Unlike cheese and wine, prizefighters, even the great champions, do not get zestier with advancing age. Joe Louis, who was hammered by Rocky Marciano at 37, and Muhammad Ali, who at 38 suffered a similar fate at the hands of Larry Holmes, proved that you can't shave away the years with an old blade. And recently Holmes, himself now 38, was destroyed in less than four rounds by 21-year-old Mike Tyson. Now approaching the same fate is Roberto Duran, perhaps the greatest lightweight champion ever, but at 36 carrying too many years and too many pounds.

Certainly Duran can make a relatively safe living fighting the likes of Ricky Stackhouse, a journeyman middleweight with a 19-6 record, whom the former champ whacked rather handily last Friday night to win a 10-round decision in Atlantic City. Duran weighed in at 162 pounds, and even he admitted afterward that he wasn't in the best of condition and fought with uncharacteristic caution.

Duran said that he had trained only a month for the fight, had come down from 190 pounds, and that he was content to earn $30,000 by going a soft 10 rounds. Now a soft 10 rounds against Stackhouse is one thing, but there is talk of sending the Hands of Stone against Mike McCallum in April—should McCallum dethrone WBA middleweight champion Sumbu Kalambay on March 5—and that should be cause for consternation.

This is not the Duran who won the lightweight championship from Ken Buchanan in 1972 and the WBC welterweight title from Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980. Nor is it the Duran who won the WBA junior middleweight championship from Davey Moore in 1983. This is an old fighter, slow of hand, of foot and of reflex.

Since winning his third championship, he has lost a 15-round decision to Marvelous Marvin Hagler and has been knocked out by Tommy Hearns. He spent 1985 in retirement, and since Jan. 31, 1986 has won five fights against nonentities and has lost a 10-round decision to Robbie Sims, an unprepossessing 28-year-old middleweight contender.

Duran will be 37 on June 16; the 89 professional wars (and not even he knows how many street battles) and the thousands of rounds of hard sparring and fast living are etched deeply into his features. Even the fierce eyes lave softened. But, he says, "I was born to fight. I do not know what else to do."

Then there are his troubles with the RS, which is holding $2 million of his purses pending settlement of tax problems. Carlos Eleta, Duran's former manager, insists that any unpaid taxes on past earnings should be paid by promoter Don King. Eleta says it was his understanding that King had deducted he appropriate taxes from Duran's purses. King, needless to say, sees things differently. "I'll pay them," says King. "right after it snows in Panama. Let Eleta pay them if he feels so strongly about it."

Why all the fuss? asks Duran. "I just want to be the first man to win titles in four divisions," he said after the Stackhouse fight. "I don't count Thomas Hearns. Who did Hearns ever beat?"

On June 15, 1984, Hearns knocked out Duran in two rounds. It was a junior middleweight title fight.

No matter, says Duran, who claims hat he didn't expect that fight to happen and that 17 days before it he weighed 188 pounds, 34 over the junior middleweight limit. "I don't count that me," he says.

Duran may not be counting his losses, but he ought to be worried about he kind of counting that a referee does. Over him.

PHOTOKEN REGAN/CAMERA 5Duran stuck it to Stackhouse, but the flabby ex-champ is courting injury and humiliation.

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