Lee Groves

Hands of Stone: 10 fights that cemented Duran’s legend – part I

8. Jan. 21, 1978 – KO 12 Esteban DeJesus III, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada

After of years of weight-making struggles, Duran was ready to end his majestic six-and-a-half year reign and sample his wares in other divisions. But before he did so he had one final piece of business to address – settling the score with Esteban DeJesus once and forever.

To date, DeJesus had inflicted the only loss of Duran’s 63-fight career in a non-title 10 rounder in December 1972 while Duran returned the favor by recording DeJesus’ first defeat in their March 1974 rematch with Duran’s title on the line. Since then, DeJesus won the WBC belt by stopping Ishimatsu “Guts” Suzuki and recording three defenses against Hector Medina (KO 7), Buzzsaw Yamabe (KO 6) and Vicente Mijares (KO 11), all the while baiting Duran verbally. As for Duran, he gave back in kind and wanted nothing more than to shut DeJesus’ mouth as well as break the mandible that controlled it.

The stakes couldn’t be higher; the undisputed lightweight title was on the line, a belt that hadn’t been unified since 1971, but moreover it would determine each man’s place in history. Like the great trilogies of  the past, the man who ended up with the lead would be thought of as the better fighter and neither man’s pride would tolerate anything less than total victory.

Each fighter achieved his first major win by making weight. DeJesus scaled 134 while Duran was 134 1/4, and while Duran had to take off 15 pounds in the final four weeks it was DeJesus who worked until the last possible minute to squeeze out the final ounces. The already tense personal dynamic then boiled over when a scuffle broke out between the fighters and their camps.

Given Duran’s volcanic temper – and the violent way he dealt with DeJesus in their second fight – most observers expected the fiery Panamanian to overwhelm his Puerto Rican rival with brute force. At the urging of trainers Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown, however, Duran chose to box patiently at long range, and, to the shock of virtually everyone, they even touched gloves at the opening bell.

Duran’s first punch, a stabbing jab, smacked off DeJesus’ face and the WBC titleholder responded by flashing a wry grin. Duran’s powerful lefts spawned blood from DeJesus’ nostrils in less than 90 seconds’ time while the smirking Puerto Rican’s jabs barely registered with the stone-faced Duran. When the bell sounded Duran achieved a personal victory by avoiding a left-hook knockdown, which DeJesus achieved in each of their first two fights and to this point marked the only such events in Duran’s career.

In round two Duran’s coal-black eyes intensely scanned for openings while his arms seized upon them. Meanwhile, DeJesus continued to probe with long, flicking jabs and strike with unusually wide punches.

The action heated up in the third as DeJesus began finding the range with right hands and Duran invested more power behind his shots. A robust Duran right to the body sparked an intense exchange at ring center in the round’s final minute.

DeJesus was known as a supreme ring technician but as the rounds continued to fly by Duran proved he was every bit the scientist DeJesus was – and more. His vast array of defensive maneuvers set up his prodigious offensive strikes and Duran’s clinical precision in terms of executing strategy stood in stark contrast to his combustible reputation. His razor-sharp intellect pounced on every tactical error DeJesus made and the audience marveled at the scope and impact of Duran’s consequences. Duran took full control in the sixth as he worked up and down DeJesus’ anatomy and rattled him with well-timed combinations. A bruise sprouted under DeJesus’ cheek and by the seventh the WBC titlist was in survival mode.

Lacking the one-punch power to stop Duran’s attack, DeJesus was forced into an untenable position. Still, DeJesus’ courage and stubbornness wouldn’t let him quit even as his gas tank emptied and ran on fumes. Because of that, Duran was able to show the world just how sophisticated a fighter he had become since mauling Ken Buchanan all those years ago.

Duran upped the ante in round nine with several hard body shots, pushed his chips toward the center in rounds 10 and 11 and forced DeJesus to fold in the 12th. An explosive lead right to the temple floored DeJesus and forced him to crawl across the ring to find a friendly strand of ropes from which to haul himself up by six. Duran then landed 11 straight power punches, the last of which forced a thoroughly hurt and exhausted DeJesus to take a seat on the canvas. At 2:32 of round 12, Roberto Duran joined heavyweight Muhammad Ali and middleweight Rodrigo Valdes as boxing’s only undisputed champions but more importantly to Duran, he had established undisputed superiority over his greatest lightweight rival.

“I cannot erase the loss,” Duran said afterward. “But tonight I erased DeJesus.”

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