Boxing: Horseplay days are over for Duran

Roberto Duran has fought 22 world title fights and at the age of 47 he is still going strong. Glyn Leach reports from New York
Click to follow
ON his first trip to New York, in 1971, a 20-year-old Roberto Duran sat on the steps of Madison Square Garden at 7am and a rare smile played across the cruellest lips in boxing. Duran believed that all fights in the USA were staged at the legendary Manhattan arena and that, while nobody knew him then, "they soon would". That evening he made an impression on one Benny Huertas, whom Duran knocked cold in the first round of his Garden debut.

Tonight, an incredible 26 years to the month after Duran brutalised Edinburgh's Ken Buchanan at the "mecca of boxing" to become lightweight champion of the world, the Garden was due to be a fitting setting for what surely must be the 23rd and final world title fight of Duran's 31-year boxing career.

Two weeks before his 48th birthday, the legendary "manos de Piedra" (Hands of Stone) was to have challenged William Joppy for the World Boxing Association middleweight title on the undercard to the Evander Holyfield v Henry Akinwande heavyweight title fight. Duran was given little chance of beating Joppy, 27, whose parents had not even met when Duran, then a 15-year-old bantamweight, turned professional in March 1967.

Duran has won an incredible 102 fights, with 13 losses, mostly in the latter part of his career. He earned his fame as a snarling, dead-eyed destroyer whose rage and aggression nullified the cultured skills of Buchanan and Sugar Ray Leonard, who went the distance with the outstanding middleweight champion, Marvin Hagler, in November 1983, and who, six years later at the age of 37, shocked the boxing world by beating the Bronx street hood, Iran "The Blade" Barkley, to become a four-weight world champion.

That Duran is no more. But the promoter Don King had been hoping that the Panamanian's popularity, particularly within New York's large Hispanic communities, would attract attention on a day when horseracing - "Real Quiet" is a hot favourite to become the first Triple Crown winner in 20 years in today's Belmont Stakes - has top priority in New York's sporting calendar.

Duran has never liked horses. On Monday at the Garden's Expo Center, where pre-fight training sessions are taking place, sitting beside the very same ring is which he won two of his four world titles, the aged warrior revealed: "Yes, it's true I once knocked out a horse. It was at a fiesta in my mother's home town of Guarare. Someone bet me a bottle of whiskey that I couldn't do it.

"I didn't know where to hit the horse - it didn't seem to have a jaw. But my uncle, Socrates, told me to catch it just behind the ear and down it went. But I ripped my hand open. You could see right down to the bone. But I was too drunk to feel it and I won the bet."

Something gained, then - Duran admits that as a youngster in Panama he used to throw cats against walls, just for fun.

In those early days entertainment was hard to find for the young street fighter, one of eight children deserted by their father.

His family were shackled by a poverty that, legend has it, had Duran swimming two miles across the Panama Canal in order to raid the mango trees of plush Fort Amador on the other side.

Boxing enabled Duran to amass a fortune estimated at $50m, but most of it has been squandered as the Panamanian playboy, who has eight children of his own by a variety of mothers, pursued a path of self-destruction.

Duran has little to show for his career; a farm, a penthouse in Panama City which the US government used as a base to spy on Noriega. But despite his paying no tax in his homeland, where he is treated like royalty, Duran has a second mortgage on his family home. And a Florida court had ordered that his $250,000 purse for the fight against Joppy should be withheld because Duran owes $41,000 in child support to Elvira Galvin, the mother of Duran's 10-year-old son. His purse has also been earmarked by the Internal Revenue Service to clear unpaid taxes.

His recently estranged promoter for 11 years, Pennsylvanian Mike Acri, said: "If you offered him a cheque for $100,000 or showed him $50,000 dollars in cash, he'd take the $50,000 every time.

"Duran doesn't understand interest of investment - he doesn't want to understand. And the end result is a rags to riches and back to rags story."

Some fighters fight to live, others live to fight. For Duran, the divide appears to have become blurred. There are severe misgivings regarding his ability to live without the sport, but while the pay-days are still there, Duran will be there too.

Former opponent Buchanan has been forced to take a series of dead-end jobs since retiring in 1983, but when asked about Duran's challenge to Joppy, the Scot offered a perspective that only an outsider who was formerly on the inside can fully appreciate.

"Duran's a lucky bastard," Buchanan said.

Twenty years of title fights

June 1972: Ken Buchanan, New York TKO 13, World Boxing Council lightweight title.

January 1973: Jimmy Robertson, Panama KO5, World Boxing Association lightwight title.

June 1973: Hector Thompson, Panama TKO8, WBA lightweight title.

September 1973: Ishimatsu Suzuki, Panama TKO 10, WBA lightweight title.

March 1974: Esteban De Jesus, Panama KO11 WBA lightweight title.

December 1974: Masataka Takayama, Costa Rica, TKO1, WBA lightweight title.

March 1975: Ray Lampkin, Panama KO14, WBA Lightweight title.

December 1975: Leoncio Ortiz, Puerto Rico, KO15, WBA lightweight title.

May 1976: Lou Bizzarro, Philadelphia, KO14, WBA Lightweight title.

October 1976: Alvaro Rojas, Florida, KO1, WBA Lightweight title.

January 1977: Vilomar Fernandez, Florida, KO13, WBA Lightweight title.

September 1977: Edwin Viruet, Philadelphia, W15, WBA Lightweight title.

January 1978: Esteban De Jesus, Las Vegas, KO12, WBA/WBC Lightweight titles.

June 1980: Ray Leonard, Montreal, W15, WBC Welterweight title.

November 1980: Ray Leonard, New Orleans, TKO 8, WBC Welterweight title.

January 1982: Wilfred Benitez, Las Vegas, L15, WBC Light Middleweight title.

June 1983: Davey Moore, New York, TKO8, WBA Light Middleweight title.

November 1983: Marvin Hagler, Las Vegas, L15, WBA/WBC Middleweight titles.

June 1984: Thomas Hearns, Las Vegas, KO by 2, WBC Light Middleweight title.

February 1989: Iran Barkley, Atlantic City, W12, WBC Middleweight title.

December 1989: Ray Leonard, Las Vegas, L12, WBC Super Middleweight title.

January 1995: Vinny Pazienza, Atlantic City, L12, IBC Super Middleweight title.

June 1996: Hector Camacho, Atlantic City, L12, IBC Super Middleweight title.