If you see Roberto Duran at the fights these days, there's a pretty good chance you'll also notice that his once infamous scowl has been replaced by a hearty, not heartless, smile. He might even be laughing, loud.
It's not the bloodthirsty smirk he once displayed after battering an opponent into pain-filled defeat, nor the flash of a carnivore's canines after relishing the taste of victory and vanquished victim, either.
The chuckle you may hear is different too, different than the cold, triumphant cackle Duran displayed at times like his spectacular upset against Sugar Ray Leonard in Montreal, or when, after brutally vanquishing another Ray of suddenly dimmed light, this one named Lampkin, Duran proudly promised the US TV camera, “Next time I'll kill him.”
It seems to be contentment, not conquering contempt, that indicates Duran's current state of mind.
“I'm happy now with or without boxing,” says Duran, “I enjoy watching fights in Panama, but I don't really miss it at all.”
“Sometimes I laugh when I'm at the fights and people take it wrong,” explained Duran. “I don't mean any disrespect toward the fighters. I know when I used tofight people would watch me and laugh too. I never took it personal. It meant they were having a good time.”
Duran was a much-loved, but also tarnished idol. His subsequent surrender against Leonard coined a pop culture phrase for giving up in disgrace.
Maybe it was the long, strange trip from the summit to the sewer of public opinion that helped transform him, maybe it was just his personal journey through the mellowing of age.
Maybe he hasn't changed at all except in how he presents himself.
Whatever the case, he looked vastly different from the Duran I observed many times over his professional career.
When I saw him at Desert Diamond not too long ago, he was in fine form, exchanging whoops and hollers with a packed swarm, in a constant chorus of support. He gabbed cheerfully on a cell phone with Michael Carbajal, who adopted the “Manitas de Piedra” from Duran's moniker.
One photographer was so excited by the scene he had to be reminded his lens cap was still on.
Duran was probably the most out of shape of any fistic celebrity to appear at the Diamond, but he was also the most vibrant as he mugged his way up the ring steps when introduced to the shrieking assembly.
“I want to thank the people of the United States for the way they treat me,” said Duran. “You allowed me to come into your homes when I was fighting.”
Events weren't always so upbeat.
I saw Duran fight eight times. I never saw him win. The worst he looked, including the two round TKO debacle against Thomas Hearns, was when he quit again, this time against Pat Lawlor, claiming a shoulder injury. Many a Vegas wiseguy claimed Duran threw away his honor for cash.
The best I saw him look wasn't in honorable, hard fought defeats against Wilfredo Benitez or Marvelous Marvin Hagler. It was when, during the ringwalk to Caesars Palace arena prior to a loss to Robbie Simms, Duran sternly shushed his bellowing entourage with words to the effect of “Behave with class, we're representing Panama here.”
For the record, the other losses I saw were against Leonard, Vinny Pazienza, and William Joppy. Since my predictions fan club doesn't have near enough flogging fodder, I'll let you know I even bet on an ancient Duran versus Joppy since I couldn't rationalize his losing streak at the time.
Duran always had charisma, maybe that's why he's still so popular today.
“Sometimes people want to talk about old fights, but I want to talk about something else,” said Duran. ” I've said enough about my own boxing. I'm proud there are fans who want to tell me things about themselves or what they think about certain fights, but I don't like to repeat my old stories again and again. I try and ask people what they do and what they think.”
With different pursuits, Duran probably doesn't even want to punch horses anymore. I forgot to ask.
“I sing. I play drums. I play all the instruments,” smiled Duran, demonstrating an air-concert.
That's about as serious as Roberto Duran is going to get these days, after surviving the auto wrecks of existence.
As the decades since his glory days widen, it appears a robust, rollicking Duran may just get that “living well is the best revenge” last laugh, for the rest of his own long run.