When Roberto Duran Proved He Was Boxing's Greatest Ever Lightweight

On this day in 1978, Roberto Duran ended his bitter rivalry with Esteban De Jesus once and for all
19:00, 21 Jan 2022

Weeks away from immortalising himself as the greatest lightweight to ever step foot inside the squared circle, Roberto Duran’s training displayed an animalistic ferocity that was abnormally intense, even for the Panamanian.

In the build up to his third fight with bitter rival Esteban De Jesus, Duran approached his camp with so much savagery that the speed bags were being replaced as quickly as the sparring partners. Duran had a reputation for sparring hard, so unbeaten Philadelphian middleweight Mike Williams might have considered himself lucky to have only left Los Angeles with a busted nose.

Roberto, the WBA lightweight title holder for over five years, excelled in the business of brutality. The feeling that he wanted to not only make De Jesus pay, but seriously hurt him, was palpable in the suffocating Main Street gym air. Sylvester Stallone, filming across the street, would spend most of his lunch breaks entranced, watching the man they called ‘Manos de Piedra’ move around the ring like a feral menace. 

This fight was personal for Duran for a number of reasons. He had already shared two wars with his Puerto Rican nemesis, suffering the first and, at the time, only defeat of his professional career in their initial meeting in 1972, before roaring back on home soil with an 11th round knockout to exact his revenge two years later. 

Since their last meeting, Duran had fought 20 times, vanquishing all that stood before him and leaving just five souls lucky enough to hear the final bell. In that same period, he had also racked up seven defences of his lightweight title and questions over whether he might be the greatest fighter the lightweight division had ever seen were beginning to enter the fray.

The stakes were raised even higher this time around, too. While Duran was the proud owner of the WBA bauble, DeJesus had himself picked up the WBC strap in the interim, meaning that the winner of the fight would join Muhammad Ali (heavyweight) and Rodrigo Valdes (middleweight) as boxing’s only current undiputed champions.

There was also a question of Latin American pride - who would win this third and decisive battle between two fiercely proud pugilists from the boxing-mad nations of Puerto Rico and Panama?

The product of a hot-blooded build-up, including threats of murdering one another at the weigh-in and genuine concerns from Don King that the bad blood would make the press conference unmanageable, the final showdown between these two warriors proved a bit of a damp squib in comparison to previous encounters in terms of all-out action. But, for Duran, it was one of the finest performances across his glittering career.

Duran was uncharacteristically patient in the opening stanzas and almost the antithesis of the man whose primal prowess had terrified those watching on in training. But his reserved opening allowed him to seize control of the fight early on, using his stiff left jab to put De Jesus under constant pressure. Within a few rounds, Duran’s dominance was overwhelming, leaving his rival of more than six years in a state of frustration, unable to escape and with only a glimmer of opportunity on the counter-punch.

The questions surrounding Duran’s standing among the all-time greats were looking more and more justified with each passing round. The stone-handed 26-year-old moved around the ring masterfully, taking apart the only man who had held a professional victory over him with ease. 

As the bout moved into the eleventh round, with their charge hopelessly behind on points, De Jesus’ corner urged the now exhausted De Jesus to go in for the stoppage. However, Duran beat him to the punch, quite literally, sending DeJesus crumbling to the canvas with a wicked right. The Puerto Rican bravely rose, but it was the beginning of the end and after another barrage of one-twos put him in serious trouble again, his corner charged into the ring to save their man and end one of boxing’s most bitter rivalries once and for all.

Duran is often considered one of the greatest boxers of all time. When all was said and done, he held titles in four weight classes, became the only man in history to fight in five different decades and, alongside Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard, would help provide the sport with its last truly great era in the 1980s.

Where Duran sits on the all time pound-for-pound list is debatable (although he should be quite high up on any list). What isn’t, is where he places among the best lightweights of all time. He is quite simply the greatest to ever ply his trade in the division, and his sublime third performance against De Jesus was his magnum opus at 135lbs. 

The pair would meet once again but under entirely different circumstances. In 1980, DeJesus was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a 17-year-old in a traffic dispute in his homeland. Five years later, De Jesus learned that his brother Enrique, who he had shared needles with, had died of AIDS and he himself was beginning to display symptoms. 

De Jesus was given permission to spend his remaining days with his friends and family and upon hearing about his old rival’s fragile state, Duran, alongside his daughter, travelled to visit him. AIDS was a much misunderstood disease then, and belief that it could be spread via touch was prevalent. Duran, however, was unconcerned and embraced his old enemy, kissing him on the forehead and telling his daughter to do the same. 

It was one of the most amazing acts of compassion ever seen in the world of sport. De Jesus passed away in 1989. 

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