Sparring With Roberto Duran

By Ray Schultz

It seemed like just another Monday at Gleason’s Gym. “Feeling good?” Sammy Morgan asked a fighter coming in. 

“Yeah.”

“Well, that’s the main thing. You’ll do alright.” 

When the fighter was out of earshot, Sammy said, “He’s gonna get his (b—-) ass kicked. I saw this South American he’s fighting—a killer. He’ll knock him all over the ring.” 

Suddenly there was a commotion at the door, and Roberto Duran entered with his retinue. All eyes turned to the Panamanian. Wearing a fisherman’s white cap and a red-and-white ensemble, his eyes flashing, he greeted several people and disappeared into the locker room, returning several minutes later in his workout clothes: a plastic sweatshirt with a sleeveless yellow sweater over it. Training for a title defense against Edwin Viruet, of Puerto Rico, Duran loosened up, joked with Panama Lewis and Eddie Gregory, and sparred a round or two with a regular kid from the gym.

Then they brought in Tony Danza, an aspiring fighter and future actor. Danza was wearing tennis shoes instead of boxing shoes, and Duran was amused. But he was raging with unfocused energy. Freddie Brown grimaced and said, “No, damn it,” when Duran threw a wild right. Duran roughed Danza up a little inside, and landed a hard shot to Danza’s body. Freddie shook his head. Duran allowed himself to be maneuvered into a corner. Freddie said, “Move, move.” 

Finished with Danza, who had stood up well to it, Duran took on his next victim. He threw more body shots, and in the second round dropped the fighter with a glancing right. Freddie Brown was not impressed. “When are you gonna start moving?” he asked. 

Duran then shifted to the heavy bag, “cawing” when he threw hard shots into it. The father of the Olympic champion Howard Davis approached him and asked if he wanted to spar a few rounds with his son. This enraged Duran. “You give me the money for a 15-round fight, and I’ll fight him,” he said, then followed Davis Sr. to the front of the gym and repeated it. “Enough, get back here,” Freddie Brown said. 

Wearing new leather boxing shoes with the inscription “Rocky” on them, Duran sparred again on Wednesday. By this time, he was working with anyone who had the nerve to get in there with him. One young fighter, more poorly equipped than Danza, lacked even a protective cup. Duran made threatening faces, then aimed a shot at the kid’s groin and pulled it at the last second. Some joke: Most of us gasped. 

The moment had arrived. I approached Duran as he was leaving. “Duran, I’m from the New York Times magazine,” I said, lying. “Can you tell me about your fight with Angel Robinson Garcia?” Duran thought about it for a moment, then answered, in uncertain English, “I win a decision. He was very smart, a good fighter. I was out of shape.” Panama Lewis elaborated. “Duran fought Robinson Garcia when he was young, before he was champion. He was very fast, Garcia.” He added that Garcia drank the night before the fight. “He  wasn’t really drunk,” Lewis said. “But he had some drinks. He was, you know, hanging out.”

The lightweight fight took place in Panama City in January 1972. And Garcia showed from the start that he was not intimidated by Duran. “Garcia was knocked down by Duran by the first assault in the first round, but he raised himself from the canvas to make a true exhibition of good boxing before the desired evidence of the young Duran gaining success,” said an article on the “Gran Pelea” in Estrella de Panama. Even Duran was impressed. “Cuban, you know a lot,” he said during a clinch in round two. “The Duran fight was complicated,” Garcia said through Oscar. “I can’t explain it. The knockdown was a slip.” Duran’s one-time manager Nestor Plomo Quinones said that “Duran was all the time throwing his punches, but Garcia was blocking him all the time,” Christian Guidice wrote in his Duran biography: Hands of Stone.  

Win or lose, the Duran fight was Garcia’s ticket back to the Americas. He had beaten Bunny Grant in November In his return to Paris after seven years, but lost a month later to Jonathan Dele in Barcelona–his last fight in Europe. “The promoters didn’t want to use him after so many losses,” Oscar said. And he had little personal reason to stay. “He blew the money and blew the marriage,” Angelo Dundee said. As Chino Govin described it, “He sent his wife back to France.” 

Financed by his purse from the Duran fight, Garcia holed up in the Hotel Peral in Caracas, and tried to regroup, but he didn’t fight again for four months—maybe he was getting his paperwork in order. In April 1972, finally, he lost to Reymon Reyes in Maracaibo, and in June was matched with the new lightweight sensation Esteban DeJesus, from Carolina, PR, in Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum. DeJesus dropped out with an impacted tooth, though, and was replaced by Cemal Kamaci, of Turkey, who had beaten Garcia in Vienna in 1970. “The turnout was so meager that Garden publicist John Condon said, ‘There’ll be no attendance announced tonight. Instead, there’ll be individual names and addresses,’” wrote sportswriter Leonard Cohen.     

That was one of several indignities. Another was the press coverage of the fight, if anyone read it to him. “Garcia’s main resemblance to Sugar Ray was the fact that Ray once reached 35, too, and, despite Angel’s ring savvy, he appeared to have neither the reflexes nor the stamina to neutralize the attack of his younger opponent,” the New York Daily News reported. Garcia cut Kamaci, but was also cut himself. And he irritated the commission doctor, Dr. Edward Kleiman, by demanding a butterfly bandage instead of stitches—he knew the stitches wouldn’t work. 

Kleiman got his revenge, as shown by this entry in Garcia’s New York record: “Ill & unavailable indefinitely—laceration. Dr. Kleiman.”  And the news reports said Garcia was a Venezuelan.  

Garcia returned to his room at the Penn Garden Hotel. As it happened, Duran was at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills, training to fight Ken Buchanan for the world lightweight title. He called Garcia and hired him as a sparring partner. Garcia lasted two days, all he could take, Quinones told Guidice. But I doubted that. Garcia had gone ten with Duran in a real fight. And he had a big bout of his own coming up: a rescheduled fight against Esteban DeJesus in San Juan. 

Oscar, who was present that night in PR, was impressed by Garcia’s performance. Garcia won several of the later rounds, and easily evaded DeJesus’ punches, but he didn’t throw many of his own and lost the fight. “DeJesus was a hard hitter,” said Oscar. “But then I saw the way Garcia moved his head and defended himself for ten rounds, and the condition he was in.” That wasn’t all he saw: Before the bout, Garcia was drunk in the Attic, a nightclub in the Hotel Borinquen. That’s where Oscar met the Cuban with the close-cropped hair. 

Less than two weeks before that bout, Duran scored a controversial TKO over Buchanan. “The record will say that Ken Buchanan lost the lightweight championship of the world after the 13th round as he rolled in pain on the canvas, holding his groin,” Bob Waters wrote. “Ken Buchanan really lost on the second punch of the first round last night at Madison Square Garden. Buchanan landed the first punch, a jab that flicked back the head of the contender, Roberto Duran of Panama. The second punch was Duran’s, a right hand led that bounced off Buchanan’s shoulder and still had enough power to drop Buchanan after it ricocheted off his jaw.” 

DeJesus soon joined that elite circle. In November, he floored and outboxed Duran in a non-title fight—Duran’s first loss. Duran got his revenge in 1974 when he kayoed DeJesus in a title defense, and again in 1978. But the fact that Garcia had gone the distance with Duran, Buchanan, DeJesus and Napoles looked good on paper in 1972. 

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