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Roberto Duran: Panama’s boxing superhero

This post originally appeared in Steve’ Boxing Substack

“Hey Spiderman, I could squash you with one hand!” Roberto Duran screamed across the room, in his own inimitable way. Actor Tobey Maguire laughed as he became the latest celebrity to grab a photo with one of boxing’s most endearing stars.

The Cannes film festival was in full swing and actors and directors gathered at a special dinner held for Robert De Niro who played Ray Arcel in the 2016 movie ‘Hands of Stone’. Mick Jagger was there, Leonardo DiCaprio and a host of mainstream celebrities. As persistent paparazzi flashed away, real life Duran was the man most participants wanted to be snapped with.

Edgar Ramirez played Duran and De Niro morphed in to Ray Arcel

Turning pro in 1968, Roberto fought in five separate decades, a feat previously achieved only by heavyweight legend Jack Johnson, and later Manny Pacquiao. He won 103 fights, including 70 by knockout, and was a champion in four weight divisions. In recognition of his achievements, he was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 2006.

Across his storied career, Duran mixed with Marvin Hagler (losing on points) and Thomas Hearns (stopped brutally in two rounds). By this point he was still competing with the best but way beyond his natural weight class. His first two fights with Sugar Ray Leonard will go down in the annals of boxing history. More on those shortly.

Despite his many achievements, Duran’s career was not without setbacks, and he suffered several losses over the years. Known for his toughness and an ability to take a punch, even as he moved up in weight, Duran brought some off-beat tactics to the table as he matured in age and size.


Much of Duran’s success came from his unique fighting style and streetwise fundamentals. Fighting and grappling on the inside, mauling opponents with skill and guile. Duran was able to control distance and upset an opponent’s rhythm and balance with resets. By the time he started boxing, some of these old school brawling knacks had fallen out of favour. A lost art rekindled by a modern master.

Trapping an opponent’s arms, hooking his levers in close to create an opening to the body or hook on the inside, Duran knew all of the moves. As many victims found out, if you lay static on the ropes you were in a world of trouble. Duran contorted his arms, wrists and gloves to manipulate an opponent’s positioning, pushing them into the exact places he wanted them to be.

Despite cutting a portly figure later on in his career and at the early stages of a belated retirement, Duran had to be in great shape to continue using many of his tactics. The great Henry Armstrong also adopted such techniques, boxing with a crouched posture and fast-handed approach, using feints to create any openings he could then exploit. 

Armstrong was trained by legendary coach Ray Arcel, who also handled the likes of Barney Ross and Benny Leonard in a resume filled with great world champions. While Arcel’s strategic brain and thinking were the keys to fine tuning Duran late on in his camps, there was another main man who held most influence.

Freddie Brown, a vastly experienced veteran trainer, got hold of Duran early in his career and made an already good fighter into a skilled technical inside fighter. Known for his expertise at stemming cuts, including saving heavyweight Rocky Marciano on more than one occasion, Brown was an underrated component of Duran’s success story.


The movie ‘Hands of Stone’ focuses primarily on two back-to-back boxing brawls that are still rigorously discussed today. When Roberto Duran entered the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard in Montreal, 1980, the Panamanian was at the peak of his career. Boasting over 70 wins, most by knockout, winning had become such a habit that Duran’s main issue was staying motivated and finding sufficient challenges to keep his mind and body occupied. Only Esteban DeJesus had managed to better Duran during his exciting pro career. Roberto exacted revenge 18 months later on his sole conqueror by 11th-round stoppage.

Known for his ferocious style of fighting (already covered above), by the time the Leonard fight came around, Roberto was a long-reigning lightweight king attempting to snatch the WBC crown up at welterweight. Leonard, on the other hand, was a rising star from the United States with an undefeated record of 27-0. A former Olympic gold medallist returning to the scene of his gold medal-winning efforts, Leonard was the original golden boy of his era.

Roberto was very much a people’s champion, partying with his countrymen, keeping his friends and acquaintances happy. This propensity to enjoy his life and blow up in size between fights would later cost him dearly. An astute observer of styles, Leonard even commented on the punching power of his upcoming foe and the natural force of Duran’s full body technique, often using the shoulder for added emphasis. Moreover, Duran was not afraid to stray well below the tablet of rules, as Scotland’s Ken Buchanan found out in 1972.

The first few rounds of the highly anticipated Leonard-Duran clash were dominated by Duran, who used his aggressive style to push Leonard against the ropes and land heavy blows to the body and head. Leonard, however, started to find his rhythm in the middle rounds, using speed and footwork to stay out of Duran’s reach and land quick jabs and combinations.

As the fight entered the later rounds, the tension in the arena was palpable. Both fighters were exhausted, but neither willing to concede an inch. In the end, it was Duran who came out on top, winning a unanimous decision from the judges. He had landed more punches and initiated more action throughout the fight, but the close decision was exemplified by the fine margins these two fought between.

Victory over Sugar Ray was a defining moment in Duran’s career. Leonard, meanwhile, learned a valuable lesson from his defeat and went on to become a world champion in multiple weight classes as well.

Not before Leonard stepped in to the ring for a second battle with his adversary just five months later. Their rematch in November 1980 would produce one of the most infamous moments in boxing history. Duran, usually renowned for his refusal to give in, declined to continue past the eighth round and reportedly stated “no más” – meaning “no more” – resulting in Leonard regaining the title.

The fight was close on the cards but Duran was frustrated and flustered by Ray’s persistent movement and backfoot boxing. He was also likely fatigued following an intense weight cut to facilitate their second meeting.

A frustrated Duran wanted no more – Photo Credit: Bleacher Report

While this contentious moment is often brought up when Duran’s name is mentioned, the man who scrapped his way from the streets of Panama City to the bright lights of New York and Las Vegas was so much more than a two-word resignation. Much like Spiderman, who he would tangle with on the red carpet decades later, ‘Hands of Stone’ Duran was the premier superhero of his day.


Just as a nice fight between Shakur Stevenson and Frank Martin seemed to be agreed, money settled and cross-promotional differences ironed out, Martin’s side withdrew for reasons unclear. One thing that would’ve been clear is the favourite in this fight. Shakur’s body of evidence dictates that he would be strongly favoured to prevail at this point of their respective careers. Perhaps the PBC squad knew this and subsequently hooked Martin from the running. Who knows. 

Stevenson has yet to score a serious win at lightweight, but previous performances and the eye test inform us that the Newark native is already one of, if not the, best fighter(s) at 135. Off the back of Haney beating Lomachenko and Gervonta Davis starching Ryan Garcia, the jigsaw puzzle pieces seemed to be fitting nicely in their places, as the lightweight picture began to more accurately resemble the preferred image on the box. 

Determining a winner between Shakur and Martin would’ve nicely moved things along for the victor, while sending the loser back to the drawing board. That thought is now on hold. Martin’s last display, a life-and-death 12-round win over unheralded Artem Harutyunyan, gave cause for concern. Still, putting him in with Stevenson was a solid move as we await the in-house sizzler between Shakur and Haney, which should really be easy enough to make.


On Friday night, Canada-based Cameroonian Christian Mbilli retained his contender status with a comprehensive fourth-round knockout of Demond Nicholson. Mbilli tagged the body hard and more than one strayed a little low. Nicholson was dropped in round one and heavily in round two from a chopping right hand to the ear. 

Edgar Berlanga couldn’t put the Maryland man away when they fought. Mbilli was determined to send Demond home packing, using his workrate and energy to constantly back the away man up on the ropes.

Tall order: Mbilli chopped down Nicholson

Despite showing early career promise as a dangerous puncher, Nicholson has developed into a high-class survivor. Survival was an unachievable objective in this one as Nicholson copped an arcing left hand and gently drifted to canvas ala Herol Graham against Julian Jackson. Referee Michael Griffin counted him out at 1:56 of round four.

“Nobody has dominated Demond Nicholson like that,” stated commentator Corey Erdman. Mbilli remains undefeated and the proud holder of the WBC Continental Americas belt at 168. A shot at a big name must surely be coming soon.


O’Shaquie Foster defends his WBC super-featherweight title on October 28 in Cancun. It’s nice to see someone like Foster, who has done things the hard way, finally receive some paydays and extended ring time. Once-beaten challenger Eduardo ‘Rocky’ Hernandez can bang a bit and will be looking to land the money shot to turn his own life around. It’s a big ask for the Mexican native as Foster is slippery and adept at dealing with come-forward pressure types.

Foster has turned his career around – Photo Credit: Beaumont Enterprise

What has happened to Juan Francisco Estrada? Billed by some as a top 10 (or at the very least, top 15) pound-for-pound fighter, Estrada’s career has gone off the boil a little. In 2019, Estrada avenged a previous defeat to Srisaket Sor Rungvisai by a narrow decision. He followed that up the following year with a stellar late stoppage of the dangerous Carlos Cuadras.

Even in victory it became apparent that Estrada was barely a twice a year fighter and inactivity continued to plague him. The only one fight he had in 2021 -albeit during a pandemic-hit period where many fighters failed to appear at all- Estrada gained revenge over Roman ‘Chocolatito’ Gonzalez who had beaten him some nine years previous. 

Completing the trilogy with win number two over Gonzalez in December 2022, Estrada has not been seen since. Skinning his small frame down to 115 pounds must not be overly pleasant for a 33-year-old and he needs to get those final few fights in now before a young buck picks off the Sonora stylist. Shortly after writing the first part of this segment it appears that a clash between WBC king Estrada and WBA champion Kazuto Ioka is in the works for the end of 2023. Great news!

About Steve: Experienced boxing writer, author of 8 books and podcaster of over 400 eps. 20 years in the sport. Covered hundreds of shows for newspapers and Boxing News magazine. Chief video script writer for Motivedia channel and BN+. For enquiries: stevenwellings1982@gmail.com.



Integral part of the Irish boxing community for over 13 years