The few that survive all of those big, bare gyms that never feel the sunlight, the few who come from beer-stained Col�n or the bush country where they hunt iguanas at night with their hands or from the district of Chorrillo on the rim of Panama city where people sit and sweat by their windows and watch squalls of kids and sometimes men break each other's bones...well, they are a special few: gifted, cruel, as ephemeral as that sudden blast of hot ocean wind that can blow the steam away.
They come out of their land, the Durans, the Lagunas and the Amayas, all of them wearing their large, gold religious medals and enigmatic smiles, all of them with enough talent to reach up and grab the erratic focus of the public and never let it go. They seem to rise to a moment and grace it with a brilliance that can make a crowd hum like a huge electric cable. Then, when the moment is gone, something also seems to be gone from them, and all that hangs in the air is a broken promise.
Once more that promise of sustained greatness from a Panamanian fighter seems to be resting on the chopping block. The man who put it there was Esteban DeJesus, of Puerto Rico. He did it in 10 cool, nontitle rounds last Friday night in Madison Square Garden, flecking Roberto Duran, the undefeated lightweight champion of the world, off his arm as if he were an Eighth Avenue stray looking for a touch, and becalming a volatile crowd of 9,144 that portended chaos had the decision been close.
As it was, the outcome was hardly in the balance as DeJesus, 22, a year older than Duran, took control early and kept it like an old trouper, an underpaid one at that. He had been beaten only once in 31 fights. The Garden got him in against Duran for $10,000, but he came up with a six-figure piece of work in what largely seemed to be a subway fight, something for the Latins to grind up verbally; a more proper atmosphere would have been a roped off square up in the South Bronx.
The bout only figured to be a brisk one, devised to provide another look at Duran, who had won the title from Ken Buchanan back in June. On that night the handsome Duran was a primitive. He was far from that last week but more important was the fight made by DeJesus. It was, from beginning to end, one of the smartest, most poised performances put together by a young fighter, or any fighter for that matter, in the Garden in years. It had textbook details to it, with a smooth finish, a rounded quality that even gagged those who can never forget "the way it use to be."
Dig hard, but who could spot a flaw? Every move DeJesus made, on the attack or on defense, was precise and strikingly natural. It was all there: the economy of a fine craftsman, flashing hand speed, feet that seemed to have an intelligence of their own and a wise old head defensively. He made Duran, a relentless free swinger, miss all night. He just stepped inside as Duran drove forward, then hooked him with his left or turned over a snapping right hand to Duran's head.
One of the first of those hooks may well have won the fight for DeJesus. In the early moments Duran was caught by a quick right that shook him, and then several seconds later was dropped by a left hook. Later, Duran had no idea what his head had run into, or where it came from. Asked what he thought of the left that sent him down, he said: "No left. A right hand knocked me down." At any rate, he was never the same again, which may not have been too good to begin with. After the hook Esteban beat him to the punch repeatedly, something he may never get a chance to do again.
Aside from critical praise, DeJesus comes out of this biggest victory of his career with very little. For DeJesus, the possibility of a crack at Duran's title is now remote, if not completely out of the question. Duran's manager, Carlos Eleta, made that quite clear the afternoon of the fight. He sat in his hotel suite and hardly mentioned DeJesus. The impression gathered was that DeJesus would merely be a stroll for Duran. Yes, but what if DeJesus won? "He will never get a title fight with Duran," he said. "Never."
DeJesus' victory could now keep him away from the title for as much as two years. There is no boxing justice, only the lure of an irresistible gate to bring a wary champion into the ring, and even that, one senses, will not be enough to bait Duran. He has a return bout with Buchanan in June, and after that he and Eleta will move cautiously; certainly nowhere near Esteban DeJesus. If Duran ever did fight him, it would surely take place in Panama, and not even DeJesus could win there: only an act of God or heavy infantry can take a title out of Panama.
The one thing that DeJesus can do is wait for Duran to go the way all Panamanian fighters seem to travel. A couple of years back, for instance, there was Antonio Amaya, a slick, bold workman if ever there was one. His debut in the Garden was memorable, but he is among the missing now; Eleta was also his manager. Where is he? "Ah, Antonio Amaya?" Eleta says wistfully, remembering that beautiful razor of a fighter. "Gone. Lost. Suddenly, the talent, it was gone."