While the announced retirement of any fighter should never be taken as gospel (Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali come to mind), it's probably safe to bet the rent that Roberto Duran will never again be paid to appear in short pants and padded mitts. The 30-year-old Panamanian cashed in his career chips last Saturday night at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas after losing a unanimous decision to Wilfred Benitez, the WBC junior middleweight champion with a 43-1-1 record.
Although Duran, the former lightweight and welterweight champion, lost the fight to Benitez, he could walk away from the game with pride and dignity, qualities he conspicuously failed to exhibit 14 months ago.
All week before the Benitez bout, Duran kept saying that if he lost this one there would be no more. "I am fighting Benitez to get one more chance at Ray Leonard," he said. "Leonard is my ultimate goal. But if I lose to Benitez...."
Leonard was the ultimate because on Nov. 25, 1980 in New Orleans' Super-dome, Duran lost his welterweight championship rematch to Leonard when he quit without honor in the eighth round. The words he muttered at the time—no màs, no màs—have haunted him ever since.
Returning to Panama in disgrace, he begged his manager, Carlos Eleta, for a second chance. "No," said Eleta. Then he relented. "In New Orleans, Duran had surrounded himself with bad people," Eleta explained. "I told him that if he wanted to fight again, first he must get rid of that entourage. It took nine months before the last one was gone. Then he came to me, and I said I would help him."
Duran began his comeback as a 154-pound junior middleweight by winning unspectacular decisions over Nino Gonzalez and Luigi Minchillo. Then he signed to fight Benitez for $500,000.
Duran had been known to train on rich food and fast nightlife. And, next to the Canal, Panama considered him its most important asset. Reports from New York, where he spent time last summer, said Duran had ballooned upwards of 180 pounds before the Gonzalez fight in August. In Panama, getting him into fighting shape for the Benitez bout became a national concern.
Secretly, Eleta and General Omar Torrijós Herrera, Panama's ruler, who has since died in a plane crash, set up training quarters for Duran on Coiba, a penal island 15 miles off the coast of Panama. About 350 people, including Panama's most vicious convicts, live there. For Duran, there would be no restaurants or theaters, no television or telephones. There are no cells on Coiba, but the waters surrounding the island are shark infested.
Duran had been led to believe he would train in Los Angeles, a city of delights that he knows well. Too well. One of his closest advisers, Luis Henriquez, established a training camp in L.A., and last Dec. 2 he returned to Panama to get Duran. On arrival, Henriquez was met by a detachment of national guardsmen.
They took Henriquez to Florencio Flores, their commandant. "Colonel Flores told me not to bother unpacking," Henriquez said. "He said they had a plane waiting to take me and Duran to Coiba. It turned out to be a masterstroke. All the prisoners know what hard times are, and it didn't bother them what Roberto had done in New Orleans. They did wonders building his morale. And, with no distractions, he became hard and mean once more."
If anyone has a reputation for training less than Duran, it is Benitez. But for the $1.4 million he would earn for his second defense of the title he won from Maurice Hope last May, Benitez was hard at work in Puerto Rico.
"When Benitez lost the welterweight title to Leonard in 1979," said Jimmy Jacobs, a co-manager of Benitez, "he trained three days, and I'm not sure about two of those."
Benitez said he had put in two full months of hard work this time. His father, Gregorio, who trains him, said it was one month. They have been known to disagree.
During that period there was a wave of celebrity kidnappings in Puerto Rico. One night the telephone rang in the Benitez house, and Gregorio answered.
"We have kidnapped Wilfred."
"We want a million dollars."
"Or we'll kill him."
"Kill him," Gregorio said, deciding it was a hoax.
A few days before his fight with Duran, the champion stretched out on a bed in his Las Vegas hotel suite. It was 6 p.m. and he had just finished a very hard workout, with eight rounds of sparring. Why the new regimen?
"Dedication and maturity," said Benitez, one of six men ever to hold championships in three divisions. "This is my last fight as a junior middleweight and it is very important. After this fight I want to become a middleweight and beat Marvin Hagler for my fourth title. For this I must be disciplined."
Two months ago Benitez weighed 172 pounds. Three weeks ago he was down to 165. As he spoke last week, after the workout, he weighed 155.
"I have trained right," he said. "I lost the weight by training instead of just not eating, but this weight is too hard to make anymore. But I feel strong because I have worked very hard. At this weight I, and not Duran, will have the hands of stone."
As Frank Parilla, one of Benitez' handlers, and his grandson, 9-year-old Juan Francisco Vasquez, were playing dominoes, one of Wilfred's favorite games, Gregorio was checking the suite for signs of voodoo. He had heard that the Panamanians thought that he was a witch and would use voodoo against him. He had posted extra guards and was constantly searching for suspicious powders or marks on the doors.
"Duran is a dirty fighter," Gregorio said. "Everybody knows he is a street fighter. He is a guy who comes in angry. All of Wilfred's fights have been clean. If you are going to fight with fouls, then let's call this kick boxing. That's the Japanese style [sic]; you hit with fist and with feet. Duran should be a kick boxer."
An onlooker mentioned that Wilfred was saying how hard he had worked.
Gregorio frowned. "I got nothing to say about that," he said, and then had something to say about that. "I think he could have trained better this time. This is going to be a furious fight. This is a fight for Latin America and the Americans are all eager to see my champion beat Duran. We have to beat him any way we can. Kicking if we have to. But Duran can't beat him. Wilfred is a young man with the age of 35 in the ring. He has 200 and some fights on his ribs. They can do 1,000 marvelous things to him, and with his experience he's too great for it to matter. He is a bible." By Gregorio's count, Wilfred had sparred 400 rounds and had run 200 miles preparing for Duran.
At a press conference the following day, Gregorio glared at Duran and said. "We have trained to fight 15 rounds just in case you decide not to quit in the eighth round."
Duran laughed at him. Later he told the newsmen, "After I beat Wilfred I am going to get Don King to sign my father to fight his father."
Wilfred was enraged by the comment. Jumping up, he tried to get at Duran, who laughed and ducked out of the way. Later, in his dressing room, Duran said, "All of Benitez' clowning just proves he is afraid of me. I sleep nights. I am sure he doesn't."
Duran's interpreter relayed a question about Leonard.
"I am fighting Benitez," Duran said angrily. "I don't think about Leonard. Why do you keep asking me about Leonard? Why don't you go ask Leonard why he doesn't give me a second chance like I gave him?"
On the night of the fight Leonard was doing color commentary at ringside for Home Box Office, which was televising the bout live. He had picked Benitez to win. "But only if he doesn't fight Duran the way I fought him in Montreal," Leonard said, grinning.
Just before the first bell, Benitez, who had been scowling across the ring at Duran, turned and winked at Leonard. Then, with a 2½" height advantage and those marvelous reflexes that he calls radar, he went to work.
For this fight, Eleta had coaxed Ray Arcel from retirement. The 82-year-old trainer had packed it in after the New Orleans debacle. "It made me sick," Arcel said. "Physically sick. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I was jittery. But I guess it's true that time heals all wounds. Who knows what happened that night? Not even Duran can explain it. Can you condemn a man for one mistake? When Eleta called me I told him if Duran was ever in a big fight, I would be there."
Now Arcel had ordered Duran to get on top of Benitez and stay there. "I don't want a fencing match," he said. "That's his game. We got to fight him for 15 rounds. He's a stylist, but we are stronger. It's brain against brawn."
Duran came out firing, but Benitez is a bewildering target. He stands straight up, barely moving, appearing no more difficult to hit than, say, the ring post. But you swing and he is gone; sometimes by no more than a fraction of an inch, but gone.
Duran became frustrated. He tried to lunge in behind a jab, only to leave himself off-balance and open for snapping hooks to the body. In the third round Benitez began to fire righthand leads to the head, each time paying for it as Duran banged combinations to the body. Benitez switched to digging both hands to the body. By the end of the round, Duran was backing up, and he looked grim. Benitez continued to work over Duran's body in the fourth, and at the bell he hit Leonard with another wink.
The sixth was Duran's best round: He hit Benitez with three solid right hands to the head. But Benitez didn't blink.
"It's the size," Arcel would say later. "He hit a lightweight like that and he goes. But while he can hurt these bigger guys, they are strong enough and have enough endurance to come right back."
In the seventh, Benitez sliced open Duran's left eyelid with a right lead, jarred him with a right uppercut and then appeared to let Duran trap him against the ropes, only to outpunch him three to one. The fencer was beating the strong man at his own game.
As Benitez continued his vicious body attack, Duran began to tire. As a lightweight he was a legend, but now he was a legend carrying a 17½-pound impost. It began to take its toll. As he returned wearily to his corner after the 10th, Duran was met with a barrage of Spanish from Panama Lewis, a handler who was relaying instructions from Arcel and cut-man Bill Present.
"Throw more overhand rights," was the message. "The other guy is dropping his left. And stay inside and punch."
Duran sighed as Present worked on the cut. "I try. I try," he said. "But I can't do it. My arms, they are too heavy. I'm trying to put pressure on, but my body won't let me."
Indeed, more and more Duran seemed to be resorting to a tactic in which he would unleash one desperate punch and then close with Benitez, tying him up before the champion, a committed counterpuncher, could retaliate. Although Benitez kept looking to unload a big right, like the punch that coldcocked poor Hope, he never abandoned his steely purpose; that is, he wisely refrained from disobeying one of the sport's hoariest and truest dicta—don't slug with a slugger—however much he wanted to put Duran away. Of course, slugger is a description that doesn't apply to Duran nowadays: he throws the wide punches of that breed, but they are no longer forceful, no longer destructive.
But, to his credit, Duran never stopped trying. He kept boring in, taking everything Benitez could throw, still trying to unload the killer punch that had given him 55 knockouts in 76 fights. In the 12th, a butt ripped open a small cut on the side of Benitez' left eye. In the 13th, Duran came out minus his mouthpiece. Present had been working on the eye. As the bell rang, Present screamed, "Where's the mouthpiece?" In the excitement one of his handlers had taken it down the steps. By the time he returned, Duran was in the ring fighting his heart out.
"I can promise you this," Arcel had said. "If Duran ever thought he'd do again what he did against Leonard in New Orleans, he'd kill himself first."
Duran proved that in the 15th. Exhausted, hardly able to hold up his arms, he whaled away against Benitez in a neutral corner, and for most of the final three minutes they slammed each other with abandon.
It was the way people should remember Roberto Duran: Although he knew he couldn't win, the indomitable and courageous Panamanian warrior who gave us years of fierce joy was giving his all until the final bell.