Boxing's Fab Four Part One: Introduction
Updated: Aug 7, 2019
Roberto Duran was born in Chorillo, a slum on the east side of Panama on 16th June 1951. He was raised in great poverty, which would reflect years later in his fighting style. He was known as a 'Cholo' as he had part Indian, part Spanish blood. His absent father was an itinerant American soldier from Arizona who carried the Indian/Mexican heritage, left Duran's mother before he was born.
There are many stories about the escapades of Duran's youth. He learnt to fight on the waterfront and it was said that as a twelve-year-old he struck down grown men with his bare hands. He would make daily raids of the mango plantations, swimming two miles across the Panama Canal with a knife held between his teeth. He would sell the mangoes to help his abandoned mother raise him and his eight siblings. Duran would also busk on the streets,singing and dancing for change, shoe shining, the list is endless. It is also said that when fully grown he knocked a horse senseless with a single blow.
At the age of thirteen he was expelled from school for punching an older assailant down a flight of steps. By the time he was fourteen Duran, who followed his elder brother into a gymnasium supervised by Nestor Quinones, slipped into amateur boxing. After winning thirteen of his sixteen contests he turned professional on 23rd February 1968.
His first opponent was fellow Panamanian Carlos Mendoza, who was looking to go 2-0. The bantamweights had to go the full four round distance, with Duran coming out on top, 40-36 on all three judges cards. Mendoza also became a fighter of note, challenging WBC super-bantamweight champion Wilfredo Gomez in September 1978, losing by a tenth round TKO.
Duran then went on to stop, or knockout his next nine opponents, before being taken the six round distance, winning unanimously against Eduardo Frutos to go 11-0 (9 KO's). Duran kept winning and by his twenty-second contest was a fully fledged lightweight,knocking out Jose Acosta in the first round. In 1971 Carlos Eleta bought his contract for just $300 from Panamanian jockey Alfredo Vazquez.
Carlos Eleta was a millionaire racehorse owner and a former Panamanian tennis player, who had an eye for spotting raw talent and was influential in Latin American sport. He still remembered the youngster who he caught stealing coconuts from his plantation back when Duran was still a street urchin.
Duran fought crudely and was a natural brawler, taking on every contest as a test of strength and will.
In order to refine his new acquisition, Eleta lured the legendary trainer, Ray Arcel, out of retirement. The respected American helped mould sixteen world champions, including Barney Ross, Tony Zale, Ezzard Charles and the Englishman Ted 'Kid' Berg. Eleta also recruited Freddie Brown, another legendary veteran, at Arcel's request.
Still Duran kept winning and on 13th September 1971 made his American debut at Madison Square Garden, New York. He chalked up another knockout victory, stopping Benny Huertas in the first round. Also on the bill that night was Scotland's Ken Buchanan, who successfully defended his WBA lightweight title against Ismael Laguna in a rematch.
Buchanan was bleeding profusely from cuts, but kept his cool to retain his crown with a fifteen round unanimous decision. Both boxers were now on a collision course. Duran went back to Panama and won a further three contests, before challenging the Scot for the world title.
On 23rd May 1954, one of the greatest middleweights of all time, Marvin Nathaniel Hagler was born in Newark, New Jersey. He was one of six children, left fatherless when Robert Simms deserted his mother, Ida Mae Hagler. After the Newark race riots which raged during the long hot summer of 1967 and claimed the lives of twenty-six people, Ida, seeking a safer environment for the family, moved to Brockton, Massachusetts, the birthplace of Rocky Marciano.
It was here that he started boxing under the guidance of the Petronelli brothers Pat and Goody, who came from an Italian neighbourhood and ran the best gymnasium in Brockton. Some reports state that he had fifty-seven amateur wins, but others say that he had a record of 52-2 (43 KO's).
In 1973 he outpointed the Marine Corps Terry Dobbs to win the AAU (American Athletic Union) middleweight championships. He was also voted most outstanding fighter in that tournament too.
On 18th May 1973 he knocked out Terry Ryan in the second round of his professional debut, earning himself $75.
Ray Charles Leonard, named after the great jazz singer Ray Charles by his parents, was born in Wilmington, North Carolina on 17th May 1956. He was one of six brothers and sisters. The family moved to Palmer Park, a black Maryland suburb close to Washington. It was here as a fourteen-year-old boy that he showed off his natural boxing talents and took up the sport seriously.
He had a meteoric rise in the amateurs as his natural quickness of hand and foot gave an impression of genius. His 145-5 (75 KO's) amateur record was capped off nicely when he won the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games in the light-welterweight division.
Assistant boxing coach Tom 'Sarge' Johnson on team USA stated, "This kid is as sweet as sugar," as Leonard won six bouts in thirteen days to lift gold. With his impressive displays, the term turned into a name and 'Sugar' Ray Leonard was born.
Leonard also knew how to promote himself and enchanted middle America by revealing that he boxed with a photo of his young son, Ray Junior folded in his ring boot. After Montreal he retired from boxing and intended to take up the offer of a scholarship to the University of Maryland where he would study a business degree.
But the financial lure of boxing proved too much as Leonard's parents were taken seriously ill and his girlfriend, Juanita Wilkinson, applied for welfare subsidy to support three-year-old Ray.
Janks Morton, who helped train Leonard, introduced him to a Maryland attorney, Mike Trainer. This partnership became one of the most lucrative in the sport's history. Trainer knew little about boxing, but he managed to persuade twenty-four friends and business associates to part with $20,000 at eight percent interest, setting up the company Sugar Ray Leonard Inc. Within four years Leonard had paid them all back.
Leonard's amateur trainer, Dave Jacobs, was hired to work with the new professional. Angelo Dundee was listed as manager of records, but was in charge of selecting the opponents for Leonard, just as he did with Muhammad Ali. Dundee would also fine tune Leonard's condition after Jacobs and Morton had done the groundwork.
Where Roberto Duran and Marvin Hagler turned professional in anonymity and for little money, Leonard on the other hand turned pro on CBS, a major American television network and banked over $40,000.
He took on Luis Vega at the Civic Center in Baltimore, Maryland on 05th February 1977. 10,270 people watched Leonard win all six rounds as he outpointed his opponent.
Back in 1976, at the Wembley Arena in London a skinny seventeen year old lightweight was taking part in a Britain vs America amateur boxing show. The light-punching seventeen year old boxer from Detroit struggled to outpoint the ABA (Amateur Boxing Association) champion George Gilby. Little did the British fans in attendance know that they were witnessing a future legend in the making, who would go on to be one of the most feared punchers in the game, but with only twelve kayo's in 163 amateur contests and eight defeats, Thomas Hearns still had a long way to go.
One of a family of eight and born in Tennessee on 18th October 1958, Hearns would always be associated with his adoptive city of Detroit. He started boxing at the age of ten, but it wasn't until 1975 when he teamed up with the former National Golden Gloves champion Emanuel Steward, that his success story began.
Steward had opened his own gym at the Kronk Recreational Centre, in a tough part of Detroit. When the sixteen-year-old Hearns introduced himself to Steward, that was the day the Kronk legend was born. Boxing was taken by storm by the duo and within five years the Kronk Gym became one of the most famous addresses in the sport.
In 1976 Hearns reached the final of the lightweight AAU (American Athletic Union) championships, but he was handicapped by a broken nose and was outpointed by Howard Davis. The injury kept him out of the 1976 Olympic Trials, with his conqueror Davis, taking his place.
Davis went on to win the gold medal, but Hearns was allowed to develop his talents, gathering vital experience in the process. Hearns capped off his amateur career with a rare double of National Golden Gloves and AAU titles in the light-welterweight division in 1977. He was also voted as fighter of the AAU tournament, turning professional on 25th November that very same year.
His opponent was Jerome Hill, also making his debut in the welterweight division. Where Hearns couldn't punch himself out of a wet paper bag in the amateur's, Hill would dispute that fact, as he was knocked cold in round number two.
All the best fight fans