The harder they come...
I hoped Roberto Duran had mellowed. It was 5am and "Limo" Ray was regaling the porter at the Sheffield Hilton with his sole Duran story. It was the one about Duran knocking out a horse, back when he was a wiry shoeshine boy on the streets of Panama. It's a good story, but "Limo" Ray hadn't quite got it right. He said it happened in Mexico and couldn't remember how it ended, but at that time in the morning who the hell cared and anyway we would be meeting Duran in a couple of hours. We would find out straight from the horse's mouth or, rather, he who belted the horse's mouth.
"Limo" Ray drove a a limousine and looked like an end-of-the-pier magician. He was dressed in black and had a wispy, neatly-trimmed Vandyke beard, carefully teased sideburns and a toe-curling penchant for telling dirty jokes at inappropriate moments. Ray was our driver, hired by Sheffield fight promoter, Glynn Rhodes, to pick up Duran from Bristol and drive him to Sheffield for a spot of after-dinner speaking.
Duran's native tongue is Spanish and he has only very limited English, but that didn't seem to matter. Glynn and three other British fight promoters paid him about eight grand each to turn up, shake hands and just be Roberto Duran on a four-day tour - a nice little earner for the 51 year old ex-champ.
But who would begrudge old "Hands Of Stone" an easy payday? Duran fought for over 30 years - 120 times as a professional - won four genuine world titles and reportedly blew over $20 million in earnings one way or another. "If I have money I want to be another Robin Hood," he had said.
During his heyday Duran reportedly got through around $10,000 a day and would think nothing of picking up the tab for his friends in the best hotels. It was a considered opinion that Duran's "generosity" with his fight purses had forced him to box on into his fifties, although Duran swore he didn't fight on for thae money. He claimed to enjoy it.
No matter, if it wasn't for a bad car accident in late 2001, Duran would have still been punching for pay. A night on the town in Buenos Aires and a driver who'd had too much rum left Roberto with eight broken ribs and a punctured lung. Not even Duran's iron will, or a hefty tax demand, could whip his ageing body back into fighting shape after that.
Ray started up the limo and we slunk out of Sheffield. "Not bad is she?" he said. "Very nice, Ray," I replied. Ray's baby was as sleek and tacky as a vibrator. Finger-smudged champagne flutes lined the alcoves above the black leather seats, the mirrored ceiling adding a final ghastly flourish. Ray hurled two videos back to us as he drove saying, "You might want to watch these."
"She's a lovely little thing," he said, as he leaned over his scrambled egg and bacon sandwich to show me a brunette sucking a horse dick.
I thought Ray had thrown us some of his blueys for the journey, but they were Raging Bull and Donnie Brasco. We didn't watch either and we didn't need to, for Ray kept us entertained on the long drive. He told us he flogged Rolex watches and he was selling a platinum chain for big bucks. Ray had his grubby fingers in many pies. At breakfast he'd shown me the photos on his state-of-the-art photo-snapping mobile. "She's a lovely little thing," he said, as he leaned over his scrambled egg and bacon sandwich to show me a brunette sucking a horse dick.
I had to be careful not to introduce myself too quickly to Duran and his manager. Glynn told me Roberto's manager might be difficult and may want extra money if I said I was writing a story, so I sat with Ray in the dining area of a hotel called Jury's in Bristol, where Duran had spent the night, and waited for Glynn and the boxer to get the formalities out of the way.
"I wonder if Duran met Elvis?" wondered Ray.
"What? In Bristol?" I said.
"Or Frank Sinatra? I'm going to ask him if he met Frank Sinatra," said Ray, his face as giddy as a fool.
"Better wait until we are in the car. Until he feels comfortable," I said.
Duran's daughter, Irichelle - who had boxed professionally several times herself - and his manager Tony Gonzalez wer ethe first to appear with Duran following, fairly bouncing in shortly after. He looked healthy despite the recent car accident. His trademark scraggly beard was gone and he was bigger than I expected. His barrel chest and expanding gut strained the fibres on his black sweater and his legs, as thick as small oaks, were stuffed into baggy jeans.
He shook Glynn's hand and then came over to our table and shook mine and Ray's. The handshake of stone was hearty and warm. Duran smiled as he introduced himself. Two square diamond earrings glinted in his left ear, and the famous black eyes - that had sunk many a fighter's heart into the sole of their boots - peered from under a New York Yankees cap but appeared friendly enough.
I asked him how he was doing. "Good, good," he said in a throaty, Hispanic rasp that would have been at home in a Sam Peckinpah western. Roberto was hungry so he ordered a plate of lamb and potatoes. Several people came to say hello to him as he waited for his food and he shook their hands and patted them on the back. One of the small crowd asked him who had been the best fighter he'd ever tangled with.
"My wife," said the boxer, lifting his head momentarily from his plate of meat. Somebody asked him a specific question about a fight which I didn't hear clearly but Duran's answer was audible enough.
"I broke both hands in that fight but I didn't worry. I knocked him out with my elbow."
After Roberto had finished his food we all made our way to Ray's limo. I told Tony who I was and he seemed fine. No problem asking questions. I thanked the heavens for that. Tony was Duran's attorney as well as his manager. He had recently won a court case involving an old associate of Duran's who had taken one of his championship belts and sold it for a few thousand dollars. Roberto said it wasn't his to sell and with the help of Tony, he retrieved the belt. A familiar tale of an ex-champ who couldn't remember what had been stolen and what he'd given away. Duran had probably squandered and been ripped off more than most but seemed in good spirits.
"You have a CD player?" he said to Ray as he climbed in. Roberto pulled out several discs from his rucksack and placed one in the player just above his head. Salsa music filled the limo and we drove off.
"Who is this?" I asked above the din.
"This is me, I sing," said Duran, jabbing a finger into his chest and letting out a throaty Sid James cackle.
Now his boxing career was over he liked to fill his time singing and playing the bongos. He said he didn't miss boxing. He played and sang in a band in Panama and he spent time with his kids. He was well loved in Panama, the band got plenty of bookings. Duran told me he wanted to learn to play the double bass. He said he could learn by listening to it being played, adding he was quick to learn, just like his boxing.
"If I ever made a mistake in the ring I would only do it once," he said. "I would go back into the gym, work it out in sparring and never do it again. I was a smart fighter. Most people who think of me they always think I'm a brawler, but I was a good boxer.
"Do you think I'd have lasted this long if I hadn't been smart?" he said. "If I'd have taken lots of punishment? I used my brain in the ring. Anybody who doesn't use their brain in the ring is a piece of shit."
Above the noise of Roberto's band we began to talk boxing. Tony interpreted my questions and Duran answered with gusto. I asked if knocking out the horse was true. Roberto told me it was.
He was around 14 and didn't have a lot of money. There was a festival near the town where he was born, Guarare, in the province of Los Santos, about 170 miles from Panama City. Duran was drunk and he had his eye on several good-looking girls. A young guy at the festival challenged Duran. He bet him two bottles of whiskey he couldn't knock out a horse that was tethered in the square. Duran looked at the girls, who had turned his way. Duran said of course he could. His uncle told him that if he hit the horse behind the ear it would go down. The scrawny young kid took the advice, strode up to the horse, gave it a good whack behind the ear and the nag went down. Duran swaggered back to the guy who had issued the challenge and collected his two bottles of whiskey.
Duran's hand healed sufficiently to turn professional just before his 16th birthday and he quickly earned a reputation as a puncher. An ex-jockey called Alfonso Castillo, who was also Panama's top boxing writer, gave him the nickname Manos De Piedra - or "Hands Of Stone" - and introduced him to a local millionaire industrialist called Carlos Eleta.
Don Carlos signed on as Duran's manager and in 1972, before 18,820 fans in Madison Square Garden, Duran took the lightweight world title from Scotland's Ken Buchanan with a 13th round TKO. Many claimed Duran hit Buchanan with a low blow, but Duran was ahead and in control despite the controversial finish.
"The highest point of my career," said Duran taking off his cap and giving his unruly hair a rub. "Buchanan. My friend, Buchanan."
Roberto seemed to have a great deal of affection for his old foe. Maybe the first dragon is the hardest to slay and stays with you the longest. Duran and Buchanan met in Newcastle last year for the first time since that fight. Duran invited Ken to his 50th birthday in Panama. Duran said he would pay for the flights. The party was held in a football stadium. Thousands turned up to salute the great Duran. Ken didn't show but Duran didn't seem to mind.
"My friend Buchanan," he said again.
Tony was keen to show me a documentary the Fox Network had made about Duran, and which had been nominated for an Emmy Award. He slid it into the deck and we watched Duran knock out excellent fighters such as Esteban DeJesus and Jeff Lampkin.
"He's like the Wolfman," said the commentator. "Wild and ruthless, what a fighter - Roberto Duran."
I looked over at Duran. He wasn't paying any attention. He looked faintly bored as he stared out of the window at the faded autumn landscape rushing by.
Next on the tape was Duran's first fight with Sugar Ray Leonard. I remembered watching it as a kid, the first time I'd seen Duran. Leonard was the golden boy. The rightfull successor to Ali. Smooth and slick and pretty. Duran relinquished the lightweight title he had made his own for seven years to challenge him, jumped straight up to welterweight.
Duran was the underdog but drew Leonard into a dogfight and won a close decision. It was a classic, cementing Duran's greatness. I watched as the fight ended and Leonard went to shake Duran's hand, only for Duran to push him away and turn his back. A spiky gesture of ungracious defiance synonymous with Duran's fight career. What did you say to Leonard at the time, I asked.
"I said, 'You're a piece of shit,'" said Duran, grinning that wolfish grin. "What happened in that fight was that the press at the time almost challenged Leonard. They said, 'You better not fight him, stick to your boxing.' And I guess he wanted to prove a point. He wanted to show the world he could brawl with Duran."
Leonard made a grave error that night in Montreal, but he wasn't going to make the same mistake in New Orleans five months later. In perhaps the most perplexing fight in history, Duran turned his back on Leonard again - this time in the middle of the eighth round. With Leonard ahead on points and winning the war of wills, Duran threw up his arms and said, "No mas, no more box", and walked back to his corner.
Duran had lost his title but that was nothing compared to the sudden and shocking loss of his machismo. The code among Latin fighters and fans was that if a fighter had to suffer the ignominy of defeat he was carried out on his shield.
He didn't quit. That may well be hokum but Duran's house in Panama was vandalised soon after his ignoble capitulation and it took him years to win back the public's respect. Along with the "phantom punch" from Ali/Liston II, it remains a mystery of boxing. I asked him what happened. Duran sat perfectly still, looked me in the eye and said, "I wasn't feeling well. I had stomach cramps and didn't want to punish myself unnecessarily. I wanted to wait until we fought again."
I wasn't letting him get away that lightly. I told him sure he knew the Latin code, a fighter does not quit, especially a fighter with a reputation for machismo like Duran. He shifted in his seat and said, "It's a very long story and I don't want to talk about that now. If somebody offers me a lot of money I will speak about it."
I asked Tony what he thought. He had his own theories about that night. He said that maybe there had been pressure on Duran to throw the fight, suggesting that back in Panama there had been threats. But he also said that Duran was tired of chasing Leonard: "My second theory is that Duran just said, 'Fuck you! If you want to box, let's box. I'm not going to chase you for the rest of the night.'"
Yet another theory has it that Duran was in bad shape that night. Several years later, Duran's former manager Don Carlos Eleta said Duran had begun to drink heavily and live way too fast for a fighter in his position. "Rumours started that Duran was paying bars in Panama $200 to lock him in and serve him what he wanted," Eleta said. The manager thought Duran would soon 'lose to a bum' so he signed for the Leonard re-match for $6million. Eleta allegedly made a deal with promoters Don King and Bob Arum for the millions to be paid in Panama 15 days before the fight, with the proviso that if Duran stepped into the ring, Eleta could cash their money.
"After that fight I knew he would spend the money quickly so I made him sign a document with his wife that he couldn't touch it for ten years," said Eleta.
"Shortly after the fight General Paredes [a strongman under General Noriega] went to the bank with Duran's wife Felicidad and got them to hand over the money. His wife bet thousands of dollars daily."
Duran wanted some coffee so we stopped at a bland motorway service station around 20 minutes from Sheffield. I bought Duran a cup of coffee and we sat on plastic seats at Burger King. "Limo" Ray joined us. He asked Duran about Sinatra and Elvis. Duran said he had never seen Elvis, but Sinatra, Dean Martin and Diana Ross had all seen him box in Vegas.
I went for more coffee and left Duran and Ray to it, then I heard Duran erupt with laughter. He was on his feet, cackling and slapping his thigh. A few overweight heads turned to look. Roberto Duran was having a laughing fit in the Granada Services just outside Sheffield. I bought the coffee and went to investigate this surreal scene. Ray had a big satisfied grin on his face - he had just shown Duran the picture of the brunette and the horse dick. "She coming tonight?" said Duran, "I'll introduce her to my little friend."
Glynn Rhodes had arranged for Duran to visit the Sheffield boxing centre he helped run. The gym was packed with young fighters eager to share a moment with Duran and they have him a big hand. Duran acknowledged the applause with a smile and walked over to a punch ball and began to punch, slip and roll beneath it. Then he pulled a few kids for a brief masterclass. He showed one how to draw an opponent's lead, another how to turn an opponent on the ropes, and a wiry kid how to follow the right hand through with the elbow. Duran knew every trick in the boxing almanac and enough to write a dirty sequel.
He fooled around and posed for photos. I turned my back for a moment and then he was gone. When I noticed Duran's absence I walked out of the gym, but it was too late. Ray was pulling away in the limo with a smiling and mellow Duran - and all my valuables - in the back. I thought about chasing after it but didn't bother. I'd catch up with them later.
I watched as they turned into the high street. The sound of Duran's salsa faded to be replaced by the voice of a scruffy young kid from the gym and his cheeky-looking mates. They stood next to me and looked a little lost. "Who was that?" one asked.
"Roberto Duran," said the scruffy kid. "He beat Sugar Ray Leonard... he just fucked off in that limo."