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16th June 2020
By: Noah Abrahams
A world champion across four weight divisions who competed for over five decades, Roberto Durán never really knew the meaning of ‘no más.’
A feared member of the 1980’s ‘Famous Four’ Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler quartet, the Panamanian lightweight, light middleweight, middleweight, and welterweight legend took the boxing world by storm for over 32 years.
Best remembered for ‘The Brawl in Montreal’, a savage knockout against Lou Bizzaro and a thumping middleweight victory against Iran Barkley in 1989, ‘El Cholo’ was much more than just The Ring magazine’s 28th best boxer of all time.
Once trained by the iconic Ray Arcel, ‘Manos de Piedra’ (‘Hands of Stone’ in Spanish) was raised in the slums of Panama City, blessing the sport that he made famous in his country when only eight years old. Following an amateur career comprising only three losses, Durán turned professional aged just 16.
Bursting onto the pro-scene with 31 consecutive wins, ‘Rocky’ won his first world Championship four years after making his debut. Defeating Scotsman Ken Buchanan in 1972, the Madison Square Garden bout for the WBA Lightweight Championship was a thriller.
An underdog, Durán had his opponent on the canvas within 15 seconds of the opening bell. Ahead on the judges’ scorecards from the offset, the 13th round was to be the final. Dropping Buchanan with extra punches thrown after time was up, the boy who grew up in poverty was declared the winner via technical knockout – a world lightweight champion.
Defending his status as ‘Lightweight King’ throughout the 1970s, it wasn’t until 1978 that the Hispanic hero vacated his belts to re-focus on the welterweight crown. In a fruitful six years as number one, Durán successfully defended his titles against the likes of Jimmy Robertson, Hector Thompson, and Guts Ishimatsu.
Defeated only once in the 70s and for the first time in his career, Durán failed to overcome Puerto Rican boxing legend Esteban de Jesús in 1972. Beaten by ‘Vita’ in the first fight of the Esteban-Durán trilogy, the Latin-American brawl resulted in arguably the greatest pugilist of his time losing by unanimous decision. In front of 10,000 fans at Maddison Square Garden, the judges scored against Durán who was knocked down within 30 seconds of the opening round, never fully recovering.
“I never saw De Jesus’ jab, but he hit me on the chin hard.” – Durán on the first round Esteban left hook.
Sparking a re-match and then eventually a decider, revenge was the outcome of ‘Manos de Piedra’s’ second meeting with the only man to have stopped him. Less than 18 months after their initial clash in New York, the non-title affair was a history that Durán succeeded in re-writing. Entering the ring stronger, tougher and hungrier in March 1974, ‘El Cholo’ had to endure another first-round ‘Vita’ left hook. The home Panamanian crowd aghast as their idol picked himself up off the canvas, the mood quickly changed. A firefight for Esteban as the bout continued, he crumbled under Durán’s brutal force. A victory for our birthday boy, a final meeting was on the cards. Four years later, the scores were settled.
A perfect ‘warm-up’ for the Ray Leonard trilogy, Durán’s terrorizing reign as a lightweight drew to a close when he ended the Esteban chapter at Caesars Palace in 1978. Beating the Puerto Rican when ‘Vita’ attempted to throw a right hand and left himself open in round 12, Durán wanted a new challenge and a sweeter prize.
Competing as a welterweight, the 1980s began properly when Durán shook the world as the best contender on the planet. After his first eight victories in a new division, famous triumphs against Zeferino Gonzales, Jimmy Heair, and former WBC champion Carlos Palomino earnt the Panamanian a right to fight against a then-undefeated victor, a fellow member of the ‘Famous Four’ and an International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee. Known for his blinding hand speed, superior foot movement, and unique style, Leonard’s return to Canada’s Olympic Stadium proved that even the best are not invincible. Back in Montreal for the first time since winning Olympic gold four years prior in 1976, it was Panama vs the United States on 20th June 1980.
An unforgettable battle, a boxing fan will know where they were when Durán beat Leonard by unanimous decision in one of history’s most anticipated sporting events. Both superstars by 1980, a lucrative night on closed-circuit television went the distance. Almost 50,000 locals watched on as a Greek tragedy took place, Les Québécois (the people of Quebec) astonished by the heavy shots that the man with stone hands was unleashing on his opponent. Toe-to-toe tactics failing Leonard, vicious Durán uppercuts left the American vulnerable, overhand rights countering any Sugar left hooks, the war in the ring having millions around the world on the edge of their seats. A slugfest like never before.
Through to the final stanza, the matchup was close, but with one obvious winner. Stone triumphing speed, both made millions as the judges declared their scores 145–144, 148–147 and 146–144 in favor of Durán’s superlative performance.
“He does have a heart. That’s why he’s living,” the Panamanian said on Leonard’s loss.
A re-match secured shortly after the bout, Sugar got his revenge just over five months later in the second of three battles in New Orleans. Evening up the scores, Leonard outboxed an unfocused opponent. Durán had lived a party life and looked out of touch. The better boxer won by a technical knockout in the eighth round, Durán famously turning his back to Leonard and quitting. He famously uttered, “no más” (no more) to referee Octavio Meyran.
Retiring from the sport having explained that he actually said: “no sigo” (I won’t go on) at the end of the eighth, a third clash was too tempting for The Ring magazine’s fifth-greatest fighter of the last 80 years (2002) to turn down.
On the wrong end of a unanimous decision against Leonard in November 1980, the trilogy was concluded nine years later. As 80s boxing fanatics reflected on Durán’s losses to Hagler in ‘83 and Hearns in ‘84, the decade was rounded off in Las Vegas. Uno Más! (One more).
Competing as a super middleweight for Leonard’s WBC title, Durán was uncharacteristically flat. Whilst cutting both of Leonard’s eyes and busting his lip (resulting in over 60 stitches), Durán was defeated by the People’s Champion for a second time.
Losing by an emphatic, unanimous decision against Leonard, ‘Rocky’ lost his next fight to Pat Lawlor. Durán, however, persisted and worked his way back into title shots for the lesser IBC super-middleweight and middleweight belts in 1994, 1995, and 1996.
Retiring for good in 2001, the then 50-year-old, having avenged his loss to Lawlor a year previous, fought his 119th professional bout. Losing to Héctor Camacho – a boxer with a reputation of ending careers, having ended Leonard’s too – Manos de Piedra hung up his gloves.
Surviving an almost fatal car crash at the turn of the Millennium in Argentina, Durán did what he does best – bounced back.
A friend of Diego Maradona, a licensed aircraft pilot, a Rocky Balboa sparring partner, and even a salsa singer, the once trainer to Shane Mosley has lived an incredible life.
Another year older today, we at Boxing Guru wish one of the sport’s most iconic stars a very happy 69th birthday.
“Yes, it’s true I once knocked out a horse. It was at a fiesta in my mother’s hometown of Guarare. Someone bet me a bottle of whiskey that I couldn’t do it.” – Roberto Durán
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