Nationalistic fervor whipped up by the government is turning Thursday's title fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran into a symbolic political clash.
The fight comes at the low point in Panama-U.S. relations, with the U.S. government imposing economic sanctions to force the ouster of military strongman Gen. Manuel A. Noriega. A coup that began with U.S. support was botched in October.
"For Panama, I am going to beat that loudmouth," Duran said in a television advertisement, in which he also asks fans "to be smart and bet on me."
The city is expected to come to a standstill Thursday night during the live television broadcast of the fight. Giant screens are being put up in low-income neighborhoods to make it easier for fans to watch.
A radio announcer warned Tuesday that the Defense Forces should be alert because it would be the best time for an invasion by U.S. forces.
But many of the nearly 12,000 soldiers on U.S. bases in Panama also will be watching the fight.
"You can imagine whom I'll be rooting for," a U.S. Army officer said. "Leonard."
The fight, to be held in Las Vegas, has joined government officials and opposition leaders in wishing that the durable Duran, known as Mano de Piedra or "Hand of Stone," wins his fifth world crown.
A popular novelty item is a baseball hat with Duran's name and four embroidered crowns.
"I am going to put the fifth one here," a fan told a television interviewer, pointing to the center of his hat.
The nationalistic fever was boosted this week by Duran when he called sports officials to say U.S. officials had forbidden the singing of the Panamanian national anthem before the fight.
Sanctions forbid U.S. companies to deal commercially with people, companies or agencies associated with Noriega, so broadcasting rights became a controversial issue.