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Roberto Duran of Panama is the lightweight champion of the world. He is 23 years old, strives to look like Prince Valiant, dresses like Liberace, plays the drums and sings like Desi Arnaz and, at 5'7" and 134� pounds, hits like Hurricane Hattie.
Two weeks ago, in his latest defense of the title in Panama City, Duran knocked out Ray Lampkin of Portland, Ore., the No. 1 ranked contender. He put Lampkin away with a fearsome left hook after 13 rounds and 36 seconds of the unrestricted warfare that marks all of his fights, and when it was over—with Lampkin sprawled unconscious on the canvas—Duran apologized to his fans.
"I was not in my best condition," he said. "Next time we fight I will kill him." Since Lampkin was out for 80 minutes and in the hospital with a severe concussion for five days, the remark was memorable more for honesty than for sportsmanship. "He did not really mean that he would actually kill Lampkin," said a worried Luis Henriquez, an old friend who interpreted for Duran. "It was just his way of speaking."
Duran's way of speaking and his way of fighting are the same, direct and uncompromising, and he learned both on the streets of Guarar� and Panama City, where he grew up in stark poverty. After the Lampkin match someone asked him where he had learned to fight, and he grinned, white teeth flashing in his little beard. "A todos lados," he said, meaning from all sides. "In the streets when I was a boy selling newspapers and shining shoes, I learned to fight there." He has not changed his style appreciably since.
"It is still the same," he said. "No trainers have changed me. My best teacher is a hit on the head. That makes me think how do I not get hit on the head the same way again. Some people have told me this is the hard way to learn, but for me it is the easy way."
During the fight in Panama City's steamy Colisseum, Lampkin contributed to Duran's education. Time and again he caught the champion with a good strong left jab and often whacked him with a stout right-hand lead, a sucker punch. None of the shots did discernible damage. Duran kept boring in, using his minimal left jab to set himself to throw an overhand right reminiscent of Sandy Koufax' high hard one. For variety he whaled away at Lampkin's head with the sweeping, explosive left hook that finally ended the fight. He ignored his corner's anguished cries of "Keep your guard up!" and "In the body, champion!" "I do not hear anything in the ring," Duran says. "I am too busy, and if I listen I might I get hit. Even when I don't listen I get hit. But not so much."
It is a mark of Duran's special toughness that when he gets hit, he reacts with fury. Like other memorable fighters of this bent—notably Rocky Graziano, Carmen Basilio and the late Rocky Marciano—a blow to the head ignites him. Happily, his head seems to be made of cement, and in the Lampkin fight, each time he was hit Duran instantly came back with a fierce counterattack. Body blows he ignores.
Duran's first fights were with an older brother when Roberto was five or six, and he lost most of them. "He wanted me to climb coconut trees and steal the coconuts so we could sell them," Roberto says. "Me, I had much fear of climbing the trees, but I had more fear of my brother, so I went ahead and stole the coconuts."
Ironically, he stole the coconuts from the estate of Carlos Eleta, who is now his manager. Eleta did not miss the coconuts—he owns most of Air Panama, a TV station, two breeding farms for racehorses, fighting cocks and 10 or 12 young fighters. Handsome and fit in his 50s, Eleta has been wrapped up in sports all of his life. For 11 years he was the tennis champion of Panama, using a two-handed backhand before this stylish touch was brought to the attention of the world by Pancho Segura.
"When I first saw Duran, he was in his first professional fight, and his manager was a jockey," Eleta says. "Duran was smaller then, but he fought in much the same way. He was very, very quick, very strong. But what I look for in a fighter is coraz�n, and Duran has a heart as big as his body. So I bought him from the jockey for $300, and I have managed him for almost all of his fights."