If one were to rank the finest performances of the great Roberto Duran, his ten round win at New York’s Madison Square Garden over former welterweight champ Carlos Palomino should be near the very top.
Duran had dominated the lightweights since 1972 and in the process established himself as one of the finest boxers of his era, arguably the best lightweight since Benny Leonard. But now, after a final big win over rival Esteban De Jesus, he was moving up and the jury was still out as to whether Duran could compete as effectively against naturally bigger men. Having abdicated his 135 lb. title in early ’78, Duran bided his time, engaging in four relatively meaningless bouts as he waited for a shot at the welterweight crown. Instead the perfect stepping-stone arrived: a chance to prove himself against a former champion who was still regarded as a top fighter in the division.
Palomino was anything but a burned-out ex-champ only looking for a big payday. Nor had he been a paper champion. Having won the title from Britisher John Stracey, he had defended it seven times against some very good contenders including Armando Muniz and Dave Green. And there was no shame in losing his belt to one of the most gifted boxers in the sport’s history, Wilfred Benitez. While Duran deserved to be the odds-on favorite, all agreed this was potentially a tough challenge for the former terror of the lightweights.
The irony was that the fight was on the undercard of a nationally televised world heavyweight title match, Larry Holmes vs Mike Weaver, yet there was far more buzz in boxing circles for Duran vs Palomino than for the night’s main attraction. In fact, with Muhammad Ali having retired the year before, the public was paying more attention to the lower weight classes, especially with exciting talents such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Howard Davis Jr., and Marvin Hagler making noise. Duran was beginning to transcend his Latin fan base and assume the profile of one of the sport’s legends and elder statesmen at just the right time. But to get to the big opportunities ahead, he had to beat Palomino first.
Aside from establishing him as a serious threat at 147 lb., the bout shined as perhaps the clearest demonstration yet of how Duran had evolved into a truly complete fighter. Having entered the sport as a raw, powerful brawler, he had developed, with the help of master trainers Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown, into a sophisticated boxer-puncher: aggressive, powerful, but also clever, creative and surprisingly hard to hit. His reputation as being a crude slugger now worked to his advantage as he took opponents by surprise with the sophistication of his tactics. Palomino had clearly prepared for a Duran who would attempt to overpower him, but Roberto respected the former champion’s ability and set about putting everything he had learned in some 70 pro fights to use, in the process offering fans a memorable performance of skill and technical virtuosity.
While a fast-paced action fight, there was little drama; many scored it a shutout. Just as Palomino wasn’t on the same level as the defensive wizard Benitez, he also wasn’t in the same league as a motivated and fit Duran. “Manos de Piedra,” somewhat surprisingly, turned out to be clearly the stronger fighter with the more damaging punch. It was official: Duran’s power had come up with him from the lightweight division. He scored a knockdown with an overhand right in round six and won almost every minute of the match. In short, a tough challenge, surprisingly, became a rout.
As Pat Putnam vividly reported in Sports Illustrated: “Duran bewildered Palomino with flicking head and shoulder feints; he battered him with punches thrown at blinding speed. At times, just for fun, he feinted from the left, feinted from the right, and then, with Palomino in a flux of frantic confusion, stepped back and flashed a wolfish grin as Palomino untangled himself.”
Could Duran compete with the welterweights? The answer was an emphatic “yes.” A few months later Sugar Ray Leonard would defeat Wilfred Benitez for Palomino’s old title and the countdown immediately began for one of the biggest and most anticipated fights in boxing history. — Michael Carbert