“The Champ” Nobody Knew

14.11.06 - By Ernest Morales F.:The Champ entered the room. He was never known to be sociable or friendly. He wasn't a "nice guy", much less a gentleman. He hated his opponents, his opponent’s handlers, even his opponent’s families. When the final bell rang he wouldn't shake hands nor embrace. He was mean, real mean and, on that day, The Champ was again on a mission, but of a different nature.

In the corner of the room was a bed, a deathbed. On it lay a man stricken with a virus, the AIDS virus. The Champ recognized the man. Why? Because they were once enemies, bitter enemies. The Champ approached 'his enemy' and as he did so he smiled, an unusual loving smile, never seen before by most, not even by his closest associates.

He sat down by his former conqueror, the only man to defeat him while still at 135lbs in the Lightweight division, where The Champ was KING! First he uncustomarily shook his 'opponent's' hand and sat on his bed, the deathbed. Then The Champ did another thing that was 'out of character’; he embraced 'the enemy’, a long embrace and then to top it off, he kissed him, not once, but twice..

Back then the virus, AIDS, was still quite mysterious, a "taboo" of sorts, not too much was known about the dreaded disease. But The Champ was, as he was always known to be, fearless and HE WAS on a mission. A mission of love. The Champ was Roberto Duran and the 'enemy' he was affectionately embracing in his arms was Esteban "Vita" DeJesus.

Esteban had often been unofficially crowned "The Second Best Lightweight In The World" during most of Duran's reign, this when Roberto was KING! Growing up in Carolina a city in the metro San Juan area, in the tough Saint Just sector with trouble, crime, diversity of vice, weapons and drugs always only an arms length away, especially the drugs, lots of it, it was dangerously tempting to all, even young boxers like Esteban.

He was an outstanding amateur and we all knew he was "special", a "can't miss" prospect. If only he could stay away from .... “them”.... and .... “that”.... and .... from “those”.... he couldn’t miss. To begin with he did, not always, but "almost always". Almost isn't always enough. Too bad. Esteban won his first 25 fights in a row. No surprise to the fans on the Island of Puerto Rico after all, he was a "couldn't miss" prospect and now a local hero. Then his manager Don Goyo Benitez, yes, Wilfred's dad, accepted a sizeable purse from Caracas promoter Rafi Cedeno, to face the reigning WBA World Featherweight Champion, Venezuela's hero Antonio Gomez in a non-title affair. It was Esteban's 4th fight in three months in Venezuela, completely dominating the previous three, including future 5-time world title challenger and national hero as well, Lionel Hernandez. The Venezuelan fans wanted revenge. Don Goyo was advised by promoter Jose "Pepito" Cordero to pass up on the offer, saying that he would need a score a knockout to win. Don Goyo didn't take 'sound advise' not then, not ever. He said that promoter Cedeno promised to give DeJesus a re-match if he lost by decision. "Besides", Goyo said, "It's Christmas. Tengo que comprar regalos" or "I have presents to buy". Esteban lost a hotly disputed, controversial decision. He upon his return showed us the Venezuelan press clippings of the fight. A ROBBERY, they basically said. Well, Esteban never got his re-match that Don Goyo said was "promised", whether true or not, we'll never know. Cedeno, Don Goyo and Esteban are no longer with us.

"Vita" than racked up 7 more wins and was offered another non-title fight with the newly crowned Lightweight World Champion, a sensational young fighter that was already being compared to "Hammerin' Homicide" Henry Armstrong, because of his non-stop ferocious style. Roberto "Manos de Piedra" Duran. Roberto was a huge favourite, but Esteban was still considered a "can't miss" prospect in his native Puerto Rico, something the outside world didn't know... but were soon about to find out. How soon?? We'll... past the halfway point of the first round Esteban placed a picture perfect left hook on Duran's ever-sneering lips and floored The Champ for the very first time in his life. Esteban then went on to take a unanimous verdict. Esteban would later capture the WBC version of the 135lb division, losing it to Duran. They were to fight once more in the coming years, Duran scoring a late round KO's over a bye then often addicted, detoxed and addicted and detoxed and.... DeJesus. All of which is common knowledge here and throughout most of the boxing fraternity especially back then.

Esteban would eventually be sentenced to a life term of imprisonment for a murder committed while under the influence in a traffic altercation. While in prison he would discover two life-changing things. First he discovered Jesus and became a devout born again Christian. And... he also discovered that he had AIDS.......

As The Champ held his respected 'adversary' they playfully talked of a future rematch when Esteban got well, and about the time in their 2nd fight when Esteban deposited "Manos De Piedras" on his 'nalgas' [his butt] for the 2nd time, again in the very first round!! I don't believe there was a dry eye in the room. I know mine weren't. Some fought them back ...or tried to. I didn't try. I wanted to cry. Crying never felt so good. Never!

The Champ bid his farewell to the 'enemy' he always said he respected most with another firm but gentle and uncharacteristic hug and kiss. He waved to all and stepped outside. As he asked us to please send for the future widow, his eyes were noticeably watery and full, he gave her a generous offering of love and left as the press and cameras present followed. They were following The Champ, a true Champ.

Thank you Champ for the lesson of noble love.

Article posted on 15.11.2006

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