Anthony Wilson makes his Bad Left Hook debut this morning, and we hope you enjoy it. Anthony has written for The Boxing Bulletin as well as The Rumble in the past. You can follow him on Twitter at @Antwonomous.
Still in the relatively early stages of my study of the sweet science, I've recently developed the opinion that there have been at least three prime fighting specimens in the history of the fight game: Ray Robinson at welterweight, obviously (everyone agrees he was virtually perfect at 147); Muhammad Ali at heavyweight before the Vietnam suspension; and, last but not least, Roberto Duran at lightweight.
Duran, a.k.a "Manos de Piedros" (Hands of Stone) or "El Cholo," went 62-1 at the 135 lb limit. He won the lightweight title from Ken Buchanan as a 21-year old in 1972 and defended it twelve times before skipping junior welterweight altogether and moving up to welterweight. It was there that Duran would win his second world championship, handing the great Ray Leonard his first loss in their classic first encounter.
But before Duran could get to Leonard, he had to pay his dues in the new division. On June 22, 1979 at Madison Square Garden, on the undercard of the nationally television Larry Holmes-Mike Weaver heavyweight title fight main event, Duran made his debut at 147 against fellow future Hall-of-Famer Carlos Palomino. My buddy Brad sent me a DVD of the fight for Christmas; it's a real treat. Brad provided context for the fight beforehand and told me what to look forward to. "Ali was nearing the end of his career so most attention in boxing at that time was on the welterweights: Palomino, [Pipino] Cuevas, [Wilfred] Benitez, Sugar Ray and Tommy Hearns. So Duran went there. Palomino was kind of the acid test to see if he was ready to challenge the big boys. As you'll see, he was."
Brad was no liar; two divisions above his peak weight, Duran toyed with an excellent welter. Far too often, he is labeled as merely a reckless brawler. He was far from it. In actuality, Duran was an aggressive craftsman, a relentless, take-no-prisoners boxer-puncher artist. The subtelties of his game and his magnificent skill level remain shamefully underrated. Along with the DVD, Brad included a note in which he cited a passage that one of his favorite boxing writers, Pat Putnam, wrote about the fight.
"Duran brought a sense of almost surrealistic beauty to savagery, fighting for the first time as a welterweight and, after ten brutal rounds, chasing Palomino, the former WBC champ, into retirement. Duran bewildered Palomino with flicking head and shoulder feints; he battered him with punches thrown at blinding speed. At times, just for fun, he feinted from the left, feinted from the right, and then, with Palomino in a flux of frantic confusion, stepped back and flashed a wolfish grin as Palomino untangled himself."
Indeed. The finer points of Duran's mastery were on full display against Palomino, and watching him work it serves as a glaring example of how today's fighters just aren't as well-schooled as the ones of boxing's past.
The other thing one notices is the atmosphere in the Garden that night, it was electric. You can tell that that was when boxing was really live.
A year later, Duran upset Leonard in what would subsequently be ubbed the "Brawl in Montreal," taking home Leonard's welterweight championship for his efforts. He would win two more world titles in as many weight classes, and go down as one of the very greatest fighter of all-time (he's top-10, at least, on everybody's list). Duran had a lot of good nights. The night he announced himself as "ready to challenge the big boys," at the expense of Carlos Palomino, was one of them.