Never look to the lightweight division for stability, for a single continuity of reign, but count on it for verve, for its vast canvas of styles and—just when you begin to look away from it—that sudden transfusion of a new face. The latest: Roberto Duran. His face: as smooth as the handle of a rare Malacca cane. His style: so rowdy that the ghost of Joe Gans must be desperate for a medium.
But not even the old master, classicist though he was, would deny what is the whole, stark essence of the ring: the ability to hit. Duran, of Panama, knows nothing else; Ken Buchanan, of Scotland, knows much more, very little of which he had an opportunity to display last week in Madison Square Garden, where Duran used all but his teeth to rip the lightweight title from the champion. He left Buchanan at the end bent and holding his groin, a broken bird wasted by a violent storm.
Except for a strong Panamanian delegation, few among the crowd of 18,821 that paid a record $223,901 for an indoor lightweight fight could find much of a peg on which to hang real hope for Duran. He seemed able to punch, with 24 knockouts in his 28 previous fights, but that was the extent of intelligence on him, hardly enough to cause bettors to ignore the cool craft of Buchanan, who had become a Garden favorite and was making his third defense of his title.
As he is in the ring, the Scot was unruffled before the fight, even though the usual bombast and threats trickled back to his camp. Aside from saying that he thought certain remarks by Duran lacked taste and were not properly respectful, he was a model of reserve. "I love the title," Buchanan said, sipping tea the afternoon prior to the fight. "I will not part with it easily; certainly it will not be taken from me by words."
The words by Duran predictably aroused his Latin legion, but one had to wonder from what depth of Duran's emotions they had surfaced. Many fighters, no matter what their lineage, are inclined to spit invective, to declaim about their manhood. Most of the time it is wise to dismiss the facade and try—if one ever can—to cut to the raw ganglia of a fighter's character. So the question about Duran was this: how much of him was snarl and snap, how much was only posture?
It is doubtful that Buchanan was at all psyched, but it became intensely clear that Duran had his ear to the music of the moment, that something was swelling within him more than just hard resolution. As he moved from corner to corner of his dressing room on fight night, his face drawing as tight as a hide drying in the sun, his eyes like those of a small animal waiting for a sound, who could not feel a force in the room, could not hear the clank of deadly armor in the air?
"War on June 26," he said in Spanish, repeating once more what he had said so often while in camp.
"That's now!" a friend told him.
"So we go to war," Duran smiled. Crossing himself, he left for the ring.
War is too remote a word to describe this night, too imprecise for what Duran did to Buchanan. Call it pure assault with intent to maim and disfigure. There is an old Scottish maxim: "If at first you don't succeed, first try the knee...then the head." But it was Duran who used every part of his anatomy, everything but his knee, and he would be accused of that breach of etiquette, too. "I have never seen such a referee," Buchanan said later. "He don't give no protection at all."