Duran Is Craving Yet Another Taste of Greatness


“Want to fight?” Roberto Duran asks suddenly in clear English, whirling from the heavy bag that he punished with his hands of stone. His eyes turn bright and he bares his teeth.

As a shoeshine boy in Panama City, Duran must have struck fear in kids who’d crowd his corner. In fact he didn’t wait for trouble; he’d walk around and shove the boys, looking for a fight.

But that was long ago, when his glare meant something terrible was about to happen. Now he is middle-aged and only kidding.


Like a lounge act, Duran works a small space off the Tropicana Hotel lobby as tourists laugh and applaud. He is at once training for Sugar Ray Leonard on Dec. 7 and for later life as an entertainer. Someday he wants to sing latin songs, and he’ll have stories to tell: about knocking down a horse with one punch (“Si. One punch.”), or slipping in a second steak on top of the first when his manager wasn’t looking.

Here’s a sample of his current act. He kneels in the ring to kiss the gloved hands of two showgirls who have jeweled tiaras so tall it’s a wonder they didn’t tip onto their heads climbing between the ropes. With pictures taken and the blue-feathered ladies safely offstage, he renders a sparring partner helpless with a right hand. Finally he skips rope as the tightly packed crowd moves in, risking whiplash, while others lean from a balcony and shout, “Roberto, Roberto.”

It’s a Las Vegas sideshow jammed outside the entranceways to the Folies Bergere and La Valise luggage and handbags, beneath an “atrium lounge” where men sit back with their drinks and tell women about Roberto Duran. They all note his cheerfulness.

Duran has been known to be surly. Over the years he’s rebelled from roadwork. Against his handlers’ wishes he’s filled his plate time and again, ballooning his body. The third of nine children from a Panamian slum called Chorrillo, he fought in the streets for his food; but since tasting greatness he’s never wanted for an extra helping of dessert.

Alvaro Riet, Duran’s interpreter, observes him playing to the crowd and says, “I’ve never seen him so mean for a fight.”

In boxing, one can be told what appears to be the opposite. It seems that Duran is quite content, befitting one who is about to receive $8 million -- even if $1.5 million is due to the Internal Revenue Service, which reportedly by mistake sent him a whopping refund on his taxes from several years ago.


This surprise money was sent to a man who at one count owned five Alfas, two Mercedes, one Mercury Marquis, one Fiat Sport, one van and a Trans Am.

You think he didn’t treat himself to an extra steak?

He’s said to have spent madly since he had anything to spend, and he is ready to receive and spend more. He seems to be casually awaiting his payday as if he resolved long ago what he’s going to do against Leonard.

“This is the fight that will make everything right for him,” says Riet. He is referring to another time, Nov. 25, 1980, in New Orleans, when Duran cried out “no mas” against a taunting Leonard. Duran appears so much at ease one surmises he is thinking that he might or might not win, but at least he will regain his honor, to say nothing of the money.

Meantime, he enjoys his show. He used to perform in places like Gleason’s Gym in New York, where men chewed cigars and the smoke was thick and he was in his prime. That too was long before the age of COMDEX, the name of the computer convention that has landed 130,000 extra people in this desert town and swelled the fighter’s throng each day with software executives.

The business suits also detect Duran’s buoyant personality. What they don’t seem to know is that he can be given to awful fits of violence, such as the terrifying punch to the groin that helped him lift the lightweight title from Ken Buchanan in 1972, or the burrowing thumb to the eye that Duran used to greet Davey Moore in 1983 when he took the junior middleweight title. Duran is said to have been relaxed before those fights; when he’s been ready, he’s been relaxed.

Unpredictable sometimes, Duran never was as out of character as he was the night he quit against Leonard. For this, he gets another chance and $8 million. It’s so improbable that Duran’s mother, Clara Ester Samaniego, has to see this for herself. She is on her way to this land of opportunity to watch her son, now 38, fight here for the first time. It’s been 18 years since he first fought in New York.


Back then he was taught to be a two-handed boxer by wily Ray Arcel, now retired, but Duran still loves to brawl. He doesn’t bother to set up Darwin Richards with a left but merely brings a right uppercut toward Richards’s chin. Richards blocks it with his elbow, but screams in pain as if Duran has broken his arm. It is encased in ice.

Ali Sanchez tries his luck. He peppers Duran’s face with a left, as Leonard might. From nowhere Duran hits Sanchez with that right of stone. A roar from the crowd. Another right. Sanchez wobbles into Duran’s arms. No mas.

“I don’t care how Leonard comes, whether he comes to run or he comes to fight, I have been waiting for him for nine years,” Duran tells the crowd in Spanish. So says Riet. Everyone who understands howls approval, and those who don’t join in belatedly. His wife, Felicidad, mother of their six children, smiles. “He’s in shape,” she says through an interpreter. “He’s better than I’ve seen him.”

He puts on his jacket and signs autographs. What a fine show, people say, as an entourage of men wearing Roberto Duran T-shirts clears a way through the lounge tables.

“Good luck, Champ.”

“Thank you, Mister.”

Duran does interviews when the sun goes down in what may be described as a room of gloom. The mood-setter is manager Carlos Hubbard, a thin man with a tall Afro. Although there is plenty of furniture, Hubbard sits on a stool in a corner, cutting his nails.

Yet Hubbard will take questions, which is more than trainer Nestor Quinones will do. Of Leonard’s closed-to-the-public workouts, Hubbard says with contempt: “Sugar can hide all he wants. It’s not going to help him.” So while Hubbard may appear to be a mysterious prophet from a foreign land, his message is familiar and American, a variation on Joe Louis’s “he can run but he can’t hide.”


The sofa in Riet’s room is so long Duran looks small sitting on the end. A man of Indian and Spanish descent, he has watery brown eyes and swept-back black hair. He has a mustache and trim beard and an aging brown face. His right hand of stone is soft as butter.

“I’ve been waiting and praying to God that Sugar Ray would come out to say yes to this fight,” comes Duran’s words through Riet. “Praying and working.”

He has been working off weight. After beating Iran Barkley in February, Duran ate his way to the neighborhood of 200 pounds; now he is down to a fighting weight of 161. Still he’ll never look like the lightweight rail of 135 he was before his appetite grew.

Duran rubs the fingers of his left hand in his right, although it’s hard to say he’s nervous. He doesn’t seem particularly happy or unhappy. He shows no sign of being in a hurry. He’s talking on and Riet is saying, “He’s been praying to God for this opportunity and he’s going to be ready. He expects Sugar Ray to be ready,” not like Leonard was when he and Thomas Hearns fought to a draw in June.

“He is going to be much better,” says Duran of Leonard. “More fast. Much, much better than he did.”

Ready mentally?


“He is happy Sugar will fight him,” says Riet.

If anything, Duran looks a bit sad. Does he want a fast car or a chocolate cream pie?

Hubbard still clips his nails.

“I just want to get this over with,” says Duran. Riet says Duran means the fight, not the interview.


“This fight,” says Duran, “I’m in tremendous condition.”

He wasn’t in condition for Hearns. He admits it. Hearns knocked out Duran in the second round in 1984. That punch was so devastating that it alone qualified Hearns to be called “The Hit Man.”

That seemed like the end for Duran. But then so had a loss to Leonard and a loss to Wilfred Benitez and, surely, a loss to Kirkland Laing, a welterweight of so little distinction that he was thrashed by one Fred Hutchings.

Duran admits it: He was not in shape for Laing.

Duran lost to Marvelous Marvin Hagler too, but that was close; as recently as 1986 he lost to Robbie Sims, Hagler’s half-brother, and that was yet another reason to retire. He was 72-1 and scored the only victory over Leonard before he quit against Leonard. His record from late 1980 through 1986 was 7-6. Then he beat guys named Victor, Juan, Ricky, Paul and Jeff. He went home to Miami and turned his melancholy to fire once more, training for a victorious return against Barkley.

So now Duran, who can claim to have been the fighter of the ‘70s, is still around to put his mark on the ‘80s -- if he can land a telling right hand to some part of Leonard’s anatomy. Duran hasn’t been choosy since he knocked down the horse for two bottles of liquor and $10. “I’m praying to God the judges be equal and as fair as anything possible,” he says, in case the fight goes the 12 rounds. But he knows Leonard gets the close calls -- the win over Hagler, the gift draw with Hearns.

“He wants to win big,” says Riet of Duran.

“I will look for the knockout,” says Duran.

But what if Leonard acts like he did in 1980, tries to make a fool of him? Duran probably wasn’t in shape then, but he won’t admit that. He shakes his head. He won’t talk about “no mas” except to say, “This is the real one.”

“It’s going to be a glorious fight,” he says. “I’m going to be happy, very happy.”

To the wish that he is “very happy,” Duran replies with a tranquil, “Thank you, Mister.”