A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
Duran said, “I’m not going to fight a Puerto Rican in Puerto Rico, with a Puerto Rican promoter, Puerto Rican judges and a Puerto Rican referee…”
The life of Puerto Rican boxer Esteban “Vita” De Jesus was full of twists and turns; some ironic, some controversial, and some joyous. He was a training mate of equally tragic Wilfredo Benitez and, in fact, was trained by Wilfredo’s father Gregorio Benitez. The joy of Vita’s first fight with Roberto “Manos de Piedra” Duran and the happiness associated with his later winning the world championship would be more than offset by cascading controversy and grave problems that finally ended his short life.
In the end, Esteban De Jesus finished his remarkable career with a 57-5 record. Each of his five defeats came at the hands of a present, past, or future world champion. De Jesus was a crafty boxer and a hard puncher who earned his title by winning a 15-round decision over Ishimatsu “Guts” Suzuki in Puerto Rico in 1976. Suzuki was making the sixth defense of the WBC lightweight title he won in 1974, while the 24-year-old De Jesus was a 5-foot-5-inch power-pak with an impressive 46-3-0 (26 KOs) record at the time.
Vita successfully defended his newly won title three times, but he is best known for his trilogy with the great Roberto Duran that began in November 1972 at Madison Square Garden in a non-title affair. After decking Duran (31-0 coming in) with a thunderous left hook in the very first round, Vita went on to capture a convincing unanimous decision and break Duran’s undefeated streak and aura of invincibility. The loss to De Jesus was Duran’s only defeat in the first 13 years of his career.
Vita would lose the next two bouts in the trilogy in 1974 and 1978. Regarding the third match, “Papa” Benitez stated that he wanted Duran for a rubber match with De Jesus, but not in Panama. “Once in New York, and once in Panama,” Papa said. “Now he has to come to Puerto Rico, to give us a fair deal.”
Never one to sugarcoat, Duran replied, “I’m not going to fight a Puerto Rican in Puerto Rico, with a Puerto Rican promoter, Puerto Rican judges and a Puerto Rican referee. I hate those dirty cockroach loving people.”
A peak Duran (62-1) stopped Vita in the 12th round in their third and final bout held in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on January 21, 1978. Duran also took Vita’s title.
Vita then ran off six solid wins (including an SD against Edwin Viruet) before losing to Saoul Mamby in an action bout in a bid for the WBC light welterweight title in 1980 after which he retired from boxing.
A little over a year later, De Jesus was convicted of murder after killing a 17-year-old over a traffic dispute and was sentenced to life in the Rio Piedras State Penitentiary. He soon turned to religion, became a model prisoner, and turned his life around, but then in 1985, he learned that his older brother with whom he had shared needles while using drugs early in his boxing career had shockingly died of HIV/AIDS.
Esteban tested positive for the virus and the dreaded symptoms began to appear. Some have mistakenly reported that De Jesus was infected by the disease while in prison, but that is manifestly wrong. He had been infected earlier but had contracted it later and while incarcerated. But be that as it may, it was academic because it had become sadly apparent that Vita’s days were numbered.
De Jesus was pardoned by Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon to spend his remaining time with his family. Among his many celebratorial visitors was none other than his old ring rival Roberto Duran.
In an astonishing expression of compassion and deep respect during the visit, Duran (belying his fierce ring image) hugged and kissed De Jesus in his deathbed and told his daughter to do the same. This moving event was witnessed by the late José Torre and captured in the above photograph. Little was known about HIV/AIDS at the time and whether or not simple human contact could lead to spreading the disease, but Duran didn’t care as he embraced his rival and friend.
Esteban De Jesus died one month later; he was 37 years old.