The few that survive all of those big, bare gyms that never feel the sunlight, the few who come from beer-stained Colón or the bush country where they hunt iguanas at night with their hands or from the district of Chorrillo on the rim of Panama city where people sit and sweat by their windows and watch squalls of kids and sometimes men break each other's bones...well, they are a special few: gifted, cruel, as ephemeral as that sudden blast of hot ocean wind that can blow the steam away.
They come out of their land, the Durans, the Lagunas and the Amayas, all of them wearing their large, gold religious medals and enigmatic smiles, all of them with enough talent to reach up and grab the erratic focus of the public and never let it go. They seem to rise to a moment and grace it with a brilliance that can make a crowd hum like a huge electric cable. Then, when the moment is gone, something also seems to be gone from them, and all that hangs in the air is a broken promise.
Once more that promise of sustained greatness from a Panamanian fighter seems to be resting on the chopping block. The man who put it there was Esteban DeJesus, of Puerto Rico. He did it in 10 cool, nontitle rounds last Friday night in Madison Square Garden, flecking Roberto Duran, the undefeated lightweight champion of the world, off his arm as if he were an Eighth Avenue stray looking for a touch, and becalming a volatile crowd of 9,144 that portended chaos had the decision been close.
As it was, the outcome was hardly in the balance as DeJesus, 22, a year older than Duran, took control early and kept it like an old trouper, an underpaid one at that. He had been beaten only once in 31 fights. The Garden got him in against Duran for $10,000, but he came up with a six-figure piece of work in what largely seemed to be a subway fight, something for the Latins to grind up verbally; a more proper atmosphere would have been a roped off square up in the South Bronx.
The bout only figured to be a brisk one, devised to provide another look at Duran, who had won the title from Ken Buchanan back in June. On that night the handsome Duran was a primitive. He was far from that last week but more important was the fight made by DeJesus. It was, from beginning to end, one of the smartest, most poised performances put together by a young fighter, or any fighter for that matter, in the Garden in years. It had textbook details to it, with a smooth finish, a rounded quality that even gagged those who can never forget "the way it use to be."
Dig hard, but who could spot a flaw? Every move DeJesus made, on the attack or on defense, was precise and strikingly natural. It was all there: the economy of a fine craftsman, flashing hand speed, feet that seemed to have an intelligence of their own and a wise old head defensively. He made Duran, a relentless free swinger, miss all night. He just stepped inside as Duran drove forward, then hooked him with his left or turned over a snapping right hand to Duran's head.
One of the first of those hooks may well have won the fight for DeJesus. In the early moments Duran was caught by a quick right that shook him, and then several seconds later was dropped by a left hook. Later, Duran had no idea what his head had run into, or where it came from. Asked what he thought of the left that sent him down, he said: "No left. A right hand knocked me down." At any rate, he was never the same again, which may not have been too good to begin with. After the hook Esteban beat him to the punch repeatedly, something he may never get a chance to do again.
Aside from critical praise, DeJesus comes out of this biggest victory of his career with very little. For DeJesus, the possibility of a crack at Duran's title is now remote, if not completely out of the question. Duran's manager, Carlos Eleta, made that quite clear the afternoon of the fight. He sat in his hotel suite and hardly mentioned DeJesus. The impression gathered was that DeJesus would merely be a stroll for Duran. Yes, but what if DeJesus won? "He will never get a title fight with Duran," he said. "Never."
DeJesus' victory could now keep him away from the title for as much as two years. There is no boxing justice, only the lure of an irresistible gate to bring a wary champion into the ring, and even that, one senses, will not be enough to bait Duran. He has a return bout with Buchanan in June, and after that he and Eleta will move cautiously; certainly nowhere near Esteban DeJesus. If Duran ever did fight him, it would surely take place in Panama, and not even DeJesus could win there: only an act of God or heavy infantry can take a title out of Panama.
The one thing that DeJesus can do is wait for Duran to go the way all Panamanian fighters seem to travel. A couple of years back, for instance, there was Antonio Amaya, a slick, bold workman if ever there was one. His debut in the Garden was memorable, but he is among the missing now; Eleta was also his manager. Where is he? "Ah, Antonio Amaya?" Eleta says wistfully, remembering that beautiful razor of a fighter. "Gone. Lost. Suddenly, the talent, it was gone."
Then there is the classic slide of Ismael Laguna, who fought one of the truly superb fights of the decade when he won the title from Carlos Ortiz back in 1965. But after that night Laguna was never the same. His talent seemed—with just a snap of the fingers—to have vanished. Once he was out of the bush country, the nights and neon of Panama and the frenzied devotion of his countrymen did Laguna in quickly. And for Duran? It may have been that the left hook of DeJesus made Duran look the way he did, or again it could be that there is truth to rumors that have floated up from Panama. The reports say that success and the sweet smell of the nights are once more claiming a Panamanian champion.
It is easy to see how it happens in Panama. To be a champion there is to be a very special person. Mobs of people follow you on the street, asking only to touch you. A good example of how a Duran is looked upon occurred the night he won the title, and the day of his reception back home. On the night of the fight the streets of Panama city were dark and silent; positively no one was out. Bars were open but, except for those with TV, doing little business. Then, as soon as the fight was over, the people spilled out onto the streets and danced and drank and cried until dawn.
When Duran arrived back in Panama, thousands of people waited to greet him, among them many high officials of the national guard. Brigadier General Omar Torrijos, who is the most powerful man in the country, did not make the airport scene but he told Duran in no uncertain terms that his first defense of the title had to be made in Panama. It takes 45 minutes from the airport to the city; Duran and his motorcade were far longer getting in. His car finally came to a stop in Chorrillo, where he was born and raised and danced and fought in the streets for coins, where his mother, without a husband and never close to her son, let him run as he pleased. Duran got out of his car and raised his hands for quiet. The people stood silently on the balconies; nothing stirred. Then Duran, his young voice splitting the air, opened his hands, saying: "El campeonato mundial pertenece al pueblo Paname√±o."
The title, he was saying, belonged to them, and he promised that they would never have any reason not to respect him, that he would never forget them, the people of his old neighborhood where he returns before each fight to kneel in front of his mother and be doused with holy water. But all of that was far away last week in his dressing room in the Garden, as the champion dressed quickly and said little through his interpreters. "Can't say he was in as good shape for this fight as he was for Buchanan," said Ray Arcel, his trainer. "Too many things happening suddenly for him. He's been wined and dined and celebrated since he won the title. He's been inactive. He needs to stay in shape, build his stamina."
Back-alley baroque, that might do justice to Duran's style. It is a constant aggression on the body and spirit of an opponent, without fear or even thoughts of how the opponent will counter, a consideration in back of the minds of most fighters when they throw a punch, lie knows he is going to be hit, and he knows that his only defense is his furious prowl of an offense, and that above all he must beat the other man to the punch, not once but consistently. The style requires more leg and wind than others must use, thus impeccable behavior in the gym and on those long, dreary stretches of road in the early morning. "Stamina!" Arcel repeated again. "He's got to have it. Or...."
Duran was not immobile against DeJesus, but there was a peculiar lassitude that marked his moves. His interpreters added that Duran "felt weak, didn't have it, didn't know what was wrong."
"Go home," Arcel whispered to the champion as he was ready to leave. "Go home, take a nice hot bath, and then we'll see."
More sensible advice will most surely follow.