Roberto Duran ate lunch this past Monday at Gallagher's steak house in midtown Manhattan. It was just past noon, gray and cold and threatening snow outside, but inside Gallagher's -- with its dark, wood-paneled walls hung with old black-and-white photos of ball players and race horses, its red-and-white checked table cloths, its big square bar and its glassed-in room full of aging steaks on display, all seemingly caught in some comforting Old New York time-warp -- it was warm and welcoming.
Four guys in suits were gathered at a center table, settling into a power lunch, and two women of, as my mother would say, a certain age, had just claimed a corner table and ordered vodkas on the rocks. Nobody paid any attention when the greatest lightweight of all time -- maybe the greatest fighter of all time -- entered the room.
Duran was bundled up in a short, black jacket and a vaguely Cossack-like black leather cap trimmed in fur. At 54, with his 119-fight career finally behind him, he is no longer a lightweight. But his hair, when the cap comes off, is still thick and black, and his eyes, behind a pair of professorial glasses, are clear and bright, and he is as ebullient as ever. He was accompanied by his adult son, Roberto Jr., and interpreter Arturo Sanchez.
In a career that ran from 1968 through 2001, Duran amassed a record of 103-16, with 70 knockouts, and won world titles at lightweight, welterweight, junior middleweight and middleweight. He was in New York on this day, ostensibly, in his new capacity as fight promoter. He does not yet have his promoter's license, but he was on hand to help Cedric Kushner Promotions, R. Paniagua Inc. and Star Boxing with Friday night's Boxeo Caliente show at the historic Paradise Theater in the Bronx.
The card will feature a main event pitting Dominican junior welterweight Victoriano Sosa -- who once went 12 (losing) rounds with Floyd Mayweather Jr. -- against Colombian southpaw Jaime Rangel. The show will also include a number of Reggaton performers and, of course, dancers between the bouts (none of which, I might point out, was necessary when Duran was fighting).
As Duran frequently and enthusiastically made clear during lunch, however, he needs no excuse to come to town. "New York!" he said in English. "New York is my house."
He first came to the city from his native Panama when he was 17. "I would walk down the streets and no one would recognize me," he said. "But I thought, 'Next time, you'll know me!'"
He was 20 the next time, had a record of 24-0 and was making his debut in Madison Square Garden. He knocked out Benny Huertes 1:06 into the first round. The next year, Duran was back again to take on Ken Buchanan for the lightweight title, in the Garden, of course, on June 26, 1972. After the weigh-in for that fight, a starving 132¼-pound Duran ate lunch at Gallagher's.
"I had a big steak and a big potato," said Duran, who indicated with his hands two items roughly the size of phone books. (Speaking of hands, Duran's legendary pair still look as though they were indeed made of stone, though he has the boxer's characteristically soft handshake.) He ordered the same meal again on Monday and looked vaguely disappointed that the steak, when it arrived, fit completely on the plate. Still, he attacked it with gusto and, while he ate, answered a few questions about his career and the state of boxing.