Championship Qualities

By Wrigley Brogan on November 15, 2017
Championship Qualities
Duran forged ahead. But something was not right. He did not look good. (Wrigley Brogan)

Single-minded focus occurs most commonly in soldiers during combat where everything is shut out except concentrating on aiming and pulling the trigger…

At the age of 50 Roberto Duran was training to fight Patrick Goossen for the WBF title when Jeff Connors, from Legends Casino, in Toppinish, Washington, called and asked if I would be his road manager. I had known Duran for several years and took pride in being the only man to ever scare him. I was driving him to the airport in the rain from an appearance in the mountains of California. We were running late and I was zipping along the serpent-like road with some alacrity. Duran, quite agitated, start yelling at his manager, Tony Gonzales, to tell me to slow down because I was scaring him. Coming from Washington State, driving in the rain was not a problem for me but was for Duran. I asked Duran if anyone else had ever scared him. He said no, just my driving because he was unarmed and could not fight back.

I jumped at the chance to work with Duran. I am not so much a fan of boxing as I am of boxers and the people in boxing. Their public persona is of no interest. I always want to go beyond the surface. For the same reason I never interview a boxer after a match. How many times can you hear something like “I never prepared harder for a fight,” (Isn’t that his job?) or, “I knew his record was 20-3 but he was game and in the fight the entire way,” or “This might just be my third fight but I’m ready to take on the champion.” This would give me a chance to spend some quality time with a great champion and perhaps gain some insight into what makes a tremendous fighter, what skills, what techniques on the outside, but more importantly, what lives on the inside.

I picked up Duran, his wife Fula (Blondie), manager Tony Gonzales, and trainer Nestor Quinones from Sea-Tach airport and drove them to their first appearance at a casino in Rochester, about an hour-and-a-half distant. Part of my job was to keep Duran from Fula, an almost impossible task as I soon discovered. Almost immediately she was at his throat. He occasionally responded, a few words I interpreted to mean “yes dear.” They sounded like any couple on a bad day and married for too long—except in Spanish. Some leeway must be given to Fula, a childhood sweetheart from a wealthy family. Rumor said she had spent most of Duran’s money. Such rumors always fly when boxers end up broke. Duran was probably not the best of husbands. Apparently there is no Spanish word for celibacy and Quinones was fond of expounding on their numerous sexual conquests, often in the same hotel room and occasionally giving these dissertations in the presence of Fula. Through it all she had remained with Duran but not without expressing her angst, apparently on a continuous basis. The beauty she had once been still lingered behind the make-up. And it was easy to see why he was drawn to her.

After arriving at the casino, Tony quickly asked me to leave them and drive Fula to the Quinault Casino where they would be staying for several days as Duran trained. I attempted to make conversation but Fula remained sour during the ride. I imagined Duran, Quinones, and Tony laughing as we drove away, reveling in their freedom, and looking for mute women with which to spend some quality time.

Duran was up the following morning at five for roadwork. The ocean air was crisp and milky with fog. He flowed onto the parking lot, unshaven and wearing a black Mickey Mouse hat, a favorite charm worn almost to threads. How far did he run? Who knows? He and Tony disappeared in the mist and reemerged from a different direction forty minutes later. I grabbed a few shots as they passed, Duran determined, Tony, his tongue hanging like a pink power tie that had run out of energy. They appeared forty minutes later, at least Duran did. Tony followed as if being dragged by a rope through a Sergio Leone western. He folded up on the grass coughing, sputtering and cursing Duran. “He never quits,” he said. Duran completed three more laps and never looked winded. I could not imagine a young man running such a marathon, much less a man of 50.

He said nothing as he made his last lap. He was a different man than the man I had previously known. As a guest celebrity at casinos, often appearing with Sugar Ray Leonard, he was loveable, personable, a constant grin on his face, willing to sign anything placed in front of him, and happy to have his picture taken with anyone, especially with women, and a gregarious extravert. Leonard appeared much the same. The difference was that Leonard performed for the contracted time then immediately left. Duran lingered, happy to be with his fans. Afterwards he went to the bar with as many people as wanted to go, stripped to his tee-shirt, and partied half the night, constantly laughing and joking. He was funny with a quick wit that belied the numerous punches he had taken. He liked regular people and was anxious to be with them.

Casinos hired him at a great price. They paid a reasonable amount of money, mostly in poker chips, for his appearances. They could be generous with the poker chips because he always lost everything gambling. The casinos were happy because they got their money back and he was happy because he thought he had been paid a great deal.

While training for the fight he seemed a stranger. He walked past everyone as if he had never seen him or her before. No longer the extrovert, he withdrew someplace deep within where no one was allowed to go. Obviously one of the traits of a great champion was determination. Another was the ability to concentrate on one thing only, something psychiatrists call “single-minded focus,” an intense concentration that excludes anything superfluous. Single-minded focus occurs most commonly in soldiers during combat where everything is shut out except concentrating on aiming and pulling the trigger. Duran was training for combat.

That afternoon he went into an exhibition center for training. Bear, a boxing trainer from the Quinault Indian Reservation, had brought in a ring. Maintenance personnel had erected a speed bag and a heavy bag. There was no low ceiling so the bag was attached to a 15-foot rope. Duran entered wearing a heavy sweatshirt. Weight had always been a problem. He is a man with big appetites, including food. He loves to fight and he loves to eat. He did not acknowledge the observers as he walked past. He went immediately to the speed bag and showed his disgust with its speed. His rhythm was off and he frequently missed as if swatting at an angry bee. He had grown to hate the speed bag, especially since he had gotten older. He wasted little time there except to give it one hard smack after five minutes work.

The heavy bag called him in and he was anxious to oblige. He liked hitting large objects and knocking them about. A smile crept up his face as he smacked the bag a full ten feet and stopped it dead on the return. Because the rope was so high the bag swung as if in a hurricane and Duran chased the bag like a stricken opponent. He kept that great and unmistakable stance of his as he worked, knees bent, feet apart, body tipped slightly forward, hands slightly wide and to the side like two boulders in a catapult. He reluctantly quit the bag to finish his routine of knee bends, sit-ups, and the standard conditioning used by boxers throughout the ages.

I had fallen short of finding a sparring partner in the area. Boxers are few on the Washington coast and not a willing partner could be found. The increasing crowd wanted to watch Duran spar. Anthony Hunter, a trainer from Tacoma, agreed to step into the ring. He timidly suited up for battle. At the whistle they went after one another, or rather, Duran went after Hunter battering him from side to side. Although curled up like a roly-poly bug, many punches got through and one landed firmly on Hunter’s head. He jumped to the side and surrendered. Duran looked confused. Quinones explained that Hunter had never boxed. For the first time Duran smiled. He threw his arm around Hunter’s and paraded him around the ring saying, “My friend, my friend.” And friends they became. He asked Hunter to carry his belt and work his corner during the fight. Duran admired guts so, another quality a champion has is the ability to appreciate a decent opponent but not be intimidated by him.

Finding a sparring opponent was not difficult at our next stop, the Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma, Washington. Because of promoter Brian Halquist, the casino has been the longest run of fights in Washington. Halquist has now promoted over 100 fights and it is the go-to place for fighter on the rise and for those who have already risen.

I called boxing manager Mike “Motor-mouth” Morton in Portland, Oregon. I thought he might like to see Duran again. Morton’s fighter Ray Lampkin had fought Duran in Panama. Lampkin had put up a good fight and had won the early rounds until the heat started to wear him down. Morton had made a terrible mistake and had not brought enough water. Lampkin needed a drink but there was none to be had. Morton offered $100 to the crowd for a single glass of water. There were no takers. Duran knocked Lampkin into a wheelchair for three months. Morton was anxious to put his newest prospect, Candy Robertson, in with Duran.

Duran was agitated when Morton arrived late. Morton said that Robertson, an arrogant and solipsistic fighter, was trouble. Robertson chimed in. “If he wants to fight me he can wait until I am ready.” Once in the ring Robertson went after Duran as if he were in a title fight. Duran let him have his fun for a round, then exposed him as a simple Oregon club fighter with an inflated ego and deflated skills. Duran wanted a partner who understood that sparring was classroom work and not the final test. I called Brock Stodden, from Bremerton.

Stodden was unluckiest man in boxing. An engaging man liked by everyone, he had more skills than most Northwest boxers, but no chin. A strong breeze was likely to put him down. Of the 17 loses he suffered during his career, 13 were by KO. It was a dirty twist of fate to play on a man devoted to boxing.

Stodden showed up early the following day and thanked Duran for the opportunity to spar. He was a southpaw but said he could switch to a righty. The sparring went great although Stodden’s knees buckled from several of Duran’s punches. Duran wanted to work on several techniques. Stodden adjusted to oblige. On several occasions Duran tossed his arm around Stodden and thanked him for the work. Duran used him for his remaining time in Tacoma.

Every morning I picked up Duran at 5AM for his roadwork. He ran on a 1/3rd mile running track at Dawson’s Park. I watched him disappear into the early morning fog, Tony trailing behind. As usual, Tony lasted only a few laps. Duran always ran five miles, nothing fast, just an even, steady jog. He trained very hard, especially for a man his age. He said, “I must work harder now than when I was young.” His English was pretty good although he seldom used. Claiming not to speak English worked as a buffer between him and people when he did not want to converse.

He said that as a young man he always fought at his best and his best was on any day. When he started to age he could fight just as hard, but not as often. He was at his peak 5 out of 7 days. As he continued to age those numbers changed and he was at his best 4 out of 7 days, then 3 out of 7 days. That was not a problem if he knew what 3 days were his best. But he did not. He might be his old self on Thursday when the fight was on Saturday. There was no way to tell. That is why, in his later years, he sometimes looked great in a fight, and other times, terrible.

His surly attitude became worse as the fight got closer. The attitude finally became terrible after an injury. Duran was banging the heavy bag when he winced and drew his hand back. He had fractured his little finger. All that work for nothing. Certainly the fight would be cancelled. How disappointing. I took him to the hospital where the fracture was confirmed. Duran refused any kind of splint and he said the fight would continue. He said no professional ever entered the ring completely whole. Something was always wrong, a pulled muscle, lumps and bruises, or sore body parts. He felt disgust and disdain for boxers who always complained about injuries or even canceled fights because their knuckles were sore. So that was another lesson from a champion: fight through the pain.

Duran did take a day off. He was a great one for natural medicines. I took him to Seattle the following day where he went to the Chinese District and found an oriental ointment to rub on the finger. He enjoyed Seattle and for an afternoon he seemed more like the Duran I knew, occasionally smiling and even signing a few autographs. The following day he went back to work. Before training he soaked the finger and hand in a bucket of ice.

At Toppenish, Washington, he tested the outside ring, shadow boxing from one corner to another. He looked good, real good. He could not compete with the best in the division but he could beat most of the contenders. He was jovial and friendly during the weigh-ins. Patrick Goossen was a fan of Duran’s and they seemed to get along very well for two men about to do battle.

In the dressing room before the fight, Duran loosened up throwing easy, then hard shots. Fula looked nervous. She would not watch the fight but would stay in the dressing room. Duran soaked he fractured finger in ice water. The pain must have been annoying but he said nothing or showed any emotion. He dried the hand and rubbed the ointment on the finger as he was being taped.
He walked to the ring amid the roar of the cheering crowd. A spotlight held him in its beam. Anthony walked ahead holding the belt above his head. Duran danced in his corner and glanced toward Goossen. Goossen looked confident and ready to fight.

At the bell Duran forged ahead. Something was not right. He did not look good. The fast hard punches he had shown in training had turned sluggish. He looked like a different fighter. The problem was simple to understand. After the weigh-in Duran had gone to the buffet and stuffed himself with a whole slaughterhouse of meats and mountains of mashed potatoes. The eating continued all the day of the fight. Duran was a man with passionate tastes, and eating was one of them. He had eaten himself into sluggishness.

As the rounds passed he seemed to work off some of the food. His punches became faster and he looked better. Oddly enough, Goossen, the younger man, started to tire while Duran became stronger and looked fresher. The hard work had paid off. During a grueling fight, Duran pulled ahead and won by unanimous decision.

He quickly became Mr. Jovial. He smiled at the crowd as he walked around the ring. He shook hands as he returned to the dressing room. After again soaking the finger in ice water, he coated it with ointment and applied a splint. Within an hour he was in the casino, his arm around fans, having is picture taken, laughing and joking. He understood both sides of being a champion.

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  1. David 02:34pm, 11/17/2017

    A terrific personal story about Roberto Duran Mr. Brogan. Still in my opinion the “Greatest” fighter and champion to ever enter the square ring. Nobody did it better than him.

  2. Lucas McCain 05:27pm, 11/16/2017

    Mike,  There is a lot of good writing on this site.  It’s quite unique that way, and always worth checking out!

  3. fan 03:58pm, 11/16/2017

    Boxing should have a legend tour.

  4. Mike Curtis 03:33pm, 11/16/2017

    I remember watching a Youtube video of Duran on a tour of the UK that was taken in 1988. Duran was going through some light training. He looked as fat as a Christmas goose. He did seem totally disinterested when he took his turn on the speed bag, even when he exercised his neck by striking the bag with his head. As plump as Duran was, his rope skipping wasn’t that bad but nowhere near a prime Duran. Duran was always remarkable when it came to rope skills. I’m with Duran on speed bag training.  Seems like the speed bag is a total waste for an experienced fighter to even waste his time on. It looks impressive but it has very little benefit except for maybe conditioning the arms and shoulders to enable a fighter to keep this hands held high during a fight.

  5. don from prov 01:02pm, 11/16/2017

    Boy, this is a fine article.
    Good stuff.

  6. Bruno Schleinstein 09:15am, 11/16/2017

    @Wrigley Brogan-You pay attention, have a great memory and have a way with words! Someday someone will get to the bottom of what “No Mas” was all about…...hopefully it won’t turn out to be something as stupid as hoggin’ out at the buffet after the weigh-in.

  7. Mike Curtis 07:45am, 11/16/2017

    Best writer on this site IMO. Once again, another great article.

  8. Pete The Sneak 05:07am, 11/16/2017

    Whew! What a great write up Mr. Brogan. Thanks for the trip. I can literally see Duran in all his emotional phases before, during and after the fight. This is great behind the scenes stuff that most boxing fans rarely know about…Peace.

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