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Mythical match-up four: Roberto Duran versus Pernell Whitaker

Allan Cerf imagines the match-up of legends Roberto Duran and Pernell Whitaker

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Roberto Duran vs. Pernell Whitaker
Roberto Duran vs. Pernell Whitaker

One of the fun things in boxing is “what if?” scenarios.   Could Japan’s ‘Monster’ Inouye, beat Éder Jofre? What would really happen if Terence Crawford threw hands with Homicide Hank Armstrong?   Would Calzaghe have bested Nigel Benn?


Editor of, John J. Raspanti, has other mythical match-ups in mind – and John has seen a lot of boxing over the years.  His input, based on his years watching, writing about and talking to, the world’s best fighters, will add an extra dimension. 


If you like these “What If’s,” holler.  Tell us which mythical bouts you’d like to see.  We’ll do our best to write about them.  Also – tell us what you think, are we on the money, or miles off course in our judgements about these fantasy fights?


Final word: Each mythical matchup assumes all fighters have equal access to today’s nutritional and training advantages.  It also imagines that each fighter was about the same age as his opponent.   If Jack Johnson, in other words fought today, he would enjoy the advances of today - unavailable in his long-ago era. 


In the case of our fourth mythical match-up, we’re going back in time, imagining Roberto Durán met Pernell, “Sweet Pea” Whitaker in their lightweight primes.


Date: Saturday, June 9, 1972.  15 rounds for a unified and undisputed lightweight champion of the world.


Site: Gimnasiu Nuevo Panama, Panama City, Panama 8, 417 capacity. 


Prize money: 500K each, about three million, ninety-four thousand in today’s money.


Network: Re-broadcast, ABC TV, Chris Schenkel, broadcaster.  One day delay (rare Sunday broadcast as the fight is high-demand). 


The noise the rabidly pro-Durán crowd makes sounds more like twenty thousand than eight.  Whitaker agreed to fight in Panama only after unbiased judges and an American referee are installed.  His highest-ever purse is the main incentive.


Muhammad Ali, classically dressed in a blue suit, is ringside rooting for Whitaker.  His conqueror, Joe Frazier, is there too, turned out in a shocking pink jump suit.  No one is going to give him lip for it. 


Ali yells at Frazier, “Hey champ, watch my man use movement and science – he’ll whup your boy like I’ll whup you in our rematch.”  “No way, champ!” Joe replies, grinning.  “My man Duran is gonna overpower Sweat Pea – you better believe it.  And you’ll get it, too!” 


Round 1: Durán comes out blazing and “Sweet Pea” dodging.  The crowd is going berserk as “Hands of Stone” is already in kill mode.  Pea disdainfully dances away- side to side, back to front.  It’s already two minutes in, and fans are whistling in anger (at Whitaker).  Durán is a study in black: Black eyes, black trunks, flashing black hair – and dark temper.  He’s not amused by Whitaker’s huge movement and waves at him, then implores referee, Arthur Mercante Sr., the best in the business, in Spanish, “Bring him to me.”


Mercante commands a halt and tells Whitaker, “Son, defensive movement is fine, but you can’t just waste time.”  Whitaker gives Mercante an evil look and the fight resumes.   Whitaker flashes forward to Durán to show the Panamanian Marvel that he, Whitaker, is the puncher.  But it’s what Durán expected and waits to time him with a counter. Whitaker throws a hard southpaw jab which is blocked while Durán lands a patented, short right hand.  Whitaker flurries and Durán shows his own amazing defense by avoiding most of Whitakers punches and repaying with interest- a left hook-straight right on the bell that hurt.  The crowd roars.  Clear Durán Round.


Durán’s trainer, Ray Arcel, tells him, “Don’t chase.  That’s what he wants.  Stand in the middle of the ring.” 


The bell rings.


Round 2: A disdainful Whitaker glides out on ballet feet, light as gossamer.  But Durán stands in the middle of the ring.  Whitaker stands opposite, motionless.  The infuriated crowd howls for blood and Mercante stops time and calls the fighters together.  “You two will have to engage someplace.  This is a prize fight.”  Time in.


Whitaker angrily meets Durán middle of the ring and the two exchange fast blows as Whitaker would years later with Oscar De La Hoya.  He has blazing hand speed but Durán’s hands are fast too, and his timing impeccable.  They both land a flurry of sick, choice punches, but Durán’s are harder.  A right causes one of Whitaker’s eyes to swell.  Suddenly, Durán follows Whitaker to the ropes which is Whitaker’s game.  But it’s a ruse, and Durán pulls back and stands motionless center ring.  This forces Whitaker back to the exchange game in the center where both fighters windmill.  Superb defense blocks many, but each man gets through with combinations.  Durán’s heavier punches seize the round. 


Lou Duva, Whitaker’s trainer screams at Mercante to come to the corner.  The kindly Mercante obliges and Duva says: “Art, counter-punching is our game, what’s up!”  Mercante only stares at Duva silently.  An endswell helps contain Whitaker’s puffiness.  In Duran’s corner Arcel tells his charge, “Keep frustrating the American at center ring.”  Durán’s eyes blaze.  Bell rings. 


Round 3: Once again Whitaker is denied his counter-punching- he’s forced to engage Durán center ring in a shoot-out.  Whitaker is winning the punch volume war but is amazed at Durán’s own defense which his team foolishly disregarded.  No one had to teach Durán to move his head – it’s in harmony with his whole game.  Like Whitaker, it’s based entirely on rhythm.  Durán throws a beautiful right lead which stuns Whitaker and then a right uppercut, painful left hook on his arm, left hook to the head and enormous straight right to head.  Whitaker’s pride keeps him up – he should have gone down for a breather.  Instead, he gets a standing eight count, common in 1972.


After the count, Durán is all over him and finally, he must contend with Whitaker’s brilliant defense.   But Durán’s bull strength pins Whitaker to the ropes and a powerful right uppercut gets through.  The ropes hold Whitaker up.


Rounds 4-6: Whitaker must clear his head, but his amazing, silky movements only bring scorn and projectiles from the crowd.  Mercante finally takes a point in the sixth because much of the exaggerated movement isn’t in aid of fighting or defense.  Whitaker has no one to dance with.


In his corner, Duva, enraged at events, shouts: “Whitaker, you’ll have to slug. This bastard Mercante has it in for us.”  Whitaker nods.  “Try for the body, he won’t expect it,” Duva suggests. 


Round 7: Whitaker comes out pride intact and meets Durán head on. The two proceed to unload every punch in the book.  But Durán’s own movement - born, not taught, shocks Whitaker, and the extended exchanges favor Durán’s powerful, shorter blows.  Whitaker is beginning to swell up. Also, Durán’s lead left hook and jab-uppercut combination are getting through.  These unusual punches are innate – no gym teaches them.  Whitaker is still gliding like Baryshnikov, but is slowing slightly.


Between rounds the legendary Arcel tells Durán to tentatively chase Whitaker at this point to see what he has left.  “Come back center ring if he’s still energized.”  Durán nods – another example of that rare prize fighter for whom corner advice is actually meaningful.


Rounds 8-9 – “Durán seems to be giving his advantage away!” notes ABC’s Chris Schenkel.  “Counter-punching?  That’s Pernell’s game!”  Indeed Whitaker, delighted to finally fight off the ropes, is smiling and show- boating and blocking most of Durán’s inside shots.  But the Panamanian master manages two hurtful lefts to Whitaker’s body.  He also savagely bangs hooks off Whitaker’s arm and uppercuts to his armpit – as Shane Mosely did against De La Hoya. His right arm is now partially disabled from the armpit shots, which are legal.  


Between rounds, Duva is concerned about Whitaker’s puffing; the end swell no longer helps much. He tells Pernell, “Fight off the ropes, that’s our game.”  In the opposite corner Arcel says, “Roberto, bring it back out to the center.”

Rounds: 10-13 see the wily Durán fighting center ring on corner orders.  The fighters exchange but the crowd is impatient, preferring their beloved Durán’s inside attack.  Durán sees hope dying in Whitaker’s eyes.  Whitaker’s entire preparation was based on Durán moving forward. 


Whitaker is so good that two rights to Durán’s body do slow the Panamanian, but in his corner before the 14th, Durán’s super-human energy returns.  The deafening roar of eight thousand partisans raise his machismo and determination even higher. 


Round 14: Whitaker is as courageous as he is insanely talented, but boxing’s laws of geometry have caught up with him.  Whitaker’s great gift is his athleticism.  But it’s not enough to offset a born fighter’s rhythm, control of distance, and constant head movement.  A Durán left hook, right hand floor Whitaker who takes the eight. 


The Duran crowd goes bonkers.


“You wanted an inside fight?”  Durán yells in Spanish along with unmentionable curse words, “You got it!” 


Whitaker retreats to a corner and to the end, his glossy footwork remains.  Sensing victory, Duran gives chase, unleashing shots that force Duva to throw in the towel.


After the fight, Durán says unmercifully,“He’s a good fighter only Ken Buchanan is much superior.”    


Whitaker sulks and says, “Mercante cost me the fight.  I demand a rematch.”



Roberto Duran TKO14 Pernell Whitaker


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