He came like a streaking comet across the boxing sky…a flash—a bright brillance that had onlookers not quite knowing what they witnessed, but all agreeing that it was something special.
That happened in September of 1971, at Madison Square Garden in New York City, on the undercard of Ken Buchanan—Ismael Laguna II. Ring Magazine described it this way: “The undercard…produced one fighter of special note, who will have to be watched as a future lightweight champion and definite current threat. His name is Roberto Duran. In the semi-final he knocked out Benny Huertas, a local scrapper of some note in 66 seconds.”
Red Smith of the New York Times described it as Duran “used only a minute or so to separate Benny Huertas from his intellect,” and in doing so, “won a rapturous following.”
That was true. And to prove it, just nine months later, this streaking comet on the boxing scene was challenging for a world championship.. In June 1972, Roberto Duran, who had just turned 21, was challenging Ken Buchanan for the lightweight championship of the world. For the fight, Buchanan was guaranteed $125,000. The largest guarantee ever for a lightweight.
The fight was billed as a classic match-up of boxer-vs-puncher. The contrast of their boxing styles was translated at their respective training camps. They trained in upstate New York at famed resort hotels. Buchanan trained at Grossingers, where his camp was described as “more serious, more sober,” while a few miles away, Duran readied his body at the Concord Hotel, where the atmosphere was more loose and light-hearted.
At the time, Ken Buchanan was not just a champion. He was a highly rated classic stand-up boxer who was voted Fighter of the Year for 1970. But his accolades didn’t stop there. After defeating Laguna, Ring magazine did a feature on him and his craft that linked him to the historic lightweights of the past. From the mastery of Joe Gans to the wizardry of Freddy Welsh to artistry of Benny Leonard. From the versatility of Tony Canzoneri to the cleverness of Sammy Mandell to the science of Joe “Old Bones” Brown. Buchanan was linked to them: “Buchanan has already established himself as one of the cleverest boxers to hold the lightweight championship.”
It was under that anointed banner that he arrived at camp. And he arrived in great shape, having two non-title bouts after defeating Laguna.
Even so, during a sparring session six days before the fight, Buchanan was repeatedly nailed by right hands. He shrugged it off saying, “I just wanted to release some of the stored-up energy.”
Gil Clancy, his American trainer, concurred, saying when he began sparring that he was so sharp that it was too easy for him, so he decided to punch it out rather than box. Clancy went further than that, “Kenny can punch. You’re gonna be surprised what you see. Personally, I don’t think Duran can punch any harder than Kenny can.”
It’s obvious, looking back with 20/20 hindsight, that the Buchanan camp underestimated Duran, seeing him more as a mystery challenger than a bona fide contender. Seeing him as an inexperienced fighter who would be ripe and exhausted after a few rounds with the high caliber professional champion.
There’s no escaping that conclusion, and that’s putting it mildly. Dick Young of the New York Daily News wrote, “There is a certain detached distain displayed by Buchanan towards the challenger. He takes the attitude that there are many better lightweights, but if Madison Square Garden wants to guarantee him $125,000 to defend the title against Duran, than Duran it is.”
Buchanan said Duran “should regard himself as a lucky boy. He’s never had to fight his way up step by step the way I did.”
It was true that Duran’s body of work didn’t include opponents who would take you down memory lane. Okay, there was the knockout of future featherweight champion, Ernesto Marcel. And after the Huertas bout, he did defeat former 130-pound champion Hiroshi Kobayashi, but it should be noted that was right after Kobayashi lost the title, and it was to be his final fight. And, in the mix right before Buchanan, he decisioned veteran Angel Robinson Garcia, whose record in the prior eleven bouts before Duran produced only one victory.
So, yes, without question, within boxing circles he was a bit of a mystery, where his street fights in Panama were more known than his fighting in the ring. Still, he was at the champion’s doorstep, and as Larry Merchant wrote, coming from the streets “has to count for something.”
In Duran’s mind it did: “From the time I was a little kid I felt nobody could beat me.” He continued, “I have no respect for him. I am undefeated, he should respect that.”
In regard to Duran’s streetfighting history, Buchanan countered like a boxer would against a puncher. “Who’s be counting. Those guys he knocks cold in the bars back home. There’s not a ranked fighter on his record.”
Then, he said, “I think he’s getting a size too big for his boots.”
Maybe that’s the way it seemed, but chances don’t always come around, and Duran was ready to go for it—go for his chance. And for the ride, an important aspect was Duran’s veteran American trainers, Freddie Brown and Ray Arcel (who trained Ezzard Charles), who were still getting to know Duran, and were faced with the obstacle that Duran didn’t speak much English. Arcel said, “I don’t know him well enough. I just want to keep him happy. Buchanan will keep him busy enough so that he won’t slip into any bad habits.”
The language barrier and a shortage of time with Duran had to be a concern. It didn’t allow Arcel and Brown to teach Duran some of the finer points of the sweet science that they had in their collective vaults of knowledge. Their concern and their apprehension was real, during one sparring session, Duran went three rounds and seem to pull his punches. Duran assured them, “I fight better in the ring than the gym.”
He said, he was ready for his big night. “I feel like I’m a 1000-1 favorite.” Actually, he was a 2-1 underdog.
Yes, he was the underdog, but even though Buchanan was rated as a top-shelf lightweight, it was Duran who was causing the frenzy as eleven planeloads of Panamanians were flying in for the fight. The frenzy caused Buchanan to quip, “I feel like I’m the challenger and he’s the champion.”
Duran’s box office appeal was paralleled by his explosiveness inside the ring. So, as the bout approached, an intriguing question was how would the craftsman, Buchanan, handle the explosiveness that knocked out 24 of 28 opponents. The opponents may not have been household names, but knockouts count for something. So, would he attempt to keep Duran at the end of his jab and pot-shot right hands. Gil Clancy said no, “If you’re pulling away you can get your head right into the trajectory of the puch, especially with a wide puncher…The thing to do is to step in and beat him to the punch.”
The scene was set. There’s was nothing much more to be said.
June 26, 1972 dawned. Buchanan came in at 133 1/2 to Duran’s 132 1/4.
Duran predicted a ninth round knockout. Buchanan remained calm and answered: “Tell him he’ll have his chance tonight.” Previously, he said, “It’s easy to talk a good fight. He’s been talking off a lot, but I’ll button his lip a bit.”
18,821 paid $223,901, which was an indoor record for lightweights.
The pattern of the night began early in round one, as Buchanan darted jabs while Duran pressed forward. At eleven seconds into the fight, a right cracked off Buchanan arm, catching him off balance whereupon his gloves touched the canvas. Referee Johnny LoBianco called it a knockdown. Buchanan complained to no advil. Duran was over-anxious and Buchanan drove him into the ropes. Duran continued to press forward, his gloves a constant blur of energy as he loaded up with right hands.
In the second round, Buchanan attempted to establish his jab, but it didn’t hold off Duran, who rough-housed the champion into the ropes. The infighting was intense.
After the third round, the commissioner asked Lusi Henriques, the interpreter in Duran’s corner, to leave the corner because only three handlers are allowed in any one corner. This left Arcel to lower the count of his english dictionary to a quick phrase or one word, like after the sixth, when Duran seemed a little confused. Arcel was to the point, “jab, jab, jab.”
In the fourth round, Buchanan continued to find himself on the receiving end of Duran right hands. Duran was a ball of perpetual motion, who disrespected Buchanan’s jab—a major weapon that was reduced to probing like a fly-swatter. At the bell, Duran tossed a disgusted wave.
In the fifth, a sneering Duran landed a right to the chin that sent the champion into “a soft-shoe shuffle,” and then another punch sent his mouthpiece into orbit. Buchanan was hurt and cut under the left eye. Duran’s overwhelming pressure was forcing Buchanan again and again to the ropes where comfort wasn’t the comfort he was looking for.
Duran’s pace slowed in the sixth, but that didn’t last long. He evaded Buchanan jabs in the seventh with a bobbing and weaving offense that showed him to be more than a one-dimensional slugger.
As the eighth round ticked, it was obvious where the fight was headed, and it wasn’t headed to a Buchanan victory dance. It wasn’t like the champion wasn’t trying. He was. The problem was he had no answer of how to stop the Duran runaway train. Because of the challenger’s unrelenting pressure, the Buchanan offensive arsenal was muted. He was never able to establish the classic boxing style that had many remembering the legends of the past.
As the curtain to his championship reign was descending, Buchanan came back to win the ninth round. It was his best round, scoring in-close and clipping the challenger with a good countering left hook.
Was the tide changing? Could that be possible? After all, in his last title defense against Ismael Laguna, Buchanan came on late to solidify the victory. Duran appeared a bit spent and tired in the tenth; he took to rough-housing during the sloppy eleventh round.
In the corner, Arcel reduced his instructions to, “Punch, punch, punch.”
No, the tide wasn’t changing. In the twelfth round, with Buchanan’s eyes puffy, Duran landed solidly; buckled the champion’s knees and pinned him in a corner. At the bell ending the round, Ray Arcel patted Duran’s face as he returned to the corner.
Buchanan came out for round thirteen wearing a face that clearly showed where he had spent the last thirty-six minutes; his left eye was half shut and there was a mouse under his right eye. Early in the round, Duran was warned for a low blow. As the round was coming to an end, the fighters exchanged a flurry of punches, where some landed and some missed the mark. Duran fired a left and a right; Buchanan landed with a right and left, and then missed. The bell sounded with both men still within a whirlpool of swirling leather. Neither heard the bell. Referee Johnny LoBianco grabbed Duran from the back, trying to pull him away. As he did, his view was obstructed when Duran unleashed another right. This one landed below the belt and sent Buchanan to the canvas, writhing in pain; his face contorted, traveling into a place where no words were needed.
Bedlam broke out. Buchanan was in obvious severe pain. As he sat on his stool, the ringside doctor checked him out. The ten-second buzzer sounded for the fourteenth round. Referee Johnny LoBianco walked to Buchanan’s corner, then waved his arms. It was over. LoBianco had stopped the fight.
Everything got murkier as chaos took over. The match ended with such bedlam that two officials forgot to score the last round. The scoring was: 8-3-1; 9-3; 9-3-1 all for Duran. Ken Buchanan wanted to continue. His corner protested the stoppage, but their protest was mild considering what just had happened. Gil Clancy claimed it wasn’t a punch, but rather was a knee to the groin. It was all to no avail. The fight was over.
Through it all, Referee Lo Bianco remained firm, and his firmness was because he didn’t see the punch—his view was obstructed. With that, he didn’t give Buchanan extra time or call a no-contest, he did what he felt he should and ended it. He was quoted saying, “He got hit right in the lower abdomen. I would say in the area of the solar plexus.” Then the referee added that he believed Buchanan was on borrowed time: “He never would have made the fourteenth. It wasn’t so much the pain—he had taken so much punishment.”
At the time, the governing body in New York, would not let a low blow (and one not seen by the referee) dictate the winner. Though, if the fight was held in the United Kingdom, Duran may have been disqualified for illegal punches.
Dr. A Harry Klieman added to the confusion: “He has a swelling of the right testicle. He’s in extreme pain.” A pain that would echo from a post-fight hospital stay, and would translate into his feelings toward Duran: “I’ll never forget you. Every time I take a piss I’ll think of you.”
Duran insisted it was a right hand that ended it. “I won the fight legal.”
After the fight, Buchanan said, “I never saw Duran fight. He is what is known as a hustler in my book. I didn’t have much chance to box him. He hustled after me.”
Duran did that, and did it relentlessly, owning every inch of the ring’s real estate. It was Duran’s night. No ifs, ands or buts about it. He stalked; threw a torrent of leather from every possible angle. He was a raging storm that would not be denied. He was perpetual motion that had veteran ringsiders bringing up the name of Henry Armstrong.
Red Smith, the great New York Times writer wrote: Duran “displayed more than rudimentary knowledge of boxing, again and again crossing a right successfully over Buchanan’s left lead, now and then feinting with the right and hooking instead.”
Buchanan wanted a rematch that would never come. He felt the sport was corrupt; felt Duran was given preferential treatment during the fight, and, of course, afterwards. Later, Buchanan would muse, “Why wasn’t Duran disqualified.”
As for Roberto Duran, he would go on to write new chapters of lightweight history. He never was defeated as a lightweight, and now, his name is firmly etched alongside those other 135 pound legends.
He came like a comet, streaking across the boxing sky; jumping on a highly regarded champion in round one and not letting up until after the bell ended round thirteen…when an unintentional low blow ended the night, but only began the history—the story of Manos de Piedra.