Duran...the best fighter since Armstrong and Robinson; Part 3

Into the Abyss and the Return to Glory – 1982 – 1983

Wilfred Benitez – WBC Light Middleweight Championship

Wilfred Benitez was a defensive master aptly named the Radar. He had an uncanny way of seeing his opponent’s punches before they had actually thrown them. He was perhaps the most defensively gifted fighter every to lace up a pair of gloves, he had fast hands, sneaky knock out power and had split second reflexes.

To stamp his genius in the professional ranks Benitez, at the age of 17, took the legendary Antonio Cervantes the full 15 rounds and edged him out on a split decision to capture the WBA Light Welterweight crown and in doing so became the youngest world champion in boxing history, a record that still stands to this day.

He was so good so soon that he turned pro at 15 years of age but like many geniuses he had his flaws. Being successful at such a young age and still learning about the ways of the world Benitez would party hard and had copious amounts of women available to him.

In the build up to his WBC Welterweight title defence in 1979 against Sugar Ray Leonard it was rumoured that Benitez only trained for one week, in fact he lost his way to the gym that much he only trained in order to keep his weight in check. In the end he paid the price as he was stopped with seconds remaining in the 15th round.

Benitez was a regular at ringside for Duran’s fights and would hurl abuse for the entire fight at his hated rival. He had goaded Duran for years and in turn Duran wasn’t exactly pleasant to the Puerto Rican fighter.

In May 1981, Benitez stopped Maurice Hope in the 12th round to claim the WBC 154lbs title and with Duran also campaigning at light middleweight made a showdown between the two an absolute necessity. Don King promoted both fighters so it was an easy fight to make.

The agreed date was 30th January 1982 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Benitez would earn $1.5 million to Duran’s $750,000.

To ensure that Duran came into the fight in top shape Eleta sent Duran, along with his new trainer Panama Lewis, to the penal island colony of Coiba just off the coast of Panama. He would not be allowed back to the Panamanian mainland until he got his weight down from 167lbs to 156lbs.

Coiba housed Panama’s worst criminals and Duran would become a prisoner amongst prisoners. The Island itself is surrounded by strong currents and shark infested waters and Duran was only permitted to fish, eat, train and rest however the decision to ship him off to the Coiba unsettled Duran.

He openly admitted that he was afraid on the island as the prisoners openly roamed the streets with machetes and everywhere he went he had to have a bodyguard with him.

The move to have Duran train away from distractions appeared to have worked when he weighed in at 152 ½ lbs whilst Benitez came in at 152 ¼ lbs. Eleta also managed to draft in Ray Arcel as an advisor and prior to Duran flying out to Las Vegas he visited Torrijos’ grave and vowed to bring the title back home.

In a tentative first round Duran circled a lot trying to pop out his jab but he never fully got into range as Benitez took a half-step backwards to ensure the distance. The round looked to be ending without a decent punch landing then Benitez, with the quickness of a cobra, struck with a straight right hand that landed flush on Duran. The opening round was a feeling out round and even though there was hardly any action Benitez had already proved that he was far quicker than Duran.

In the second round Benitez did what no fighter should do against Duran and moved to the ropes. Benitez waved Duran in, perhaps trying to gauge what Duran had on the inside, but the pressure from the Panamanian wasn’t sustained as he had showed in previous fights.

Immediately at the start of the third Benitez once again confirmed that he was by far the quicker fighter as he landed two crisp lead right hands, Duran attempted to fire back with two inside shots but both were blocked as Benitez now looked to control the pace of the fight.

Again Duran got Benitez to the ropes but the inside work wasn’t there as Benitez seemed to out work and out land Duran and then with 30 seconds left in the round Benitez landed another lead right hand. Duran didn’t appear to be at the races and was certainly looking pensive.

The fourth round started with Benitez jabbing sharply followed by three successive left hooks delivered with unbelievable speed. Anything that came back from Duran had no snap. Like in the third round, when Duran attempted to rush Benitez to the ropes he was met with a wall of punches. When Benitez decided to stand in front of Duran he showed that beautiful defence as he just slipped his head ever so slightly to the side or pulled it back making Duran miss.

It was clear that the Duran’s forte of intimidation was never going to work against Benitez however in the fourth Duran did manage to land his most telling blow of the fight. An overhand right landed flush on Benitez that ever so slightly buckled the Puerto Rican fighter but again Duran was unable to follow it up.

Benitez simply couldn’t miss with the right hand lead as he once again landed it at the start of the 5th round in what transpired to be Benitez’s clearest round of the fight.

The 6th round had a slower pace and Duran finally landed his best punch since the 4th round which was another overhand right. Benitez, who was more content on letting Duran come to him, responded immediately.

Finally in the 7th round the fight saw a frenzy of activity as Duran managed to get Benitez to the ropes. Duran now looked fired up and with Benitez on the ropes he was, or should have been, in his comfort zone. Instead Benitez slipped his punches and countered, Duran was having a torturous time trying to landing anything cleanly.

The 8th was a tired looking round as Benitez stood on the back foot trying to measure Duran for another lead right hand. At the end of the round Ray Arcel begged Duran to “move and punch, don’t back off after the clinch.”

It was sound advice but Benitez was now a moving target as he used his wonderful balance and danced around the ring and moved out of range. However Duran landed his third straight right hand of the fight but once again was unable to follow it up with steady pressure. The one punch wasn’t going to be enough to slow Benitez down.

At the start of the 10th Benitez started more aggressively as he moved in, landed his punches, moved back out of distance then proceed to attack again. People weren’t accustomed to watching Duran getting pushed on to the back foot and certainly not used to seeing him getting out fought. He had negated his jab as he just ploughed right into distance without a single thought for his actions.

The 11th round proved who was the stronger fighter whilst in the 12th round Duran was again easily backed up. The 13th finally saw Duran trying harder than he done in the previous rounds as he tried to get into the fight and employ his inside game but Benitez easily dealt with the pressure and simply pushed Duran off of him.

There was no question that Duran needed a knock out going into the 14th round but the round took a similar path to the 13th round.

The crowd attempted to lift Duran as they chanted his name during the 15th round but whenever either fighter let loose a few punches they fell into a clinch. Again Duran managed to get Benitez trapped into the corner but again he was unable to land anything significant. Duran was pushed off and again Benitez waved him to come and attack as he finished his virtuoso performance by mocking Duran.

At the sounding of the bell to end the fight there was no question as to who won the fight. Benitez attempted to rub salt into the wounds by walking up to Duran with outstretched arms looking to embrace his defeated opponent but Duran point blank refused the invitation. Judge Lou Tabbat scored the fight 145-141 and Dave Moretti scored it 144-141 whilst Hal Miller had the nerve to hand in a score card of 143-142, all three in favour of Benitez.

Significance of Fight: Duran, who disliked Puerto Rican fighters, had to hold his hands up and say he was beaten by the better fighter. Duran was a very good light middleweight fighter, Benitez though was a more natural and magnificent light middleweight.

Benitez’s performance resembled that of Leonard’s in New Orleans the difference being Benitez actually punished Duran and had even managed to draw blood from a cut above his eye.

Duran in a post-fight interview claimed that he had over trained and had been on the weight for too long however the evidence was plain to see, Duran was beaten by the better man, however it would be Benitez’s last great performance as he became destitute and now suffers from brain damage.

Duran was now at a cross roads. His manager, Carlos Eleta told him to retire in the end Duran would be back in the ring 8 months later and Eleta would no longer be his manager. Duran would become embroiled in a promotional dispute between then hated rivals Don King and Bob Arum.

Kirkland Laing – 10 round Light Middleweight Contest

Tony Ayala, who had been ripping apart the light middleweight division, had called out Duran stating “just keep me out of prison long enough to knock him out.”

However, Don King held exclusive rights on Duran during his prime years but King and Bob Arum somehow buried their differences to co-promote the Panamanian in previous fights.

With Eleta no longer interested in his former prized asset Duran decided to go with Bob Arum and was promised a fight with the WBA 154lbs boss Davey Moore.

King though was never going to let him go without a fight and stated that Duran was still under a three-bout agreement which would lead to a prime-TV mega showdown against Ayala. Arum though argued that Duran only had one fight left with King.

Duran was eventually forced to climb down and went back with King and returned a $25,000 payment back to Arum.

With the Ayala fight slated in for that November King brought in what he thought would be an easy tune up fight for Duran. Britain’s Kirkland Laing, was, at that time, a former British welterweight champion. The Jamaican born Laing was nothing special in the grand scheme of things however he was widely considered to be a maverick, if in the right frame of mind, could outbox most welterweights.

The fight was set for the Cobo Arena in Detroit for September 4th. Duran was now trained by Bill Prezant and had his interpreter Luis Henriquez managed him. Training though was a disaster as Duran decided to visit bars and clubs. He trained in the home town of former heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes, Easton, Pennsylvania. There Duran would visit Holmes’ bar every night and drink the night away with people who were only interested in his money.

Holmes had pleaded with Duran to take his training seriously but Holmes would explain, “I told him that he had to get ready for the fight, but he told me he was ready and that he was going to knock the guy out. He was drinking 150-proof out of my bar and I would shout at him but he didn’t want to hear me. I cannot tell a multi-millionaire what to do. I got involved in an argument with some of his crew who only wanted his money. Boxing is more than that though, it’s about the guy’s health and well-being and make sure he isn’t doing the wrong things. I wasn’t with him day and night but he had a following of women from all over. They came here [Easton] to where he was training and the city only had 16,000. When Duran was in town there was like 40,000 people, nobody had any control over Duran.”

Duran’s lack of training showed up in the ring as he looked bloated and his body certainly didn’t look defined like it should after a tough training camp. The crew that Holmes alluded to were there in full force as Duran entered the ring.

In the first two rounds Laing started very cautiously, scared even, as he continued to circle around the ring, spin off once Duran got close or wriggled himself out of the clutches of Duran who looked to land the lead right hand.

The crowd began to boo half way through the second round even though in the last 20 seconds of the round both fighters began to trade punches it took Laing’s manager, Mickey Duff to tell Laing “you have to fight, let the punches go, this isn’t England.”

The pep talk certainly seemed to do the trick as when Laing decided to let his hands go he began landing on Duran on a regular basis. By the fourth Duran managed to get some of his punches home but he was not the Duran of old. He was slow, ponderous and wasn’t slipping the punches the way he normally did. However the fourth became a clear round for Laing as he decided to spring into life and began landing some long hard punches.

The fifth turned into a clinchfest but the speed of Laing was evidently causing Duran problems as by the sixth round the former world champion became tentative. Laing’s best punch was his spearing left jab which kept Duran at distance. Duran though was not aggressive and active enough and even though Duran perhaps got the better of the round in the final few seconds it was now clear that Laing was on the verge of shocking the world.

In the seventh Duran looked more flat footed as Laing began to best him at the infighting.

Duran started the eighth with a thunderous lead right hand which forced Laing to clinch but it didn’t back him up. The bully was now being bullied as Laing began pushing Duran off of him. As the round wore on Duran attempted a left hook which looked not only slow but showed that his arms were heavy, he was well out of shape. The late night boozing and whoring had come back to bite him on the backside hard.

By the ninth it became clear that to win Duran needed a knock out and his situation proved as much as his punches became more desperate. Any punches that Duran did manage to land showed that there were no snap in them Laing was finding Duran easier to handle.

Prior to the tenth and final round the commentator believed that Duran’s career was over. Laing started the round like he did the first; by circling around the ring looking to land his jab. Duran showed no urgency and when the fight moved to the inside the speed of Laing had Duran ducking to get out of the way.

As the bell sounded to end the fight many hand Laing as the winner. The official score was actually a split decision win for the British fighter; his biggest win to date.

Significance of Fight: After 78 fights the 31 year old Duran was now written off by just about everyone. Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown, who had guided Duran to lightweight supremacy and welterweight glory, left him, Carlos Eleta no longer wanted anything to do with him and Don King, who had fought to keep him in his stable the fight previously, berated Duran in a 10 minute obscenity filled tirade after the fight claiming that he didn’t try, that he had too many people around him and that he would never promote him again.

King didn’t even give Duran prior notice, Duran didn’t even need a court order for a release; he had just been given an outright release clause.

Roberto Duran was finished; done, no one wanted to know him, his vast entourage had deserted him like Arcel, Brown and Eleta however the only person to stay with him was Plomo; his boyhood trainer.

In search for a payday Duran walked ashamed to the offices of Bob Arum at Top Rank Inc. Duran had run out of boxing lifelines and if Arum rejected him then it truly was the end; the once great and feared fighter on the planet, a former pound-for-pound number 1 would have retired with his career having ended in ignominy; his genius probably forgotten.

Arum however was not impressed but it took one man, a man whom Arum respected, to speak up on behalf of Duran that man was Teddy Brenner. Brenner had been a matchmaker for Madison Square Garden for years and had booked Duran for his American debut back in 1971 against Benny Huertas.

Brenner told Arum, “there is nothing wrong with Duran, he hasn’t taken a beating physically. There is nothing wrong with him that being in good physical and mental shape wouldn’t solve. Whether or not Duran wants to fight again, is the main question.”

Pipino Cuevas – 12 round Light Middleweight Contest

In order to see what Duran had left Arum and Brenner set up a fight against another British fighter, Jimmy Bratten who had a record of 36-6 and was formerly a British light middleweight champion.

Duran had now turned to an old and loyal friend to help him negotiate the fight, Luis Spada. After the embarrassment of New Orleans and the people of Panama launching abuse at the fallen champion it was Spada who visited him and told Duran that if ever he needed someone to help him, even if it was to carry the spit bucket, then all he had to do was phone him.

Spada was a former matchmaker for Eleta, born in Argentina he developed his own stable of world champions including Rigoberto Riasco, Hilario Zapata and Eddie Gazo.

However the Batten fight did not improve Duran’s form. The fight was a “walk off” on the same bill as Alexis Arguello vs Aaron Pryor at Miami’s Orange Bowl. Duran weighed in at 157lbs and one punched his way against a fearful Bratten to a poor unanimous decision. The crowd booed and those reporters that remained to watch the once great Duran finally stated, “he’s finished!”

Despite his poor performance Top Rank decided to take the plunge, they set up the fight against Pipino Cuevas a fearsome fighter who turned professional at 14 after only 19 amateur bouts. He had unbelievable power, when he hit his opponents they felt it. His execution of Japan’s Shoji Tsujimoto proved that he was not be trifled with. He had broken his opponent’s jaws, dislocated jaws, broken orbital bones which resulted in 2 week headaches and double vision!

Cuevas had become a huge hit among the Mexicans on the West Coast of America and was not someone that Duran could take lightly. If Duran truly wanted to prove he had what it took to get back on top then this time he had to deliver, there would be no more chances after this. Duran was now in the last chance saloon.

On the 29th January 1983 Roberto Duran entered the ring at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles, a Cuevas stronghold, knowing that any slip ups could spell the end. He was booed at the introduction as the predominately Mexican crowd cheered Cuevas 29-8 (26KO).

A slightly tentative Duran started the fight using his jab early, which was a lot quicker than it had been in previous fights. A good right hand from Duran was immediately countered by Cuevas who started sinking in some solid body shots. Cuevas though was always prone to throw wide punches which left him open however as the first round came to a close it was Cuevas that looked to be getting on top as he looked to send in the left hook. Both fighters looked strong on the inside and as Cuevas looked to be getting the better of the exchanges it saw Duran utilise his jab more.

In round 2 Duran again started with the jab looking to get his signature straight right hand in behind and then would probably look for the left hook. Duran managed to land a solid right uppercut followed by his left hook and his success’s were no doubt down to the fact that Cuevas squared his body up. As the fight moved inside Cuevas really dug in with his punches but a thudding left hook didn’t budge Duran. Duran responded in kind but as the round ended it seemed that Cuevas just got the better of the exchanges even though both fighters showed excellent inside work.

Duran showed more of his boxing skills in round 3 using his jab and feints in order to get in close and even managed to land a excellent left hook to the body but inevitably the boxing skills were cast aside as both decided to stand in the centre of the ring and put their Latin pride on the line.

Cuevas finally got inside and landed a solid right uppercut and some ferocious body shots, Duran came firing back immediately as he refused to back off and stood his ground. Duran then landed a stinging lead right hand and with 90 seconds left in the round both men went to war as they both exchanged uppercuts, hooks and straight punches.

Early in the 4th round Cuevas was rocked by a straight right from Duran that sent him to the ropes; right into Duran’s territory. Cuevas attempted to fight off the ropes but Duran managed to keep him there with another solid right hand which was swiftly followed up with a short, crisp left hook that sent Cuevas deeper into the ropes.

Cuevas managed to get off the ropes but Duran didn’t give him a second to recover as Cuevas ate a right and left uppercut that sent him to the canvas in the corner.

Cuevas got to his feet aided by the ropes to receive the mandatory 8 count, however rather than tie Duran up Cuevas went right back to the ropes where Duran began teeing off with his repertoire most notably; the left hook to the body.

The end came when Duran landed a solid jab, another left hook to the body and a clubbing right hand that sent Cuevas down for another count. As he got to his feet his corner waved the fight off and Duran took a step closer to restoring his battered reputation.

Significance of Fight: Post fight riots broke out as the Mexicans were up in arms as they felt Cuevas hadn’t tried. The truth of the matter was, even though Cuevas was a fearsome puncher he simply met a reinvigorated Roberto Duran. Cuevas may not have been the same fighter since Tommy Hearns demolished him three previously however the same could be said about Duran who hadn’t shown anything like he did against Cuevas for almost three years.

In the post fight interview Duran was hyper and had good reason to be. Not only had he destroyed his opponent he had been promised another title shot from Bob Arum who told him, “beat Cuevas and you will get Davey Moore next.” The promoter was true to his word.

Davey Moore – WBA Light Middleweight Championship

After winning his first 8 professional fights, 5 inside schedule, Moore travelled to Japan to challenge WBA Light Middleweight Champion Tadashi Mihara and stopped him in 6 rounds.

Next up for the new champion was the highly regarded prospect Tony Ayala Jnr, however Ayala was sentenced to 35 years in jail for rape and burglary. Bob Arum therefore managed to get Duran his title shot a lot sooner than expected. A confident Moore entered the fight thinking that Duran was past his best but what transpired would be a stark reminder of what Duran, even past his prime, was capable of still delivering.

Moore entered the fight as the betting favourite however he failed to make weight at the first attempt after coming in 2lbs over the 154lbs weight limit. Duran came in at 152 ½ lbs whilst Moore was given an hour to lose the excess poundage which he managed.

Madison Square Garden was packed to capacity to watch the home town fighter Moore against the crowd favourite Duran. The first few minutes of the opening round were uneventful until it exploded with both fighters trading bombs. Moore was successful with two uppercuts but Duran immediately answered back; it was evident that Duran was in the mood, he was fired up.

Duran got his jab working fairly well in the second round which allowed him to get inside where he began to land vicious body shots which pushed Moore to the ropes. The crowd were roaring their approval as the veteran began schooling Moore on infighting. Duran again got inside and thudded home more body shots he was unrelenting as he began to switch up his punches from body to head.

Moore on a few occasions throughout the fight managed to tag Duran with spearing straight right hands but to take the sting out of the punches Duran simply turned his head as the punch landed. During the round Moore landed a right hand that Duran rolled with and turned Moore back into the ropes and proceeded to get back down to work whilst also showing his underrated defence again.

The crowd were loving the action and the cries of “Dooran, Dooran, Dooran” must have been disheartening for Moore. Here he was only a few miles away from his home in the Bronx and the crowd were cheering for the foreign fighter.

Moore landed three solid shots right on the bell as both fighters stared each other down with Duran bouncing up and down and waving at Moore to go to his corner. Duran’s face said it all; he was loving it, he was loving the fact that he was fighting his fight.

To further back up that Duran was enjoying himself came right at the start of the third round as he landed a hellish straight right hand that backed Moore up to the ropes. Duran casually walked up to Moore with a smile on his face that was border lining sheer delight as he knew that he had hurt his opponent. Duran followed it up with a right uppercut and a left hook as he remained on top of Moore. The body shots that Duran was landing were sent in with mean intentions and the grunts emanating from him further proved that tonight he was not messing around he had done everything right in training and it was now paying off.

Moore attempted to match Duran but the challenger simply slipped under the punches or rolled with them and came firing back ten fold.

Moore though was brave and during the fourth round, with Duran looking to jab his way inside, was launching massive shots at Duran. The fight again went inside and both were having their successes, it was certainly one of Moore’s better rounds but Duran had really made the body shots count.

During the fifth Duran was timing Moore beautifully and what more Duran wasn’t forgetting his jab. Moore’s face now looked like it belonged in a car crash but the champion wasn’t back down as he twice landed straight right hands on Duran but he couldn’t put a dent in the challenger as Duran got back inside and landed more body shots and a few uppercuts.

The beating Moore was taking was just about to get worse as the sixth proved to be an absolute clinic on infighting. Moore had no answers against the vastly experienced Duran when it came to infighting it was where Duran felt more at home during a fight.

The seventh showed that it was a matter of when, and not if, Duran would stop Moore. On one occasion Duran sneered at Moore after the champion landed a couple of punches. Duran followed it up with three vicious left hooks that again backed Moore into the ropes and the assault continued.

Sam Smith, who was working commentary, aptly stated, “Davey Moore has just walked right into the office of Roberto Duran and he is paying the heavy taxes right now!”

The crowd were at fever pitch as the crescendo rose each time Duran landed a punch. Moore was reeling as he had no answers to Duran’s continued assaults. Then towards the end of the round Duran landed 2 right hands, he threw a left hook that missed by inches then in came a murderous overhand right that detonated flush on the left side of Moore’s jaw which dumped the champion right onto the seat of his pants.

The crowd exploded as Moore bravely got to his feet at the count of eight but he was a beaten man both mentally and physically. The noise was at such a level that the bell to end the round couldn’t be heard. Duran went and sat down in the wrong corner and had to be fetched by his trainer.

If ever there was a solid shout to end a fight then this was the time to do it. Instead Moore was allowed out for the eighth and whilst Moore bravely attempted to fight back Duran continued to pummel him so much that on one occasion whilst locked together Duran teed up a right hand. Moore was pretty much defenceless that his corner should have pulled him rather than allow him to stand and take that sort of beating. The referee wasn’t much better either as there were a number of occasions during the eighth round that he should have stopped the fight before he actually did.

At ringside Moore’s mother and girlfriend passed out whilst some onlookers were screaming for the fight to be stopped in the 7th round.

As the fight was waved off there was no protest from Moore whilst Duran was hoisted high by his corner as he waved to his adoring public.

Roberto Duran had returned and he had returned in style. The old Roberto had showed up and took the younger, fresher champion into the trenches showing all his class and experience to utterly dominate the fight.

Significance of Fight: Duran had finally come full circle after the humiliation of the second fight against Leonard and the subsequent non-performances leading up to the Cuevas fight but he had never bludgeoned an opponent so emphatically than he did Moore.

It was also Duran’s 32nd birthday and the crowd in the Garden that night sang “happy birthday” to the new champion who had made history by winning his third world title in a third weight class (becoming the 7th fighter in history to achieve such a feat) and did so by not losing a single round whilst turning back the clock and putting on a vintage Duran performance.

Whilst celebrating in the ring one of Duran’s former opponents, Sugar Ray Leonard entered the ring and raised the new champions arm aloft and Duran even asked Leonard to pass his regards on to his family. All the history had been blown aside on a wave of emotion.

Davey Moore would never be the same fighter again, what came to pass on 16th June 1983 ended Moore. He was young, he had heart and he was proud and that is probably the main reasons for his standing there and take such a terrific beating, he was massacred by a butcher. He went into the fight way over confident believing that Duran was over the hill and paid the ultimate penalty in bucket loads by a fighter who fought at his greatest.

Duran had gained redemption not only for himself but from his countrymen. He returned home on the Presidential plane and was received like a God and had made good on his promise to Torrijos.

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Tags: Duran, Roberto

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