The horror of the moment will be engraved forever on Roberto Duran's mind. It came at 2:20 of the opening round, at a time when the cunning old warrior from Panama was feeling delighted because he thought he had neutralized the threat of WBC junior middleweight champion Thomas Hearns's head-snapping jab. "I've taken it away from him," Duran had decided happily seconds before, "and now I will get inside and take away the right." Lowering his head, Duran lunged forward and threw a right—and his eyes widened as he saw Hearns's right hand screaming toward his unprotected head. "Oh, God," Duran thought, "I have committed a brutality here and...." And a split second later he was struggling to rise from the spinning floor.
That was the first of Duran's three trips to the mat in the ring set up in the parking lot at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas last Friday, all within a stunning span of less than two minutes. The last came at 1:07 of the second round, and after one shocked look at the 32-year-old former three-time world champion sprawled face down and motionless, referee Carlos Padilla signaled a cease-fire without a count.
When he had regained his senses, and with them the realization that he had been knocked out for the first time in his 17-year, 82-fight pro career, Duran asked: "�Qu� yo hice malo?" "What did I do wrong?"
Hearns knew the answer to Duran's question just 45 seconds into the second defense of the 154-pound title he had won from Wilfred Benitez on Dec. 3, 1982. That was when Hearns, who, at 6'1", was 5� inches taller than Duran, spotted a fatal flaw in Roberto's style and quickly changed his strategy.
"I thought it would take me a round or so to figure him out," Hearns said less than an hour after he had made good on his prediction of a second-round knockout. "I had planned on throwing a lot of hard jabs [taking advantage of his reach advantage], but the first time I really hit him with one, he backed up. I saw this look in his eyes. Then when I threw the next one, he jumped back. This thought came into my mind: 'Fake the jab and throw the right.' And I wasn't watching his head; I was watching his body."
That first experimental right hand sliced a tiny cut over Duran's left eye. "I hardly noticed it," Duran said later. He should have. The next right caught him squarely on the top of his head and dropped him as though he had been shot. "I never felt it hit," said Duran. "It was like, suddenly, I was down, and when I got up I was terribly confused."
Up at the count of six, Duran staggered slightly as Padilla gave him the mandatory eight. Waved in, Hearns fired a heavy volley—and Duran fired back with a wolfish grin.
"That's what I'm afraid of," Emanuel Steward, Hearns's manager, had said a few days earlier. "I can see it going so many ways, and one of them is Tommy hitting Duran with a real shot and Duran just standing there grinning. It could really frustrate Tommy."
But Hearns was hardly frustrated. He hooked Duran in the grin and dropped him again. Up at three, Duran took another mandatory eight. Two seconds later the bell rang. Dazed, Duran turned and staggered to a neutral corner before finding his own.
But then, Duran hadn't had much practice recovering from a knockdown. Before Friday, Duran had been decked only twice—both times by Esteban DeJesus of Puerto Rico, the last on March 16, 1974, 41 fights and more than 10 years ago.