Roberto Duran: ‘Fighters would take one look at me and crap in their pants’

Roberto Duran: ‘Fighters would take one look at me and crap in their pants’

On a Saturday evening in Leeds, in an anonymous hotel where he winks and shouts out hello to a passing waitress who returns his wave cheerfully, Roberto Durán keeps gripping my arm and cackling.

The 65-year-old Panamanian, who was a renowned world champion at four different weights and boxed professionally in five separate decades, is in a jovial mood while reliving his years as the most menacing fighter on the planet.

When he fought Sugar Ray Leonard for the first time, on 20 June 1980 in Montreal, Durán transfixed some of his intimidating predecessors.


Credit: Getty Images

Joe Frazier, the former world heavyweight champion who had fought three savage battles against Muhammad Ali, stared at Durán.

“Does he remind you of anyone,” Frazier was asked at ringside.

“Yeah,” the old heavyweight said, thinking of a mass-murderer. “Charles Manson.”

Durán’s venerable trainer, Ray Arcel, fed the mystique. Three days before the fight Durán’s ECG revealed an irregular heartbeat. “That can’t be true,” Arcel deadpanned. “Durán doesn’t have a heart.”
Durán smiles as he remembers his great victory over Leonard – pushing to one side the fact that, five months later, the return bout would unleash one of boxing’s deepest controversies and his own humiliation. “The first mistake Leonard made was to request Montreal as the venue because he thought everyone would love him,” Durán says.

Leonard had won gold for the USA at the Montreal Olympics four years earlier and, with his good looks, easy charm and perfect 27-0 record, the world welterweight champion was guaranteed $8m to defend his title.

Durán, who had won 71 of his 72 fights, would earn a much smaller purse of $1.5m – but he had the guile to get inside Leonard’s head.

“I was much smarter than Leonard. He thought people would support him as the golden boy. I was supposed to be the bad guy. But people were dazzled by me and the way I skipped rope. I also spoke to everyone. People liked me.

Leonard was the opposite and the Canadians thought he was a stuck-up prick. He started sending his people to spy on me. I told Leonard’s brother: ‘Your brother only has a few more days as champion. I am going to kill him. He’s going to end up dead.’”

In his entertaining autobiography, I Am Durán, published last year and out in paperback this July, he suggests: “I was Mike Tyson before Mike Tyson came along. Fighters would take one look at me and crap in their pants.

Leonard would be no different. It was starting to dawn on the Americans that they’d never come across anything like me before – this eerie, deadly being with his jet-black hair, dark eyes and bad intentions. El Diablo, they called me: The Devil.”

Durán defeated Leonard, having suckered him into trying to fight rather than box, and he argues that his psychological warfare before the bout was a crucial strategy. So was this why Durán, at his most crass, turned to Leonard’s wife, Juanita, at the weigh-in and said: “Your husband no good. After I beat him, I fuck you”?

“No, no,” Durán protests, “I never said that.”

I point out that the sentence is in his book. Durán and his engaging son, Robin, who is an actor in Panama, confer in Spanish. “My dad never said it,” Robin, who is our translator, confirms.

I eventually find the contentious line in the book and Robin shrugs. “The writer maybe got that from other books. My dad never went to those extremes.”

Durán is proud of the book because it captures the poverty of his past as a street-kid in Panama as well as the rollicking lunacy of his greatest years in boxing. It also offers me a chance to ask him what really happened in the infamous rematch.

“There’s not a day in my life when I don’t get asked about it,” Durán says. “But it’s a must-have question because it was a turning point in my life. After I beat Leonard I was the king of boxing. I was partying, partying, eating, eating, drinking, drinking. But there was so much money to be made for [his promoter] Don King and [his manager] Carlos Eleta. They wanted the rematch too soon. It was crazy.”

Durán was partying hard in New York in late September when Eleta called to say that the rematch would take place in November. Durán shouted: “Are you fucking crazy? I weigh nearly 200 pounds. I can’t drop all that weight [to make the 155 pound welterweight limit] in a month.”
The old fighter shakes his head. He was so drained by making weight, and afflicted with stomach cramps, that he knew he was going to lose even before the first bell.

When Leonard began taunting him in the seventh round, doing the Ali Shuffle and pretending to uncork a bolo punch with his right before snapping out a fast left jab into the face, Durán burned with frustration.

In the eighth, as Leonard continued his antics, Durán turned away and waved his glove at the referee, apparently saying “No más [no more].”

No one could believe that Durán, nicknamed ‘Hands of Stone’, had surrendered with limp-wristed despair. He was vilified – especially in Panama where his machismo had been revered. “Yeah, it hurt me a lot,” Durán admits. “I felt humiliated. But I never said ‘No más’. All I said was ‘No sigo’ – ‘I can’t go on.’ I was fed up. It wasn’t a fight any more.”

Durán stepped out of the ring for the last time in July 2001 after his 119th bout, which he lost on points to Hector Camacho at the age of 50, but he remains a fighter at heart. So he argues now that, while Leonard won the rematch and a tedious third fight when they were years past their best in 1989, the American is more haunted by the ‘No más’ controversy.

“Deep inside Leonard knows he didn’t beat me properly. Even though we are good friends now, it’s still more in his head than mine. We made a ‘No más’ documentary and he was drawn deeper into it. He realised even more that I was in bad shape. He didn’t beat me fair and square like I beat him in our first fight. That haunts him. I think he loses more sleep over it than I do.”

Boxers are fascinating in their justifications and reinventions of the past – and Durán is no different.

He claims redemption in the fact that, after he won world titles at light-middle and middleweight, against Davey Moore and Iran Barkley in 1983 and 1989, “the sweetest thing was the comeback.

When I won those championship fights I humiliated my doubters back. Now I am old they all love me. They even apologise for disrespecting me.”
Durán has just completed a three-week tour of the UK, making appearances and being greeted with awe because the last great era of boxing was ruled by the Four Kings – Leonard, Durán, Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns.


Credit: Getty Images

They all fought each other and Durán insists they operated at a higher standard than unbeaten modern champions like Floyd Mayweather. “I was not just brute force. Mayweather himself said I was the most intelligent fighter and the greatest lightweight of all time.

They asked him to compare me and Julio César Chávez [the Mexican who dominated the lighter divisions in the late 1980s and 1990s], Mayweather said I was so much better. I am glad he said that but Mayweather wouldn’t have been a hard fight for me. I fought fighters far tougher and stronger than Mayweather.”

Hearns shows signs of having taken too many punches but it is remarkable that Leonard, Hagler and Durán seem in such good shape today. “I didn’t take too many punches to the head,” Durán says. “Yeah, I got knocked out by Hearns but I was just out of shape. I never got badly hurt. But I remember the last time I saw Barkley I said: ‘Barkley, I want to take you to Panama again.’ He said: ‘Yeah, Roberto, you have money. Take me.’ But he was talking in slow motion. He seemed sick.”

Durán might have resembled a malevolent force in the ring but in later years a different side to his character emerged.

The first man to beat him, Esteban de Jesús, who won a narrow decision over the 21-year-old Durán in 1972, died from Aids in 1989. Durán hated the fact that he had lost his unbeaten record to De Jesús and he avenged that defeat with two decisive victories, but he showed great compassion to the Puerto Rican.

At a time when Aids was a disease shrouded in misinformation, Durán visited his former opponent on his deathbed. He embraced and kissed the emaciated De Jesús. “Inside the ring you are enemies but outside you become friends. That was always my thinking. I feel sympathy for all fighters. That’s why I helped Tyson.”

Tyson had always idolised Durán and, at his lowest point in a life filled with such despair, the former heavyweight called him at 2am.

In 2009 Tyson’s four-year-old daughter had just died in a tragic accident. Tyson had also turned to Durán, as a prospective trainer, when he tried to resurrect his doomed career four years earlier.

Talk of Tyson prompts me to ask Durán if he watched Anthony Joshua’s epic heavyweight title defeat of Wladimir Klitschko. “I liked it so much. I didn’t know much about Joshua before the fight.

People told me he hadn’t fought a strong opponent but we knew Klitschko would be hard. When I saw Klitschko knocked down I was surprised. But then he got up and fought back. And when Joshua goes down I thought it was all over because of Klitschko’s experience. But Joshua did well. He cleared his head and I said: ‘Look, he has a second wind. Joshua is going to win this.’ The knockout was impressive. He’s the top guy now.”

Where did Durán watch the fight? “Right here – in this hotel bar. There were many people and when Joshua came out they were nervous. But when Joshua brought down Klitschko people were jumping around like crazy. It was a great fight, a great night.”

Did it make him miss being a fighter himself? “No. I have more fun now – with my friends and family. I might not have as much money as I once had but I’m a happy man. The world loves me. I don’t look for trouble no more.”

It makes a change from his hell-raising days. Asked about the seemingly apocryphal story that he had once knocked out a horse in Panama City, Durán makes a clear distinction. “I knocked him down,” Durán says with the credibility of a connoisseur in violent punching. In November 1969, after his 15th pro bout and aged 18, he was offered a bet – $100 and a bottle of whisky if he could flatten a horse with a single punch.

Durán says he was reluctant to hurt the animal but, spurred on by a girlfriend and already drunk, he took the bet. The horse went down from a stunning left hook. It got up but Durán’s damaged hand had to be stitched up without anaesthetic.

He didn’t care: “The girl was kissing me and I was drinking the whisky I won. I didn’t feel a thing.”

What happens if someone starts taunting him now – imagining he might bring down the old but mighty Hands of Stone? “I had a couple of street fights. Big tough guys trying it on. But those fights lasted one minute. Bam. I put them down with one punch. That’s all it took. But, actually, I avoid trouble. It’s only if it gets very disrespectful that I have to take action. I’m just a happy guy.”

That happiness spills over when I ask Durán if it’s true he still insists on being paid in cash – whether it’s for a tour of Britain or a book deal? He reaches for my arm again and shouts: “Cash only! That’s the only thing I take. I don’t like banks, I don’t like technology.

It’s because I’m a fighter. We keep it simple and beautiful.”


Written by Donald McRae for the Guardian 

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