Robert Duran – Under the Microscope at Lightweight

By Jimmy Krug.

Roberto Duran began his boxing career in 1968.  Twelve years later (before his 2nd fight with Sugar Ray Leonard), Duran’s record stood at 72-1 (55 KO’s).  The year was 1980.  The price of a first-class stamp was .15 cents.  Regular gasoline was about $1.25 a gallon.  Old-time, veteran fight observers (beyond 65 years of age) had been polled as to where Roberto Duran stood amongst the Greatest Lightweight Champions in the history of the sport.

When we talk of the great Lightweight fighters of the past, we’re talking about great fighters including, but not limited to – Joe Gans, Benny Leonard, Tony Canzoneri, Lew Tendler, Ike Williams, Lou Ambers, Barney Ross, Henry Armstrong, Jimmy McLarnin, Carlos Ortiz and many others.  Here’s what they had to say.

Ray Arcel (Duran’s co-trainer and cornerman for Benny Leonard during his comeback)

“I always felt that Duran could have been right on top of any Lightweight division.  If he were not the champion – he would have been a leading contender.  Benny Leonard, in my opinion, was the greatest boxer, pound for pound that I ever saw.  He was the champion of the best Lightweight division anyone has seen since 1917.  Any of the leading contenders of that period could have been champion if Leonard was not there.”

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Lester Bomberg (New York Post Boxing Writer, started writing in 1937):

“If you grow a near perfect peach, then produce a similar fruit, can you honestly say one is better than the other?  Duran has typified a physical fighter, especially in exploding punch.  His faults… have be lack of classic form, an inability to adapt himself to taller men.  Then how does he manage a record that is virtually perfect?  It is simply his genius that he has been able to spot those faults and ride over them.  But does he box on a plane with the peerless Leonard?  Can he blend the competitive skills like Canzoneri?  Is he equal in landing sudden-death punches like Jenkins?  Does he have the intense boxing abilities of Ross?  Can he seriously be compared with tough Ambers? “

“There are supplementary factors also going against ratings. The caliber of the opposition met by the old champs and the current one (1980) is another story.  The dedication of the ancients must tip over the skills on the new world. The average experience of a challenger bidding for a title in the old days would be 50 or 100 fights.  Today, he goes to the top after 25 or 30 fights at most. To set them aright: I will not say Duran could step into the past and handle the best.  He is the best (in his) day – and that’s enough.”

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Teddy Brenner (Longtime matchmaker for Madison Square Garden.  He began following boxing in 1933):

“I don’t think Duran could have beaten Billy Petrolle or Sid Terris and they never became champions.  I started our Duran in the Garden against Benny Huertas, whom he knocked out in round – electrifying fashion.  His next was for the title against Ken Buchanen whom he stopped in the 13th round.  In his third fight in MSG he suffered his only loss when he was floored in the first round and outpointed by Esteban DeJesus.  Duran, to me, was an exciting, colorful, hard-punching, charismatic fighter, but I think he suffered from a genuine lack of competition.  While he held the title, the fighters in the Lightweight division were at the lowest caliber in the division history, and his management avoided some of the better mediocrities.  At a time when Duran could have moved up slightly in weight to meet Jose Napoles at 140 pounds, he never would.  He also avoided Wilfred Benitez at 140 when his management was approached.  His management was very careful with him.  Not Roberto himself.  He would fight anyone at any time.”

“The best Lightweights I ever saw – and their great records against great opposition will bear me out – are:  Canzoneri, Armstrong, Williams, Ross, Beau Jack, Bob Montgomery, Ambers, Ortiz, Lew Jenkins and Duran.”

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Benny Ford (Former trainer and San Francisco matchmaker and promoter):

“Duran, although a popular fighter of the present era, doesn’t compare favorably to the champions and contenders I’ve seen since 1918.  Leonard, Armstrong, Sammy Mandell, Ross, Canzoneri and non-champs McLarnin, Phil McGraw, Tendler, Johnny Dundee, Petrolle and Willie Jackson were more versatile, well-rounded fighters.”

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Don Duphy (Radio – blow-by-blow announcer and later – TV commentator):

“There is no question Duran is one of the greatest Lightweights.  I never saw Leonard.  My first Lightweight Champion was Canzoneri, but a look at his record shows his superb ability as a boxer. In 209 bouts, he never lost a decision.  But he fought 115 no-decision bouts which leaves a lot of question marks.  Duran has an amazing record as a Lightweight.  He defended the title 12 times and scored 11 knockouts.  This is interesting because any comparison with Leonard because Benny was a master boxer.  It would be a tough one to pick.  Of the others, I give Ross a great chance against Duran because of his great boxing ability, his quick hands and the ability to take it.  It 82 bouts, Barney was never stopped.”

“Armstrong, with his crowding tactics, his boundless energy and experience, would likewise be tough.  Beau Jack, Canzoneri, Montgomery, Carter, Joe Brown and Paddy DeMarco would have been on a suicide mission because they would have traded with Duran.  No one trades with Duran and gets away with it.”

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Harry Markson (Former writer and president of Madison Square Garden boxing):

“When I became involved in boxing in the early 30’s, there were still writers around who had seen Gans.  Nat Fleischer, foremost historian of The Ring, always ranked Gans as the best Lightweight he had ever seen, with Leonard a close second.  Other veteran experts of that time generally rated Leonard and Gans as 1-2 – or the other way around.  I take their opinion on faith, since I never saw Gans and my boxing affiliation commenced just after Leonard hung up his gloves.  In ranking fighters, I prefer to limit my selections to those I actually saw in action.  Canzoneri was world champion when I was introduced to the boxing industry.  I like to think it isn’t mere sentiment that has established Canzoneri in my mind as the best 135-pound fighter I ever saw.  In fact, I’m sure it isn’t sentiment because Jack Sharkey was Heavyweight Champion and Ben Jeby Middleweight Champion when I came to boxing in 1933 and I sure as hell don’t regard either as the best I’ve seen in their divisions.

Nor, by the same token, any of the other fighters who headed their respective divisions at that time.  Starting with Canzoneri, then, I rate the other Lightweights I have seen as follows:  Armstrong, Ross, Williams Ambers, Ortiz, Duran, Brown, Petrolle, Beau Jack and Bob Montgomery (tied for tenth).  Duran certainly was the best lightweight of his time.  He punches with great power, has a goodly measure of ring skill, possesses stamina in abundance, and fights with a competitive zeal that makes him an exceptionally exciting performer.”

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Bill Heinz (Novelist, author and former boxing writer for the New York Sun and New York World –Telegram)

“I knew two men who knew Gans and whose opinion of fights and fighters I held in high esteem.  One was Dumb Dan Morgan… a most knowledgeable student of the art.  The other was Harry Lenny, a trainer manager, who in his youth used to spar with Gans.  Gans, Lenny told me, was a great proponent of punching to a point.  As Gans worked it out, the vulnerable points are the forehead on either side, the chin on either side, the forehead just above the nose, the solar plexus and the area under the heart.  Morgan said to me, ‘You see, in them fights in his last years (Gans was dying of consumption), he knew he had to save his strength for one or two punches.  He would go out and move around and feint those guys and figure them out.  Today, they’d boo a man for doing that, but when he had them figured he’d come back to the corner and say: “At about one minute and a half in this round in his own corner with a right hand under the heart and a left hook to the chin.”  And he’d do it.  Ah, let’s face it.  There’s never been another like Gans.’

“So, out of all that, I like to believe that the best of them all was a guy who died five years before I was born.  After Gans, I guess, the next best was Leonard, who even studied four-round fighters in the gym. ‘You never can tell, he once told Ray Arcel, ‘when one of those kids might do something by accident that I can use.’  He also said, ‘The toughest fighter to fight is a stupid fighter.  When you feint him, he doesn’t even know you’re doing it.’ After those two, maybe Armstrong, Ross, Petrolle, Canzoneri, Jenkins, Duran, Williams and Brown.”

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Jimmy Krug (Author of this article):

It’s so hard to actually put a number on a fighter and say – “I rate this fighter number 4, this fighter – number five and so forth.  The reason is, when you’re finished with your list, you can often make a case for (let’s say) number 7 beating number 4!  That’s because different styles creating different advantages as well as disadvantages when you match two fighters together.  We saw this when Duran finally met Wilfred Benitez at 154-pounds.  Benitez boxed his way to a clear cut decision win over Duran.  Going in, I thought that once Duran nailed Benitez with a good shot, the follow-up would get him out of there.  Duran was never able to land that shot over the course of a 15-round fight.  For that matter, neither could Hearns at 154-pounds.

The difference with Duran can be seen, however, while sitting back and considering the entire course of his career – including his fights at Welterweight, Jr. Middleweight and Middleweight.  It then becomes obvious that the man we saw at 135 didn’t benefit solely from fighting against a weaker level of opposition.  Pound for pound, Duran faced an extremely high level of competition throughout a career that spanned over a 30 year period of time.  For that reason, I have to give him the benefit of the doubt that (as Ray Arcel said) Duran would have been at very least – a top contender in any Lightweight division in any era.  I won’t argue that he wouldn’t have logged as many title defenses had he fought in the 40’s as he did in the 70’s.  It’s quite possible that fighters like Joe Gans and Benny Leonard were tough enough, slippery enough… and awkward enough to have defeating him on points.

But any way you slice it, Duran’s a tough assignment at 135-pounds.  With the exception of his fight against Thomas Hearns at 154-pounds, Duran fought competitively against some of the very best fighters of his era at various weights.  Had he fought in the 20’s, 30’s or 40’s, he obviously would have hit the 100 fight mark much sooner than he did in the modern era… but he hit it nonetheless.

Where would I rate Duran in the All-Time rankings?  I can only go by what I’ve read from the old-timers and have seen on film that Gans and Leonard were the best of the best.  After that, an educated guess would learn towards Armstrong and possibly Barney Ross because he was so tough and very shifty.  Next, I would have to say Duran is a very strong candidate for the next spot.  And that’s not to say that Duran couldn’t beat Gans, Leonard, Armstrong or Ross or any other Lightweight on a given night.

From the 1970’s till today – 2010, it’s hard to pick another Lightweight who would have topped him.  A few years back someone asked Duran how he thought he would have done against Pernell Whitaker in a 15 round fight.  Duran laughed and replied, “Are you kidding?  I would have eaten him alive!”

One Response to “Robert Duran – Under the Microscope at Lightweight”

  1. Greg Gorecky says:

    Jimmy, this is a great article that I read recently, and it is great to get your take on Duran. In my 45 years of watching boxing the two best lightweights that I have seen are Roberto Duran and Carlos Ortiz…that would have been a great fight.

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