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Fighting for the first time since Roberto Duran chased him into retirement nine years ago, Carlos Palomino thumps a battalion of drug thugs in Fists of Steel, a movie he hopes will make him the "Latino James Bond." Palomino, who was the WBC welterweight champ from 1976 to '79, blows crater-sized holes through the midsections of terrorist psychos with an assortment of impressive weapons. But Palomino's secret weapon in the movie is really the steel implants in his knuckles, an innovation he could have used in '79 when he lost his title to Wilfredo Benitez and then ended up facing Duran in his first and only comeback bout.

Fists of Steel, scheduled to be released Nov. 18, is a breakthrough film for the 39-year-old Palomino, who, until now, has been in movies with less complex plots than most prizefights. He was a Cuban guerrilla battling giant killer babies in Island of the Alive. He played an over-the-hill boxer in Nasty Heroes, a movie no one has seen fit to release. And he was a big guy in Dance of the Dwarfs. Thus far Palomino's meatiest role was in a Miller Lite commercial. He told Mexicans visiting the States, "Drink the beer, not the water."

In Fists, Palomino embodies what he calls a "new Hispanic screen image," which breaks from the casting stereotypes of Latinos as dope dealers, gangsters or oppressed barrio dwellers. "My character is antidrug," he says proudly. "And the film has no sex." Palomino does, however, blow away 16 baddies. The justification? "I'm saving the youth of America from drug runners," he says.

Jerry Schafer, who wrote, directed and produced Fists, predicts the film "will do for middle- and upper-class Hispanics what The Bill Cosby Show did for similarly situated blacks." That apparently means Palomino can give his pals jobs, as Cosby does. Former prizefighters Alexis Arguello, Danny Lopez, Ruben Castillo and Armando Muñiz are part of Palomino's cinema strike force.

Palomino says acting may be tougher than boxing, though certainly it doesn't hurt as much. "Boxing is more physical pain," he says. "The pain of acting is emotional. It exposes all your weaknesses. You're either too tall or too small, too Mexican or not Mexican enough. You either don't have an accent, or the one you've got is too thick."

And casting directors tend to think boxers move their lips while reading stop signs. "They figure you can't do anything but say 'Dun' and 'Huh,' " Palomino complains. "Of course, some of the guys who've come out of the fight game haven't exactly helped the cause."

The scene in Fists of Steel that gave Palomino the most trouble was the one in which the druggies drive a 2½-ton truck over his screen father's head. "I didn't know how to react," says Palomino. "It wasn't in my experience."

Most film fights lack realism, says Palomino. "I don't care if you're Rambo or Robocop, if 50 guys rush you all at once, they're not going to fight you one at a time," he argues. "At least, where I come from in Mexico, they didn't do it that way."

Palomino plans to confine his fighting to the movies. "I watch the old tapes of my fights, and it seems almost like another lifetime," says Palomino. "I can't comprehend how I took all those punches. My wife, Kris, will hit me while we're horsing around, and I'll think, 'Wow, that really hurts!' Back when I was in the ring, I never felt the blows."

Palomino had better steel himself as if he's getting ready to fight Duran again. Because if the reviews for Fists come out bad, he may find them more painful than punches.



A loss to Duran (in black) ended a Palomino comeback in 1979 and sent him to filmland.



As the Latino James Bond, Palomino is still putting his best fists forward.