“I’m not God – but I’m something similar.” – Roberto Duran
In boxing, perhaps no fighter in the history of the sport has more epitomized the word “machismo” than Roberto “Manos de Piedra” Duran. Born in the small Latin American country of Panama, he fought with a ferocity that was matched only by his sometimes-appalling disdain for his opponents, even after total victory.
In 1975, he won the lightweight title from Ray Lampkin with a left hook that laid the champion out and down for the count. Leading up to the fight, Duran, like many upstart challengers, prodded and jeered at his opponent. He’d make Lamkpin “kneel” before him, he said. But usually, when such taunts are turned into reality and a fighter knock outs out an opponent so badly that he is carted off on a stretcher and heads off to a hospital, the challenger doesn’t tell television cameras, “The next time I send him to the morgue.” But there was nothing usual about Duran. He is easily one of the greatest fighters to ever step in the ring, but on a list of ferociousness, he might be number one.
Today, the all-time great turns 63 and is fast approaching his golden years. Were it up to him, there’s little doubt that he would still be fighting. But a car accident in 2001 finally put an end to a career that spanned five decades! From the late 1960s through the early 2000s, Duran amassed a record of 103-16, with 70 KOs. Eighteen of those knockouts came in the first round.
He participated in some of the most memorable fights of the 1980s, against big-name fighters like Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. People often remember Duran as much for being the first to blemish Leonard’s pristine record as they do for the ignominious “No mas” fight. On his birthday, however, there’s a much better fight to remember Duran, one that better symbolizes the whole of his career. This fight shows not just his awesome punching power and his granite chin, but also his crafty boxing and counter-punching skills. It's a fight in which many didn’t give him a chance in hell, and maybe — especially — because of that, he found the will to do what the pundits said was impossible. I’m talking about Roberto Duran v. Iran “The Blade” Barkley.
By the time Duran stepped into the ring against Barkley, he was 37 years old, a three-time world champion, and had been fighting professionally for over 20 years. Barkley was almost 10 years younger, five inches taller and had an almost a six-inch reach advantage. The younger middleweight champion had earned his title against a man Duran knew well, Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns.
Against, Hearns, Duran only lasted two rounds and was knocked out by one of the most brutal right hands ever thrown in the squared circle.
Four years after that fight, Hearns moved up a division and won a vacant title against Juan Domingo Roldan. In his first defense, he met Barkley, losing by TKO in the third round, just as he had in his epic war against Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Somewhere, Duran was likely watching and grinning his evil grin as he saw his former foe knocked through the ropes and on to the announcers’ table.
(Pay close attention starting at 13:45.)
Now, as he stepped in the ring against Barkley, Duran undoubtedly found extra motivation at the prospect of beating the man that felled him so brutally. Then, of course, there was also a title in a new weight class on the line.
Barkley was motivated by revenge. Six years earlier, Duran took the light middleweight (154 lbs) title from Davey Moore in a fight that was the beginning of the end of the young champion’s short career. Moore came into that fight with five Golden Gloves championships and the distinction of having won his world title only after nine fights and defended it twice. He was carried out as ground meat.
After that first loss, Moore would only win six of his next 10 before he was killed in a freak accident where his car rolled down his driveway and over him. Barkley had vivid memories of that grueling fight as he had helped his “best friend” More train for Duran. Now, six years after that demolition and one year after Moore’s death, Barkley came to exact revenge for his fallen friend.
Fights like Duran vs. Barkley are what helped place Duran ahead of his great contemporaries Hearns, Leonard and Hagler on the all-time greats list. Sure, Duran had lost to each of these men at some point in his career. But he also fought more than any of these two greats combined. He knocked out more men than any of these men ever fought. More than that, he found a way to carry his skills across divisions in a way his contemporaries did not.
Yes, Hearns and Leonard both won as many titles in different weight divisions, but they were physical specimens. It was a miracle that Hearns ever made 147 lbs. His back was as big as Sergey Kovalev’s even when he was a welterweight. Leonard was blessed with speed handed down by the boxing gods. Compared against them, Duran was the everyman. Especially in the iterations of his career above welterweight, Duran was relativity soft around the middle and always lacked the height and reach that the men at junior middleweight and above always had. Duran worked with those physical deficits to build a career matching and exceeding his contemporaries.
Measured against time, Duran’s tenacity and skills would have been celebrated in any era. Leonard only fought 40 times in his illustrious career. Leonard’s namesake, Sugar Ray Robinson, fought nearly twice that many fights before he got his first title shot! He went on to fight 120 more times after that. Duran could have thrived even in Robinson’s day because of his underappreciated boxing skills, power and his durability.
The Barkley fight is so symbolic of Duran because after a career’s worth of fights, victories and upsets, he was discounted but still reaching for history. It’s a fight with passion and ferocity. It’s fight in which, against the odds and pundits, Duran once again forced open the history books and wrote his name.
It’s like he said:
“There’s only one legend. That’s me.” – Roberto Duran
Few have worn a crown quite like Duran. Happy birthday, Manos de piedra.
A former college wrestler, Taekwondo black-belt, and wannabe boxer, Paul Navarro (aka Fight Like Sugar) is now a full-time lawyer, part-time fight scribe, and high school wrestling coach.