Seems like we had just finished celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first great Duran vs Leonard battle when the awful news came that the man they call “Manos de Piedra,” arguably the greatest living boxer on the planet, and a man universally adored by fight fans, had tested positive for the great scourge of 2020. Prayers and well-wishes came from all corners of the boxing world until, just yesterday, news surfaced that the eminent four-time champion was out of danger and a video showed him departing a hospital in Panama City to convalesce at home. Thankfully, he is expected to make a full recovery. It’s another great victory for a living legend, one just as significant, if not moreso, as the memorable wins catalogued here.
Some argue that Mr. Hands of Stone is the greatest lightweight of all time; others contend he should be remembered as much, or more, for his performances at welterweight and middleweight. Either way, the man is, pound-for-pound, one of the best to ever step through the ropes, and so we recall here the twelve triumphs that speak directly to the greatness of Roberto Duran. And we feel it’s especially fitting to feature this list after news of his latest big win, his overcoming the dreaded Covid-19. Be sure to hit the links for in-depth articles and more videos.
12. Roberto Duran TKO8 Hector Thompson, June 2, 1973: One of eight fights on the calendar year for Duran, the win over Thompson was the second of twelve total defenses of the WBA lightweight title, but also an emphatic answer to criticism Roberto had received following the first loss of his career several months before. Thompson was a Commonwealth and Australian champion at 140 pounds and tough as nails but the match was decided by a combination of Duran’s vicious instincts and trainer Ray Arcel’s fine tuning. Constant jabbing was followed by angry hooks and right hands that finally felled Thompson in the eighth in front of 15,000 in Panama City. Stated Thompson, who died this past May at the age of 70, “I never had a tougher rival.”
11. Roberto Duran TKO10 Guts Ishimatsu, September 8, 1973: Ishimatsu, who had several pseudonyms, had won six fights in a row for the first time in his career prior to facing Duran. Ishimatsu, then often known as Suzuki, was popular as a colorful character despite spotty in-ring performances. He had already visited Panama in a losing title bid against Ismael Laguna in 1970 and was determined to make good this time. But Duran was out to prove a point, again making his jab the center of his offense, and showing off world class countering ability and excellent defense, blending the two almost seamlessly. Five knockdowns in two rounds convinced the ref it was time to end the slaughter. Ishimatsu would go on to capture the WBC lightweight belt the following year, defending it five times before retiring and becoming a successful actor and comedian.
10. Roberto Duran W15 Edwin Viruet, September 17, 1977: The rivalry between Duran and the Viruet brothers was not on the same level of intensity as at least two other personal grudges Roberto held as a pro, but the ill feelings were real nonetheless. Edwin, the older of the two, was a former New York Golden Gloves champion who had broken Duran’s one-year, eight-fight stoppage streak in 1975 by clowning his way through a non-title bout in Viruet’s backyard. A slightly unpopular decision, plus Viruet’s claims of a fix, led to a rematch for Duran’s title. This time Duran was more aggressive, trapping Viruet on the ropes and in the corners, ignoring the moments when the slick Puerto Rican made him miss wildly and leaving absolutely no doubt who was the superior fighter, even in his first title bout to go the full distance.
9. Roberto Duran KO14 Ray Lampkin, March 2, 1975: Nat Loubet, then editor of The Ring, said of the Lampkin win, “Duran proved he is a lightweight to not only be reckoned with, but also to be considered when in future years the bar flies start the argument: ‘[Who was] the best lightweight who ever lived?'” This statement speaks not so much to Lampkin’s class as it does to Duran’s performance. Indeed, Duran looked like a killer that night and nearly was one, officially. “Lightning” Lampkin was a front-runner who seemed to do well early in fights before fading down the stretch, and his challenge of Duran was no exception. Through the first several rounds, Lampkin hung tough, even winning some exchanges here and there. But Duran’s trademark constant pressure broke Lampkin down before Roberto leveled him with a vicious left hook. Lampkin would be sent immediately to the hospital, where he stayed five days. Duran would famously say for the television interview after the fight: “Today I sent him to the hospital. Next time I put him in the morgue.”
8. Roberto Duran TKO4 Jose “Pipino” Cuevas, January 29, 1983: In Cuevas, Mexico had a welterweight champion whose left hook terrorized a chunk of the division over the last half of the 1970s. His only losses in the seven years leading up to the Duran fight were a shocker to Roger Stafford and a knockout loss to Thomas Hearns that was, quite frankly, understandable. The Stafford loss was voted “Upset of the Year” for 1981 by The Ring, and, coincidentally, Duran’s loss to Kirkland Laing took the award in 1982. When the two were paired, both had seen better days and were thought to be all but shot. Cuevas was worn, sure, but Duran probed at what tatters there were with a quick jab, out-speeding Cuevas before hammering him backwards into a corner in round four, scoring a knockdown. A wobbly Pipino was greeted with an extended assault on the ropes and went down again, barely making it to his feet before his corner surrendered.
7. Roberto Duran TKO12 Esteban de Jesus, January 21, 1978: De Jesus provided a more lively nemesis than the Viruet brothers, carrying more respectable punching power and a huge legitimate win over Duran in 1972. De Jesus was slippery as well as similarly Puerto Rican, and really disliked Duran. He had bounced back from defeats to Duran and Antonio Cervantes to win the WBC lightweight title from Ishimatsu in 1976. For Duran, then the WBA champion, this rubber match was about supremacy and he seized it, though in an unexpected way, boxing De Jesus instead of attacking relentlessly. A right hand in round twelve left De Jesus crawling to the ropes so he could pull himself to his feet and Duran mercilessly battered him for the stoppage win moments later.
6. Roberto Duran W10 Carlos Palomino, June 22, 1979: A Mexican based out of Los Angeles, Palomino had claimed the WBC welterweight title from John Stracey in London, then made seven defenses before running into defensive genius Wilfred Benitez in 1979. Duran had just officially exited the lightweight division, citing difficulty making 135 pounds, and ex-champion Palomino was to be his first serious challenge at welterweight. Some thought this a stiff challenge, but Duran was particularly sharp that night, out-working Palomino on the inside, and feinting him out of position before punishing him on the outside. In the sixth, a sneak right hand behind a jab cracked Palomino to the canvas. He got up to stave off the attack in the seventh, but dropped just about every other round, absorbing far more punishment in ten rounds with Roberto as he did in fifteen with Benitez.
5. Roberto Duran TKO13 Ken Buchanan, June 26, 1972: One of Scotland’s finest ever fighters, Buchanan ditched his longtime manager Eddie Thomas prior to attempting his third defense of the lightweight title against Duran. But taking on legendary trainer and manager Gil Clancy wasn’t enough to halt the progress of the Panamanian madman. Early in round one Duran scored with a right hand that sent Buchanan down and ever after the challenger kept grinding away, round after round, with his fists, elbows, forearms, head and whatever else he could put to use. At the end of round thirteen the two continued to throw punches after the bell had sounded, with Duran cracking Buchanan very low, rendering him unable to continue. A replay showed the punch was well below the belt, but Roberto was awarded the win and the title, albeit controversially. Despite the injustice, Duran demonstrated a mean streak that complimented his blossoming skill set.
4. Roberto Duran TKO8 Davey Moore, June 16, 1983: The ease with which Duran manhandled the WBA junior middleweight champion surprised almost everyone, even “Manos de Piedra” himself. A severe mugging started with a thumb to the right eye in the opening round. “Those thumbs were coming from everywhere,” said Moore afterward. But even Moore and his manager Leon Washington had to admit that Duran’s blend of speed, strength and punching power just wasn’t anticipated and the smaller man was able to do as he pleased on the inside, at times redefining the term “illegal tactics.” Despite Moore being from New York, the sell-out crowd was there to see Duran redeem himself and they cheered on the challenger as he mixed vicious head shots with a severe body attack. In round seven, Duran sent Moore to the canvas with a right hand and in round eight he gave Moore an evil beating before the match was finally stopped. Roberto became just the seventh man in boxing history to win a world title in three divisions while Moore was never the same after this defeat.
3. Roberto Duran KO11 Esteban De Jesus II, March 16, 1974: Since his decision loss to De Jesus in November of ’72, Roberto had rebounded with ten straight wins including defenses against Thompson and Ishimatsu. Duran’s first pro loss may have been a non-title affair, but there was lingering doubt as to his ability to handle adversity after he was decked in round one of that first meeting with the Puerto Rican. An average fighter would have been overcome with painful deja vu after being sent down once more in the opening round by a left hook, but Duran got up and by round’s end he was pushing De Jesus back. The champion said after the fight, “I never saw De Jesus’ jab, but he hit me on the chin hard.” Not hard enough. De Jesus was picked apart over the next ten rounds, going down in round seven. A hellish body assault weakened De Jesus and in round eleven a combination punctuated by a thudding right hand got Duran his revenge.
2. Roberto Duran W12 Iran Barkley, February 24, 1989: Retiring after back-to-back defeats to Marvin Hagler and Hearns, Duran came back only to temporarily stay out once more when he lost a close ten round decision to Robbie Sims. Now a middleweight, even if only a soft shell of one, Duran put some wins together and got a crack at Barkley’s WBC belt. It made no sense. Barkley was a huge middleweight who had scored an eye-popping upset of Thomas Hearns, the same “Motor City Cobra” who had stopped Duran in two rounds five years earlier. Incredibly, Duran put together another brilliant performance, wobbling Barkley in the very first round. All bets were off after that, and a gruesome clinic of body punching ensued. The climax came in round eleven when Duran landed a five-punch combination that froze and dropped Barkley, sealing a close win which made Duran the first Latino four-division champ.
1. Roberto Duran W15 Ray Leonard, June 20, 1980: On paper, there aren’t going to be a whole heap of wins better than this one in the entire history of boxing. Leonard, an undefeated Olympic gold medalist and media darling, was a nine-to-five favorite and the larger, younger, flashier fighter. Palomino was the extent of Duran’s experience at welterweight, as far as world class opponents went, while Leonard had poked holes in the division already and displaced Benitez, who had been undefeated.
In truth, Leonard and Duran both upped their game that night. Rocked in round two, Sugar Ray was forced to go defensive early, then had to make up points and time in the middle rounds by playing Duran’s game. Leonard played it surprising well at times, but Duran’s inside milling was bruising, and it made the difference in an otherwise close battle. After following in the footsteps of all-time greats Henry Armstrong and Barney Ross, Duran remarked, that “[Leonard] was pretty good, but he had to be because he was fighting me.”