Search

LITTLE MAN WITH A BIG PUNCH

March 17, 1975
March 17, 1975

Table of Contents
March 17, 1975

Run Down
Canucks
Big Punch
College Basketball
Baseball
Motor Sports
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

LITTLE MAN WITH A BIG PUNCH

Learning his trade as he fought, young Roberto Duran of Panama figured that a boy's best teacher was a hit in the head. Such lessons absorbed, he is still a brawler, but also the lightweight champion

Roberto Duran of Panama is the lightweight champion of the world. He is 23 years old, strives to look like Prince Valiant, dresses like Liberace, plays the drums and sings like Desi Arnaz and, at 5'7" and 134½ pounds, hits like Hurricane Hattie.

This is an article from the March 17, 1975 issue Original Layout

Two weeks ago, in his latest defense of the title in Panama City, Duran knocked out Ray Lampkin of Portland, Ore., the No. 1 ranked contender. He put Lampkin away with a fearsome left hook after 13 rounds and 36 seconds of the unrestricted warfare that marks all of his fights, and when it was over—with Lampkin sprawled unconscious on the canvas—Duran apologized to his fans.

"I was not in my best condition," he said. "Next time we fight I will kill him." Since Lampkin was out for 80 minutes and in the hospital with a severe concussion for five days, the remark was memorable more for honesty than for sportsmanship. "He did not really mean that he would actually kill Lampkin," said a worried Luis Henriquez, an old friend who interpreted for Duran. "It was just his way of speaking."

Duran's way of speaking and his way of fighting are the same, direct and uncompromising, and he learned both on the streets of Guararé and Panama City, where he grew up in stark poverty. After the Lampkin match someone asked him where he had learned to fight, and he grinned, white teeth flashing in his little beard. "A todos lados," he said, meaning from all sides. "In the streets when I was a boy selling newspapers and shining shoes, I learned to fight there." He has not changed his style appreciably since.

"It is still the same," he said. "No trainers have changed me. My best teacher is a hit on the head. That makes me think how do I not get hit on the head the same way again. Some people have told me this is the hard way to learn, but for me it is the easy way."

During the fight in Panama City's steamy Colisseum, Lampkin contributed to Duran's education. Time and again he caught the champion with a good strong left jab and often whacked him with a stout right-hand lead, a sucker punch. None of the shots did discernible damage. Duran kept boring in, using his minimal left jab to set himself to throw an overhand right reminiscent of Sandy Koufax' high hard one. For variety he whaled away at Lampkin's head with the sweeping, explosive left hook that finally ended the fight. He ignored his corner's anguished cries of "Keep your guard up!" and "In the body, champion!" "I do not hear anything in the ring," Duran says. "I am too busy, and if I listen I might I get hit. Even when I don't listen I get hit. But not so much."

It is a mark of Duran's special toughness that when he gets hit, he reacts with fury. Like other memorable fighters of this bent—notably Rocky Graziano, Carmen Basilio and the late Rocky Marciano—a blow to the head ignites him. Happily, his head seems to be made of cement, and in the Lampkin fight, each time he was hit Duran instantly came back with a fierce counterattack. Body blows he ignores.

Duran's first fights were with an older brother when Roberto was five or six, and he lost most of them. "He wanted me to climb coconut trees and steal the coconuts so we could sell them," Roberto says. "Me, I had much fear of climbing the trees, but I had more fear of my brother, so I went ahead and stole the coconuts."

Ironically, he stole the coconuts from the estate of Carlos Eleta, who is now his manager. Eleta did not miss the coconuts—he owns most of Air Panama, a TV station, two breeding farms for racehorses, fighting cocks and 10 or 12 young fighters. Handsome and fit in his 50s, Eleta has been wrapped up in sports all of his life. For 11 years he was the tennis champion of Panama, using a two-handed backhand before this stylish touch was brought to the attention of the world by Pancho Segura.

"When I first saw Duran, he was in his first professional fight, and his manager was a jockey," Eleta says. "Duran was smaller then, but he fought in much the same way. He was very, very quick, very strong. But what I look for in a fighter is corazón, and Duran has a heart as big as his body. So I bought him from the jockey for $300, and I have managed him for almost all of his fights."

Most of them have been rousers; two are particularly memorable. Duran won the title in Madison Square Garden in June 1972, knocking out Ken Buchanan in the 13th round after an unrelenting attack. Duran has little respect for Buchanan, a classic upright Scot. "If I had had as much experience as him," Roberto says, "I would have knocked him out more quickly." That November Duran suffered his only loss—he has won 48, 41 by knockouts—in an over-the-weight fight with Esteban DeJesus of Puerto Rico, also in New York. Last year, in the return bout in Panama, with his title on the line, Duran knocked out DeJesus in the 11th round of an electrifying encounter.

Eleta also manages Duran's money, which is fortunate for the fighter. Given his head, Duran would likely squander everything. Eleta has invested the purses in two apartment houses and a residence. "He comes to me after a fight and asks for $2,000, $3,000," Eleta says. "He has a lot of people hanging around him saying, 'You are the champion. Make Eleta give you the money.' So then he comes to me and I say, 'Cholo, here is $200.' So then later he comes back and kisses me and says, 'Thank you, Papa.' " Cholo is Spanish for Indian, the predominant strain in the Duran family. Duran, who never met his real father until he had won the lightweight championship, was born in Chorrillo, a Panama City slum—narrow streets lined with cheap shops, noisy bars and rapidly decaying three-story wooden tenements. "When I was very little my mother took us to Guararé because it was much cheaper to live there. So I remember in Guararé I get up early in the morning, go out to chop wood and sell the wood for a nickel or a dime. I bring the money back and my mama buy rice and milk and that's what we have to eat for the day. There was eight ni√±os, so we did not get much to eat, you know."

Duran picked up a little more money by dancing and singing in the streets. If he did not bring it all home, his mother popped him into a basket hanging from a tree and swatted him with a broomstick, much as one might swat a Christmas piñata. Despite this, and despite the fact that she farmed out Roberto to friends and relatives from time to time, Duran has a deep affection for her. One of the first things he did when he began to make money was to buy her a home in Panama City.

"She gave me away maybe 10 times," he says. "Don't think wrong about that," he adds quickly. "It did not mean that she does not love me. It just means that she could not afford to feed me. She loved me very much."

Guararé is in the interior of Panama, some 150 miles from Panama City, and when he can manage, Duran returns there. When he was in New York for the Buchanan fight he was taken on a round of nightclubs, and someone asked him what he thought of the shows. "The feria in my hometown of Guararé is better," said Duran.

He came back to Chorrillo when he was 12 or 13 and contributed to the support of his mother by performing in bars. "I was a cute kid when I was little," he says. "I could dance good and sing good and play the drums good. I had a good time, and I had a lot of fights in the street, too, with kids who wanted to take away my tips."

For a time after he became a professional fighter Duran had a small band, and entertained in the nightclubs of Chorrillo, but Eleta made him give it up last year. "I was the drummer and the singer," Duran says, "but Papa, he did not want me in the bars. He did not mind the music, but he did not like me being in bars, so I had to quit."

Eleta also made Duran give up carousing with old friends; the fighter, once a steady cantina patron, has not had a drink in a year. "Also my wife has done this to me," he says, grinning. "Not to mention my mother-in-law and my father-in-law."

After the Lampkin fight, resplendent in a pink-and-white checked suit à la Liberace, and carrying a small leather purse, Duran met some friends at a restaurant. Putting the purse on a table and fishing through it, he hauled out a $50 gold piece on a heavy gold chain, a few gold bracelets and charms and, finally, a small gold ring with LOVE inscribed on it. "This is what I just bought my wife," he said.

Eleta stirred the pile of gold ornaments with a finger. "You know why he likes all this gold?" he asked. "Because when I won't give him enough money, he will go to the pawnshops with it and get the money he wants. Then he will come to me and ask me for the money to get his gold back."

Duran, his wife and three small children live in a new home in a good section of Panama City, which is usually crowded with friends and relatives. The interior is decorated in what might be called Chorrillo baroque and is embellished with discarded clothes, odd shoes, empty beer cans and cigarette butts. Duran is very proud of the house, as he is of his small, quiet and pretty wife, Claudinette, who happily watches her husband preen himself.

"I was looking out of my window in the apartment in the barrio," Duran says, speaking of the time he first saw her. "I see this very pretty girl walk by in the street, so I run down the stairs and catch up to her and I say, 'Hello, how are you? I like the way you look. Would you like to go to the movies?' And she say, I like the way you look, too, so we go to two movies.' Then, two years later, we get married."

The day after the Lampkin fight, Roberto left Claudinette at home with the children while he returned to the barrio to have lunch at an Italian restaurant. He was greeted by an ancient one-armed French Panamanian with no teeth. "Mocho, my friend," Duran said, "come eat with me." He embraced the old man warmly and made him sit down.

"When I was fighting amateur," Duran said, "Mocho would feed me when I was hungry. Sometimes it was the only food I had. Then, when I go to New York to fight Buchanan, I take Mocho."

Mocho smiled toothlessly and nodded. The lack of teeth and one arm had no effect on the speed with which he dispatched a heaping plate of spaghetti. Duran was hard put to keep pace.

"This is what I like," he said between heaping mouthfuls, "to be back in my neighborhood with my old friends. Later we go to La Chorrera for the feria, and I will see many more old friends. It is the thing I like to do when I am not in training. Come to the barrio, sit around and talk, go to the ferias and see the people who have known me since I was shining shoes and fighting in the streets. Sing and dance all night."

In the late afternoon he drove to La Chorrera, a village 40 miles from Panama City. It was the last day of the feria, which ran from Friday through Monday, and the crowds were, to Roberto, disappointingly small. "I like lots of people," he said. "They are all my friends."

Still, Duran drew a crowd as he walked through the gate and by the tatty sideshows, agriculture exhibitions, con games and food stalls. He looked like a peacock in a barnyard in his pink suit, with lace on his cuffs and the front of his shirt. Women pressed their babies upon him so he could pose for photos with mother and child. He did it gladly, over and over, while the pink suit suffered horribly from the succession of infants. He tried a bowling game and won two packs of cigarettes, which he gave to a cousin, then strolled through the fairground with the crowd pressing in on him, loving it all.

Duran drove back in the dusk, looking forward to a Chinese dinner. "Every time after I fight," he said, "I eat at the Mandarin a special meal made for me. Me, I like all kind of food, except maybe French."

Duran drives the way he fights—all out, no defense, charging steadily. On the two-lane Panamanian road it made for a hairy trip, especially since Duran had a tape playing full blast and occasionally took his hands from the wheel to beat Out the rhythm on the car's dashboard.

"I remember when I fight Leonard Tavarez in Paris," he said. "I ate a big meal and got very full, you know? And when I fight Tavarez, he hit me in the stomach in the second round and I hurt. So I knock him out as fast as I can in the third round so I can get back to the dressing room."

Duran is the champion of the World Boxing Association. Guts Ishimatsu, who defeated Buchanan in Tokyo a few days before Duran's victory over Lampkin, holds the WBC version of the title. Ishimatsu fought Duran in September of 1973 in Panama, and lost on a technical knockout in the 10th round after Duran had knocked him down three times.

The Japanese champion was known as Yuji Suzuki in those days. After Duran knocked him out he changed his named to Guts Ishimatsu to change his luck. The original Ishimatsu was a famous bodyguard of ancient Japan.

"That Japanese gave me one of my hardest fights," Duran says. "Harder than Lampkin, harder than Buchanan. But I knocked him out. If we fight again, I knock him out again." Like Duran, Ishimatsu is a brawler and, like Duran, he disdains defense. Unfortunately, he has nothing like the firepower Duran carries in both hands.

As Lampkin was recuperating in the hospital in Panama City, his manager, Mike Morton, was negotiating cautiously for a rematch. "We would like to fight him again in a cool climate," Morton said. "We would prefer the Garden, if possible. I think we had a good fight there." Indeed they did. And while Eleta is continually feuding with Madison Square Garden matchmaker Teddy Brenner, a prospective purse of $250,000 might persuade him to take the fight. At any rate, Mike Burke, the Garden president, is going to Panama to try to make it.

Whether Duran fights Ishimatsu or Lampkin next is of no difference to him. "They do not call me Manos de Piedra for nothing," he says proudly. "Ask Lampkin." Manos de Piedra means hands of stone.

PHOTOTONY TRIOLODamn the defense, full speed ahead: Duran knocked out Ray Lampkin to retain his title.PHOTOTONY TRIOLOA PRIDEFUL DURAN MODELS HIS CHAMPIONSHIP BELT