‘Manos de Piedra’ - An Eternal Flame (1972-1980) Part 1

29.08.06 - By Michael Klimes: ‘There is only one legend and that is me’ Roberto Duran.


In the famous film The Matrix, one of the protagonists and by far one of the coolest characters in recent film history is Morpheus. Morpheus is instructing his new student Neo on the gravity of the new world he has discovered. He makes the memorable observation, ‘Some rules can be bent and others can be broken.’ Most of the time I feel Hollywood manufactures completely commercial movies, which surprise critics more and more by how debased, shallow and pointless they are. However, sometimes one can absorb a snippet of wisdom from a motion picture and, on the occasional sunrise, a film from Hollywood does manage to cast a rainbow over its rainy clouds.

Morpheus’s message on ‘rules’ that can be ‘bent’ and ‘broken’ applies to life, sport and general physics. You have your ‘normal’ entities and then the ‘exceptions’ or the exception to the rule. Roberto Duran, a small man from Panama proved to be one of those fighters who did not follow conventional tradition..

The Realest

I think the truly great fighters in boxing and when I mean great I am talking about the exceptional finds are those that were never seen before and never seen after, the legends, which having left the ring gave their universe something that can never be surpassed, something so valuable that itself has become a constant. Think about the stars that have refused to die, Sugar Ray Robinson was the most versatile fighter of any era and defied ‘Father Time’ to capture the middleweight title five times. Bernard Hopkins and Joe Louis hold the records in their divisions for the most title defences and Hopkins kept on fighting to the age when most professional athletes are becoming pundits or becoming fat with too much time on their hands. Muhammad Ali became the most transcendental, controversial, politically hated and then revered personality in the history of sports.

Even without his sensational achievements outside his livelihood we can still hardly believe his accomplishments from it. Ali is the beacon for fighters of all nationalities and backgrounds who, like The Greatest want to be able to do something boxing purists still find hard to believe: Dance on the balls of your feet for every minute of every round, with your hands held by your waist and land perfect combinations without breaking a sweat. Or alternatively, how about winning a bout by letting yourself be hit by a murderous puncher on the ropes and then christening that feat with a very apt name: The rope a dope?

We can also add Henry Armstrong who was a multiple world champion in three different divisions at the same time.

So where does Roberto Duran come into this pantheon of legends? Well…He holds the record for the most lightweight defences in history standing at twelve. He had done so much in his own weight class that by the age of twenty nine he was ready to move up not one but two weight divisions in defeat the blockbuster of boxing stars in Sugar Ray Leonard. Duran joined an exclusive club of fighters who became the undisputed champion in another weight where they did not make their name. The last time a lightweight champion had beaten the dominant welterweight was back in the 1930s when Barney Ross extinguished Jimmy McLarin and started their epic trilogy. After his rematch with Leonard, ‘Manos de Pierda’ hands crumbled for a spell as he went through a number of losses. Critics raised a big question mark over Duran’s head but he still managed to gain respectable victories against Davey Moore and Iran Barkley. He retired at the age of fifty two and is the only fighter to have fought in five decades.

Aside of all the statistics though, a gladiator of the first rank (too me) is someone who showcases incredible fighting against unquestionable opposition. Duran was more than a devil and at the pinnacle of Duran’s career I would liken him to a Great White Shark. Great Whites are regarded, as probably being the best pound for pound predators in the sea. They are one of the oldest species on this earth, older than dinosaurs and with crocodiles have attained such a level of lethalness that they do not evolve anymore. It is generally accepted by biologists that species evolve over time. It seems however, Great Whites are such perfect killers that they do not need to get any better because they have been around for so long.

Once, Roberto Duran was such a man, he had reached such powers in his prime that he just looked liked the perfect fighting machine. He had the most unreal intensity, his eyes had a blank blackness in the clinches, his timing was perfect, aggression perfect and like his brothers in the sea, his most chilling quality was his ability and the control he had of it. The finest boxers, writers or whoever have almost an unfathomable power but it is the discipline, control and intellect behind it, which is ultimately devastating.

His Origins

Duran is Panamanian and grew up in a country that had boxing in its blood. He made a glorious contribution to it. Duran was unique as he was the one who really put his country on the map in that respect. He remains the most famous boxer from that nation. He had two excellent contemporaries at his weight in Ismael Laguna and Esteban DeJesus. Eusebio Pedroza also made his inroads in that decade as well. Being in the context of such magnificent contemporaries only adds to Duran’s legacy. The only boxer who managed to take away Duran’s shimmering brilliance was Muhammad Ali.

In the documentary series, Beyond the Glory, it is said Duran started his career at the age of eight and he had the typical story of a man who came from a tough background and ascended to the top of the throne with immense hunger. He was the son of a Mexican sailor and a Panamanian girl. His father left him and his mother for another woman. Roberto had to learn how to fend for himself and he became a poor man’s street fighter. From an early age, Duran, partly due to the circumstances life had given him was born for the ring.

Just a Street Fighter?

Duran had all of the makings of a brawler, he was an unstoppable tornado with (as all Duran fans know) a thirst, which was hard to match. However, there are some brawlers in history who, after receiving some fine tutelage, have managed to shake off or even throw off that ugly moniker of ‘brawler.’ Brawler is an ugly word when applied to fighters in the mould of Duran, Barrera and Gatti. Here you have three different levels of boxer. All of them started off being incredibly determined but somewhat unrefined fighters. They later blossomed into men with far more boxing acumen then previously appreciated.

The two men responsible for Duran’s transformation were Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown. Arcel may just about be the finest trainer who has ever lived. His record easily stands up to Eddie Futch, Charlie Goldman, Angelo Dundee, Emanuel Steward, Jack Blackburn and Cus D’Amato. He trained twenty world boxing champions, starting with Frankie Genaro (flyweight 1923) and finishing with Larry Holmes in 1982. Barney Ross, Tony Zale, Ezzard Charles, Jackie Berg, Sixto Escobar, Frankie Genaro, Ceferino Garcia and Kid Gavilan are in Ring Magazine’s Boxing Hall of Fame. His experience extended across pretty much every weight class and his integrity was beyond question. Arcel may have just been the most knowledgeable living encyclopaedia on boxing, able to rival Nat Fleischer and superseding the great man when he died in 1972. Fleischer and Arcel had the uncanny fortune of living very long lives and being exposed to this glorious sport more years than most can hope to see in this world. Arcel was born in 1899 and died in 1994.

Freddie Brown was the former cut’s man for Rocky Marciano also brought his experience in polishing Duran from brass to gold.

The Package:

I think Duran was the best attacking fighter in the history of boxing. Duran was a text book master at getting inside whilst sustaining the least damage. His head feint, upper body movement and reflexes made him so hard to hit. He was essentially a small Joe Frazier, with just as much freakish stamina and work rate. Add that to his dynamite punches, with the either one able to finish an opponent off and his combination punching, one begins to marvel at how simultaneously raw and refined Duran was. Mike Tyson, in his prime, is the only other fighter I would mention who had such abilities. Duran’s balance, leverage, timing and coordination were all there as well.

The Golden Years:

Between 1972 and 1980, the world witnessed one of the most stellar boxing careers ever. Duran demonstrated his precocious nature by stopping the very game and silky smooth Ken Buchanan at Madison Square Garden to win the lightweight title. He was only twenty one and took out a man who had beaten his fellow countryman Ismael Laguna. Buchanan was no stiff and was one of the top lightweights of his day. He was a wonderfully adept counter-puncher.

Duran had a barn burner of a trilogy with the magnificent but ill fated Esteban DeJesus. DeJesus was probably the hardest opponent Duran encountered at lightweight and inflicted his first defeat on a bizarrely sluggish Duran. He had an excellent left hook that floored Duran twice in their first two fights and he had a straight up orthodox stance. However, DeJesus was not easy to hit, he could duck and slip punches and he did this a lot in the fights with Duran. He was not bad at going to work in the clinches either; he could put a good uppercut to the chest or head and caught Duran with those punches. His hook was always there as well and he had fast hands. Of course it was not the blinding speed of Sugar Ray Leonard or Ali but you would not say he was slow.

Their third fight occurred in 1978 and (I believe) remains Duran’s Magnus opus. The defeat of Sugar Ray Leonard was his biggest victory but his twelve round knock down of DeJesus with a deadly right hook was just sensational. So were his follow up volleys. Duran’s systematic and ruthless taking a part of DeJesus was like a man peeling an orange in one go. It was one of those once in a lifetime performances from a once in a lifetime fighter. Duran’s form that night was of the same substance that Ali had against Cleveland Williams, Leonard had for Hearns, Frazier had for Ali in the ‘Fight of the Century’ and Riddick Bowe against Evander Holyfield in the first fight. Duran was at the peak of the mountain and could have just lived with any fighter of any era of that night.

Duran’s other notable victories include his two points victories over Edwin Viruet, a Puerto Rican based New York City, a brilliant boxer moulded on Muhammad Ali. He had a thin frame but had tremendous ring generalship, excellent footwork and crisp combination punching. Viruet was a man of genuine talent who could also take considerable punishment to his body and his head. In their first encounter in 1975, Viruet showboated in the ten rounder against Duran and took some hellacious punches and smiled! He seemed virtually unaffected and did not mind going toe to toe. Their rematch was in 1977 and went the full fifteen. Duran won a convincing and unanimous decision.

Perhaps, Duran’s most frustrating defence was against a very slick dancing Italian Lou Bizzarro. Bizzarro was in sterling form as he ran away, tied up, out jabbed and out worked Duran until the tenth round when he was knocked to the canvas twice. The Italian mounted an inspired fight back in the following round and won the grudging respect of Duran. To his credit, Duran did not lose his composure and was forced to wait for his openings. His power but most importantly his patience finally won the day when he finished Bizzarro in the fourteenth. Duran had showcased a major weakness against flee footed boxers who had springs in their legs and did not permit him to close the distance with rapid lateral movement. Who knows, was this fight in 1976 a reference for Sugar Ray Leonard’s strategy in ‘No Mas’ like the ageing Argentinean light-heavyweight Gregorio Peralta’s survival against George Foreman in 1970 was for Ali’s miracle in Zaire? That’s worth a thought.

The final win I will mention on Duran’s record was his fifteenth round knockout of the extremely durable Leoncio Ortiz in the last seventeen seconds. Ortiz, a heavy and ponderous boxer who threw single shots covered up in a hedgehog like defence and tried to fight off the ropes. He was very well shielded from Duran’s power punches but being the great finisher he was when he needed, Duran found the vertical answer in his upper cut. Ortiz failed in his imitation of the rope a dope. It might have worked if he had the speed and reach to counter like Benitez or Toney did but he was not in possession of such goods.

The Move Up

‘Manos de Pierda’ vacated his title in January 1979 and prepared for his new goal of conquering the welterweight king. Sugar Ray Leonard. Just before ‘No Mas.’ Duran’s record stood at 71-1, he was a breathing legend and not yet thirty. In my last article for ESB I looked at their series in detail. In Part II, we will see how Duran fell and rose from the ashes.

Article posted on 30.08.2006

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