight dirtily, “The Hands of Stone” again laughed his approval before insisting on again bumping fists with BN, as he has already on multiple occasions. It’s enough, simply, to be a new face, and to also have an interest in the sport he once so memorably graced.

Finishing a can of Panamanian beer, he routinely crushes it in his hands before tossing it on to the coffee table in front of him and opening another. With more than a hint of mischief he then demands his friend Jose swaps seats with another also sat on the same sofa, so that he can translate. BN is quickly informed that Duran wants to repeat that Joshua’s “a big chicken”.

In case Jose hasn’t made it clear enough, Duran then adds “Ingles”. “Ruiz’s corner is no good. He’s not too small. He needs to be smart,” he adds, via his translator. Easier for Duran than perhaps any other, but, unquestionably, ultimately accurate. At the same time, while he is contributing to a separate conversation, the dissatisfied Roberto Jnr again leaves his stool to demonstrate a combination he believes would succeed.

It is at the end of the 10th that his father concludes that Ruiz has already lost, and he therefore again seeks to entertain. He explains to BN that one of his guests, sat on a further stool to his left, is a dominoes champion; Umberto, who has largely stood in the corner to Roberto Snr’s left, is then asked to show the photos on his phone of the four members of an older generation of the Duran family – another is called Roberto – who fought in the army for the US.

Beyond his “family” – the description given to all of those, even those who are not relatives, who evidently routinely visit the Duran household for the occasion of a big fight – he also keeps a baseball cap, a bottle of local spirit and an unusual number of television controllers within reach, something that becomes apparent when the 11th and 12th pass with little incident, reflecting his declining interest in the fight as a contest and in supporting Ruiz. Even within a crowd that approved of Ruiz’s performance more than most, and to the extent that it threatened to resemble a more competitive fight, the final bell is acknowledged only by the majority of those watching almost immediately preparing to leave.

Within minutes the sound on the television has been reduced, the channel has been changed, and the less patient guests have already left. Duran remains in his favoured seat; encouraging him to remain there – not that encouragement were needed – is a sign of respect for the decorated head of the house. Significantly, those that remain and who have adopted new seats are of the same generation – his longest-serving friends.

roberto duran
Roberto Duran is a legend in the sport

Before BN can leave but after a fist bump is replaced by the warmest of handshakes and followed with a hug from Duran’s wife “Fula”, Jose insists on visiting the room where so many keepsakes from one of the finest careers of all time are retained. Among the numerous fight posters, gloves, belts and shorts are some traditional scales, a photo of Nelson Mandela, memorabilia from Rocky and, unexpectedly, a British police hat and a photo of Sean Connery as James Bond – suggesting a potential fondness for the UK.

Jose similarly insists on offering BN a lift via a brief tour of where his friend “El Cholo” was born and raised – no more than 15 minutes’ drive from his modern-day home, in the slums of El Chorrillo and walking distance from the Panama canal. If his description of the area as a “red zone” evokes visions of prostitution, he almost immediately clarifies that it simply means El Chorrillo is particularly unsafe; the only reason he feels comfortable risking the visit is because the combination of it remaining light with the next day’s Mother’s Day celebrations and the bank holiday that follows it guarantees a less menacing mood.

Pulling up outside of a once-white, now-derelict-and-listless building with an open doorway, he confirms with one of the two middle-aged men standing and chatting within that doorway that he has, indeed, found the property he intended. A further, older man is sat to the right of them on a plastic chair and next to a plastic crate, watching the world pass.

It is in that very same building that one of the world’s finest, and most celebrated, fighters was born, and most likely on those pavements or the street corner just yards away where his first punches were thrown. Sixty-eight years later, unusually and encouragingly he shows few signs of what could have been so taxing a career and lifestyle – his charisma entirely intact, despite everything he once gave.

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