If one decides to rank the finest performances in the amazing career of the great Roberto Duran, his ten round tour de force against Carlos Palomino clearly merits high standing. Duran vs Palomino is both an excellent example of the skill and ring intelligence of a true pound-for-pound great, as well as a key victory in Roberto’s career, putting him in perfect position for his huge, million dollar showdown with Sugar Ray Leonard.
Duran had dominated the lightweights since 1972 and in the process established himself as one of the finest boxers of his era, perhaps the best lightweight since Benny Leonard, certainly the most dominant since Ike Williams. 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 Roberto could compete as effectively against naturally bigger men. Having abdicated his 135 pound title in early ’78, Duran bided his time, engaging in four stay-busy tilts as he waited for a shot at the welterweight crown. Instead the perfect opportunity arrived: a chance to shine in Madison Square Garden against a former champion, still regarded as a top fighter in the division.
Carlos Palomino was anything but a burned-out ex-champ looking for one last big payday. Nor had he been a paper champion. Having won the title from Britain’s John Stracey, he had defended it seven times against some excellent contenders including Armando Muniz and Dave Green. And there was certainly 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 renewed attention to the lower weight classes, especially as they now offered such exciting talents and fresh faces as Sugar Ray Leonard, Howard Davis Jr., and Marvin Hagler. Duran, a major attraction since at least 1972, was transcending 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 firmly establishing Roberto as a serious threat at 147 pounds, Duran vs Palomino proved to be perhaps the clearest demonstration yet of how “Manos de Piedra” had evolved into a truly complete fighter. Having entered the sport as a raw, powerful brawler, Roberto 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 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 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 fearsome power had not abandoned him in the migration to the higher weight. 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