The horror of the moment will be engraved forever on Roberto Duran's mind. It came at 2:20 of the opening round, at a time when the cunning old warrior from Panama was feeling delighted because he thought he had neutralized the threat of WBC junior middleweight champion Thomas Hearns's head-snapping jab. "I've taken it away from him," Duran had decided happily seconds before, "and now I will get inside and take away the right." Lowering his head, Duran lunged forward and threw a right—and his eyes widened as he saw Hearns's right hand screaming toward his unprotected head. "Oh, God," Duran thought, "I have committed a brutality here and...." And a split second later he was struggling to rise from the spinning floor.
That was the first of Duran's three trips to the mat in the ring set up in the parking lot at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas last Friday, all within a stunning span of less than two minutes. The last came at 1:07 of the second round, and after one shocked look at the 32-year-old former three-time world champion sprawled face down and motionless, referee Carlos Padilla signaled a cease-fire without a count.
When he had regained his senses, and with them the realization that he had been knocked out for the first time in his 17-year, 82-fight pro career, Duran asked: "¬øQué yo hice malo?" "What did I do wrong?"
Hearns knew the answer to Duran's question just 45 seconds into the second defense of the 154-pound title he had won from Wilfred Benitez on Dec. 3, 1982. That was when Hearns, who, at 6'1", was 5½ inches taller than Duran, spotted a fatal flaw in Roberto's style and quickly changed his strategy.
"I thought it would take me a round or so to figure him out," Hearns said less than an hour after he had made good on his prediction of a second-round knockout. "I had planned on throwing a lot of hard jabs [taking advantage of his reach advantage], but the first time I really hit him with one, he backed up. I saw this look in his eyes. Then when I threw the next one, he jumped back. This thought came into my mind: 'Fake the jab and throw the right.' And I wasn't watching his head; I was watching his body."
That first experimental right hand sliced a tiny cut over Duran's left eye. "I hardly noticed it," Duran said later. He should have. The next right caught him squarely on the top of his head and dropped him as though he had been shot. "I never felt it hit," said Duran. "It was like, suddenly, I was down, and when I got up I was terribly confused."
Up at the count of six, Duran staggered slightly as Padilla gave him the mandatory eight. Waved in, Hearns fired a heavy volley—and Duran fired back with a wolfish grin.
"That's what I'm afraid of," Emanuel Steward, Hearns's manager, had said a few days earlier. "I can see it going so many ways, and one of them is Tommy hitting Duran with a real shot and Duran just standing there grinning. It could really frustrate Tommy."
But Hearns was hardly frustrated. He hooked Duran in the grin and dropped him again. Up at three, Duran took another mandatory eight. Two seconds later the bell rang. Dazed, Duran turned and staggered to a neutral corner before finding his own.
But then, Duran hadn't had much practice recovering from a knockdown. Before Friday, Duran had been decked only twice—both times by Esteban DeJesus of Puerto Rico, the last on March 16, 1974, 41 fights and more than 10 years ago.
After being led to his corner Duran told his people, "He surprised me."
"You have to keep your hands up," said his manager, Luis Spada. "That is being brave, but you can't let Hearns attack you."
Duran stared across the ring at Hearns, a man he had wanted to fight so badly that he had offered to forfeit the WBA junior middleweight title he had won from a terrified and inexperienced Davey Moore last June. As Duran stared, the fierce glare that had chilled so many opponents was not there. Then, briefly, fire entered his eyes. "Do not stop this fight," he commanded. "They will have to carry me out."
Across the way, Steward was cautioning his champion. "He's totally frustrated and that means only one thing: He's going to try and turn it into a street brawl," Steward said. "Don't let him. You are fighting beautifully. Just go out there and do what you have been doing."
"The Hit Man is back," Hearns responded softly, referring to the nickname he had until recently eschewed in favor of Motor City Cobra.
It was Hearns the Hit Man who had won the WBA welterweight title on Aug. 2, 1980 by knocking out Pipino Cuevas in two rounds. Hearns was 32-0, with only two men able to go the distance against his explosive right hand, when on Sept. 16, 1981, in the same parking lot where he now faced Duran, he was stopped in 14 rounds by Sugar Ray Leonard. It was a defeat Hearns would take a long time getting over.
More than a year afterward Hearns won his present crown from Benitez on a 15-round decison. But it had been a costly victory. In the eighth round he had broken his right hand; the tremendous force of one of his punches against Benitez's head had popped small wristbones through the linear muscles at the back of the hand. He finished the bout and won the title one-handed.
After that, without the full use of his right hand, which was placed in a cast for 3½ months and immobilized for one month more, Hearns's decline was almost as rapid as his spectacular rise had been. He won two fights, but both went the distance. He signed to fight for Marvelous Marvin Hagler's middleweight championship, but that bout was twice postponed when Hearns reinjured the hand, and it was finally canceled. Those close to Hearns say he became moody, almost a recluse.
"You have to understand Thomas," explains Dr. Frederick Lewerenz, Hearns's physician in Detroit. "His whole value judgment is based on how hard he can hit. This man actually lives and exists mentally from the power of his right hand. It's his self-image."
As Steward had anticipated, Duran came out in the second round the only way he could: a street fighter protecting his home turf. Early in the round Duran caught Hearns with a hard flurry to the head. For a moment, those who had backed the 2-to-1 underdog dared to hope. Firing a hard jab, Hearns backed off a step, hesitated, then shot a hard, short right hand that drove Duran back into his corner. Duran tried to escape by sliding to his left along the ropes. Hearns responded with a savage salvo, which Duran tried to minimize by bending low and covering his head with his arms.
When that didn't work, Duran straightened, and Hearns nailed him with a smashing right to the jaw. For a moment, Duran seemed suspended in space. Hearns could have hit him again; instead, he stepped back. Then Duran's knees gave way, and he pitched forward onto his face.
For Duran, who quit in the eighth round of his rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard in November 1980, there would be no màs. But this time it was with honor.
"You all thought I was crazy picking a second-round knockout," Hearns said afterward. "But I was deadly serious. I couldn't just win, I had to win big because I was fighting a legend. And Roberto Duran is a legend. The Hit Man was on vacation, but now he's back. Now I want Marvin Hagler. I just wonder if he still wants me."
For a little more than four minutes of work, Hearns earned $1.85 million (as did Duran). More important, he recaptured his former stature as an exciting and highly marketable fighter in a sport that sorely needs one.
"I feel so good I can't even begin to describe it," said Hearns, his record now 39-1. "I knew I was too tall and too fast for him. I knew I'd get to him early." A small laugh escaped. "But to make sure, I knew I had to make that prediction, and I wanted it to come true."
Outside in the warm Las Vegas evening, Duran stepped from a mobile home he had used as a dressing room and set out for his sixth-floor suite in Caesars' central tower. There he asked for his wife, Felicidad, whom he calls Fula. Her eyes wet from tears, Fula came into the room. "He surprised me," Duran said.
A few minutes later, off in a quiet corner, he told a friend, "My problem was that I brawled with him and lost my head. That's when I screwed up. My corner told me something after the first round, but I can't remember what it was because I am still a little dizzy. Damn, I tried to get under those long arms, and he knocked me crazy with that right hand. Now I have to go home to Panama to see what they think."
Tears came to his eyes. He was remembering the reaction in Panama after his ignominious loss to Leonard.
"Let me tell you something," he said in a husky voice. "There are a few Panamanians, I won't mention names, that have treated me badly. But I have demonstrated here and everywhere that I am still Roberto Duran."
Spada came over and put a hand on his shoulder. "Cholo," he said, calling Duran by his nickname, "it's O.K."
Duran smiled at him. "Old man, give me a beer," he said.
He grinned when two waiters wheeled several carts loaded with iced beer into the room. And he laughed happily when an admirer slipped into the room to give him a bottle of Chivas Regal.
"Buenas noches, Roberto" said the friend. "Nunca baje tu cabeza. Tu todavía eres magnífico."
Yes, good night, Roberto. Don't ever lower your head. You are still magnificent.