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The final bell for legend of Duran

Harry Mullan says boxing's most honest performer is running out of time
FIGHTERS do not grow old gracefully. Perhaps because theirs is the most direct and individual form of sporting competition, they tend to rage against the dying of the athletic light with an intensity unknown in a league footballer dropping gently down the divisions or a tennis star cutting back on tournaments as he awaits the Seniors' Tour.

George Foreman is a spectacular exception: Roberto Duran, still chasing his lost youth at 43, is not. On Saturday, amid the appropriately faded grandeur of the Atlantic City Convention Center, Duran makes what will surely be his last appearance in the big time. But the gulf, in terms of real quality, between his longevity and Foreman's can be measured in the fact that, whereas Foreman holds the "genuine" world heavyweight title, Duran's rematch with Vinny Pazienza involves the super-middleweigh t championship of the International Boxing Council, one of the host of would-be governing bodies infesting the sport's lunatic fringe.

The point of the rematch (Pazienza having taken a comfortable, unanimous decision first time around) is merely to provide the winner with justification to challenge for a more widely-accepted title and, of course, to cash in for one last time on Duran's waning reputation. This is a harsh and cynical business, short on compassion for broken fighters and respect for their past glories. Duran's tragedy (and such it will surely become if he outstays his welcome) is that as long as he is ready to risk his health in the ring, there will be a promoter prepared to put up a purse and a punter queuing for a ticket.

He recognises this himself. "I fight because I am a fighter," he said recently, with blinding simplicity and heart-breaking insight. "What else can I do?" Fighting is not only what Duran does, but what he is, right to the core of his being. Boxing defined and shaped him.

The youngster who once stole fruit to keep his family alive has spent more money than most of his Panamanian compatriots can even imagine, including a $3m income tax refund sent to his Miami address by the US Government, who realisedmonths later that there had been a miscalculation. An official was dispatched to ask for the money back, surely the least sought-after assignment since they served notice of prosecution on Al Capone. Duran's response can probably be guessed.

It has been a glorious career, and even its downbeats have served only to reinforce the legend. When he turned away against Ray Leonard in their infamous "No Mas" rematch in New Orleans, the fight which earned him an undeserved reputation in America as aquitter, he was in fact underlining his commitment to honest fighting. The contemptuous sweep on the right arm with which he dismissed Leonard's mind games and posturing as he walked away to his own corner in that startling eighth round was the gesture of a child who has taken his ball home because the other kids won't play by his rules. By Duran's primitive standards, what Leonard was doing was not fighting as he understood it.

In November 1983, Duran defied the terrifying Marvin Hagler for 15 rounds in a close-run challenge for the middleweight title, and looked so full of fight at the finish that you half-expected him to invite Hagler round the back of the car park to continue the discussion. Seven months later, when Thomas Hearns hit him in a light-middleweight title challenge so hard that I feared for Duran's very life, the irrepressible warrior turned even that crushing defeat into a victory of sorts: it had tak en the best punch ever thrown by the hardest hitter of his generation to flatten him, and it remains his only knockout loss in 104 fights.

He came back to take the WBC middleweight title from Iran Barkley in a fight which was the perfect illustration of Duran's unique place in the affections of those who appreciate quality in an age of tat. Frank Bruno was challenging Mike Tyson that week in Las Vegas, so I watched the Duran fight on a giant screen in the press tent with a clutch of American boxing writers, most of whom had gleefully written him off as a coward. Yet by the finish, the hacks were roaring the old boy home like fans in the bleachers.

Duran will need another performance of that calibre this week. He won't find it, of course, but that doesn't matter: in this game, dreams die hard.