There is a great scene from the Best Picture of 1972, The Godfather , that reminds me of why boxing fans are so taken with certain fighters. Temporarily exiled American Michael Corleone is walking the hills in Sicily with two bodyguards when he glimpses the lovely Apollonia and is instantly mesmerized. It might be the best example ever captured on celluloid of someone falling in love at first sight.
“I think you got hit by the thunderbolt,” one of the bodyguards tells the smitten Michael.
For boxing buffs, the thunderbolt hits when we first catch sight of someone we hadn’t seen before, and maybe even hadn’t heard anything about, but whose style, charisma or power have the effect on us that Apollonia had on Michael Corleone. We immediately reserve a part of our heart for that fighter, and the likelihood is that he resides there for the remainder of his ring career, and possibly forever.
For some readers of TSS, the object of their affection was a young destroyer named Mike Tyson, who took the world by storm in the mid-1980s. For others, those who cherish toe-to-toe action above all else, the man-crush might have been on Matthew Saad Muhammad or Arturo Gatti, whose high threshold of pain enabled them to go to hell and back so relentlessly that many opponents were unable to remain their traveling companions all the way to the final bell. If your preference is garish outfits and outrageous behavior, you might have fallen hard for Jorge Paez or the late Hector “Macho” Camacho. If you are partial to those blessed with blindingly obvious talent, Muhammad Ali and Roy Jones Jr. might qualify as your faves. Female fans, in particular, had a thing for the matinee-idol looks of Oscar De La Hoya.
The purpose of this particular missive is to tell the story of two such instances of someone falling under a fighter’s sway, with little or no advance warning, and to ask TSS readers for their own recollections of similar Michael-sees-Apollonia moments. What makes us tumble head over heels for a particular fighter? Is there a rhyme or reason for it, some feasible explanation that provides the sort of data a researcher could quantify? Or is it simply luck of the draw, a product of our own natural leanings toward someone who fits our mental image of what a boxing hero should be?
One caveat: Excluded are fighters who already were well-known to the world at large at the time a given fan joined his crowd of worshipers. If you didn’t fully commit yourself to Ali until, say, his first fight with Joe Frazier, or the other way around, that doesn’t count. Those guys were already international icons, which prohibits them for purposes of this discussion from being accorded the out-of-the-blue qualities of an Apollonia when she wandered into Michael Corleone’s sight line.
For retired Associated Press boxing writer Ed Schuyler Jr., the thunderbolt came in the form of a dark-haired Panamanian force of nature named Roberto Duran. For me, it was also a dark-haired destroyer of whom I had little or no advance knowledge, except that he was a southpaw and from the Philippines. His name: Manny Pacquiao.
Much has happened since the first time I laid eyes upon Pacquiao, in what was his first bout in the United States. “Pac Man” eventually became a global superstar, as did Duran, which certified that my highly favorable first impression of him, as was the case for Fast Eddie with Duran, was entirely justified. But 11-plus years have gone by; Pacquiao is 33, with some telltale signs of slippage that an objective reporter, which I consider myself to be, cannot overlook. If Pacquiao were to fight Floyd Mayweather Jr. on Saturday, instead of taking on Juan Manuel Marquez for the fourth time, my pick to win would be Mayweather. I’m not even sure Pacquiao can extend his record against Marquez to 3-0-1; all three previous bouts in their series were highly competitive, and if you’re among those who believe that JMM deserved the nod in each of the other scraps, I won’t say you have no basis for forming that opinion.
But who knows? If Apollonia hadn’t been blown up by that car bomb, and she and Michael had stayed married, maybe they would have started arguing and wound up being divorced. Perhaps Michael, upon his return to America, would have rethought his romantic situation and started canoodling with his previous flame, Kay. The thunderbolt that hits you at the start of something isn’t always guaranteed to electrify you for all time.
Still, there’s something about that giddy rush a boxing buff feels when he yields to the appeal of a hot new attraction. So travel, if you will, down the path that Schuyler took when Duran knocked hkm for a loop, as Apollonia did to Michael, or the young Manny did to me. It is, after all, the reason we watch fights and fighters.
Schuyler, 77, an inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame who retired in April 2002 after nearly 32 years on the AP fight beat, recalled his first glimpse of Duran in a conversation we had several years ago.
“We went up to Grossinger’s in the Catskills to watch Ken Buchanan train,” Schuyler said. “Buchanan wasn’t in the gym yet, but in the ring was this dusky, dark-haired guy, Roberto Duran. He was so … so … I don’t know, like an animal. A panther. I just had this sense that this kid (Duran was 20 at the time) was born to fight.”
That feeling of impending destiny intensified the night of Sept. 13, 1971, when Duran – whose 24 previous professional bouts (all victories) had occurred in his native Panama or Mexico – took on a rugged journeyman, Benny Huertas, on the undercard of a show headlined by Buchanan’s defense of his WBA lightweight championship against another Panamanian, Ismael Laguna, in Madison Square Garden. Duran obliterated Huertas as if he were a flimsy shack on the beach in the face of a Category 5 hurricane’s landfall.
“Duran blew through Huertas in less than a round, and Benny could fight,” Schuyler said. “I remember thinking, `We’re going to have to watch this guy.’”
Manos de Piedra retuned to Panama for three more winning bouts before making his next trip to the U.S., in which he scored an emphatic, 13th-round stoppage of Buchanan on June 26, 1972, in Madison Square Garden, lifting the Scotsman’s WBA 135-pound title in the process. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Fast-forward nearly 39 years to the day, to June 23, 2001. Pacquiao was making his first ring appearance in America, after logging 31 bouts in the Philippines, one in Japan and two in Thailand, as a short-notice replacement for the injured Enrique Sanchez against the reigning IBF super bantamweight titlist, Lehlo Ledwaba of South Africa. Pacquiao was such a prohibitive underdog that night in Las Vegas’ MGM Grand – the main event was De La Hoya’s wresting of the WBC super welterweight championship from Javier Castillejo – that the Vegas sports books did not post a line on the fight or accept wagers on its outcome.
I remember the arena, which would fill almost to capacity by the time De La Hoya and Castijllo made their way to the ring, was more than half-empty as Pacquiao began to take target practice on the unfortunate Ledwaba, who must have felt very much as Huertas did when Duran teed off on him. My report in the Philadelphia Daily News indicated that the nearly anonymous Pacquaio had in effect stolen the spotlight from De La Hoya, at least among those who were in the arena when he was abusing the soon-to-be-dethroned South African. My account read that Pacquiao “electrified the crowd” of 12,480 while “flooring Lewaba three times and beating him bloody.”
In the game of what-if, which we all play at times, it easy to imagine prime-on-prime matchups of Duran and Pacquiao at both 135 and 147 pounds, much as is fun to imagine Jack Dempsey vs. Rocky Marciano or Ali vs. Tyson. It is what fight fans do. In fact, it probably is easier imagining Duran vs. Pacquiao at this point than Pacquiao vs. Mayweather, which Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, has likened to “chasing a rabbit we can’t catch.”
So what do you say, TSS readers? What fighter or fighters hit you with the thunderbolt, and why?
Who will win #HOPKINSKOVALEV