The time had come to settle the divisive nonsense of two world boxing organizations, two boxers and two championships—and Roberto Duran settled it with masterful violence last Saturday in Las Vegas. He did it with one of the sharpest right-hand shots ever delivered in anybody's organization and he left Esteban DeJesus semi-comatose on the ring floor at Caesars Palace. And only then did the former Panama City shoeshine boy, now the undisputed lightweight champion of the world, permit himself a friendlier emotion. With tears tracking down his gaunt and unshaven cheeks, he hugged his manager, Carlos Eleta, and yelled again and again, "I was born to be the champion of the whole world."
Maybe so. But, born to the title or not, this Duran was far different from the one boxing fans had come to know. Until the brutal final moments of the 12th round, the fiery slugger had banked his fire and followed a shrewd and effective new strategy. The infuriated street fighter was suddenly an artist. Moving fluidly and jabbing, slipping punches and countering rather than swarming over DeJesus, he stalked him, relentlessly wearing him down and coolly destroying him with short, savage punches to the body. For 11 rounds Duran bested the classic boxer at his own game, robbing him of his speed and his will to fight, and only then did he permit himself the luxury of putting DeJesus away with the more familiar Manos de Piedra—the Fists of Stone.
It was a fitting climax to a fight billed as The Combat Zone. It was to be the showdown between ancient enemies: Duran the WBA champion, loser of only one fight in 61, winner of 50 by knockout; DeJesus the WBC titleholder, loser of only three fights in 50, winner of 29 by knockout. The 26-year-olds had fought twice before, with DeJesus winning the first in 1972, a non-title 10-round decision at Madison Square Garden. A year and a half later they fought again, this time with Duran's WBA title at stake, and Duran won with a knockout in 11 rounds. On both occasions DeJesus dropped Duran with left hooks in the first round.
"I don't like him for a lot of reasons," Duran said before the fight, "mostly because he is the only man ever to beat me. And he is the only man to ever knock me down." He considered the indignity of that and managed a brief smile. "I don't like him for those reasons, but I have to respect him for them."
January 30, 1978
DeJesus said he had always wondered why Duran kept saying all those nasty things about him, and now he knew. "If he don't like me because I knock him down, let him wait until after this fight," DeJesus said. "This time I'm going to destroy him. When I knock him down this time, if he gets up, I will kill him. I tell him that I will fight him in the street anytime for nothing. He ignored me. For this I am glad, because I need the money."
If equally vocal, the two also are equally dedicated: neither will go down in history as an advocate of hard work. Both would rather play than train, and sometimes both have been known to play while training. But for this fight, the two old rivals had been training for weeks, DeJesus by choice, Duran more or less by trickery.
"Sometimes getting Duran into the gym can be a very difficult thing," says Eleta, who is the champion's multimillionaire patron as well as his manager. "His trouble is that he has been champion for 5½ years. He knows everyone in Panama, and they will give him anything he wants. With all that, getting him back to work is a chore. But this time I played a little trick. I told him that he had a tune-up fight in Panama before DeJesus. He trained hard at home for a month. Then I told him the tune-up fight had been called off, and I sent him to Los Angeles to train. Of course, there was no such tune-up. But he had worked very hard for four extra weeks and now is in the best shape of his career. He laughed when I told him of my trick."
For trainers, Duran has Ray Arcel, 78, and Freddie Brown, 71; in the last half century they have worked with 38 world champions. They seem to have a special rapport with Duran, forcing him to train industriously, if not happily. After every fight he fires them; before the next fight he rehires them.
"Our trouble is that the trainers he has in Panama can't handle him, they can't control him," Eleta says. "And he knows this is not good for him. Only Brown and Arcel can control him. That is why before every fight he calls me and says, 'Where are they? I need them. Please call and get them for me.' "
Under the ancient pair's exacting tutelage—and with the extra month's work behind him—Duran's usual struggle to make the 135-pound weight limit was easier. His only problem in Los Angeles was in finding sparring partners, whom the Panamanian pounds without mercy. When Duran works, everybody works. In one sparring session he broke the nose of Mike Youngblood, a 160-pounder out of Philadelphia with a 14-0 record. Duran's handlers immediately were off in search of new fodder. They came back with a kid named Jorge Morales.
"Unfortunately, we overlooked the fact that Morales was a Puerto Rican like DeJesus," says Luis Henriquez, a Duran adviser. "It wasn't a smart move."
During a sparring session Morales began to taunt Duran with suggestions of what DeJesus was going to do to him. "He kick your butt," Morales said. Duran was not amused. And then, when Morales insulted Panama, Duran began ripping off his gloves so that he could have a go at Morales with bare knuckles.
Wisely, Morales fled the ring. His father was less fortunate. Leaping into the ring, the senior Morales went after Duran, who dispatched him with a right hand to the head. Suddenly the ring was full of people, few of them friendly, and Duran, once more the violent child of mean streets, began whacking away at everyone within range.
"It was unnerving," says Tony Rivera, one of Duran's assistant trainers. "We got Duran in the corner, but he broke loose and started all over again. He just ran around the ring looking for people to hit."
When word of the brawl reached Las Vegas, promoter Don King's hair stood up even straighter. "He could have been injured seriously," he said. "What else can happen before this fight?" King had worked for two years to put together the match, ever since DeJesus had won the WBC version of the title from Ishimatsu Suzuki in May of 1976. The problems had been monumental.
"It was a job just to get the two managers of the fighters to even think about a match," King says. "They had fought twice and neither wanted to fight a third time. First I convinced DeJesus. But the hard part was convincing Eleta. Then, when we did agree, trying to find a site that pleased him was almost impossible. One place was too cold; the next too hot. A third place, somewhere in Africa, was O.K., but then Eleta didn't think he could get Duran's money out. He finally said yes to Las Vegas." And to $250,000 for Duran, $150,000 for DeJesus.
That was only the beginning of the promotion problems. There were lawsuits and threatened lawsuits, and the fight was off and on again. "What else can happen?" King moaned.
He found out at 7 a.m. Saturday morning. Because CBS-TV had scheduled the fight at 1:42 p.m., the fighters had to weigh in at a time better suited for rising birds and retiring drunks. The early-morning call did nothing for the tempers of Duran and DeJesus.
Normally, the scales are placed in the center of the ring, but Richie Giachetti, one of DeJesus' assistant trainers, protested that the ring was too soft for the scale to give a true weight. He was backed by weights and measures experts. The scales were placed on the floor next to the ring—within easy reach of all Panamanian and Puerto Rican fans willing to rise at that terrible hour.
DeJesus removed the heavy cross he wears around his neck and stepped on the scales. He came in at 134 pounds, one pound under the limit. He stepped down and Duran stepped up, hitting 134¼. Laughing, Duran applauded his own weight. He doesn't get down that far so easily.
Standing less than a foot away, DeJesus snarled, "Keep your mouth shut. You're too weak to even talk. You are skinny. I'll kill you. I'll show you today."
Again, Duran was not amused. Indeed, he allowed that he would be the one doing any killing. As he spoke, Duran stuck a wagging finger near DeJesus' nose—and DeJesus nailed him with a glancing right hand. That's when the pre-fight fight started. It was brief; the handlers fought harder than the principals. "Oh, Lord," King said. "How many hours to the real fight?" "Six," said Josè Sulaimàn, the WBC president. "Say, Don. how did you score this one?"
For color commentators, CBS had brought in two established fight experts: Angelo Dundee and Gil Clancy. Both liked Duran, who had opened as a 2-to-1 favorite but had skidded to 7 to 5 just before the fight. "A lot of people think Duran is slipping because of his last few fights," Clancy said. "I think he is getting better. Against DeJesus he's a stronger finisher and that's the difference. I give him a chance for a knockout from lion."
"The impression of Duran is that he's a rough, tough brawler who just wades in ducking nothing." Dundee said. "But all you have to do is look at his face to see that is nonsense. He's not marked up. He does a lot of cute things in there that most guys don't see. I look for DeJesus to go in the 11th or 12th round."
Meanwhile, Duran was remembering the two first-round knockdowns in his previous battles with DeJesus. He also recalled his last start, a 15-round decision over Edwin Viruet last September. He knew he had not fought his best against Viruet and that he had not fought for four months. He expected DeJesus to pressure him early. For those reasons Duran decided to open slow and easy.
As expected, DeJesus came out strong, forcing the pace and scoring points. Duran was content to lay back and study the situation, obviously in no hurry. By the third round, Duran decided that he had coasted long enough. He began to slip DeJesus' hooks and to counter with solid right hands to the body. At first DeJesus laughed when Duran hit him.
By the fifth round, DeJesus no longer found anything in the ring amusing. Duran was looking stronger, and his blows were sapping DeJesus. In the sixth Duran backed DeJesus into a corner and lifted him off the floor with a stunning body shot. He followed with a hook to the head, but, with a desperate flurry, DeJesus fought his way out. Right hand cocked menacingly, Duran stalked him. And so it went to the 11th round: Duran stalking, picking his spots, countering over and under DeJesus' wild hooks.
At that point Duran led on all three boards: Isidor Rodriques, a WBA judge from Venezuela, had him ahead 109-104; Richard Steele, a WBC judge from Los Angeles, had him in front 107-104; and Art Lurie, the neutral judge from Nevada, had him ahead 107-102. As it turned out, the scoring was irrelevant. The fight was to end in another two minutes and 33 seconds.
DeJesus came out strongly at the start of Round 12, scoring with right hands to Duran's head. Emboldened, he leaned forward slightly and started to wade in. And then, his weight balanced beautifully, Duran threw the stunning right hand, smack against DeJesus' jaw. DeJesus dropped. Badly dazed, he rolled over and crawled to the ropes, hauling himself up at the count of five. Referee Buddy Basilico stepped aside after counting to eight—and here came old Stone Fists. No more science was needed. The strategy had worked.
DeJesus had no chance. Duran. his lips pulled back in the tigerish grin of old, was all over him. Quickly the blows came: a right, two lefts, two powerful rights. Trying to hold himself erect with his left hand on the top rope, DeJesus looked at Duran with pain and awe. Slowly, he began to sink. Duran hit him twice more on the way down.
As Basilico moved to the fallen fighter to pick up the count, two of DeJesus' handlers leaped into the ring and ran toward their man. Basilico tried to wave them back, then shrugged and signaled that the fight was over. It was recorded as a technical knockout. "DeJesus was on queer street. I was going to count to eight, but I would have stopped it myself," Basilico said.
Duran, now the world's only lightweight champion, went home to celebrate Christmas. And New Year's Eve. And, perhaps, to get a running start on Easter. His next scheduled fight is not until April against the winner of next week's Wilfredo Benitez-Bruce Curry bout. But as Carlos Eleta told him, "Don't celebrate too much, Roberto. We have a tune-up fight in Panama soon. I'll see you in the gym next week."