The rivalry came as a surprise to everyone when it began in November of 1972. A surprise because, at the time, no one expected the fistic dynamo that was Roberto Duran to suffer defeat to anyone, let alone a mere “tune-up” opponent. Just five months after establishing himself as the best lightweight in the world with a one-sided battering of Ken Buchanan, the man they called “Manos de Piedra” faced Esteban De Jesus of Puerto Rico in a non-title match in Madison Square Garden. It was in fact Duran’s third non-title fight since becoming champion, the other two easy first round knockouts. This was to be another quick payday and a chance to show off Roberto’s prodigious talents to a New York City fight crowd.
But, as everyone quickly learned, Esteban De Jesus was no one’s tune-up opponent and he wasn’t about to be just another easy knockout on Duran’s record. Clever and crafty and with a dangerous left hook, he would go on to prove himself one of the best lightweights of the decade and one of the finest boxers to ever emerge from Puerto Rico. He floored Duran with a hard left hook in the opening seconds of the match and, to the delight of his fans, went on to take a clear points win. His compatriots celebrated as if Duran’s title had been at stake, lifting De Jesus on their shoulders after the decision was announced and parading him through the stands of the venerable Garden.
De Jesus and Duran went their separate ways, Roberto insisting the first defeat of his career was an aberration, the result of his being ill-prepared, and both embarked on impressive win streaks. Esteban notched seven victories in 1973; Duran scored ten, including three successful defenses of the championship. Now it was time for a rematch and Duran’s chance at revenge with the crowd cheering for “Manos de Piedra,” not De Jesus, as the second fight took place in Roberto’s home town of Panama City. And this time Duran’s WBA belt was on the line.
Before the match, legendary trainer Ray Arcel gave Duran stern instructions on how to deal with Esteban the second time around. As Red Smith would report, Arcel sat Roberto down and told him, “When De Jesus knocked you down, you were starting to throw a right hand and he beat you to it with a hook. He’ll be expecting the right hand again. I know you are angry, eager for revenge, want to take him out as fast as you can. Don’t do it. Just stick, stick, stick and move until I give you the word.”
Duran ignored Arcel’s advice in the opening round and paid for it by being floored again courtesy of a De Jesus left hook, but after that Roberto boxed with controlled fury. Vicious exchanges in round three saw Duran land devastating body punches which, De Jesus later admitted, hurt him badly and “paralyzed” his legs. The turning point came in round seven, when a five punch combination that ended with a hard right hand, put Esteban on the floor. After that De Jesus could be seen arguing in his corner, telling his cornermen he could not continue. Urged on by his handlers he kept answering the bell before he was finally counted out in round 11.
Afterwards, De Jesus blamed both the climate and poor conditioning for the defeat. “I was weak,” he told the press. “The heat sapped my strength.” And it was true that the second battle had been staged in an outdoor stadium, the temperature in the ring, as Howard Cosell reported, like a steam-bath. “If I had been in better shape,” remarked De Jesus, “I would have beaten him.”
“Let him get in better shape then,” replied Duran. “When he thinks he’s ready, have him call me. Next time we’ll both be ready. There will be no excuses.”
Next time took place after De Jesus had won the WBC version of the lightweight crown with a decision win over Guts Ishimatsu in May of 1976. While Ishimatsu had been knocked out by Duran in 1974, the fact remained that De Jesus now boasted both a world title belt and a victory over Roberto. The stage was set for the rubber match, this time on the neutral ground of Las Vegas. This fight would decide, once and for all, who was the true king of the lightweights and who was the better boxer.
By this time, the genuine acrimony between the two Latin-American pugilists had reached the boiling point and preventing them from exchanging blows during press conferences became a major concern for promoter Don King. At the weigh-in, the two fighters exchanged insults before De Jesus struck Duran with a right hand, sparking mayhem. Luckily for all, the boxers were separated and no one was seriously hurt.
The pre-fight tension was evident in the minutes before the opening bell. A casual observer at ringside would be forgiven for thinking the psychological advantage was with the Puerto Rican. As De Jesus had his gloves laced on he looked confident and relaxed, smiling and nodding at different people at ringside. In contrast, Duran appeared tense and nervous, his dark eyes darting about and his legs visibly twitching and trembling. But in fact Duran was not nervous, only anxious for the fight to finally begin.
The bell rang and this time there was no knockdown in the opening round. Roberto had learned his lesson and he applied constant but careful pressure on his nemesis while using a stiff left jab to control the fight. Aggressive yet patient, Duran seized the initiative, catching De Jesus again and again with the left lead and bloodying the Puerto Rican’s nose before the end of the round. It was the same in rounds two and three: Duran stalking and sticking and in complete control. DeJesus began to show signs of frustration; he could not escape Duran’s pressure and yet he had few chances to counterpunch.
By round six, all the drama for this long-awaited unification match had vanished. Duran was simply too strong and too powerful and boxing with a level of skill he had never shown before. He masterfully controlled the ring and repeatedly put himself in position to unload his heavy artillery to the Puerto Rican’s midsection, landing a series of brutal body punches. DeJesus tried to turn the tide in round seven, getting on his toes and firing sharp jabs, but Duran calmly picked off most of them with his gloves before driving home more hooks and crosses to Esteban’s belly and ribs.
It was more of the same in the next three rounds and if DeJesus had any hopes of somehow reversing the momentum they vanished in round ten when he landed his best punch of the fight, a powerful left hook to Duran’s jaw, and the Panamanian didn’t even flinch. Roberto was now simply walking his man down and battering him on the ropes. Round eleven was all Roberto and at its end DeJesus looked like a beaten man. His handlers, knowing he was now hopelessly behind on points, urged him to go for the knockout and in round twelve he saw an opening and moved in to fire one of his powerful left hooks, but this time it was Duran who beat DeJesus to the punch. He drove home a vicious right that floored DeJesus and marked the end of the contest.
Showing tremendous courage, Esteban pulled himself to his feet, but he was clearly finished. He stood near the ropes like a condemned man waiting to be put out of his misery as the referee waved Roberto back in. A two-fisted battering followed, the punches slowly driving DeJesus down into a crouch, his weight supported by the ropes. The referee was about to signal a second knockdown when Esteban’s corner charged through the ropes. The fight was over. Roberto Duran was the undisputed lightweight king. And the bitter rivalry between two of the decade’s greatest fighters was finally decided, once and for all. — Neil Crane