Lee Groves

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

7. June 22, 1979 – W 10 Carlos Palomino, Madison Square Garden, New York, New York

After uniting the lightweight titles against DeJesus, Duran immediately gave them up in pursuit of welterweight glory. He used the next four fights against Adolfo Viruet (W 10), Ezequiel Obando (KO 2), Monroe Brooks (KO 8) and 91-fight veteran Jimmy Heair (W 10) to adjust to his new class as his weight fluctuated between 142 (Viruet) and 151 (Obando). These performances – as well as his reputation – vaulted Duran up to number two in the WBC rankings. That, in turn, positioned Duran for a crack at either longtime WBA champion Pipino Cuevas or the winner of November’s meeting between WBC king Wilfred Benitez and challenger Sugar Ray Leonard. But before Duran could think about adding a second divisional title, he had to get past number-one rated challenger Carlos Palomino.

Up until this past January, Palomino had been the WBC’s champion, and during his two-and-a-half year reign he proved himself a fitting representative as five of his seven defenses ended inside the distance. Until Benitez dethroned him in his most recent fight by a split decision that most thought should have been unanimous, many observers believed he had the talent to defeat the fearsome Cuevas in a mythical head-to-head duel.

Palomino was a physically strong welterweight who used a formidable body attack to wear down opponents. Usually a slow starter, Palomino often found himself down on the cards early only to come on strong down the stretch, as was the case in his title-winning effort against John H. Stracey, his first defense against Armando Muniz and his second defense against Dave “Boy” Green. For Palomino, his stamina and stout chin were as much weapons as his hefty hook.

Unlike most champions who start young in the sport, Palomino was a semi-pro baseball player who didn’t begin his amateur boxing career until age 21. He was an All-Army champion in 1971 and 1972 and on his way to winning the 1972 AAU title he defeated Sugar Ray Seales, who went on to win the gold medal at the Olympics in Munich later that year. He also was one of boxing’s rare college graduates, for he earned a degree from Long Beach State.

While Palomino loved boxing, it didn’t consume him. Long before he lost the title to Benitez he declared he would retire by age 30 to pursue a career in acting. By the time he met Duran, he was two months shy of that landmark birthday so for Palomino it was now – or never.

At 145¼, Duran’s body was markedly thicker than during his lightweight days but happily for him he still possessed blazing hand speed. Advancing behind subtle head and shoulder feints, Duran made a positive first impression by landing a strong hook to the jaw. He then moved inside and engaged Palomino in a test of strength, a test that saw him pass with flying colors as he pushed the bigger man back with his forearms and shoulders and punched him with blows hard enough to earn respect.

By the second round Duran already was bathed in sweat and he was in a fighting froth. He repeatedly beat Palomino to the punch with hair-trigger shots before he could even react. Two searing uppercuts jerked Palomino’s head late in the round and by round’s end his cheekbone was noticeably puffy.

A lazy jab was all Duran needed to land a cracking one-two in the third, after which he bulled Palomino to the ropes and connected with a four-punch salvo to the head before locking on a clinch. By winning the small skirmishes, Duran was piling up enough points to win the bigger war. It soon became clear to all that Duran was the great little man and that Palomino was merely a very good bigger man. Palomino’s successes were infrequent – a jab to the face in round four that drew a wolfish smile and mini-rallies in rounds five and seven – but he never quit trying to reverse the tide.

Duran’s power-punching credentials at 147 were solidified seconds into round six. Even before chief second Ray Arcel could leave the ring apron, a scorching right to the chin caused Palomino to topple to the floor. It was only the second knockdown of Palomino’s 33-fight career and the ex-champ had to call upon every resource to keep his feet for the remainder of the round. Palomino paid a price for his toughness, for Duran opened small cuts on the corner of the right eye as well as his left ear, but late in the round Palomino strung together his best combination of the fight – a one-two followed by a left hook-right uppercut.

Duran’s counters widened Palomino’s cut in the seventh and by the ninth he was landing rights with impunity. It would have been easy for Duran to coast in the 10th but instead he finished strongly, though a bit of clowning brought a punishing reply from Palomino. At the bell a triumphant Duran fell to his knees with both arms upraised and his confidence was certified by judges Harold Lederman and Tony Castellano as well as referee Arthur Mercante Sr., all of whom had Duran a 99-90 winner.

“As you can see, I’m not what I used to be,” Palomino told HBO’s Larry Merchant shortly before the decision was announced. “I didn’t have that hard drive at the end. He was very strong and he was very quick, which surprised me. I didn’t expect that much quickness after he put on that much weight. But that’s the way boxing is. I had a great career and I have to believe this might be it.”

It was – for 18 years. Following the death of his father, Palomino launched an improbable comeback at age 47 that saw him win four of five fights between 1997 and 1998. His only loss was to welterweight contender Wilfredo Rivera in his final bout. As for Duran, further glories awaited.

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