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Why Roberto Durán Is the Greatest Boxer of All Time

Kelley has been a boxing fan since the 1960s, but he's particularly interested in classic boxers from the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s.

Durán in 1994

Durán in 1994

Roberto Durán wasn’t just a great boxer; his career was legendary, his boxing accomplishments hard to believe. He fought in 119 professional contests, winning 103 (70 by knockout) and lost only 16. He won titles in four different weight classes and fought in five decades, the 1960s through the 2000s, and he was 50 years old when he fought his last fight.

Oh yeah, when Durán was 14, he reputedly knocked down a mule with one punch! This story doesn’t seem like fiction, because Durán was a fierce puncher whose competitiveness often astonished the crowd. In such a contest, few would have bet on the mule!

Let’s explore the career of Roberto Durán, alias, Manos de Piedra, translated in Spanish as Hands of Stone. Was he truly the greatest boxer of all time?

The Career of Roberto Durán

Mean Streets of Panama

Roberto Durán was born in 1951 in Panama and grew up in the slums of El Chorrillo in the district of La Casa de Piedra (House of Stone) in Panama. Yes, Hands of Stone came from the House of Stone. Who would believe it?

After a brief amateur career, Durán began his professional boxing career in 1968 when he was just 16. Fighting with little professional training, he still managed to win his first 21 fights without a loss, before wealthy landowner Carlos Eleta bought his contract for $300 and then hired trainers Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown to teach Durán the finer points of pugilism.

Durán then went from being a devastating puncher to one with excellent defensive skills. Oh, yes, and he could also throw a great left jab and take a punch, both required attributes of a champion.

First Title Fight

Initially, Durán fought as a featherweight (127 lbs.), but his first title fight was for the World Boxing Association (WBA) lightweight championship (135 lbs.) against Ken Buchanan at the famous Madison Square Garden in 1972. Durán battered Buchanan about the ring for 13 rounds, was way ahead on all scorecards, and then at the end of the thirteenth round hit Buchanan with a body shot that Buchanan’s trainer considered a low blow caused by a knee to the groin, which video showed was not the case. Nevertheless, since Buchanan couldn’t continue the fight, Durán won the championship on a technical knockout (TKO).

After that, as far as some people were concerned, Durán was a dirty fighter, though anyone with two good eyes knew he didn’t have to be. At this point in Durán’s career, he was 29-0.

His Career as a Lightweight

Durán won his first 31 fights and then fought a nontitle light welterweight bout against Esteban de Jesús, who, a stylish boxer, outpointed Durán for ten rounds and won the contest with a unanimous decision. This was Duran’s first loss in 31 fights.

Two years later, in a rematch against de Jesús, Durán, repeatedly landing a left hook to the body, slowly wearing down de Jesús, finally knocked him out with a vicious – and memorable right cross to the head in the eleventh round. For years, boxing fans remembered that punch. (Please note, in those days all championship fights lasted 15 rounds, not 12 as is the case nowadays.)

Sugar Ray Leonard

Durán, after amassing a record of 62-1, gave up his lightweight title in 1979 and began fighting as a welterweight (147 pounds). Continuing to win, Duran eventually squared off against Sugar Ray Leonard, the undefeated WBC welterweight champion. The fight took place at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, where Leonard had won a gold medal in boxing in the 1976 Olympics.

Duran didn’t like the fact that he would be paid one-fifth of what Sugar Ray was supposed to make, so he taunted and insulted Leonard in press conferences before the fight, hoping to intimidate him. Well, apparently Durán shook up Sugar Ray, because in the fight he continually beat Leonard to the punch, winning a unanimous 15-round decision, the fight later dubbed as the “Brawl in Montreal.”

The “No Mas” Debacle

In his first fight against Sugar Ray Leonard, Durán seemed to have the mental edge, which is very important in a fight, almost as important as the physical aspect. But in the second one, fought just five months later, Leonard was determined to intimidate Durán. For instance, in the seventh round, Leonard wound up with a right-handed bolo punch and then hit Durán with his left hand. Then, during the eighth round, Leonard landed a solid uppercut against Durán, who turned and walked away from Leonard and declared, “No más!” (no more), ending the fight. A TV analyst for the fight, heavyweight champion Larry Holmes kept saying “I don’t understand.” Seemingly, only Durán understood why he quit.

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This was indeed a humiliating defeat for Durán, and if his career had ended at this point, he could have been labeled the biggest chump in the history of boxing. But Durán did what many people have done in the world of sport and the movies too, for that matter.

Always having a flair for the dramatic, Roberto Durán redeemed himself.

The Big Comeback

On a related note, Durán had a cameo role as a sparring partner in the movie Rocky II, in which the comeback kid himself Rocky Balboa wants another shot at the heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed.

Durán soon climbed back into the ring, fighting as a light middleweight (154 lbs.). He lost fights close fights against Wilfred Benitez and Kirkland Laing. Then Durán signed a contract with legendary promoter Bob Arum and got a title shot at hard-hitting Pipino Cuevas, knocking out Cuevas in just the fourth round.

Also, in November 1983, Durán fought “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler, the great middleweight champion. Durán survived 15 rounds with Hagler, at the time, the only fighter to do so. Durán was ahead on the scorecards after 12 rounds, but Hagler prevailed in the last three, winning the contest.

Next, Durán fought another title fight, this time in June 1986 against WBA light middleweight champion Davey Moore. By the fourth round, Durán said he knew Moore couldn’t hurt him, so he relentlessly stalked the champion, eventually knocking him down with a thunderous right hand in the seventh round and the fight was stopped in the eighth, as Moore could no longer continue. As coincidence would have it, this was Durán’s thirty-second birthday. After the contest, the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to Durán, who sobbed openly.

Regardless of the circumstances, Durán was nearly always a crowd pleaser and a hero to Latinos throughout the world, and the infamous “No Mas Debacle,” as the great announcer Howard Cosell dubbed it, became a distant memory.

In 1989, Durán fought Iran Barkley, the WBC middleweight champion (160 lbs). He knocked down Barkley in the eleventh round and then won a close decision. Since Durán was 37 at the time, it is considered one of the highest achievements of his career. Ring magazine called it the greatest fight of the year.

Twilight Years

Now in his forties, Durán continued fighting as a middleweight throughout the 1990s. Against many opponents, he looked very impressive, and he managed to win the NBA super middleweight title in 2000, beating Pat Lawlor. Nevertheless, he lost three of his last five fights, which must have told him something. Finally, in July 2001, he lost the super middleweight title fighting against Hector “Macho” Camacho and retired at 50!

Afterword

Today, there aren’t many professional boxers who will fight in over 100 bouts, much less win 103 of them. There aren’t many who will fight until they’re 50 years old either. Roberto Durán was certainly the last of a dying breed, soon to become extinct, it appears.

But Durán didn’t simply fight for a long time (34 years); he was a great puncher-boxer with a stainless steel jaw and the heart of a Tyrannosaurus. People liked him too and enjoyed his panache and ferocity. Only once did he throw in the towel, but he made up for this “bad night” many times over.

Many boxing purists think Durán was the greatest lightweight fighter of all time, and this is almost certainly true. However, many think he was even better – the greatest fighter of all time. How about you?

Please leave a comment.

Questions & Answers

Question: Did Duran ever fight Tommy Hearns?

Answer: Tommy "Hit Man" Hearns knocked out Roberto Duran in the second round of a fight in June 1984.

Question: Do you agree that Buchanan beat Roberto Durán?

Answer: Duran beat Buchanan even though Buchanan may have been a better boxer.

Question: Are Buchanan fans "punchy" like Buchanan himself?