Intimidate Duarte? Not After the Result of His Private Fight

Frankie Duarte thinks about it every time he tries to push-start the stubborn Volkswagen in front of his house, thinks about it every time he looks down at that purplish tattoo on his arm, thinks about it every time he turns a calendar page and realizes that three days after he steps into a ring to rumble with a world champion, he will turn 35 years old.

He thinks about how time is slipping away, thinks about where he is going and where he has been, thinks about where he might have gone, might have been.

"What can I say that all other comebacking fighters haven't already said?" he wonders aloud.

But Frankie Duarte actually has plenty to say, and boxers ought to listen--everybody ought to listen--because there are lessons to be learned here. The principal one is that drugs can hurt you worse than even the meanest prizefighter can. Another one is, well, to work from an old song, you're somebody if somebody loves you.

Duarte is about as loved as any Los Angeles fighter who ever came through the ropes. He will have much of the Forum crowd on his side Thursday night when he steps into the ring as a serious underdog against World Boxing Council super-bantamweight champion Daniel Zaragoza of Mexico City, a nice guy who has no intention of being nice to Duarte, just because Duarte happens to be just as nice and twice as popular.

This is it for Frankie--and he knows it.

"He beat more important things in life, but he didn't have the luck to win a championship," said John Jackson, an aide to Forum fight-boss Jerry Buss. "Deep in his heart, Frankie knows this is his last chance."

Duarte had two years off for bad behavior. Eventually, he got clean and sober, but he also got older. By the time he fought Bernardo Pinango for the bantamweight title in February 1987, he was strong enough to last 15 rounds, but not tough enough to win. He has had only four fights since, winning them all.

"I just want to do this one more time," Duarte said. "No, two more times. Win the title, then make one successful defense. Then I'll buy that little house on the prairie I've been dreaming about and disappear."

Just about everybody would like that for Frankie, because just about everybody likes Frankie. They forgive him his sins. They know he has agonized over them for years, that he still wonders how he could have gone off dope's deep end that way. They know he feels lucky to be alive, much less lucky to be fighting for big prizes.

"I need the money," Duarte said. "I'd like to be able to buy some things, maybe get rid of that damned VW and get a car that starts every morning. But I need the title more. Sometimes it gives me a little chill just thinking about it, that this fight is really happening. I think it ought to be a great fight, unless I wake up in a few minutes and find myself home in bed.

"No one gives me a chance. I don't know why. I don't think I've done anything to make anybody believe I've lost anything. You'll see. My legs feel good, my chin doesn't hurt, my stamina's still there, my moves are still there. And my friends in the crowd are still there.

"This is not BS--that's a bigger motivator than the money. When I'm hurting up there, when my eye is swollen shut and my whole face hurts, that's what makes me make the action. I like hearing the fans. My biggest fear in boxing is boring the crowd. Geez, please, don't let me be boring."

Sixteen years have been going by since Frankie stood up to a pug named Tony Ramos and popped him in one. Fourteen of his first 16 fights ended with knockouts. He made a name for himself. He filled rooms big and small.

Until a stretch from 1980-83 came along, during which Frankie Duarte had only two fights--one in Hawaii with Neptali Alamag, and one in California for his life.

"Don't think I don't think about it," he said. "I know how lucky I am to still be hanging around.

"I had a depressing dream the other night. I dreamed about one of my friends who was 13 years old. He's dead. I had friends who died in armed robberies, friends who got shot to death in gang activity, friends who overdosed in their teens. When I think about some kid out there doing drugs now, it makes me want to scream."

Duarte looked down at his forearm, at the fading tattoo.

"They're supposed to be boxing gloves," he said. "I know, they look more like donkey parts. What can I say? It was 3 o'clock in the morning and I was stoned and somebody said, 'Hey, let's go get tattooed.' And I said, 'Yeah, cool.' Yeah, cool. Geez, look at this ugly thing."

Nobody says that about Frankie himself. He still looks good, and sure feels better.

Old? Sure, he's old. Too old to be doing this for a living much longer.

But, at least he's living.

"Hey, it's not like my bones have gone brittle," Duarte said. "Guys who get old, the first place they get old is in their minds. In my mind, I'm still young. In my heart, I'm still young. Life is what you make of it."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World