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Fighting Roberto Duran – I first met Ezekiel Obando six years ago.  He was the trainer of a group of boxers in Alajuela, Costa Rica and he was an interesting character, to say the least.  Like many other people who dedicated their lives to boxing, he had become a bit of a caricature in his old age, but it was clear he was respected by the local boxing community.  He still held gloves, wrapped his own fighters hands and he barked out orders to his young students.  If you weren’t a boxing person, more often than not all you would get from Obando was a grunt of acknowledgement.

I had gotten to know him.  The two of us had worked  on more than a dozen boxing events together helping a local promotion out.  Then,  someone told me that Obando had fought Roberto Duran back in the day.  You think you know someone!

In the second half of 1978, Roberto Duran was 64-1 and he had a long reign as Lightweight Champion of the World already under his belt.  Duran was a feared and internationally famous boxer already, but it would be later he would cross over into the category of legend.  In Panama by 1978, he was already nearing rock-star level.

The online databases tell you that Duran fought Ezekiel Obando, a Costa Rican fighter who was (0-3) on September 1st of 1978.  Well that is not quite the whole story.

In January of ’78, Duran fought his last fight as a Lightweight.  He returned in April to headline Madison Square Garden as a Welterweight, and he fought a Jersey southpaw named Adolfo Viruet to a ten round UD win.  He was setting up to fight the dangerous Monroe Brooks in early December at the Garden again, and he needed to get a fight in.  At this point, the extra pay day and the ring time both suited Duran, who was now basically Panamanian royalty. “Manos de Piedra” wanted to hold court and fight at home.  The call went out.

Obando was not (0-3) at the time.  Now, Costa Rica is not known as a hotbed of boxing, but Obando had close to 30 professional fights under his belt.    He had fought in Panama before, and in his previous fight on August 4th of 1978, he had gone seven respectable rounds with the experienced Emiliano Villa in Colombia.  Villa was an Olympian in 1972, and back in 1976 he had fought Duran for seven similarly respectable rounds just two months after taking Wilfred Benitez the distance in a failed bid to win the WBA Super Lightweight title.

Obando remembers “The fight with Villa was a good reference for me, it was a good fight and Villa was a known guy.”  The offer came in to fight Duran with about three weeks notice.

“You have to hustle.  I don’t want to say how much they paid me exactly, but it was between $5,000 and $10,000, which, in those days I was fighting 10 rounders for $500, $800. Of course I said yes.”

Playing host in his hometown, it was clear Duran was already a star.

Duran had fought two Costa Rican fighters before, Alvaro Rojas in Florida and Marvin Castadena in Panama, and he had never had to work beyond the first round.  Duran had also fought in Costa Rica, defending his World Lightweight title against Masataka Takayama in December of 1974.  Duran won that one in the first round as well.

Obando remembered “That time Duran fought Takayama, I was there, I held mitts for him and we sparred.  He was focused on just warming up and getting ready, he won’t remember me from that day at all”.  The memory brings a smile to Obando’s beefy round head.

Obando boarded the airplane for Panama for the short flight with his trainer Alfredo Estruche.  Obando stated “Freddie was with me, he was half Mexican and half-Cuban and he was in my corner.  The plane tickets were great because I had crossed that border by bus before to fight and it can be very…. painful” Obando grimaces with the memory.  Si, doloroso.

Obando arrived in Panama eight days before to accommodate the press and the media frenzy that surrounded Duran.  Obando elaborated.

“If you were around boxing in Los Angeles in the ‘90s, you know about the Alexandria Hotel and the Main Street Gym.  That was ground zero, where it was all happening and starting and those were the places to be.   It was the same thing, the 70’s in Panama City at the Hotel Soloy, the best hotel in the country.  We trained and met the press at “El Marañon”, that was THE gym.”

Sadly the legendary gym was razed in the 1990’s and no longer stands, knocked down and paved over by what is now the Avenida Balboa.

Obando tells more.  “I remember the ‘Carilla’, it was everywhere. ‘Carilla’ is the Mexican term, uhm I guess nowadays it would be called “bullying”.  You know, they don’t treat you bad, per se, it was more like a constant wearing you down.  ‘Duran is going to beat you, he is going to beat you’.

“One guy, he was the owner of the restaurant where we were eating, he would not stop.  “Duran is the best, you can’t beat Duran, you have no chance.  The surprise came at the end of the meal, when we were leaving.  He sent his daughter to me, she must have been seven years old and she was crying.  She says to me with tears coming down her face ‘please don’t fight because Roberto Duran will kill you’.  I could not believe it.”

Obando leans in, ready to share an insight “The Panamanians are still like that about their boxing today”.  He laughs, enjoying the memories.

The fight was in the Gimnasio Nuevo Panama, and the building was a new and modern facility just 8 years old in 1978.  The arena holds 8,000 but Obando recalls “the arena was more than full so the atmosphere was crazy.”  In 2008 when the Arena was re-modeled, it was renamed the Arena Roberto Duran.

About the fight. “He got me in the second round.” Obando smiles coyly.  Continuing, Obando recalls “The first round was OK. He didn’t try to run me over, he didn’t mess up my face or anything like that.  In the second round though, he caught me with a body shot” Obando’s hand raises, protectively covering his stomach area as he appears to feel some residual pain from that punch more than 30 years ago.

Obando has never been far from the game of boxing.  After retiring from competition in the mid-1980s, he lived in California where he worked with several promotions including Forum Boxing, Top Rank and All-Star Boxing on events in Mexico and the southern California area.   He was a licensed matchmaker in the state of California throughout the 90’s and returned to Costa Rica in 2004.  Back in his home country, he has done double duty as a promoter and a trainer teaching the sport to a new generation.  He was the guiding hand behind WBO Women’s World Welterweight champion Hannah Gabriel, and he was the primary trainer for Bryan “Tiquito” Vasquez, who is currently the 10th ranked Junior Lightweight on the Transnational Boxing rankings.  “Tiquito” held an interim WBA belt at Super Featherweight, and Obando is proud to have guided the first two Costa Rican boxers to win world titles in the country’s history.

Now in his 60’s, Obando is battling stomach cancer going on two years, but he still shows up at the gym every day on time.  Today, he is dedicated to training young kids, and he lights up talking about his latest crop of students.  “That little one is going to be a world champion” he says proudly, and he has said it more than once.  “Greivin Vasquez is 6-0, and I have David Lobo up to 16-0 and he is getting ready for international fights”.

Obando provides more insight “that is what I do today, to help me with this vice in my life, boxing.  It is in my blood, I cannot stop, and today I am dedicated to my young students”.

When asked for a final thought about Duran, Obando states “We are friends, when we see each other it is a good thing.  He has a restaurant in Panama City, Tasca it is called, we ate there together the last time I saw him.”

As the sit down with Obando comes to a close, he rises and his hands move to undo his watch, the thick boxer’s fingers working on the strap with familiarity.  Removing his watch, he hands it to me.  It is heavy.

“Look at the back.  Duran gave that to me”.  On the flat side of the watch an engraving of Roberto Duran’s signature is the first thing you see. The child-like letters are a reminder that the sport of boxing is not all tragedies and has a lot of other types of stories to share as well. It makes you realize that something happens when men fight, that a bond is formed and a common experience is shared that cannot be made little of.

Obando straps the watch back on as the bell in the gym goes off with a loud “ding, ding, ding”.  He acknowledges the bell and pats me on the arm.  As he leaves he says over his shoulder “Break is over.  Back to the ring.”

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Obando holding the mitts for David Lobo, his latest charge.

 

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