After being defeated in his second bout with “Sugar” Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran’s career was in something of a quandry. At the start of 1981, Duran was almost 30 years old. He was an established international sports star and had already achieved a reputation as one of the greatest lightweight boxers of all time. He was also the first man to beat Leonard. However, quitting in the rematch left him in a cloud of controversy, and many critics questioned his famous “machismo.” He went on from this point to fight for big money at weights that were ever higher, leaving him the smaller man and without his famed hitting power, but still bringing his much-touted grit and will into the ring.
Probably because there were few opportunities for him at welterweight (the champions were Leonard and the fearsome puncher Tommy Hearns), Duran moved up to Super Welterweight (154lbs) and began chasing a title there. After a pair of decision wins over solid journeymen (each with only one loss on their records), Duran met Wilfredo Benitez in 1982. Benetiz was a highly skilled boxer from Puerto Rico, and had given Leonard all he could handle when Leonard challenged and won the WBC title from Benitez in 1979. Just as Leonard has in their rematch, Benitez outboxed Duran en route to a clean, unanimous points victory. An unfocused Duran then lost his comeback fight to unheralded underachiever Kirk Laing, in what was The Ring’s Upset of the Year.
The whispering that Duran was shot were already circulating, despite knocking out former WBA champion and future Hall of Famer Pipino Cuevas in 1983. Thus, some were surprised when, on his 32nd birthday, he dominated and knocked out Davey Moore for the WBA 154lbs title in 1983. For the first time since beating Ray Leonard three years before, Duran again had a world title around his waist.
Hagler and Hearns
As three-time world champion who was on a winning streak and being taken seriously again, Duran was not especially interested in defending his newly won belt. First and foremost, he wanted to use his newly polished standing to make big fight purses. He immediately moved up to Middlweight (160lbs) to challenge the Undisputed World Champion, “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler. Duran put on a first-rate effort against a man who was a full 25 pounds bigger than Duran’s best weight, an all-time great with one of the deepest toolkits modern boxing has ever seen. Despite that, Duran still lost a narrow, unanimous decision.
Following the bout with Hagler, Duran met reigning WBC 154lbs champion Tommy “Hitman” Hearns in June 1984. By now, Duran had been stripped of the belt he had won from Davey Moore for failing to defend it against Mike “The Bodysnatcher” McCallum. Hearns utterly demolished Duran, knocking him twice in the 1st Round before finishing him with the legendary Hearns straight right in the 2nd.
After the crushing defeat at the hands of Hearns, Duran went back to Panama, took a year and a half off from boxing, and fought a pair of bouts against a pair of fighters with non-existant records before an adoring hometown crowd. These two knockout wins were little more than paid exhibition matches, and were clearly needed to restore Duran’s confidence. He came back too soon, and dropped a split decision loss to a journeyman in 1986. However, after that humiliating defeat, he began to build his way back to the top more slowly, racking up a 5 fight winning streak at middlweight. All those wins were by decision and over journeymen, showing pretty clearly that at 160lbs and in his middle 30s, Duran didn’t pack much of a wallop.
The win streak got Duran what he wanted though: a 1989 title shot at Iran “The Blade” Barkley for the WBC Middleweight Title. Barkley was a fierce puncher who had managed to upset Hearns the year before to win his championship. Few gave Duran a real chance, but the 38 year old veteran fought with grit in a see-saw battle that saw him put Barkley on the canvas in the 11th and seal a razor thin Split Decision victory. Many consider this late career rally by Duran to be his great, shining achievement. He had won a world title in a 4th weight class in what was declared The Ring’s Fight of the Year.
Later that year, Duran tried to add a fifth world title win to his resume by meeting “Sugar” Ray Leonard in a rubber match at 168lbs. He was thoroughly outboxed by his old rival, with Leonard landing almost three times the number of punches. Then in 1991, Duran injured his shoulder and was forced to quit in a bout with 14-1 Pat Lawlor. Duran’s glory days were over.
Soldering on for a Paycheck
Like many boxers, Duran was not well-served by those closest to him. Despite making millions of dollars through his career, by the early 1990s much of it had been either stolen or frittered away. Therefore, Duran continued to compete well after he should have hung up the gloves, just to earn a living off of his diminished boxing skills and his name. It is an old, familiar, and sad story. Making it worse was the open betrayal from members of his own family. In 1993, Duran’s own brother-in-law assisted in the theft of Duran’s championship belts.
In 1994, a streaking Duran challenged former lightweight champ Vinny Pazienza for a fringe Super Middleweight (168lbs) title. He dropped Pazienza in the 6th, but otherwise did poorly against the younger, faster man and lost on points. Two years later he dropped another points loss (at 160lbs) to Hector Camacho. Things looked better for Duran in his 1-1 set against fringe middleweight contender Jorge Fernando Castro in 1997, but he was clearly not beginning a serious comeback to contention. Duran was badly injured in a car crash in Argentina after the Castro fights, and thereafter he didn’t even look to be in very good physical condition for his bouts.
So it was a flabby, old Duran that met DC native and WBA Middleweight champion William Joppy in August 1998. Joppy beat Duran down in 3 Rounds. Duran got a measure of revenge by defeating Pat Lawlor in 2000 for a fringe title, but then lost the worthless belt to Hector Camacho the next year. After that, Duran finally retired at the age of 50, but even then it was only because he was involved in another debilitating car crash.
Duran retired with a record of 103-16 with 70 knockouts. He reigned as the Undisputed World Lightweight Champion, WBC Welterweight champ, WBA Super Welterweight champ, and WBC Middleweight champ, one of the very few to hold titles in four weight divisions. The Ring named him the 5th Greatest Fighter since the 1920s, and he was involved in several bouts thought noteworthy by that magazine (Upsets and Fights of the Year). He also holds the dubious distinction of being one of only a few men to have fought professionally in five different decades. He was inducted into both the World and International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Sources: boxrec.com; old fight footage on You Tube; Official Roberto Duran web site; The Ring magazine.