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A SOLID RIGHT TO THE TITLE
Pat Putnam
January 30, 1978
Switching from slugger to strategist, Duran softened and then stiffened DeJesus to seize sole possession of the lightweight championship
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January 30, 1978

A Solid Right To The Title

Switching from slugger to strategist, Duran softened and then stiffened DeJesus to seize sole possession of the lightweight championship

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The time had come to settle the divisive nonsense of two world boxing organizations, two boxers and two championships—and Roberto Duran settled it with masterful violence last Saturday in Las Vegas. He did it with one of the sharpest right-hand shots ever delivered in anybody's organization and he left Esteban DeJesus semi-comatose on the ring floor at Caesars Palace. And only then did the former Panama City shoeshine boy, now the undisputed lightweight champion of the world, permit himself a friendlier emotion. With tears tracking down his gaunt and unshaven cheeks, he hugged his manager, Carlos Eleta, and yelled again and again, "I was born to be the champion of the whole world."

Maybe so. But, born to the title or not, this Duran was far different from the one boxing fans had come to know. Until the brutal final moments of the 12th round, the fiery slugger had banked his fire and followed a shrewd and effective new strategy. The infuriated street fighter was suddenly an artist. Moving fluidly and jabbing, slipping punches and countering rather than swarming over DeJesus, he stalked him, relentlessly wearing him down and coolly destroying him with short, savage punches to the body. For 11 rounds Duran bested the classic boxer at his own game, robbing him of his speed and his will to fight, and only then did he permit himself the luxury of putting DeJesus away with the more familiar Manos de Piedra—the Fists of Stone.

It was a fitting climax to a fight billed as The Combat Zone. It was to be the showdown between ancient enemies: Duran the WBA champion, loser of only one fight in 61, winner of 50 by knockout; DeJesus the WBC titleholder, loser of only three fights in 50, winner of 29 by knockout. The 26-year-olds had fought twice before, with DeJesus winning the first in 1972, a non-title 10-round decision at Madison Square Garden. A year and a half later they fought again, this time with Duran's WBA title at stake, and Duran won with a knockout in 11 rounds. On both occasions DeJesus dropped Duran with left hooks in the first round.

"I don't like him for a lot of reasons," Duran said before the fight, "mostly because he is the only man ever to beat me. And he is the only man to ever knock me down." He considered the indignity of that and managed a brief smile. "I don't like him for those reasons, but I have to respect him for them."

DeJesus said he had always wondered why Duran kept saying all those nasty things about him, and now he knew. "If he don't like me because I knock him down, let him wait until after this fight," DeJesus said. "This time I'm going to destroy him. When I knock him down this time, if he gets up, I will kill him. I tell him that I will fight him in the street anytime for nothing. He ignored me. For this I am glad, because I need the money."

If equally vocal, the two also are equally dedicated: neither will go down in history as an advocate of hard work. Both would rather play than train, and sometimes both have been known to play while training. But for this fight, the two old rivals had been training for weeks, DeJesus by choice, Duran more or less by trickery.

"Sometimes getting Duran into the gym can be a very difficult thing," says Eleta, who is the champion's multimillionaire patron as well as his manager. "His trouble is that he has been champion for 5� years. He knows everyone in Panama, and they will give him anything he wants. With all that, getting him back to work is a chore. But this time I played a little trick. I told him that he had a tune-up fight in Panama before DeJesus. He trained hard at home for a month. Then I told him the tune-up fight had been called off, and I sent him to Los Angeles to train. Of course, there was no such tune-up. But he had worked very hard for four extra weeks and now is in the best shape of his career. He laughed when I told him of my trick."

For trainers, Duran has Ray Arcel, 78, and Freddie Brown, 71; in the last half century they have worked with 38 world champions. They seem to have a special rapport with Duran, forcing him to train industriously, if not happily. After every fight he fires them; before the next fight he rehires them.

"Our trouble is that the trainers he has in Panama can't handle him, they can't control him," Eleta says. "And he knows this is not good for him. Only Brown and Arcel can control him. That is why before every fight he calls me and says, 'Where are they? I need them. Please call and get them for me.' "

Under the ancient pair's exacting tutelage—and with the extra month's work behind him—Duran's usual struggle to make the 135-pound weight limit was easier. His only problem in Los Angeles was in finding sparring partners, whom the Panamanian pounds without mercy. When Duran works, everybody works. In one sparring session he broke the nose of Mike Youngblood, a 160-pounder out of Philadelphia with a 14-0 record. Duran's handlers immediately were off in search of new fodder. They came back with a kid named Jorge Morales.

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