Feature | Premium | May 12 2019

Roberto Duran and Esteban De Jesus: The enduring friendship between two fierce rivals

It's 20 years since Esteban De Jesus, former world champion and hopeless heroin addict, died from AIDS. On his deathbed his ring rival Roberto Duran came to visit
roberto duran
Richard Mackson/USA Today Sports

He came a long way to see his nemesis, Esteban De Jesús, in his dying days, out to Rio Piedras and to a converted milk factory where the malarial sunlight filtered in through grimy windows overlooking sickbed after sickbed. Now wraith-like, 90 pounds, and seeking solace from a future afterlife, De Jesús had been an addict, a killer, a convict, one of the top lightweights in the world, and, for a little while, at least, a national hero, the first man ever to beat Roberto Durán.

WITH José Torres retired and Carlos Ortiz, the gifted ex-champion whose prime began during the West Side Story era, nearing the end of a creaky comeback, New York City was ready for another Puerto Rican star. In 1972, Esteban De Jesús, born in hardscrabble Carolina, debuted at the Felt Forum in Madison Square Garden, stopping George Foster in eight rounds. A stablemate of Wilfred Benitez, and trained by Gregorio Benitez, De Jesús was a precise counterpuncher with a ruinous left hook and enough dark secrets to last a lifetime. After building a record of 33-1, De Jesús, already dabbling in the nightlife, set his sights on bigger targets – and the temptations that often accompany such ambition. In New York City he had impressed the afición with his sharpshooting skills, but not many believed he would be a threat to young Roberto Durán, the recently crowned lightweight champion stalking greatness.

If New York City was impressed by De Jesús, it was wonder-struck by Durán, who coldcocked Benny Huertas in his Madison Square Garden debut in September 1971 and less than a year later trampled stylish Ken Buchanan for the lightweight championship of the world. Even after building up an insurmountable lead on the scorecards, Durán could not resist his own malicious nature. A split-second after the bell ending the 13th round, “Hands of Stone” buried a shot below the belt that left Buchanan writhing on the canvas in agony. Poor Buchanan was ruled unable to continue, and Durán was declared the TKO winner, beginning a reign of terror that would last for the rest of the decade. Brash, bold, and brutish, Duran reveled in his reputation for savagery. As a child, he hustled around on the dusty streets of Chorrillo, a Panama City slum that could have doubled as the setting for a Graham Greene novel. Forever, Durán would be hungry—for money, for women, for celebrity, for combat. But winning the title had given Durán a chance to satiate some of his pangs and his gluttony would cost him the next time he fought in Manhattan.
Because Durán and De Jesús both had reputations in New York City, where boxing-mad Latinos supported their countrymen as a matter of national pride, a matchup between them was inevitable. They met in a non-title scrap on November 17, 1972, before a partisan crowd of 9,144. What was supposed to be a mere distraction from carousing turned into a nightmare for Durán within 30 seconds of the opening bell, when De Jesús landed a snapping right hand that stung him and followed up with a sweeping left hook that nailed Durán flush on the jaw. Stunned, Durán crashed to the mat for the first time in his career. When Referee Arthur Mercante completed the mandatory eight-count, Durán dove into the fray again but he could never claw his way back into the fight.