Among Canals, There's Suez, but in Boxer Roberto Duran, Panama Has a Nonpareil

updated 04/09/1979 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/09/1979 01:00AM

Would he want his son to go into fighting? 'God forbid,' says the champ

Among the many boxing authorities who consider Roberto Duran sports' reigning "Greatest" is Roberto Duran. "I'm the very best anywhere because I'm smarter," the 27-year-old Panamanian crows. "I've seen the others fight, and it's pitiful to watch them."

He won't get any argument from his two million countrymen. In Panama Duran is at least as much an institution as the Canal: He's exempt from taxes, amigos around with President Omar Torrijos and always has a military Jeep at his disposal. As many as 50,000 fans have greeted his airport return from overseas triumphs.

Elsewhere he's feared—"feral and remorseless," in the precision prose of columnist Red Smith. In 67 pro fights Duran has won 66; 53 were by knockouts, 24 in the first round. Born and bred a street scrapper in a Panama City barrio, Duran once deliberately put away an opponent in the first round just because he wanted ice cream and was afraid the local purveyor was about to close. Now, after he held the World Boxing Association's lightweight (135 pounds max) title for seven years and the World Boxing Council's for one, the ice cream has gotten to Roberto. He is moving up into the 147-pound welterweight division.

This weekend (April 8) at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Duran will fight Arizona welterweight Jimmy Heair in his first match since he renounced his lightweight crowns in February. If Roberto wins, he has his sights set on a bout with WBA welterweight champ José Cuevas later this year.

His admirers are nothing if not diverse. Muhammad Ali once told Duran he was glad Duran isn't a heavyweight. President Torrijos is a rabid fan who phones Duran before every bout. "He wants to know how I'm feeling, how my training is going and what I think of my opponent," says Duran. He usually thinks ill of his opponent; training is usually going badly.

"Roberto likes to eat, and that's why he's not a lightweight anymore," says Duran's veteran trainer, Freddy Brown, 72, who's shaped up 500 fighters, including Rocky Marciano. "I've had to take 25 pounds off him six or seven times." But co-manager Luis Henriquez suggests that weight problems have less to do with his move up in class than his desire for bigger gates and more TV money. Duran had already demolished all the lightweight contenders, while Cuevas, WBC welterweight champ Wilfredo Benitez and young U.S. Olympic hero Sugar Ray Leonard could help Duran to much bigger purses.

Born a cholo (part Spanish, part Indian), Duran was the second of eight children and left school after four years. His parents separated, and he never met his father until he was 23 and already lightweight champ. (Now reconciled, his dad, Phoenix restaurateur Margarito Duran, never misses any of his West Coast bouts.)

As a kid Roberto swam two miles a day in the Panama Canal and beat up bullies for fun, but made money shining shoes, hawking newspapers and dancing on the streets for 50¢ a day. "I always liked to fight, just for fighting," he says. "But of course I was thinking of the time when I would make a lot of money to help my family." Then at 10 he won $1.50—in a theoretically amateur bout—and, in spite of his mother's pleas (now she calls him "my son the champion"—mi hijo el campeón) turned pro at 17.

He won the WBA lightweight title in 1972 from Scotsman Ken Buchanan with a 13th round technical knockout; many ringside observers insisted that Duran delivered a low blow to Buchanan after the bell, but no foul was called. Duran lost his only fight later that year—a non-title decision to Puerto Rico's Esteban DeJesus—but he later knocked DeJesus out twice with the championship at stake.

Duran has earned about a half million dollars a year for three or four nights of fighting and can expect to make more in 1979. A Cuevas match could alone be worth over $750,000 to him. Duran has bought his mother a house and employs two of his brothers in his entourage while financing the education of two more. He's not a millionaire, he says, only because he supports too many people. "He's always doing something for somebody," says manager Henriquez. "If someone needs getting out of jail, if someone has to pay the rent or needs a job, he'll help." Duran has no vices like drinking or smoking, but has a sensible aversion to training. His other love is singing and playing bongos, of which he owns $20,000 worth.

Duran met his wife, Felicidad, 22, eight years ago when he noticed her walking on the street under his balcony, called out and ran downstairs to introduce himself. Now they live in an eight-room, $140,000 house near the Panama Canal with daughters Dalia, 7, Jovani, 4, and Irichelle, 2, and son Roberto Jr., 6. But he's still a familiar face in his old childhood barrio. "I still go there at least once a day when I'm in Panama," says Duran. "I visit my old friends, play soccer with them, go fishing, dance a lot, go to the beach and play lots of dominoes." Now and then he'll fly a bunch of Panamanian chums to wherever he's fighting.

Then, too, Duran is also a frequent and casual visitor to Torrijos' palace. "He walks in there," says Henriquez, "like he owns the place."

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