Never look to the lightweight division for stability, for a single continuity of reign, but count on it for verve, for its vast canvas of styles and—just when you begin to look away from it—that sudden transfusion of a new face. The latest: Roberto Duran. His face: as smooth as the handle of a rare Malacca cane. His style: so rowdy that the ghost of Joe Gans must be desperate for a medium.
But not even the old master, classicist though he was, would deny what is the whole, stark essence of the ring: the ability to hit. Duran, of Panama, knows nothing else; Ken Buchanan, of Scotland, knows much more, very little of which he had an opportunity to display last week in Madison Square Garden, where Duran used all but his teeth to rip the lightweight title from the champion. He left Buchanan at the end bent and holding his groin, a broken bird wasted by a violent storm.
Except for a strong Panamanian delegation, few among the crowd of 18,821 that paid a record $223,901 for an indoor lightweight fight could find much of a peg on which to hang real hope for Duran. He seemed able to punch, with 24 knockouts in his 28 previous fights, but that was the extent of intelligence on him, hardly enough to cause bettors to ignore the cool craft of Buchanan, who had become a Garden favorite and was making his third defense of his title.
As he is in the ring, the Scot was unruffled before the fight, even though the usual bombast and threats trickled back to his camp. Aside from saying that he thought certain remarks by Duran lacked taste and were not properly respectful, he was a model of reserve. "I love the title," Buchanan said, sipping tea the afternoon prior to the fight. "I will not part with it easily; certainly it will not be taken from me by words."
The words by Duran predictably aroused his Latin legion, but one had to wonder from what depth of Duran's emotions they had surfaced. Many fighters, no matter what their lineage, are inclined to spit invective, to declaim about their manhood. Most of the time it is wise to dismiss the facade and try—if one ever can—to cut to the raw ganglia of a fighter's character. So the question about Duran was this: how much of him was snarl and snap, how much was only posture?
It is doubtful that Buchanan was at all psyched, but it became intensely clear that Duran had his ear to the music of the moment, that something was swelling within him more than just hard resolution. As he moved from corner to corner of his dressing room on fight night, his face drawing as tight as a hide drying in the sun, his eyes like those of a small animal waiting for a sound, who could not feel a force in the room, could not hear the clank of deadly armor in the air?
"War on June 26," he said in Spanish, repeating once more what he had said so often while in camp.
"That's now!" a friend told him.
"So we go to war," Duran smiled. Crossing himself, he left for the ring.
War is too remote a word to describe this night, too imprecise for what Duran did to Buchanan. Call it pure assault with intent to maim and disfigure. There is an old Scottish maxim: "If at first you don't succeed, first try the knee...then the head." But it was Duran who used every part of his anatomy, everything but his knee, and he would be accused of that breach of etiquette, too. "I have never seen such a referee," Buchanan said later. "He don't give no protection at all."
Protection is the tradition in the English ring, where there is a clean line to style and penalties for fouls are severe. This preference places far too much import on defense and renders many of the English fighters rigid in the face of improvisation and—as was the case with Duran—wild attack. None of this concern with the niceties infects the grim, fetid gyms of Panama City that lure hundreds of embryo Durans out of stifling tin-roofed shelters. In such surroundings nobody talks about protection.
The complaint by the Scot provokes no credibility or sympathy. The fact is that he was never in this fight, and he dropped his title as if it were a stick of dynamite. Generously, he won two rounds and drew another. Beyond that, it was all Duran as he bared the white of his mouthpiece, not to suck in breath but out of disdain, and chased the Scot into the ropes, a part of the ring's geography that is evil country for a boxer beset by a puncher.
That the Scot looked for the ropes far too readily is only one of the reasons why he is not the champion of the world anymore. His jab—the primary weapon against a free-form fighter like Duran—was not crisp, nor hardly of nuisance value. Duran stayed atop him constantly, whacking him with volumes of right hands. The rights often came from far away, just the kind to be discouraged by quick left hooks, but Buchanan's feet were as slow as his hands; he seemed to be forever stepping into punches. More likely, the punches were there waiting, wherever he stepped.
The eventual claim of foul should not confuse or dwarf the dimensions of Duran's victory. The incident occurred at the end of the 13th round as Buchanan flurried slightly after the bell. Duran responded to the body, his last punch a low-swinging right, and suddenly the Scot was down on his knees. The referee—Johnny LoBianco—stopped the fight. The Scot's cornermen shouted that it was a knee or a low punch that felled Buchanan; they could not seem to make up their minds. It did not matter, for the issue of Buchanan vs. Duran had long been resolved.
Later in the week, slow-motion replays of the television film seemed to convince LoBianco that the Scot was hit below the belt.
"It's a shame," said Carlos Eleta, the new champion's aggrieved manager. "There will be a rematch now. In November."
"Tomorrow," Duran said quietly, waving a small Panamanian flag.
One night later the scene shifted from New York to the neon squalor of Las Vegas, where The Soul Brothers, Muhammad Ali and Bob Foster, were booked against The Brothers Quarry. Except at the casinos, no low blows were struck; Ali and Foster destroyed Jerry and Mike from the chin up.
Before his fight with Ali, Jerry Quarry said, "If Mike could punch as good as me or I could box as good as him, we'd be a hell of a fighter."
Maybe. But even a combination Quarry would have been thumped by the Ali who toyed with the lone Jerry most of this night. When Ali finally went to work in earnest in the sixth round, it was plain for all to see that the old Ali was back, perhaps not better than ever, but so close to the real thing as to be indistinguishable.
He belabored Jerry into virtual insensibility 19 seconds after round seven began, thus completing the annihilation of the Quarrys. Half an hour earlier a Foster left hook caught Mike ducking the wrong way just as the bell rang to end the fourth round of their light-heavyweight championship fight. No single punch Ali threw was as hard as that hook, which left the younger Quarry on his back with his eyes open, staring sightlessly at the lights over the ring. Foster, who interrupted his triumphant jig around the ropes long enough to contemplate for a worried 30 seconds the destruction he had wrought, interrupted post-fight festivities to announce that he would like to fight Ali. That is a questionable ambition. Foster tried Joe Frazier once for size and, fighting from a hedge of apprehension, was destroyed. Ali could be just as destructive. As a light heavyweight, Bob Foster is supreme. As a light heavyweight....
Ali, even in peak condition as he was last week, and as sleek and supple as a seal, is still a big heavyweight. He weighed 216½ pounds, which must be just right for him. His face was clear and he disregarded Quarry's ominous glare as the two of them listened to the instructions of Referee Mike Kaplan.
After the bell rang he was busy at once. Quarry charged across the ring in a crouch, threw a wild right at Ali's belly, missed and picked Ali up on his shoulders, where the champion rested somewhat bemused until he caught the eye of Kaplan, who obligingly asked Quarry to please put Ali down.
For the rest of that round and the next four, Ali toyed with Quarry, a heavyweight sometimes ranked as the third or fourth best in the world. By the end of the second round, Ali realized how thoroughly he was dominating the fight and he threw in a few Ali shuffles to entertain the customers. Later he leaned back in a corner and motioned Quarry to come to him. When Quarry came, Ali beat a rapid tattoo on his face with beautiful combinations.
At the end of the fourth, sitting relaxed in his corner, neither sweating nor breathing hard, Ali leaned toward the press row and said, behind his glove, "Ain't this a easy way to make a livin'?"
In the fifth round Ali began to step up his attack. He was not floating like a butterfly now. He was fighting almost flat-footed, depending on hand speed and his ability to move his head out of danger. He was so fast that Quarry, basically a counterpuncher, was five punches behind, off-balance and unable to counter.
The punishment became severe in the sixth round and in the seventh Ali wasted no time putting an end to the mismatch. At the bell he glided quickly across the ring, caught Quarry in his corner, bounced his head with a vicious series of left jabs, then hit him twice, very hard, with lifting right uppercuts that left Quarry sagging along the ropes. Ali looked over to Referee Kaplan and motioned him to check Quarry. Kaplan wisely stopped the fight. "I didn't want to kill nobody," Ali said afterwards.
As Ali left the ring, he began his preparation for another big gate. Taunted by George Foreman, the 1968 Olympic champion who is undefeated in 36 more or less professional fights, Ali went into his old routine of pretending to want to settle the matter then and there. Few punches were launched, none landed. Ali probably will fight Foreman eventually, on his way to a return match with Joe Frazier, which is what the heavyweight division, despite the diversions, is really all about. But first, Ali meets his sometime sparring partner, Al (Blue) Lewis, in Dublin this month, possibly—heaven help us—Floyd Patterson after that and then maybe Foreman. All of these are antipasti leading to the Frazier entrée. Judging by the appetite for combat Ali showed against Quarry, he may take a real bite out of Frazier next time.