4. Jan. 29, 1983 – KO 4 Pipino Cuevas, Sports Arena, Los Angeles, California
As Duran began his 16th year as a professional, the sight of the primal beast that laid waste to the lightweight division seemed a distant memory. The scourge of “No Mas” inflicted untold damage to his reputation and Duran’s personal pain extended to his ring performances. Even when he won it was obvious something was missing. Was it age? Was it motivation? Was it angst? Or was it something that no one else knew? This war was Duran’s to wage and if his 1982 campaign was any indicator he was losing it.
In January, WBC junior middleweight titlist Wilfred Benitez comprehensively out-boxed Duran in winning a unanimous decision that was nowhere near as close as the scorecards indicated (143-142, 144-141 and 145-141). Then on Sept. 4, with a potential showdown with Tony Ayala Jr. on the horizon, a blubbery and listless Duran lost to former sparring partner Kirkland Laing on a 10-round split decision that should have been unanimous. The final indignity took place on Nov. 12 when a flabby Duran, weighing a career-high 157 and making a paltry $25,000 pay check, sleep-walked through a 10-round win over Jimmy Batten. At Duran’s insistence, the Batten bout served as the walk-out bout for the classic first bout between Aaron Pryor and Alexis Arguello.
It was a sad illustration of just how far Duran had fallen. The man who was used to creating history was relegated to an afterthought at the site of history.
Duran seemed lost. His legendary trainers Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown left Duran after “No Mas” and promoter Don King followed after the Laing disaster. Duran turned to King’s rival Bob Arum to continue his career and at first Arum was reluctant. But before making the final decision to reject Duran Arum sought advice from Teddy Brenner, regarded by many as the greatest matchmaker boxing has ever known.
“There’s nothing wrong with this guy, physically,” Brenner told Steve Farhood in the November 1983 issue of KO. “He’s never taken a beating. Whether or not he wants to fight again is a question mark. King chased him. Duran was waiting for one kind word. He came to us, we sat him down. We gave him a chance. If we hadn’t, it might have been the end for him.”
Brenner’s word was enough for Arum to pull the trigger and sign Duran.
“I don’t know about boxing, but I’ve got a man who knows as much about fighters as anybody, and Teddy said there was nothing wrong with Duran that being in good physical and mental condition wouldn’t solve,” Arum said at the time. “Teddy said that if you get him mentally right, he’d probably beat anybody around.”
Duran’s first fight under Arum was the 10-rounder against Batten and while Duran won the optics weren’t encouraging. So in a last-ditch move to save Duran’s career, Top Rank arranged a fight between Duran and former WBA welterweight king Pipino Cuevas in January 1983. It was a critical fight for both men, for if Cuevas won, he’d be in line to fight Donald Curry for Curry’s WBA 147-pound crown, but if Duran prevailed he’d get a crack at WBA junior middleweight king Davey Moore.
Four years earlier it would have been a sensational multi-million dollar match but even now it was a marquee attraction. Cuevas was a bomb-throwing monster whose left hooks shattered speed bags and opponents’ jaws but he too had fallen on hard times. After Thomas Hearns ended his four-year WBA welterweight championship reign with an emasculating second round TKO, Cuevas scored two early knockouts of Bernardo Prada and Jorgen Hansen but in his most recent fight he lost a 10 round decision to previously unknown Roger Stafford, a result so shocking that it was deemed THE RING’s 1981 Upset of the Year.
Critics may have called Duran-Cuevas a battle of tarnished legends but the fans that packed the Sports Arena placed more regard on the word “legends” than the word “tarnished” and eagerly awaited the fireworks they knew were coming.
With potential redemption just around the corner, both men whipped themselves into fantastic condition. Cuevas, who never entered a ring in less than top shape, weighed 149 while Duran surprised many by scaling a hard, trim 152, his lightest weight since the “No Mas” fight. The number on the scale opened some eyes but those who owned the more jaded ones knew that weight alone wasn’t a reliable indicator of future performance. To them, Duran passed the first test by reporting in excellent shape but to convince them he had to get past Cuevas, and do so impressively.
It was Cuevas, however, that had the best of things in the first round. He landed several of his trademark hooks against Duran’s rock-solid jaw and his newly toned body and the heavily Mexican crowd whooped in delight. But Duran turned the fight in round two by going toe-to-toe with the heavier punching Cuevas. For the first time since his magical night in Montreal against Sugar Ray Leonard, Duran was sharp, quick and menacing as he whipped in combinations and defiantly walked through Cuevas’ best bombs.
As the fight neared the midway point of round four Duran was in control, though Cuevas’ fists presented a constant threat. Duran’s deft feinting finally produced an opening for a devastating lead right that turned Cuevas’ legs to jelly. A follow-up flurry capped by a right uppercut-left uppercut sent Cuevas reeling into the corner pad for a “but-for-the-ropes” knockdown.
After referee James Jen-Kin finished the mandatory eight count Duran trapped Cuevas on the ropes and let both fists fly. The Mexican tried to fight back but Duran proved to be too much. A huge right hand to the jaw was followed by a final flurry of body shots that caused Cuevas to slump to the canvas. Jen-Kin saw all he needed to see and stopped the fight with Cuevas still on all fours.
Observers were left to shake their heads in wonder. “How could this be the same man who looked so horrible against Laing?” they thought. “But now we can’t wait to see him against Davey Moore.”
Neither could Duran.