Roberto Duran fought, probing for a weakness and looking for an opening. The large hardshell lobster on his plate was winning. The eyes of perhaps the best lightweight fighter in the history of boxing flashed his frustration.
Then the great Duran smiled. He could see the humor. So could his dinner companions at DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant on the Portland waterfront Friday night. Twenty-four hours later he was at the Portland Expo, signing autographs and posing for photos with fans who had come to watch the card of fights in pro boxing’s return to this venerable arena. He was the early surprise to an event that promised more.
Fight fans knew they would see Duran. They weren’t sure what to expect. Would he be the one-dimensional, menacing figure who fought Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and more than a hundred other fighters over five decades? Duran didn’t win five world titles in four weight classes over five decades by being a nice guy.
He is 62 years old and bears few of the scars of a career that saw him win 103 fights and lose 16. He had lost extra pounds and looked fit. He laughed when he pulled off his English driving cap Friday to reveal a full head of hair without a hint of gray. Only $4.99 he said, referring to the hair treatment found on supermarket shelves.
He is the husband to Felicidad, his wife of 45 years who accompanied him to dinner. He was 17 and just starting his boxing career, and she was 14 when they wed. He’s the father of their eight children, including daughter Irichelle, who translated for her Panamanian-born father and the English speakers at the table.
“I am happy,” said Duran in English. “I am very happy.”
He was born into poverty in a stone house near Panama City in 1951 and has slept in luxury as a fighter. Frank Sinatra gave him his suite in a Las Vegas hotel once. “Two floors,” said Duran. “The piano was on the first floor.” Before going out for his 5 a.m. training run, Duran would sit at the piano and sing Sinatra songs. Duran’s singing is good; his piano playing is not.
His family could eat for days on the $1.50 his older brother would win, fighting in Panama. Some 40 years later, Duran won a bet with the actor Robert DiNiro, with the loser buying dinner for perhaps a dozen people. Great food and champagne. The bill came to $7,500.
He understands his legacy. All his victories over some of the world’s best fighters, including his win over Sugar Ray Leonard in their first fight in Montreal, are overshadowed by the loss to Leonard in 1980 in New Orleans. Duran quit in the eighth round, turning his back on Leonard and walking to his corner. “No quiero pelear con el payaso,” he told his startled trainer and corner men. I do not want to fight with this clown.
No mas, no mas (no more, no more) fit better in headlines and sound bites. Duran says he never used those words.
Leonard had done his own probing for Duran’s weakness and found it in his pride. Sugar Ray taunted him and at times made Duran look foolish. Duran would later say he had stomach cramps but he was incensed at Leonard’s lack of respect. That Leonard was elusive, dancing away from Duran, compounded everything.
The irony is, Muhammad Ali is Duran’s hero. Ali would taunt some opponents and showed little respect for Sonny Liston before their first fight for the heavyweight championship in 1964 in Miami. Liston quit on his stool, refusing to come out of his corner for the seventh round. Liston said his shoulder hurt.
Duran fought Hagler, the intense middleweight champ, three years after his loss to Leonard in New Orleans. The championship fight went the full 15 rounds. Hagler won a close decision.
Duran became known as the only opponent to go 15 rounds with Hagler.
Duran finally stepped away from the ring about 12 years ago when he was 50. Yes, he wishes he was a young man again. Ask who he would want to fight today, he paused and gave a are-you-kidding-me look. He’d want to step into the ring with Floyd Mayweather, considered pound-for-pound the best in the world. “I know how to fight him. I would beat him.” He says it matter of factly.
Duran lives in Panama. He owns a restaurant. American friends walk through the doors frequently. He sings to his diners sometimes. He certainly entertains. He knows fellow Panamanian Mariano Rivera, the Yankees closer who just retired.
“The Yankees are my team but from before Mariano.” Roberto Kelly, another countryman, played the outfield for the Yankees years ago. When Duran beat Leonard in Montreal, the Yankees, he says, dedicated one of their victories to him.
After a three-hour dinner, it was time to go. He hugged his new friends. He walked with his wife and daughter outside. A cell phone appeared and photos were taken with the lights of the harbor as the backdrop. They looked just like tourists.
“He is my father first,” said Irichelle. “And he is my hero.”
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: