Don King was screaming, and Roberto Duran was weeping. During his long and largely illustrious career in the ring, Duran many times had been as plump as the Christmas goose, but through the force of his talent and will he had been able to summon what he needed to produce victory. Now, on Sept. 4, 1982, at age 31, his skills and spirit apparently eroding, the game appeared finally to have caught up with him.
A few minutes earlier, before a crowd of some 5,000 people in Detroit's Cobo Arena, Duran had lost a split decision to one Kirkland Laing, a club fighter from Jamaica. Laing fled a lunging Duran for two rounds, gradually gained control of the fight and steadily beat Duran to the punch as the battle wore on and Duran wore out. It was seemingly the last chapter in the Duran story. Almost eight months earlier, he had lost to WBC junior middleweight champion Wilfred Benitez, and six months before the Laing fight his weight had ballooned to 185 pounds.
"I was weak," he says. "I had to lose too much weight [he fought Laing at 155 pounds]. I was completely dilapidated. I was demoralized. I didn't care about Kirkland Laing."
Oh, after the fight how he wished he'd cared. There he was, with his wife, Felicidad, crying in a corner of his dressing room. And in came King, having stomped out of the arena and toward Duran in a fury of anger. As Duran's regular promoter since 1975, King had made millions on him. After a particularly notable performance. King would grandly whip out a sheaf of $100 bills, fan them like a deck of cards and hand them to Duran at the press conference as they smiled at the cameras. But those days now seemed as far gone as Duran's once immense talent.
King burst through the door of the dressing room, waving not $100 bills but a large cigar to punctuate his obscene, vituperative spiel. Someone locked the door behind him, but outside the room his large voice could be heard booming like cannon fire for 10 long minutes.
Between curses and condemnations, King told Duran that he would never again promote a Duran fight, that Duran ought to retire. The game was over, and Duran knew it. After all those years, he was washed up. "I was finished, ruined professionally in boxing," Duran says.
On Thursday night, Nov. 10, in a parking lot at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Duran again will climb the steps into the ring. In the opposite corner, his bald head shining damply as he faces Duran, will be no less a wolverine than Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the undisputed middleweight champion of the world. With 15,200 fans watching at Caesars, another three to four million viewing at 400 closed-circuit theaters around the country and untold millions more looking on in 50 countries around the world, including Duran's native Panama, these two men will answer the bell and have at it for 15 rounds, or until one of them can go no longer.
It's not an exaggeration to say that if Duran beats Hagler and wins the undisputed middleweight title, he will culminate the most remarkable comeback in the annals of the sweet science. To be sure, when Duran steps into that ring against Hagler, only 432 days will have passed since his loss to Laing, and a mere 363 days will have passed since he stunk out the Orange Bowl in Miami in a fight against Jimmy Batten.
"A year ago at this time, as an attraction Roberto Duran wasn't worth a plugged quarter," says Bob Arum, who's promoting the Duran-Hagler bout. "Now he's the biggest thing in boxing. He [as well as Hagler] will have a payday of between $8 million and $10 million. If he beats Hagler, he has a chance to be called the greatest fighter of all time. All this has happened in less than a year. It's unbelievable! Boxing as soap opera."
The story of what Duran has been through for the past three years and where he's heading now is considerably more substantial and dramatic than afternoon pap. "Through all this wind and dizziness" is how Duran describes the strange path he has followed, a path along which self-indulgence and a single act of recklessness presented nearly insurmountable obstacles.