Punch now, bat later

He'd sooner play shortstop, but Duran saves his hands for slugging opponents
May 07, 1978

Stuck into a lampshade in the hotel suite was a Chicago Cubs pennant, still stiff and new. Lined up along the mantel were four baseball caps—two Pirates, one Mets, one Cubs—and a new baseball freshly covered with Pirate autographs. Three of the signatures on the ball were those of Panamanians. None of them was that of Roberto Duran, who is a 135-pound shortstop.

The souvenirs had been collected at a Pirate-Met game in New York by Carlos Eleta, the multimillionaire Panamanian sportsman who manages Duran, who is a baseball nut in addition to being the lightweight champion of the world. When he isn't fighting, Duran is playing ball on the sandlots of Panama—that is, until Eleta catches him at it.

The fighter and the manager had stopped over in New York to pick up $100,000, which is what Duran was paid after defeating Adolfo Viruet last week in a non-title bout at Madison Square Garden. Shortstop salaries do not run to $3,333.33 a minute, and that is the crux of Eleta's argument.

"Not that I do not understand Duran's love of baseball," he says. "I, too, am a very faithful fan. But no more than two weeks ago I caught Roberto playing ball. I think he would rather be a shortstop than a fighter. It's his hands. They are hands of stone for boxing, but baseball is different. He could break his fingers, a wrist. When I speak to him, he listens to me. For a while."

Even though he listens, Duran occasionally fails to get the message. Several months ago Eleta was in Boston on business and Duran telephoned from Panama. The fighter had just had a call from General Omar Torrijos, the President of Panama, who was visiting Cuba. Fidel Castro wanted very much to meet Duran. "I told him to go ahead," Eleta said, "but I warned him, as I always do, not to get involved in politics. I told him to be careful of what he said."

Pledging to be discreet, Duran flew to Havana, where all went smoothly—at first. And then Castro mentioned Teofilo Stevenson, the Cuban two-time Olympic heavyweight champion. "What would you think of a fight between Stevenson and Muhammad Ali for the world title?" Castro asked.

The question didn't sound political to Duran. "Don't be crazy," he said. "Ali would kill him."

"Adios" Fidel said.

A former ambassador to Spain, Eleta knows the art of diplomacy. Still, he delights in Duran's frankness and honesty. The pair have never had a contract. Duran has had several offers to switch managers, one of them for $200,000. He has rejected them all.

"That Duran," Eleta says, "he's something, isn't he?"

Seven years ago, that was precisely what Luis Henriquez was telling Madison Square Garden matchmaker Teddy Brenner. Henriquez is a Panamanian vice-consul in New York, and he is now Eleta's administrative assistant for Duran's fights as well.

"He really is something else," Henriquez was telling Brenner, who had never heard of Duran. "Twenty-three fights, all wins, with 19 knockouts. You should use him."

At the time, Duran was already scheduled to fight Chango Carmona, the No. 2 lightweight contender, in Mexico, for $10,000. Swayed by Henriquez' eloquence, Brenner offered Duran $3,000 to fight unranked Benny Huertas in the Garden.

"It took me three weeks to make up my mind," Eleta says. "There was a big difference in money. But the exposure at the Garden decided me. I told Roberto it was the best thing to do."

But Eleta had second thoughts in the dressing room just before the fight in September 1971. He was concerned that Duran, who had only fought in Panama and Mexico, might freeze before a big Garden crowd.

"Are you worried?" Eleta asked.

"Very worried," Duran said.

"Of what?" said Eleta, alarmed.

"I am worried because I want to eat a lot of ice cream after the fight and I am afraid the stores will close before we can get out of here. Fm going to knock this guy out in the first round."

Duran did just that. Because of his impressive showing, he was back at the Garden nine months later, when he knocked out Ken Buchanan in 13 to win the world lightweight championship.

Five months later, Esteban DeJesus defeated Duran in a non-title over-the-weight bout at the Garden, Duran's only loss in 62 fights. DeJesus weighed 138 pounds, Duran was 137½. Duran has since knocked out DeJesus twice at the regulation weight. "He had just won the title and he was having a lot of fun celebrating," says Freddie Brown, one of Duran's trainers. "He didn't take DeJesus seriously. It didn't mean anything to him. He came to New York to play."

Last week's fight with junior welterweight Viruet was also a non-title bout, this time with a 142-pound limit. But Duran hadn't forgotten the first DeJesus fight. There was to be no playing around. Duran set up camp in a suite at the Mayflower Hotel where, except for trips to Gleason's Gym to train, he spent most of his time. He was in bed each night at eight o'clock.

"Roberto isn't going to fight that much longer," says Eleta. "Perhaps no more than a year, two more fights. He doesn't want to lose, even though his title is not at stake."

On one of his few excursions out of the hotel, Duran went to Casa Latina on 116th Street, where he bought $2,000 worth of bongos, snare drums and timbals. Another morning he dropped into Saks Fifth Avenue and purchased a $250 raincoat and a $50 pair of sunglasses. For recreation he mostly sat on a bench in Central Park across from the hotel and watched the people go by.

"After the fight I'll play," he said. "Viruet is something special. I want to beat him bad."

Duran has a running feud with the Viruet family, Puerto Ricans who live in Hoboken, N.J. Twice Duran had fought Adolfo's brother Edwin. He won the first fight on a 10-round decision, the second on a 15-round decision. Duran and Edwin Viruet don't like each other. And it didn't help any when Edwin showed up at Duran's training sessions to shout insults.

"I kicked your tail twice," Duran screamed at Edwin one day. "And I'll kick your brother's. And if you bring your father tomorrow, I'll kick his."

Adolfo said he didn't understand the necessity for all the shouting. "I'm not yelling at nobody," said Adolfo, a 26-year-old southpaw with a 14-2 record. "It's my brother yelling. I got nothing against nobody. I think my brother hates him. But I got nothing against Duran. He never do nothing to me."

And through the early rounds Viruet fought as if he held no grudges. Most of the time he kept out of harm's way, scuttling away from the advancing Duran, only occasionally stopping to sting the champion with a left-hand lead. Duran, frustrated, expended most of his energy trying to get close enough to land a punch.

Viruet is reputed to be a tough street fighter who takes a good punch to the head, and although he boasted beforehand—"He want to fight wild, I fight him wild. It's gonna be a war"—most of the bombs exploded in air rather than on someone's chin. Whenever Duran unloaded a punch, Viruet took two quick steps backward and ran or tentatively countered.

In the sixth round, however, Duran leaped in, caught Viruet with a hook to the body and shook him with a right to the head. Teeth bared, Viruet fought back and hooked the champion to the body, then to the head.

Duran muscled his rival to the ropes and began to pound him with both hands. When he missed with a punch, Duran sometimes followed with an elbow. Hurt and angry, Viruet, who hadn't fought in almost a year, battled back. For better than two minutes it was street fury against street fury, neither man giving a step. At the bell, Referee Arthur Mercante leaped between the two to stop them. The crowd of 17,125 fans stood and cheered for more.

They didn't get another round like the sixth, but Duran knew by the end that he had been in a fight. Although the decision was unanimous, Judge Artie Aidala gave Viruet four rounds. Tony Castellano had it 7-3, while Mercante scored it 7-2-1 Duran.

It was then that Edwin Viruet leaped into the ring and tried to get at the champion, and Duran tried to get at Edwin. The only casualty was 72-year-old Ray Arcel, Duran's other trainer, who was pushed to the floor as people rushed to intercept the two fighters.

"He hit my brother low four times," Edwin said later.

"I would have hit Edwin low if all those people didn't get in my way," Duran said later.

Overlooked was the fact that Edwin hadn't managed to hit Duran in 25 rounds; if he had done it this time, Duran would doubtless have won again.

And then they all left the Garden, Duran to look for an ice-cream store and Eleta to sign title fights with Alexis Arguello, the WBC junior lightweight champion, and with Antonio Cervantes, the WBA junior welterweight champ. The purses for these bouts should establish Duran as a millionaire.

"After those two fights, he can play all the shortstop he wants," said Eleta. "I may even try and get him a tryout with the Cubs."

PHOTOWading in relentlessly, Duran (left) was frustrated by Viruet's style: the counterpunch, the hit and back away, and the crablike shuffle.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)