The King of Panama How a hungry street urchin became the biggest Latino athlete in the U.S.

I am Durán: My Autobiography

By Roberto Durán (with George Diaz) (2016, Blue Rider Press) 293 pages including photos, no index

Boxing is very much a game of inches and angles, and it’s often the tiniest, most innocuous detail that makes the difference between winning and losing. Take a guy like Roberto Durán, one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in history. An opponent would be standing right in front of him with his hands raised in a perfect defensive posture, but Roberto, simply by sliding his right foot six or eight inches to the side, could shoot a left uppercut through the guard and a right hand over the top.

—Retired heavyweight boxer George Chuvalo from his autobiography, Chuvalo: A Fighter’s Life—The Story of Boxing’s Last Gladiator

 

 

  1. In the fraternity

When Roberto Durán defended his lightweight title in March 1975 in his home country of Panama against African American boxer Ray Lampkin, I was working at the Crisis Intervention Network, a social agency that dealt with street gangs in Philadelphia, trying to reduce street gang violence, which in the early 1970s was rife in the city. All the guys who worked there (there were only three women, two of whom were office workers and men over the age of 25) were huge boxing fans. One guy even trained kids to fight at a small gym he had in North Philadelphia. He was always inviting everyone to his gym to see his kids fight. There were always tickets to the fight cards at the Blue Horizon, Philly’s professional boxing mecca, floating around. The air at the Crisis Intervention Network was all perfumed with machismo, tough guy posturing and a certain of kind of male bonding that was, in a way, agreeable, even comforting (even the three women enjoyed the atmosphere because the men, for the most part, were downright courtly to them), as long as you stayed out of the way of someone else’s temper. And some men at the agency had what might be called hair-trigger tempers. I suppose as young black men, fueled by testosterone and haunted by demons, historical and imaginary, personal and political, combat-related (some were Vietnam War veterans) and street-related, we were, in a way, fixing for a fight, or trying to recover from the brutality of one. You always wore a game face to anyone outside this circle and even to some within it at times. Being a black man at this time, perhaps at any time in the history of this country, has always been something of a high-wire act: it is great if you make it across and it is a long way down if you misstep. And missteps are extraordinarily common, even easy, to make, especially on a rigged rope, as we all thought it was. The agency was the most perfect fight culture I was ever in or ever would be in. I had to be careful not to become complacent being there.

Durán was the most talked-about fighter of the period, even more than Muhammad Ali, who, at that time, was in the midst of his slow but steady decline as a boxer. No one at Crisis Intervention liked Durán. “I hope Lampkin kicks Duran’s ass,” was the common refrain. Part of this was a form of race solidarity disguised as fandom: the guys at the agency were black, and so was Lampkin. But the guys also thought Durán was a wickedly dirty, cruel, nasty, slightly unhinged fighter. When former heavyweight champ Joe Frazier, serving as a commentator, was asked who Duran reminded him of when the Panamanian entered the ring to fight wonder boy Sugar Ray Leonard for the first time in June 1980, Frazier famously responded, “Charles Manson.” Duran the swashbuckling, sneering badass was young Mike Tyson’s idol. “Make your opponent shit in his pants before you even throw a punch,” was something how this law of the jungle went. I had seen fighters who were meaner than Durán, dirtier too, but never one more intense, never one more smolderingly gleeful in his bad intentions. Never one who enjoyed his craft and persona more.

It was what Durán said in a post-fight interview that no one watching that fight ever forgot, certainly not any of the guys I worked with at the Crisis Intervention Network. “Today I sent him to the hospital,” Durán said, “Next time I’ll put him in the morgue.”

Lampkin did not kick Durán’s ass. It was the other way around. Lampkin was certainly a competitive fighter and he was confident he would beat Durán, but Durán mercilessly and relentlessly broke Lampkin down by degrees. It was almost as if one were witnessing Lampkin’s body being broken apart by stages. It was both horrific and beautiful. Durán was such a combination of the hot and the cool in that fight, the unschooled and the technician, that he seemed positively electric. It was not that I could not take my eyes off the fight for its entire duration; it was that I could not take my eyes off Durán. The Panamanian champion finally knocked Lampkin out in the 14th round. As Durán describes it in his autobiography, I Am Durán:

 

“It was when I went back to my corner, arms over my head for the crowd, who were singing my name, that I realized I’d hurt [Lampkin] badly. They carried him out on a stretcher, and he was having convulsions before he had even left ringside. The doctors had to give him oxygen in the dressing room. He was out for over an hour and ended up in the hospital for five days. His left leg was temporarily paralyzed and he was close to death. He was lucky I wasn’t in the best shape for that fight: if I have been, I would have knocked him out in six rounds.”

 

It was what Durán said in a post-fight interview that no one watching that fight ever forgot, certainly not any of the guys I worked with at the Crisis Intervention Network. “Today I sent him to the hospital,” Durán said, “Next time I’ll put him in the morgue.” The guys understood the utterance as heartless, unfeeling, even more chilling and unfeeling than welterweight Sugar Ray Robinson’s during the coroner’s hearing after he killed Jimmy Doyle in the ring in a championship fight in June 1947. “Did you intend to get Doyle in trouble?” Robinson was asked, to which he responded, “It’s my business to get him in trouble.”[i] But the guys heard Durán’s words as the expression of a sort of code of masculine honor, the nonchalance of mayhem and male expendability. Every professional fighter knows the risks going into the ring. “Durán is one cold-blooded motherfucker,” one of the guys said with grudging admiration as we talked about the fight. “But I hope to see the day when somebody kicks his ass.” Over the course of a professional career that went from 1968 to 2014, a few boxers did indeed kick Durán’s ass. Durán had 119 professional fights: he won 103, lost 16 and was knocked out four times. He knocked out 59 percent of his opponents. On the whole, very few boxers indeed, kicked his ass. Durán accepts this as the small price he had to pay to make his bones, so to speak, in becoming ranked by The Ring magazine, the Bible of Boxing as it is called, fifth greatest fighter in the 20th century.

 

2. El Cholo

 

Durán describes himself as a pelao, the slang term in Panama for a street kid. “I am a child of the streets,” he writes, “My neighbors were thieves, whores, and murderers. My father wasn’t around and I never made it past third grade. I still don’t read or write much, but I know what poverty is, because my childhood sucked. Mierda. Shit.” Immediately, the reader is aware that this fighter’s autobiography is not a reflective work. Durán is not an introspective man. He hustled growing up, selling newspapers, shining shoes, entertaining people by doing flips and performing tricks, running errands in El Chorrillo, where there were “just wooden tenements—slums, even—and lots and lots of bars.” The bars explain how Durán began his alcohol habit at a young age. When Durán was not fighting, he was drinking, getting buzzed, partying, whoring. This was the story of his life. (Interestingly, he was never attracted to crime or drugs. He is surprised and proud of the fact that he was never a thief.) He was also eating. Food was hard to come by as a youngster. His mother had many children by several different men and was not particularly skilled at taking care of them. Durán sometimes went foraging in trash dumpsters. In fact, the only reason he went to school, the few times he did, was to get a free breakfast. His obsession with food led to weight problems that plagued him until he had gastric bypass surgery after he retired from boxing. Durán constantly ballooned in weight between fights, often having to lose 30 or 40 pounds in a month or so to make the weight for his next fight. Durán fought as a lightweight (limit: 135 pounds), a welterweight (limit: 147 pounds), a junior middleweight (limit: 154 pounds), and a middleweight (limit: pounds) over the course of his long career. But during his layoffs between fights his weight would go as a high as 225 pounds. At 5’ 7”, he clearly was rotund, indeed, obese or nearly so, when he was not fighting. It is not unusual for athletes whose sports require them to be a certain weight to have eating disorders; Durán, who describes his eating habits at length and quite graphically in this book, was so afflicted that he hid food from his trainers who had to starve him to get the weight off: several six-packs of Cokes and boxes of candy bars under his bed. (Durán could drink 20 Cokes in a day. “After the weigh-in, I’d take [the six-packs] out and start drinking Coca-Cola until I couldn’t swallow any more.”) After a fight during his early days, he ate so much ice cream and drank so much champagne that he defecated on himself. He had occasions where he ate so much immediately before a fight (it is fairly standard after the official weigh-in, when a boxer has made the weight, he will often eat a big meal to make up for having starved himself for the weigh-in) that he would start vomiting even as he was about to enter the ring.

It was this problem with weight that caused his most embarrassing, for some, disgraceful, moment in the ring when he quit in the 8th round of his welterweight championship rematch against Sugar Ray Leonard in November 1980, what became known as the “No Más” fight. (Durán writes: “I never said, ‘No más.’ This is the truth. I just turned my back and motioned to the referee that I didn’t want to continue. Howard Cosell made that crap up because he didn’t like me. When the referee asked me what I was doing, all I said was, ‘No sigo,’ I couldn’t go on, I couldn’t keep fighting. It wasn’t my night. I felt like crap … but I never said, ‘No más.’”) Durán felt like crap because he had to lose 50 pounds in a month. After he had trained himself into the best shape in his career to beat Leonard six months earlier in Montreal, Duran took what you might call a booze-fueled, sex-drenched sabbatical from boxing in a celebration that went on not just for weeks but months. He was the Prince of the Latino World in New York, Miami, and back in Panama. No one denied him anything and he denied himself nothing. Once he learned that his manager, Carlos Eleta, had signed him for an immediate rematch with Leonard and he had to go back into training right away, Durán realized that he was no condition, physically or mentally, to take on such a tough opponent again so quickly. He took diuretics and saunas to lose the weight but depleted himself entirely in the process. Even though Leonard had not seriously hurt him during their rematch, Durán was simply too weak, too unmotivated to fight. He also could not tolerate the fact that Leonard was making fun of him during the fight. Moreover, Durán had a big meal right before the fight, to try to give himself strength. The meal only gave him indigestion. The “No Más” destroyed Durán’s reputation and he was practically a prisoner in his home in Panama. His friends deserted him. He was pilloried in the press. He had mortified Latino manhood by quitting against the gringo. He had dishonored his own profession: No fighter worth anything quits. Take a beating, if you must, but do not quit. The rest of Durán’s career, 34 more years, was, in part, a long quest for redemption. It was only after knocking out Davey Moore in 1983 to win the junior middleweight title at the age of 32 and beating Iran Barkley in 1989 to win the middleweight title at the age of 38, two stunning feats that no one thought Durán could pull off, that Durán was back in the good graces of boxing fans and the lords of boxing.

It is remarkable that Durán became such a huge star in the United States among the gringos as he refused to learn English. “I had no interest in learning English,” he states, “All I know in English is some street slang I’ve picked up over the years, and even now I can’t write it very well. … I was a fighter: I was paid to fight. That’s who I was and what I did.” The language difference made it difficult for his American trainers, the legendary Ray Arcel, hired by Durán’s manager Carlos Eleta right before the Panamanian fought Ken Buchanan for the lightweight title in 1972, and crusty Freddie Brown, to communicate with him during a fight without a translator. When the translator was barred at one fight, all Arcel could tell Durán between rounds was “Jab, jab, jab” or “Punch, punch, punch.”

He was pilloried in the press. He had mortified Latino manhood by quitting against the gringo. He had dishonored his own profession: No fighter worth anything quits. Take a beating, if you must, but do not quit. The rest of Durán’s career, 34 more years, was, in part, a long quest for redemption.

Durán was not a political person. (He was unimpressed when he met Fidel Castro, although he was suitably awed meeting Nelson Mandala, who specifically requested to meet Durán.) But he was proud of his country, proud of being Panamanian and wanted very much for English-speaking audiences to accept him on his terms, the tough, crude street kid. He wanted no part of a Pygmalion story which he thought learning English would do to him. Besides, he distrusted the little English he knew: “I didn’t like speaking English—it was too easy to say something that could be misunderstood.” His impact in this country is of such an extent that both his autobiography and the recent Hollywood biopic, Hands of Stone, (the nickname—los manos de piedra—a Panamanian journalist gave him that stuck) are in English. He can be marketed to a non-Latino audience or so some important people in the popular culture business think. Durán hated Sugar Ray Leonard because he was “the undefeated American golden boy,” the articulate, handsome hero of the 1976 Montreal Olympics. “So when I faced Leonard, I was the ‘other’, Durán writes, “the outsider, the mysterious foreigner, fighting the Great American Hero who was just so dignified and upstanding and such a wonderful personality and so media-friendly and all that crap. Good versus evil, and I was the bad guy.” Part pride, part jealousy: from Durán’s perspective, there was no such thing as “people of color” or “Third World anti-colonialism,” as those expressions are understood in the United States. Leonard was an American (what else could he be?): the fact that Leonard was black (a person of color) was irrelevant to Durán, possessed no meaning for the Panamanian, who saw the world with the gimlet eye of the street kid, not the delusional wishful-thinking of the radicalized intellectual. When he beat Leonard in their first fight, he stayed in New York because “the Latins loved me. Not just the Panamanians; the Cubans, too, the Puerto Ricans, the Mexicans. I’d beaten Leonard, and the Puerto Ricans loved that because Leonard was the guy who’d beaten the crap out of Wilfred Benitez [a Puerto Rican] in 1979.” Despite being, for a time, the king of the Latinos, Durán, in his autobiography, expresses his dislike at various points for Puerto Ricans and Mexicans. When Durán beat Buchanan in 1972, it was a triumph for Panama; he was avenging the defeat of Panamanian Ismael Laguna (a black man), his idol, who had lost to Buchanan in 1971.

Perhaps the most striking, informative, and subtly political part of the book is Durán’s description of the U.S. invasion of Panama during the George H. W. Bush administration that resulted in the overthrow of General Manuel Noriega. The reader gets to see and feel what invasion was like, how ordinary citizens feared and disliked the United States, from the Panamanian’s point of view.

Durán made and spent millions, winding up broke, as most poor boys who became successful athletes do. During his salad days, he had a huge entourage, manzanillos, the “Panamanian slang for people who leech off the rich and famous,” as Durán puts it in his autobiography, to whom he gave away thousands a day. He drank, ate, whored, had children out of wedlock for which his wife forgave him. He apologizes for none of this. His autobiography is a defense of his life, an apologia, not an expression of contrition. In this way, this autobiography complements Christian Giudice’s extraordinarily rich and detailed biography of Duran, Hands of Stone, published in 2007.

As far as Durán is concerned, life is meant to be enjoyed and he had a good time while his career lasted. He enjoyed fighting, making music (he sang and played congas with various Panamanian bands he financed over the years), living life, marveling that he had such success considering his street kid origins. Durán is far from always being likable: he was often crude and tasteless but also earthy and honest. “Some people feel sorry for me; they think that growing up on the streets has been a burden I’ve carried all my life. But I don’t know any different—I have nothing to compare it to. It hasn’t been an easy life, but it’s the life I’ve had. The only one. I’m not sitting around with a psychiatrist, trying to figure out why my dad abandoned me. I’m not traumatized by anything I went through. If you like me, fine. If not, let’s move on—it’s all the same to me.” (emphasis mine) The fact that he was not traumatized by his life, when everyone nowadays is claiming to be traumatized by things that he or she never even directly experienced, is refreshing, even liberating. He feels about his life the way he wants to feel, not the way he thinks others think he ought to feel about it. He does not see his life as a long complaint against a political order that supposedly created it. There is something about this stoicism, this defiance of being some sort of victim, that is, in its way, heroic.

[1] Emphasis Robinson, from Sugar Ray Robinson (with Dave Anderson), Sugar Ray, (New York: Viking Press, 1970), 143

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