Interviewing Roberto Duran

He is 71 years old now, a few days shy of turning 72, and he moves with the lithe yet slightly hesitant gait of an athlete in his dotage. A large crowd has gathered in anticipation, buzzing with enthusiasm, and with good reason. They are here to celebrate the best and brightest in boxing history, an ideal of which he is the living embodiment. 

There are, by some estimates, 20,000 professional boxers active around the world at any given time; countless tens of thousands have laced up their gloves and stepped between the ropes since John L. Sullivan launched the Marquess of Queensberry era by defeating Dominick McCaffery in August 1885. Of them all, of that literally unknowable number of professional prizefighters, the old man who now gingerly takes a seat next to his interviewer is, by common consent, among the greatest half-dozen ever.

His name is Roberto Duran and in his youthful pomp, he was a fearsome, snarling demon of a man. He annexed the world lightweight championship in 1971 by battering Ken Buchanan over 13 rounds before sending him to the canvas and relieving him of his crown with a sequence of blows after the bell and below the belt that the referee inexplicably chose not to penalize or even notice. 

Twelve years and 19 pounds later, after a career that was already lengthy and filled with undulating waves of success and disappointment, he celebrated his 32nd birthday by annihilating previously undefeated junior middleweight champion Davey Moore and launching another phase of his professional life. In November 1983, despite breaking his hand, he came within a whisker of taking the middleweight championship from one of the greatest 160 pounders of all time. Five years afterward, he did win a middleweight title, at age 37.

And yet, his relationship with his chosen profession was turbulent. He first retired from the ring in November 1980, in the wake of the humiliation of turning his back and quitting against Sugar Ray Leonard. He retired again in June 1984 and August 1998 before finally quitting for good in January 2002, aged 50, after life-saving surgery following a car accident.

Now, as he leans back in his chair, looks out at the expectant spectators and turns to his interlocutor, the smile on his face betrays the fact that, in his twilight years and with a career of swapping punches far behind him, Duran has long since let go of the performative nastiness of bygone days.

How does it feel, he is asked, to be here at the International Boxing Hall of Fame, to see the history of the sport laid out for all to see and to know what a significant role he played in that history? More than that, what are his emotions on seeing such a welcoming, adoring crowd - a crowd that loves and admires him for what he did over the course of a professional career that spanned fully 33 years? 

He speaks only Spanish, and the question is in English, but he catches the gist of it well enough that he appears to want to answer it immediately and he fidgets impatiently, a smile on his face, as his daughter Irichelle translates.

“At the beginning of my career, I came to Miami and nobody knew me,” he recalls. “Nobody recognized me. Nobody knew who I was. So, I looked up to the blue sky and I said, ‘Next time I’m here, people will know who I am, and everybody will want to say hi to me.’ And [years later] when I fought in Madison Square Garden and went outside, everybody knew me. And ever since, that has been one of the biggest pleasures I have.” 

He fought seven times at the Mecca of Boxing – including those championship-winning victories over Buchanan and Moore – and 112 times elsewhere. There were multiple outings in Las Vegas, including the legendary, late, lamented outdoor arena at Caesar’s Palace; there were several appearances at Atlantic City. There was Montreal and New Orleans, Panama City and Miami; toward the tail end of his career, there was Chester, Pennsylvania; Kansas City, Missouri; Marseille, France; and Toppenish, Washington. There was the three-fight rivalry with Sugar Ray Leonard; the assault on Marvin Hagler’s middleweight crown; the devastating one-punch knockout loss to Thomas Hearns. As he contemplates his career, are there any fights on which he looks with particular fondness?

He contemplates briefly, being sure to listen carefully to Irichelle’s translation, before offering a considered response.

“In Panama, we had a boxer called Ernesto Marcel,” he begins. “He beat one of my best friends, so I challenged him to fight me.” His manager at the time did not want Duran to take the fight; the future Hands of Stone was not yet 19 years old with a record of 16-0 and nary a handful of bouts against opponents with winning records; Marcel, three years older, was 23-2-1. 

“But I said, ‘I’m going to beat this man,’” he continues – and he did, halting Marcel in the tenth round, the only stoppage defeat the future featherweight champion would suffer in his career. “That was personal for me, so that is one of my favorites.”

Pressed for more, he responds with an impish grin, and when Irichelle hesitates to translate, he reacts with mock exasperation.

“One time, a lady friend said …” She pauses, mildly embarrassed at the words her father has asked her to translate, so he picks up the baton.

“A lady friend said, ‘You win, I go with you,’” he says in English.

“My Dad puts me in some positions sometimes,” blushes Irichelle.

“I go up to the ring,” Duran continues in English, and then smacks his palm with his fist to signify knocking his opponent out. “I go back, change clothes and ‘OK, let’s go.’”

And now he is on a roll, speaking once more in Spanish and regaling his audience with tales of only tangential relevance to the questions: being chastised by a stranger for defecating in the grass when he was caught short while running at 5 AM (a tale he tells with accompanying sound effects); jumping in a pool for the first time at 12 years old even though he couldn’t swim and having to be fished out before he drowned; being recognized in London and invited to look at an exhibition about the Titanic – the latter a digression of such indiscernible direction that his daughter pauses during the translation to question its purpose. He merely shrugs and responds that, “These are some of the stories I like to share.” He may have been one of the most feared prizefighters in his day; but, like any other 70-something retiree, he is  capable of wandering off on tangents mid-story. 

He returns to the theme of his favorite fights. “Obviously, Ken Buchanan,” he begins, and then meanders into a tale of childhood poverty in Panama.

Irichelle gently steers him back on script. “Ken Buchanan, papa …" 

“Ah si. Ken Buchanan,” he acknowledges with a smile. This fight, too, he reveals, was at least somewhat motivated by revenge - in this case for another of his countrymen, Ismael Laguna, whom the Scotsman defeated to win the lightweight crown in September 1970.

“Laguna wasn’t ready for that fight,” he says, “and when he lost, I cried.” 

Later, when his manager asked if he felt he was ready for a shot at a world title, he asked against whom. When the reply came that it would be Ken Buchanan, he replied with an exulted “yes,” and launched himself into training with a dedication that would not always be present in his later career:

“I was preparing myself to go, not 15 rounds, but 30 rounds. I ran two and a half hours a day. Ken Buchanan was very fast, and he hit very hard, so I had to be able to cut the ring off.”

After defeating Buchanan, he returned to Panama to present the belt to Laguna, but the former champion demurred.

“He said, ‘No, you won this with your own sweat. It is yours.’” 

In the aftermath of the loss and for some time afterward, Buchanan loathed Duran; years later, retired from boxing and working in a construction site, he set off for New York on a whim to confront him, in the belief that the Panamanian was training there. He did not find him, but eventually the two met again at an event in the UK. Drinks were drunk and hatchets were buried, and the two became fast friends until the Scot died in 2023.

“I was very sad when they called me to tell me he had died,” he recalls. “Every time I went to London, he would meet me, and we would have dinner and do interviews and sign autographs.”

Buchanan is not the only one of his great rivals to pass away recently. Duran will be forever and indelibly associated with the three other giants of his era – Hagler, Leonard, and Hearns. He fought Leonard three times – famously taking the welterweight title from the then-unbeaten American in 1980 before losing it in the “No Mas” rematch five months later and ultimately dropping a decision in a 1989 rubber match that is best forgotten. He faced Hearns just once, at 154 pounds, outside on a blazing Las Vegas day; distracted, not for the first time, by the women who were waiting for him in his hotel room, he fell face-first to the canvas in the second round after being drilled by a Hearns right hand. He lost in his one bout against Hagler, too, but it was a triumphant defeat; expected to lose convincingly to the long-time middleweight champion, the former lightweight instead pushed him to the limit. Even so, nearly 40 years later, Duran still seethes at the official result.

“I still feel in my heart that I won the fight against Marvin Hagler,” he says. “Nobody wanted to fight Marvin, because he was knocking off everyone. And this journalist said to me, ‘Roberto, why would you want to fight Marvin? He’s going to knock you out.’ I said, ‘Why? I’m young, I’m strong, he’s not going to knock me out. That bald head won’t beat me.’ And I feel like I won. But after we fought, I would see him in Vegas and we became friends.”

Hagler died in 2021 from undisclosed causes aged just 66.

“I just don’t understand how such a strong man could pass away at such a young age,” laments Duran. “We don’t really know what happened.”

Presumably, it is proposed, he has no plans on joining his old adversary in the afterlife anytime soon?

“No!” he shouts. “I’m going to live until exactly 100.” He points to his son, who is sitting off to one side, and grins. “My children are going to have to wipe my ass,” he laughs as Irichelle sighs lovingly again at what he has asked her to translate.

“I swear, he puts me in these impossible positions sometimes,” she says. “It’s like Russian roulette when we do these interviews.”

And with that, he stands up, takes a series of selfies with those who have waited patiently for him, and moves on to regale his next interviewer with another barrage of alternately insightful and ribald tales: an old man relishing retelling memories of his eventful past but clearly entirely comfortable with who he is in the present.