This is going to be an ongoing thing, where I try and look at boxing from the year 1995. It was a year that I fell in love with the sport, and included some of my favourite fights (in terms of the memories I attach to them, at least). Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank, Steve Collins, Frank Bruno….they all had their moments that year that made me become a fan of the sport.
I plan to do at least one for each month of the year, so I begin with a match between Roberto Duran and Vinny Pazienza. Unlike some, I didn’t see this match until earlier this week. Hope you enjoy.
“Many people did not believe I could make it, but I did. Many people believed I was too old to win, but I was not.”
Roberto Duran after defeating Sugar Ray Leonard, 1980
Roberto Duran vs Vinny Pazienza
14th January 1995, Atlantic City New Jersey
When I was little, two of my favourite books were books on the history of sport. One of them charted the history of the Football World Cup, and through this I was able to appreciate and understand the precocious talents and majesty of players such as Pele and Diego Maradona, alongside tracking the development, the rise and the fall of many of the bigger footballing nations who had competed since the tournament’s inception. The second book was an Encyclopedia of Boxing. Resplendent with historical photographs, it comprehensively covered the biggest names, fights and events in a long and storied account of boxing from birth until the beginning of the 90s.
Unlike the footballing chronicle, the Encyclopedia left less of an impact in terms of my overall knowledge and understanding. Looking back, it seemed that I was too young to show more than a passing interest outside of the pictures liberally dotted around every page. I remember faded black and white photos of Jack Johnson, Ali represented in his prime, and one particularly shocking image of a Benny Paret, a boxer killed following an Emile Griffith onslaught in a bout in 1962, slumped on the canvas following eighteen unprotected shots to the head in six seconds.
As well as highlighting the legitimate danger for the men who stepped into the ring, the sheer amount of fights that they would contest over the course of a career was eye opening. It was not uncommon for boxers in the early to mid-1900s to fight upwards of a hundred fights from their debut onwards. Jake Lamotta would hear the opening bell one hundred and six times in his career (winning 83), whilst his long term nemesis, Sugar Ray Robinson, would put on the gloves two hundred times in his twenty five year stint (winning 173). True, there were also fighters like Rocky Marciano, who famously would retire undefeated with forty nine victories to his name, but the idea of someone fighting into triple figures amongst modern boxers is a very unlikely concept.
The changing world of the fight game stands out as one of the reasons this is becoming more of a rarity. The world of PPV television fires the ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ spirit, yet also brings with it a fear of defeat; one telling blow could cost the entourage collectively above and beyond what they are willing to risk. Coupled with an industry, and a world for that matter, geared towards profit and protecting one’s own, fewer boxers are left in a position where they have to fight for scraps, appearing on the card for any promoter that will write them a paycheck.
At the start of 1995, Roberto Duran was about to put on the gloves and boots for the 103rd time in his career. Having had doubts voiced over his age and whether he would be able to get it done in the ring in the lead up to his initial battle with Sugar Ray Leonard, the fact that Duran was appearing on cards fifteen years later was a choice solely driven by money; the IRS and child-support payments would soak up the majority of any money due to come Duran’s way. A love of the playboy lifestyle meant that not only did he have numerous children with a variety of different women, but that he also spent millions of dollars earned during his heyday, when he was able to stand toe-to-toe with greats like Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns. Unlike the Panamanian, these three sporting luminaries were able to walk away from the ring after forty, sixty seven and sixty seven fights respectively; a mere drop in the ocean when compared to Duran’s record.
Beginning his career in 1968, Duran would bounce between the renowned boxing nations of Panama and Mexico, ratcheting up twenty four wins in his first three years. To crown this achievement, he would reach his half century by making his debut in Madison Square Garden, the mecca of boxing, in a one minute beating of Benny Huertas. Both men came to fight and trade in the center of the ring, but very few could match up to Duran’s durability and his power behind his punches. Tit for tat shots soon degenerated into a one sided blowout as several combinations rained down on Huertas, felling him with an innocuous right cross following a left that seemed to put his opponent down through sheer force of will and accumulation of punishment. Duran had arrived in the eyes of America.
Duran’s next two outings at the Garden would showcase the best and worst of the dangerous brawler. His determination was fuelled by a fiery temper that could occasionally get him into trouble and often seemed to bubble just below the surface. The desire to be the best and provide money for people back in his homeland led to liberal deployment of the dark arts of boxing.
In his first world title fight against Ken Buchanan, the Scot was clearly not prepared for the level of legal ferocity and illegal ‘strategy’ that Duran would bring into the ring. The challenger would score a knockdown in the first minute of the fight (Buchanan’s fists against the canvas would stop his fall, but the ref would administer a standing eight count). Getting in close at every opportunity, Duran never allowed Buchanan to settle, and hit him with relentless combinations to the head and body, liberally sprinkling his offense with headbutts, elbows and shots south of the belt line. Buchanan seemed to want greater protection from the referee, and wasn’t able to regroup when it wasn’t forthcoming. Several punches after the round thirteen bell ended up with the champion down on the canvas holding his groin. With the Scot unable to continue, and the ref unable to see any clear foul outside of the after bell blows that both men connected with, Duran was awarded the contest, and with that, his first world title, the WBA Lightweight title.
It wouldn’t be until his 32nd fight that Duran would first taste defeat in the ring, losing a unanimous decision to Esteban de Jesus, a fellow boxer who learnt his trade in Panama, in a non-title fight fought at Light Welterweight. A charging and reckless Duran would be dropped flush with a left hand from De Jesus, en route to a unanimous decision loss. De Jesus was a competent knockout puncher, and it didn’t take much to pierce the moving guard of Duran, yet the punch only left him grounded for a little under five seconds.
When he stood back up, he was smiling.
The smile would be plastered across his face for the next seven years, though this time through success rather than an attempt to brush off an opponent’s success. Seven years and forty-one fights would pass before he would taste the sting of defeat again. In this reign of terror, not only would Duran twice beat De Jesus to a bloody pulp in retribution for his first loss, the second match gaining him the WBC Lightweight Title, he would also afford Sugar Ray Leonard his first ever loss in the forty first contest of his win streak. A decision by Leonard not to run and instead to try and fight Duran’s style of fight left him defeated in a close Unanimous Decision, losing his WBC Welterweight Title as well. There was one positive: due to the amount of interest generated by Duran’s win streak and Leonard’s Olympic Gold and subsequent undefeated start to his professional career, Duran would receive the biggest payday of his career, $1.5 million; Leonard, a massive-for-the-time $9 million
The forty-second fight would be notable, but for all the wrong reasons.
Whether you believe Duran’s story of stomach cramps caused by the process of making the weight limit, or you feel that eight rounds of jukes, jives, fancy footwork and bolo punches by Leonard finally broke him, but the infamous ‘No Mas’ incident changed everything for the Panamanian. Before the fight, Duran knew that Leonard would try and get him angry, throw him off his game, but he felt he could handle that. Midway through the eighth round, Duran decided he had had enough. Though he never uttered the famous appellation ultimately linked to this fight, he did the one thing a boxer should never do: quit. Overnight, he went from a hero in his home country to something of a national disgrace; how times change over the course of six months.
Just looking at Duran’s record in the 80s, you could see that he wasn’t the man that first burst onto the scene in Panama at the age of sixteen. Losses against Marvin Haggler (by Unanimous Decision) and Thomas Hearns (by a less than impressive 2nd Round TKO) shouldn’t really be held up against him; if you are willing to stand up and take on the best in your chosen field, you aren’t always going to win, no matter what level of competitor you are. However, losses against fighters like Wilfred Benitez, Kirkland Laing (a match that won the Ring Magazine award for ‘Upset of the Year’ in 1982) and Robbie Sims were less forgivable. These weren’t cans, but they were nowhere near the standard of competitor Duran had been known to defeat handily. Between them, these three boxers would retire with a cumulative total of thirty losses; none of them to Duran.
After summoning up some of the old fistic magic at the age of thirty eight to defeat Iran Barkley for the WBC Middleweight Title, and one last slow dance with Sugar Ray Leonard where he was out fought by a long way, Duran’s career would seem to enter terminal decline. Winning matches was not necessarily the issue; the quality of opponent was. Following a three year gap from the Leonard fight in which his only contest was a TKO loss to Pat Lawlor, Duran would win the next seven fights in a row, but against a quality of boxer noticeably weaker than the likes of Haggler, Hearns and Leonard.
Arguably, the most impressive record of this bunch of opponents was Sean Fitzgerald, who was yet to be defeated. Duran would knock him out in the sixth round. Fitzgerald would retire six years later having never made a defence of the USA New England Middleweight Title that was the pinnacle of his career; Dana Rosenblatt would blast him out of the ring in the first round to win the belt shortly before Fitzgerald’s would call it quits.
Duran’s style was still geared towards relentless pressure and pushing his opponents backwards with work that targeted both the head and the body with equal ferocity, just someone had hit the slow motion button. The mind was willing, but the body wasn’t able to execute his gameplan to the same level as he once was capable of. His victories at this time often came when he managed to get in close to his opponent, connect with multiple punches before the overwhelming force that was seemingly the last thing to go accumulated and put them down.
His opponent in January was Vinny Pazienza, somewhat of a journeyman with delusions of glory beyond his boxing acumen. What Paz did bring to the ring was the ability to take a punch and keep on going, as well as the stamina to keep him moving and throwing for all twelve rounds, and the lack of scruples required to occasionally bend a rule once in awhile. Pazienza wasn’t apologetic when it came to this side of his character. As far as he was concerned, he was in the ring to have a fight, and that was what he was willing to offer.
In a match involving one of the premier boxers of any era of the sport, it could be easy to neglect Pazienza completely, focusing solely on Duran. However, Pazienza had a story that arguably eclipses that of ‘Hands of Stone’.
A boxer very much of the Duran mould, but with a few rougher edges, Pazienza was workmanlike in a 40-5 record, with many of the forty wins coming against boxers who had numbers that looked like a bad cricket score. A defeat of Greg Haugen would give Pazienza IBF World Lightweight gold, only for him to relinquish the title back to Huagen only eight months later. It often felt as if Pazienza was more than capable, but lacked the spark of quality required to defeat notable opponents; he would lose contests against Roger Mayweather, Hector Camacho and Loreto Garza, all fights contested for world titles.
In the fight against Garza, Pazienza would show that he was not above letting his frustrations boil over a la Duran. As the eleventh round came to a close, a bloodied and beaten Pazienza would use a clinch as the perfect opportunity to try and life Garza off his feet and slam him to the canvas. Though the infraction was quick and not completed, the referee was quick to wave off the fight and award it to Garza. Noticeable, Pazienza and his corner didn’t seem to complain about the decision: the general sign of a fight who knew he did wrong.
Up until his battles with Duran, Pazienza’s biggest moment had been a victory over Gilbert Dele in 1991, winning the WBA World Light Middleweight Title in the process. It seemed like a reward for his perseverance as much as anything else; it was harder to doubt Vinny’s effort than it was his ability.
He would never get the chance to defend his title. On the 12th of November 1991, a car he was passenger in skidded and collided with another vehicle. Though his father would report to the NY Times that “he’s not banged up that bad” in the initial aftermath, it would turn out that Pazienza had broken his neck in the accident. With doctors unsure whether he would be able to walk again, let alone box, Vinny not only trained with his protective Halo on (all against doctor’s orders), but would be back in the ring in thirteen months, winning his return fight against Luis Santana in a ten round decision. By the time he was due to meet Duran in the ring, he was on an eight fight winning streak.
The contest in January would not be the first time Duran and Pazienza had stood on opposite corners of the ring from each other. In a match that was for the IBC Super Middleweight title, the two met in June 1994, in a contest with an atmosphere that could charitably be described as ‘fractious’. During the lead-up to the fight, Pazienza promised to make Duran ‘bark like a German shepherd’, whilst Duran (via translator) vowed to put The Pazmanian Devil back in the hospital.
By the end of the fight, both men had been cut open; Pazienza above the eye, Duran in the middle of the forehead, both seemingly following a clash of heads. Several times Pazienza had to be told to stop holding onto the ropes, with repeated warnings for both men to punch above the belt – a wayward shot on Pazienza would lead to a short break whilst he readjusted and caught his breath. Punches after the bell and taunting in the later rounds would get the crowd on the back of the brash young pretender, willing on their hero to show them a glimpse of what brought him to the dance all those many years ago.
The fifth round perfectly encapsulated the nature of the fight. Duran, following a slip by Pazienza in round two, was able to finally able to use his experience to lure his opponent to overbalance on a punch, dropping him to the canvas with a right hand. It was a highlight far too infrequent for the Duran fans in attendance, made even more frustrating by Roberto’s inability to capitalise. Indeed, Pazienza would finish the round much stronger than the veteran, purely through his ability to throw punches in bunches. Every time Duran landed with one shot, Vinny had moved out of reach of the second punch, if a second punch was actually thrown. In all reality, Duran was slowing even by the time he scored the knockdown, and would arguably lose every round after the fifth. All three judges even scored that round 10-10, suggesting that Pazienza had done enough to draw the round following his trip to the mat. That was debatable, but in the rest of the contest, he outworked, outfought and out-willed the living legend almost from the opening bell.
Duran looked and felt like an old man, attempting to rage against the dying of the light of a career that had sparkled, but ultimately failing. As the twelfth due to close, even the commentary team mused over whether Vinny Pazienza had finally forced Duran into retirement. But Duran wasn’t finished. With an impetuousness which could only come from being forty three and a five weight world champion, not only did he claim the moral victory in the fight by telling the NY Times “If this kid’s so tough, look at his face and look at me. I didn’t lose the fight.”, but by also quickly denying any potential thoughts about retiring with words as quick and to the point as one of his acclaimed body shots.
“No. I will fight.”
It has to be believed that the only reason we ever saw a Duran vs Pazienza II in January 1995 was the bad blood that seeped into every aspect of this rivalry, as well as the knockdown in Round Five. In that moment, we saw a glimmer of what Duran had been capable of throughout his career, and there was always the chance he could unleash one shot that would drop the mouthy American for good. Outside of his name, the resonance of past glories that he had built up in the 70s and 80s, it was all he had.
The second bout was dubbed ‘A Matter of Pride’, a fitting sobriquet for Duran’s career since ‘No Mas’. Even before the bell had rung, it was clear that the ill feeling the surrounded their first fight hadn’t dissipated in the six month gap between contests. Pazienza almost knocked the referee out of the way to get at Duran during the reading of the rules, and he would talk the whole way through the ref’s spiel, telling Duran that he was ready and he was not afraid. He was met with Duran’s trademark cold and steely gaze, seemingly unaffected by the brashness of youth. The ref would physically have to force the men to touch gloves; neither man willing to show the other any hint of respect.
Visibly bigger and more out of shape than in the first fight, Duran would struggle throughout the fight to raise the tempo in a manner that could put Pazienza in danger. In the lead up to the fight, the footage of Duran’s recent victories showed a propensity for him to lean into the opponent on the ropes and drop them with combinations, the single shot knockout power a distant memory. Pazienza just never let him use this technique effectively.
The first punch by Pazienza, though just clipping Duran, seemed to surprise the Panamanian, and the opening round felt like a rehash of the previous fight. Not only had Duran’s legs gone by now, but the speed of his punches offered little in the way of trouble for his opponent, as Pazienza was able to get in, hit a right and a left, and get out without Duran even getting close to catching him. Wary of Duran’s potential punching power, Pazienza would throw unorthodox strikes, often with his arm and head moving in completely opposite directions. This ability to stay out of range, but hit combinations with ease when moving closer, gave Pazienza the first round. Once again, it would require the referee to get in between both boxers as Pazienza would move to square up to Duran, but that hostility would dissipate as the fight progressed.
Over the next couple of rounds, Duran would find himself in a position to drive his opponent back into the ropes, echoing his most recent victories. However, Pazienza seemed happy to fight off of the ropes, and would even will Duran on with taunts. Each time Duran would let fly with his solitary shots, all too often Pazienza would slip the punches and retaliate with several of his own. It felt like Duran was swatting at flies for long stretches, and even when he managed to force Pazienza back against the ropes in round three, Duran was all too easily shrugged off by the younger man.
In hope more than expectation the crowd followed Duran into this fight, and by the third round they could see that their man wasn’t likely to show us any glimpses of the dangerous fighter that once was. Restlessness seeped in as Pazienza took another round, with several punches thrown after the bell for good measure. Though the first contest between the two was heated, this all felt tokenistic; both men occasionally giving the fans the scrap they had paid to see, but the gulf between the two so vast that any real needle was lost at the first bell.
It took until the fifth round for Duran to throw a punch that felt like it had something resembling meaning, a left hook. Smiling, Pazienza would rattle his head to taunt, often a sign of a man who doesn’t want to admit to the pain the punch caused. Having taken large chunks of the fourth round off, Pazienza was back to nipping in and out of range, using levels to hit Duran at will with punches that were never going to end the fight, but were doing enough for him win the rounds. Anytime Duran looked like he was loading up a significant strike, Pazienza would quickly disengage, knowing that Duran was never going to chase after him. His guard would remain low also, with his chin rarely in hitting distance.
Duran’s biggest successes in the fights would come in the later rounds, as a slowing Pazienza would leave himself open for the odd counterpunch. When moving forward, Duran’s work to the body was workmanlike, but he would always take several blows to the head for his troubles. As the fight continued, he would stumble forward, rarely throwing anything with conviction, holding on to Pazienza and breathing heavily.
Even Pazienza seemed to offer little of quality in this fight. The contest in June would have been seen as a big opportunity; this fight felt like it rehashing old news. Like the first battle between the two, Pazienza would hit the canvas, only this time it would be due a slip rather than any pressure from the fading Duran. The tiredness of ‘The Pazmanian Devil’ would impact upon the form and fury of the strikes in the later rounds, with several wild swings borne out of a desire to conclusively finish his opponent. Yet, for the most part, he was able to do enough work to win the rounds, without ever putting himself in danger like he had back in June. At times, it felt that his mouth was doing the most work of anything in the ring as he continued to berate Duran into the latter stages.
Both men would touch gloves at the start of the eleventh and twelfth round, a modicum of respect seeping into proceedings. That the resigned thump Duran gave Pazienza’s gloves in the penultimate round was the hardest he’d managed to hit his opponent tells its own story. The commentary in the final three minutes would take on the tone of an elegy for Duran’s career. As if to finish this sequel in a manner befitting some of the action we’d seen across the twenty four rounds, Duran would hit Pazienza with a last second low blow by mistake. Like he had been in the face of the rest of Duran’s offense, Pazienza was barely phased as the bell went to seemingly put Duran out of his misery and leave him little option but to retire.
Even within the usually steely gaze of Roberto Duran, there seemed a hint of sadness as the scorecards were read out and declared Vinny Pazienza the victor in a lopsided result (118-10, 117-111, 116-112). Both men would show respect for each other at the post-fight press conference and share a hug, singing the other’s praises for the pay cheque each would receive (Pazienza, at $750,000, earning over $100,000 more out of the fight). Clearly hating to lose, Duran would look for any excuse other than his failing body, and this time would suggest that Pazienza took steroids, a repeated claim among some in the boxing world.
As if to highlight how far Duran had fallen as a viable contender, Pazienza would be comprehensively out-boxed in his next contest against the IBF Super Middleweight Champion, Roy Jones Jr. Undefeated at the time, Jones would finish Pazienza in the sixth round, knocking him down three times following a fifth round where Jones would avoid all five punches thrown by his opponent. Though he didn’t even get close to taking the title from Jones, Pazienza would pocket over one million dollars for his fight purse.
Following the loss to Pazienza, many people would have been waiting for Duran to finally hang up the gloves and call it a day. However, just like the first fight, he was already quelling the hopes of many who wanted him to get out of the game with his mental faculties in working order. Whilst it was likely to be subject to the rule of diminishing returns, it is understandably hard to walk away from any endeavour that affords you paycheques upwards of half a million dollars. This is especially the case when you are used to living the standard of life Duran had cultivated for himself, by competing in the one thing you consider yourself good at.
For a man who was considered ‘too old’ when he bullied Sugar Ray Leonard around the ring in 1980, Duran’s last fight would be a losing effort against Hector Camacho in 2001. After the Pazienza fights, he would go on to fight another fifteen times, a frankly dangerous amount for a man whose sole skills at this point in his career was the desire to lace up the boots and the ability to soak up punishment. In those fifteen fights, Duran would win ten and lose five, though the most serious loss would come at the hands of William Joppy, a young contender from the US. In a match that resembled a massacre, Duran would be knocked out in round three, soaking up a large amount of punishment in the eight minutes he lasted. By this point, his purse was down to a quarter of a million dollars.
In the end, the decision on when his career would end was taken out of Duran’s hands, as he had little choice but to call it a day following a near-tragic car accident. With the nature of his battles in 1994 and 1995 with Pazienza, his subsequent beatings by Camacho and Joppy, and other losses to fights like Jorge Fernando Castro and Omar Gonzalez, the thought of Duran boxing into his 50s was a worrying, yet legitimate, concern. Luckily, Duran would recover well following the accident, and would retire seemingly with his faculties intact.
With title belts won in four different divisions and the longevity to fight in five different decades, it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest the legacy of Duran is written in stone. If ever we wanted proof that Duran possibly outstayed his welcome, look no further than his match versus Vinny Pazienza on the 14th of January 1995.