Prior to defeating Scotsman Ken Buchanan for the lightweight title in June of 1972, Roberto Duran wasn’t much more to American fight fans than a whisper in the media. The insiders who followed boxing on the international level knew of him, sure, but even those pundits didn’t have many details yet. Most simply suspected that Ismael Laguna might become Panama’s second best fighter if the rumors they’d heard of a young and reckless puncher from the Canal Zone were true.
Benny Huertas, a journeyman out of Brooklyn, was unfortunate enough to be Duran’s opponent in his debut on American soil in September of 1971. Huertas didn’t last one round. The main event that night saw Laguna lose his World Boxing Association lightweight belt to Buchanan, and suddenly the lightweight ranks had been disrupted considerably.
When Duran defeated Buchanan, regardless of how controversial it was, Duran instantly became a legend in Panama. His inability to balance celebrity and duty would become a theme in his career, but it didn’t take long for the struggle to affect the 21-year-old champion.
The win over Buchanan put Duran on the map in the U.S. as well, though he was supposed to have made a defense of the belt in Panama. Duran told reporters that Panama’s military leader General Omar Torrijos forbade “El Cholo” from making his first defense away from home. Instead Duran settled for two quick knockouts at home over unheralded foes above the lightweight limit.
Two rounds in several months was a departure from his usual activity and did little but feed his ego, but the inactivity was at least partially due to an unfortunate car accident.
In September of 1972, Duran crashed his car while driving during a rainstorm in the Chiriqui Province in Panama. “I get out of the car, I’m dizzy and my lip is open in two pieces,” Duran said in “Hands of Stone,” a biography by Christian Giudice. “…I look down and I have a hole in my elbow. So I have a hole in my elbow and a split lip.”
Manager Carlos Eleta, apparently unfazed by Duran’s injuries, sent his charge, then 31-0 with 27 knockouts, to New York to train for a fight with Esteban de Jesus, a Puerto Rican lightweight ranked number 3 by The Ring and number 5 by the WBA.
Both Duran’s fight against Huertas and his title-winning effort against Buchanan took place at Madison Square Garden — one of the most famous boxing venues ever — and the de Jesus bout would be Duran’s third outing there. The 10 round non-title fight was more to feature Duran than anything else, but the $10,000 payday was fine by de Jesus.
As spokesman Luis Henriquez told reporters at a pre-fight press conference, “Roberto will fight anyone in the world and he is only taking on a knockout artist like DeJesus as a favor to the Garden promoters for canceling two bouts because of illness and an auto injury.”
Still, taking on a Puerto Rican at the Garden should be done carefully.
Duran admitted before the fight that he’d never seen de Jesus in action, but it still shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the latter was a skilled technician. Famed Puerto Rican trainer Gregorio Benitez, father of “El Radar” Wilfred Benitez, had guided de Jesus since his amateur days and proved a formidable mentor.
De Jesus, 33-1 with 22 knockouts, told media, “When I knock him out, they’ll have to give me a title fight.”
There was no knockout, but live feeds of the bout were broadcast to Panama and Puerto Rico, thus each fighter’s countrymen looked on as de Jesus sent Duran to the canvas in the opening moments of the bout. A distracting overhand right allowed de Jesus to connect with a hard left hook that put Duran down, visibly stunning him.
Duran sprung from the canvas at the count of two and smiled before attempting to fight his way back into the round. It was too late; de Jesus darted in and out, maneuvering well around a Duran who now just wanted revenge.
Great trainer Ray Arcel, who climbed out of retirement to help create what “Manos de Piedra” would eventually become, attributed Duran’s performance to sinus issues the fighter picked up because of an unusually cold November in New York.
In “Ray Arcel: A Boxing Biography,” Arcel said of their training camp for the de Jesus fight in New York, “Coming out of the gymnasium one day, just walking to the car, I took my coat off and gave it to Duran. He couldn’t take the cold at all. And sure enough, the next day he’s sneezing and all blocked up. Carlos [Eleta] and I wanted to call the fight off but [Duran] said no.”
Sick or not, Duran walked directly into de Jesus’ right hand and couldn’t find his rhythm, couldn’t find his range. It was Duran, but a sloppier version who allowed himself to be tied up and smothered on the inside. De Jesus also pushed Duran back more than anyone had been able to before — a curious sight.
Though Duran wasn’t without success as the fight wore on, and especially to the body. In rounds 2 and 8 Duran managed to reach de Jesus to the body, having a visible effect in both. But the fight was otherwise de Jesus’ to lose; he punched at the right times and continued to catch Duran with his hook and right hand.
“At the [final] bell Duran threw his arms wide in a gesture of disgust and police climbed over the press tables to surround the ring,” wrote the Associated Press.
De Jesus knew he’d won the fight, and Duran knew it too. De Jesus put on a straw hat that said “Puerto Rico” on the front and hopped about the ring when scores unanimously tabbed him the winner. Just over Duran, though — not the title.
The Panamanian took a few months off and retooled, then fought four times before honoring Gen. Torrijos’ wishes and defending the lightweight title in Panama City against Hector Thompson. Duran wanted revenge but would wait over one year to get it. He scored an 11th round knockout of de Jesus in Panama in March of 1974, this time with his belt on the line. By 1978 de Jesus had picked up the WBC lightweight belt and the pair met for a final time to decide lightweight supremacy. Duran triumphed once more, this time in the 12th round, effectively nullifying his only loss but not erasing it entirely.
De Jesus was named Fighter of the Year by the WBA and mostly on the strength of his win over Duran since he had no particularly notable wins on his ledger apart from that for the year. He didn’t need any other wins, though, because handing a young, fresh Roberto Duran his only loss deserved accolades.
Duran’s lesson wasn’t soon forgotten, either. Around the time of their rematch de Jesus became familiar with cocaine benders and shady drug deals, and he would eventually develop AIDS and earn a lifetime prison sentence for murder. Effectively on hospice care in 1989, a power-puncher rendered powerless by a crippling disease and relegated to an AIDS treatment center in Puerto Rico, de Jesus was visited by his old foe Duran.
“Manos de Piedra” embraced his dying friend when few others would, for they had shed blood together.