Roberto Duran, cut slightly near his left eye and with a bruise under the right eye, stepped out of the ring at Cleveland Public Auditorium late Sunday afternoon and stopped for a moment, looking down at the crowd, before he descended the stairs. A chant went up: "íCholo! íCholo! íCholo!" It is the nickname by which Duran is known in his native Panama. He smiled and raised his arms in salutation and triumph.
It had been a long time since Duran had heard cries of adulation at a prizefight. It had been more than a year, in fact, since he took the welterweight title from Sugar Ray Leonard in Montreal and bounded about the ring as hundreds of Panamanian flags waved. Duran heard only boos and howls, of course, when, in the eighth round of his rematch against Leonard in New Orleans last Nov. 25, he astonished every witness—except, apparently, himself—by turning his back on Leonard and declaring, "No màs, no màs. No more box." But now he was back, in his first fight since then. As he left the ring in Cleveland to a standing O, he heard what he had come to hear.
"And now Leonard," someone shouted to him outside his dressing room.
"Yes, Leonard," Duran said.
Fighting as a junior middleweight he had just won a unanimous 10-round decision over Mike (Nino) Gonzalez, ranked 10th by the WBC, and the superficial wounds about Duran's face showed that he had had to work for the victory. Referee Jack Keough scored the bout 48-44, and judges Ed Maguire and Vito Mazeo had it 47-43 and 48-45, respectively. It was, unmistakably, one heck of a fight, far more competitive than many had reckoned it would be.
Duran started slowly, and Gonzalez got the better of the early exchanges. But Duran took over in the third round, as if finding the rhythms of his opponent, and won the middle rounds with hard shots to the body and an overhand right that puffed up the left side of Gonzalez's face. As he had in the first Leonard fight, Duran often bowled his opponent into the ropes, working the body as he drove him back. Whenever Gonzalez scored sharply, Duran merely smiled. The crowd favored Gonzalez, chanting "Nino! Nino!" when he connected, but in the end Duran's strength and ring savvy saved him from permanent retirement.
Afterward, Gonzalez said he thought he had won. He had indeed fought well, taking Duran's best shots and delivering many stinging blows of his own. Duran, too, did extremely well, considering his long layoff. "I was happy with the way I fought," he said, "but I haven't been fighting for nine months. I have to take my time. I could not pressure him too much."
That Duran pressured him at all came as a surprise to many. Shortly after the second Leonard fight, Duran announced that he was through fighting. Returning to Panama, he took into retirement one of the greatest records in ring history—72 wins in 74 fights, 55 by knockout—and one of the most baffling and ignominious defeats.
Exactly why he quit became the subject of endless speculation. Leonard was winning the fight. In the seventh round he had made a fool of Duran, dancing around him and mocking him, sticking out his chin and daring him to hit it. Many who saw the fight believe that Duran resigned his title because he couldn't handle Leonard and deal with such humiliation. There also was speculation that Duran was on drugs and that he went into the tank. He denies all that.
Duran had had difficulty making the weight, and on the day of the fight, following the weigh-in, he ate and drank prodigiously. Carlos Eleta, Duran's manager, now says that Duran had been taking diuretics to eliminate water, and the fighter's physician, Dr. Alfredo Molto, says the drugs could have caused an imbalance of minerals in the system, ultimately causing stomach cramps. "I was about to faint," Duran says. "The pain was so intense it bothered my breathing. I was weak. I was not worried about Leonard. I was fighting pain. All these things happened to me in that ring."
Whatever moved Duran to quit, that performance has haunted him. Luis Henriquez, Duran's interpreter and longtime friend, says that for weeks afterward Duran kept to himself. He spent hours watching Charlie Chaplin movies on his cassette machine, playing in his swimming pool with his children, playing with his gelded lion, Walla, and reading what people were saying about him.
"The only thing they didn't call me was a maricón [homosexual]," Duran says. "The most common cry was' Vende patria' [you sold out your country]," says Henriquez. "He was embarrassed. He's still embarrassed, still hurt."
With all that leisure time Duran ate a lot. By early last spring he had ballooned to 185 pounds—about 40 pounds more than he weighed in New Orleans—and he looked moonfaced on television in May. By then, after several calls from promoter Don King, Duran had decided to seek redemption as a junior middleweight. After all, Leonard was nearing a title in that division. Duran knew that the best way to regain the respect he had lost was to get into the ring again with Leonard. A yearning to do so, he says, became his central passion and motivated him to shed the excess weight and come back. He flew to New York on May 9, ensconcing himself, as usual, at the Mayflower Hotel. He ran in Central Park and worked out at Gleason's Gym. And waited. Finally, in early July, King signed him to fight Gonzalez.
Until Sunday, Gonzalez, 22, had never met a highly ranked boxer, but he had won 24 of 25 fights, 13 by knockout. By reputation he was a determined and an improving fighter, a young roughneck with a good punch and a resilient chin. He was born and raised in Bayonne, N.J., across the Hudson from New York City. The son of a warehouse forklift driver, he was something of a ruffian in the schoolyards and streets. When Gonzalez was 13, a judge asked him to please take his penchant for street fighting into a Bayonne gym. He did. Gonzalez won 46 of 52 amateur fights before turning pro on May 2, 1978.
Gonzalez worshiped Duran for years. In fact, he sparred with him before Leonard-Duran I, but says he left the fan club for this fight. "Duran will be mine," he said a couple of days beforehand. "I will go in there with a little fear because he is a former champion. But when we touch gloves, it will go away. People are going to find out who this Gonzalez is. I'm going to retire Duran."
A year ago, after Duran had taken the welterweight title from Leonard, the mere mention of a Duran-Gonzalez match would have drawn howls of derision from the press. But the fight in New Orleans gave rise to suspicions that the 30-year-old Duran had finally had it.
"You have to get used to the good and the bad," he said last week. "This part I am going through is the bad. But you have to live with it. Eventually everything will come my way. I want a rematch with Leonard. I will beat Leonard. When he signs that contract to fight me, you will see a different Duran."
Some differences in his life were apparent before the Cleveland fight. His usual massive entourage of some 40 followers, many of whom had been disruptive influences, had been reduced to about 10. Among the missing, however, were his two American trainers, Freddie Brown and Ray Arcel. Eleta called Arcel and asked him to come back, but Arcel had announced his retirement after the New Orleans fiasco and he politely declined. "When your work isn't fun anymore," Arcel said, "it's time to call a halt to it. I put 63 years into this business, nine with Duran." He said he wished his former fighter well, and then added, "If the incentive is there, Duran could box another year or two. But he's a big question now. Every day he's a different person."
On Sunday, at least, he was enough of the old Duran to suggest that perhaps he can summon himself back once more. Whether he can still generate the fury and fire that carried him against Leonard in Montreal no one can say for sure. Not even Duran really knows. All he knows is what he wants. "Yes, Leonard," he says.
Now a Junior middleweight, Duran lacked his old fire against Gonzalez, but burns to meet Leonard.