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Roberto Duran – The defiant one

Roberto Duran
Off-camera at Durán-Barkley. A special tribute to the great Roberto Durán as he turns 70, by Springs Toledo

EARLY IN 1987, when Roberto Durán was in Miami drinking cerveza and salsa dancing, Winter Hill gangster Joe McDonald was released from federal prison. He headed straight to a liquor store in South Boston where James “Whitey” Bulger and Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi made their headquarters.

Joe Mac, as he was known by the few who knew him, was pushing 70 at the time. A Navy veteran subjected to unspeakable horror during World War II, he was the man most responsible for organising crime in the working-class city of Somerville in the 1950s. In the 1960s, he escaped from prison and joined the gangland war that erupted on the streets of Boston; a war that didn’t end until dozens of Irish, Jewish, and Italian hoods were dumped in Boston Harbor, decapitated, disappeared, or otherwise declared very much dead.

A convict up for parole in 2050 told me that he was “a very serious man not to be trifled with under any circumstances.” The Boston office of the FBI reportedly had his photograph on the wall with a caption that read “The most dangerous man in North America.” No one can say just how many murders he committed (his career stretched as long as Durán’s) though one of his enforcers said it was up around 30. He was never indicted, never mind convicted, for any of them. “Guys would just disappear. We knew who made them disappear,” he said. “Keep in mind, they were all scumbags and killers. Joe never killed anybody [who] didn’t need killing.”

In the 1970s, he noted a new breed rising in the Boston underworld. They had no code outside of self-interest, no compunctions against drug dealing or killing women. Two of them were brought into the Winter Hill Gang as partners—Bulger and Flemmi. Joe Mac, an old-school gangster with old-school values, warned against it. He was eventually proven right. Bulger was only months away from being exposed as an FBI informant when Joe walked into the South Boston Liquor Mart.

“I’ve been away for four years and I know what you two have been up to. I get my cut, which is four million,” he said. “I want it delivered to my house and I better not hear a peep.” Then he walked out.

A kid who worked at the store was listening in. He heard Bulger complaining about parting ways with that kind of money. Flemmi interrupted him. “—Joe has hitters all over the country. We have to get the money together for him by tomorrow afternoon.” They stuffed suitcases full of cash.

It was something of a pension. Joe hid stacks of it in the walls of his house alongside an arsenal of firearms. He didn’t retire on it, but he made more time to stop and smell the rosin. He indulged in one of his life’s great passions, boxing, and became a secret benefactor for the local scene. When the Somerville Boxing Club opened, he bought equipment for it and hired a truck to deliver it. He’d be seen sitting in a folding chair watching sparring sessions, perhaps reminiscing. Back in 1938, he won the Irish-American Golden Gloves Novice Championship at the Boston Arena when he knocked his opponent out and on his face with a right hand. The ringside doctor needed five minutes to revive him. “If you haven’t heard, Young McDonald’s got a punch. e-i-e-i-o,” read the next morning’s paper. Lámha cloiche. Stone hands.

“When he was an old man he could still punch like hell,” said Jimbo Curran. “I’d hold the mitts for him and you could see the form and hear the power. BAP! BAP!” Curran spent years as a trainer at the South Boston Boxing Club, where life lessons were passed on to generations of disadvantaged kids. Joe told him it was his calling, and would hand him $2,000 cash to support it at Christmastime.

Curran was a friend to him. Jackie Hurley was too. On Saturday mornings in the late 1980s, they’d drive from Southie to Joe’s house in the Winter Hill neighborhood of Somerville with VHS tapes and watch classic matches all day. One of Joe’s favorites was Roberto Durán. Curran had a stack of the aging Panamanian’s greatest fights and he’d pop the tapes into the VCR: Durán-DeJesus III, Durán-Leonard I. Durán-Moore. Hagler-Durán. Those films were among the few that weren’t black and white.

They might as well have been. By 1989, Durán was washed up. Or seemed to be.

***

“That’s why Iran Barkley’s manager accepted Durán’s challenge,” said Luis de Cubas. “He looked so bad in his last fight.” De Cubas had been co-managing the 37-year-old for two years when he picked him up at Miami International Airport to commence training camp. He couldn’t believe his eyes. “He was 227 pounds!”

De Cubas set him up in a one-bedroom apartment on Biscayne Boulevard near 79th Street. Durán immediately started running around a little park nearby. He wasn’t quite running yet, he was trotting, and the whistling ducks and white ibises barely noticed as he went wheezing by wearing a heavy U.S Postal Service vest and combat boots. He did this three times a day for the first three weeks and practically lived on watermelon.

De Cubas hired three young and hungry sparring partners to work with him at Caron’s Gym on 36th Street and told them he’d hand an extra $2,000 cash to whoever knocked Durán out. It was tough love. “They were kicking the crap out of him during the first few weeks,” he told me. But no one collected that two grand.

“Running and sparring. That was his whole training regimen,” de Cubas said. An old-school fighter with old-school values, Durán never quibbled to get a smaller ring or heavier gloves or less rounds. No catchweights. No controlled show. “He didn’t give a damn. He didn’t need any of that!”

But Barkley was the biggest and strongest fighter he’d ever face. He towered over Durán’s lightweight frame and could (and later did) compete at heavyweight. And he was at his peak at 28. Durán saw glory behind the danger and for ten weeks worked on a strategy similar to the one he used against Marvelous Marvin Hagler. He knew that he had to avoid toe-to-toe exchanges and instead position himself two steps back, just out of his reach. He would keep him turning, draw him out and slide in for counters, and then angle off. It was his only chance.

Roberto Duran
The Ring Magazine via Getty Images

He got himself down to 156 ¼ pounds and turned the tables on his sparring partners. One of them quit. “That was when I knew he was ready,” de Cubas said.

Meanwhile, Barkley was training at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. Hired to work with him was a new breed of coach, a “sports performance” guru named Mackie Shilstone. Shilstone was behind Michael Spinks’ surprising win over Larry Holmes in 1985 and Sugar Ray Leonard’s debatable win over Hagler in 1987. He and his concoctions would later help Roy Jones Jnr defeat heavyweight John Ruiz and 40-year-old Bernard Hopkins regenerate his sagging career at light heavyweight. “I’m Special Forces,” Shilstone said. Some might say Suspicious Forces.

Barkley got himself into supreme condition and had revenge on his mind. Few knew that he’d already shared the ring with Durán—he was with Davey Moore in Madison Square Garden when Durán almost beat Moore to death. When it was halted in round eight, Barkley ran into the ring from his third row seat. He embraced his friend while the New York crowd chanted Durán’s name and Durán stood on the apron and chanted his name right along with them.

“Dooo-Ran! Dooo-Ran!”

Moore and Barkley grew up together in the South Bronx. The chants hurt.

Moore never got over that loss, nor the humiliation that went along with it. “I messed up, man,” he said in a private moment. “You did a good job!” said Barkley. “You fought the best you could; you just couldn’t see because he thumbed you.”

Moore spiraled down. He lost a lot of money in a bad business deal and his last bout was in a high school gym in Staten Island. “He was planning on coming out to my training camp to help me train, just like I used to help him,” Barkley told me. He never made it. He died at 28 on June 2, 1988. He was trying to stop his Ford Raider from rolling down the driveway when he slipped on wet pavement and his chest was crushed. It was a freak accident. Barkley cried and cried.

Four days later he annihilated Thomas Hearns in three rounds while blood streamed down his face like tears.

The fact that Hearns had annihilated Durán in two was lost on no one.

***

Jackie Hurley, hired by Top Rank to be Marvin Hagler’s driver in the early 1980s, only had to make a phone call to get tickets to any of its promotions. He made one early in 1989 and a host of Boston characters and one Winter Hill legend went with him to Atlantic City, New Jersey.

It was already snowing when they checked in at Bally’s on the 23rd. Near-blizzard conditions with gale force winds pummeled the seaside resort overnight, burying the boardwalk. The Atlantic City Airport cancelled all flights for the day. Shopping malls, restaurants, and banks were shuttered, as were government offices and courthouses.

Joe Mac didn’t mind one bit. He was on parole and wasn’t supposed to leave Massachusetts without permission. On the morning of February 24, 1989 he was in Trump Plaza watching the weigh-in and noting the size difference of the combatants like everyone else. He saw Barkley glaring down at Durán and wearing a red jacket with his dead friend’s name stitched on the back: Sensational Davey Moore. “I’m gonna get you for what you did to Davey,” Barkley said out of earshot.

Jimbo Curran was there with a few Golden Gloves stand-outs trailing behind him. He sensed something in the air and turned to Joe. “Durán is here to win,” he said.

Something was in the air. What was raging outside was not a classic nor’easter, but a freak snowstorm. Lakewood, only 60 miles north, got an inch; Newark saw a cloudy day. Atlantic City, hit with two feet, was the focal point. It was as if Old Man Winter had come looking for a seat.

Joe might have offered him his. “I don’t want to be in the limelight,” he said that night during the undercard. “The FBI watches fights too.” Curran remembered what else he said. “If someone dies in an accident and my face is on TV, they’ll be looking for me.” He headed for the cheap seats about twenty rows back. Hurley saw young guys bulling their way forward and bumping into him. “Geeeezuz,” he winced. “If they only knew…”

“It was the first time we saw snow!” One of Durán’s daughters recalled. Irichelle was 12 and joined her brothers Chavo and Robin on the boardwalk that had become a winter wonderland. They were throwing snowballs, making snow angels, and then Barkley went looming past.

“Happiness ended,” she said.

Durán and de Cubas made their way from the Trump Plaza Hotel through the storm to the Convention Center. “Remember,” de Cubas said, “don’t stand in front of him. He’s too big and too strong and he hits too hard. Move.”

“Did you get the sense that he was nervous?” I asked de Cubas. He thought about it for a minute. “He peed three times in the dressing room,” he said and left it at that. Durán said it was to lose more weight. A psychiatrist will tell you that high levels of anxiety trigger the fear response, which triggers the urge to urinate. Durán? Afraid? He’d never admit it, but de Cubas also saw him slowly tapping his foot and muttering a mantra over and over again. “Este negro no me vencerá. No este noche. No esta noche…”

The Convention Center was sold-out and jam-packed. During the introductions, Barkley was brooding under the hood of his robe like grim death. Durán, a 2½-to-1 underdog, was in his corner loosening up when he noticed something alarming and looked down at the canvas. It was thickly cushioned. He moved around, testing it, and then turned to de Cubas.

“Tengo que pelear con el,” he said. “I have to go toe-to-toe.”

De Cubas’s mouth fell open. Ten weeks of strategy went out the window.

“We’re gonna get knocked out tonight!” he told co-manager Mike Acri as they peered up between the ropes, panic-stricken. “Durán is going into the eye of the hurricane!”

I was surprised that neither Durán nor a corner man checked the ring before fight time. “I take full responsibility for that,” de Cubas said and then reminded me that Durán never concerned himself with incidentals and didn’t expect anyone else to either. “But you see the genius,” he said. “He knew his legs would have worn out in a few rounds if he moved too much. So he scrapped the strategy and came up with a new one on the spot.”
“I was always confident in him, but I was so scared,” Irichelle told me. “That’s my dad up there and look at what he’s up against!” Her thoughts travelled back to their home in his beloved Panama City. “My father had a mean persona in the boxing world but he was the sweetest guy at home,” she said. “We knew it more than anyone. I remember sleeping Saturday mornings and he would sneak into our room and sing the Panamanian anthem.”

Alcanzamos por fin la Victoria
En el campo feliz de la unión;
Con ardientes fulgores de gloria
¡Se ilumina la nueva nación!

As his children stirred and grumbled, he’d say, “Wake up millionaires! There are chores to be done!” “Even though we were well-off with nannies and private schools, he wouldn’t let us get spoiled. He wanted us to grow up to be strong like him.” During his training camps, he’d hand his children money and tell them to go and buy books and pencils and paper. He’d wait for them to return and then the lessons would begin—his lessons. He wanted them to teach him how to read and write Spanish. “People took advantage of him during his career; he didn’t understand contracts because he never had an education,” Irichelle said. “So he made sure we went to school to get a good education, and we shared it with him.”

“Did you pray when you saw him in the ring with Iran Barkley?” I asked.

“Oh yes. Whenever my father fought, all of us would interlock our hands and say a prayer.”

La sangre de Jesucristo tiene poder.

Si Dios está con mi papá, quién puede estar en su contra.

“—We prayed hard that night!”

It didn’t always calm her. When she was seven and saw Thomas Hearns battering her father she screamed so much abuse at Hearns that a security guard threw her over a shoulder and carried her out of Caesar’s Palace. She was 21 when William Joppy stopped a doddering Durán in a debacle that de Cubas refused to have anything to do with. Irichelle took off a high heel and went running toward the ring when Don King shouted, “Stop her!” “I was going to throw my shoe at Joppy,” she said, “but security grabbed me before I could commit my crime.”

Iran Barkley scared her more than Hearns or Joppy. He looked like a giant. When the first bell rang and she saw her father moving into him, she bolted from her seat. “I ran to the dressing room, crying hysterically. I thought he was going to die!” One of the undercard fighters, an Olympian, rushed over to console her. “It’s okay; he’ll be all right,” he said.

She didn’t see her father slip the giant’s jab at the end of round one and counter with a right that sent him staggering into the ropes. She didn’t see him trying to drive the giant back and take over in rounds two and three, offsetting an unrelenting attack with overhand rights that sent sweat spraying and Panamanian flags waving. She wasn’t there to witness an arcane level of skill on full display, including tricks that hadn’t been seen since the 1950s, or the look of creeping disbelief on the giant’s face. She couldn’t hear the crowd roaring at the intensity of the exchanges in rounds four and seven and roaring again whenever he struck a pose with that old glare and sneer.

Irichelle missed all of it. “I know!” she said, “After I left the dressing room I was chasing my mother around the arena!” Felicidad Durán was doing no better than her daughter—Irichelle found her shoving quarters into a pay phone to call her grandmother in Panama. “Is he okay? Is he down? Is he hurt?”

He was hurt, badly, 43 seconds into round eight. Barkley weaved low and cranked a left hook that sent him into a pirouette. It was the only punch he didn’t see coming. His eyes rolled up in his head.

“I thought it was over. I thought that was it,” said de Cubas who was aging at ringside.

“I’ve watched that fight 100 times on video,” said Irichelle. “I can’t understand how my dad took that punch. That punch would’ve knocked anyone out.” “Davey was in that punch,” said Barkley.

Durán was pitching forward and on his way down when his left leg shot out and braced him. Then he turned to face Barkley, who was right there breathing on him. What followed is a study in defensive skill that you don’t see anymore. Durán instinctively relaxes; he fights on a spring—his torso bending forward and riding uppercuts that he counters with hooks; he bounces off the ropes with short combinations and throws them in between Barkley’s big shots, jams his head under Barkley’s chin to lift it up, jams his gloves into the crooks of his arms to stunt his attack; dips under hooks, turns his head to ride them out, steps back, steps in—and survives.

Barkley couldn’t understand it. “Oh man,” he remembers thinking. “He got away. He got away!”

Barkley started giving way after that. His left eye was swelling into a mirror image of Davey Moore’s and he could no longer see Durán’s right, which was zeroing in on it. He could hear them chanting all over again, “Dooo-Ran! Doo-Ran!” In round 11, Durán marched forward like a hoplite behind a six-punch combination that sent him crashing down. Everyone in the cheap seats jumped to their feet. Donald Trump did too. He was sitting near Durán’s corner in the front row, in plain view.

Somewhere out of view, an ominous presence forgot all about the FBI and became just another fan of Roberto Durán. Joe Mac was standing and applauding alongside his fellow citizens of the world; transfixed by a form of defiance different from his own, higher than his own—one that was life-affirming, even heroic. “He was ecstatic when Durán won the decision,” Curran said. “Ecstatic!”

***

AFTER THE FIGHT, Trump went to the winner’s dressing room with congratulations and an invitation to his after-party, which was sure to be a gala of beautiful people, of the rich and famous, with plenty of the best champagne. De Cubas was translating. “Durán turned him down,” he said. He had plans to drink champagne, but not with Trump. His celebration would be in his hotel room with his family and a Puerto Rican friend who had brought along cassette tapes of Frankie Ruiz, his favorite salsa singer.

Iran Barkley, banged-up and distraught, left the Convention Center and went to his hotel room, alone. He walked over to a photograph taped to the wall. He’d been looking at it and talking to it for months. “I couldn’t pull it off, Davey,” he said. “They wouldn’t give it to me, but I know you were there with me.”

The first thing I said when I called him was “thank you.” I’d been meaning to say that to him for many years. He’d earned it; half the heroism witnessed that night was his—he absorbed and inflicted as much pain as Durán over those unforgiving 12 rounds. He too pushed himself beyond his limits.

“It was all for Davey,” he said. It was with Davey. “That was my peak.”

“Yours and Davey’s,” I said.

He suddenly went quiet. “What was that?” he said. “Hold on a minute—” It was gunshots. Barkley still lives in the South Bronx, across the street from housing projects. He sees crime and violence spiking as if it’s, well, 1989. It’s right outside his window.

“I wanted to get Durán’s respect,” he said. “And I got it.” He got more than that.

Two months after their battle, he got a long-distance call. It was Felicidad Durán. He could hear Roberto in the background. Come to Panama, Bah-klee! I fly you down and you stay with me. Barkley boarded a flight in New York and found his former foe waiting for him at the airport in Panama City.

“I met his wife and family. He took me into his community and I stayed there a week,” he said. “His kids love me.” The friendly giant.

Durán took him to El Chorrillo, where he was born and raised in a kind of poverty unheard of even in the Bronx. “Everything was so close,” Barkley recalled. “There’s the pool room, a store around the corner.” They were an odd-looking pair on a spur-of-the-moment tour, but whenever Durán was mobbed or received some recognition, he made sure Barkley got his due. The danger was shared. The glory was too.

“Barkley didn’t want to leave Panama!” Irichelle said, laughing. “My father really loves him, him most of all—more than Hearns, Leonard, and Hagler, rest his soul. He kisses and hugs him and says, ‘I hope you are well.’”

Irichelle is no longer 12 and the great Roberto Durán turns 70 years old on June 16. She accompanies him frequently; as his daughter, his translator, and his biggest fan. Every now and then she’ll see him and Barkley together at an event and she’ll shudder as she watches her father moving into him to embrace, remembering that night in Atlantic City when 7,500 strangers of every class and complexion braved a snowstorm and roared as one.

“How do you see that fight now, as Durán’s daughter and as a spectator?” I asked. She paused a moment and thought about it. “It’s horrific … and beautiful.”

Special thanks to Deborah Green, Jose Corpas, and Eric Bottjer.

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