Prior to defeating Scotsman Ken Buchanan for the lightweight title in June of 1972, Roberto Durán wasn’t much more to American fight fans than a whisper in the media. 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 Ismael Laguna might become Panamá’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, had the unfortunate distinction of being the opponent in Durán’s debut on American soil in September of 1971. Huertas didn’t last a single round. The main event that night saw Laguna lose his World Boxing Association lightweight belt to Buchanan, the lightweight ranks suddenly disrupted considerably.
When Durán defeated Buchanan, though the victory was extremely controversial Durán instantly became a legend in Panamá. 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 Durán on the map in the U.S., though he was supposed to have made a defense of the belt in Panamá. Durán told reporters Panamá’s military leader General Omar Torrijos forbade “El Cholo” from making his first defense away from home. Instead Durán made Torrijos settle 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, Durán crashed his car while driving during a rainstorm in the Chiriqui Province in Panamá. “I get out of the car, I’m dizzy and my lip is open in two pieces,” Durán 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 was apparently unfazed by Durán’s injuries. He sent his charge, then 31-0 with 27 knockouts, to New York to train for a fight with Esteban de Jesús, a Puerto Rican lightweight ranked number 3 by The Ring and number 5 by the WBA.
The Huertas bout and Durán’s title-winning effort against Buchanan took place at Madison Square Garden — one of the most famous boxing venues ever — and the de Jesús bout would be Durán’s third outing there. The 10 round non-title fight was intended to feature Durán more than anything else, but the $10,000 payday was fine by de Jesús.
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.”
Durán admitted before the fight that he’d never seen de Jesús in action, but it still shouldn’t have come as a surprise the latter was a skilled technician. Famed Puerto Rican trainer Gregorio Benítez, father of “El Radar” Wilfred Benítez, guided de Jesús since his amateur days and proved a formidable mentor.
De Jesús, 33-1 with 22 knockouts, told media, “When I knock him out, they’ll have to give me a title fight.”
While there was no knockout, live feeds of the bout were broadcast to Panamá and Puerto Rico, thus each fighter’s countrymen looked on as de Jesús sent Durán to the canvas in the opening moments of the bout. A distracting overhand right allowed de Jesús to connect with a hard left hook that put Durán down, visibly stunning him.
Durán 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 Jesús darted in and out, maneuvering well around a Durán 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 Durán’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 Jesús 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 Durán. 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 [Durán] said no.”
Sick or not, Durán walked directly into de Jesús’ right hand and couldn’t find his rhythm, couldn’t find his range. It was Durán, but a sloppier version who allowed himself to be tied up and smothered on the inside. De Jesús also pushed Durán back more than anyone had been able to before — a curious sight.
Durán wasn’t without success as the fight wore on, and especially to the body. In rounds 2 and 8 Durán managed to reach de Jesús to the body, having a visible effect in both. But the fight was otherwise de Jesús’ to lose; he punched at the right times and continued to catch Durán with his hook and right hand.
“At the [final] bell Durán 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 Jesús knew he’d won the fight, and Durán knew it too. De Jesús 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 Durán, 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 Panamá City against Hector Thompson. Durán wanted revenge but would wait over one year to get it. He scored an 11th round knockout of de Jesús in Panamá in March of 1974, this time with his belt on the line. By 1978 de Jesús had picked up the WBC lightweight belt and the pair met for a final time to decide lightweight supremacy. Durán triumphed once more, this time in the 12th round, effectively nullifying his only loss but not erasing it entirely.
De Jesús was named 1972 “Fighter of the Year” by the WBA and mostly on the strength of his win over Durán, 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 Durán his only loss deserved accolades.
Durán’s lesson wasn’t soon forgotten, either. Around the time of their rematch de Jesús 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 Jesús was visited by his old foe Durán.
“Manos de Piedra” embraced his dying friend when few others would, for they had shed blood together.