Get a taxi at the Panama City airport. Tell the driver, "Take me to Roberto's." The driver won't need a last name. There is only one Roberto in Panama. Neither will the driver need directions. Everyone in Panama City knows where Roberto lives. At the house, you can knock on the door and ask for Roberto. Roberto Duran will invite you in.

"Roberto is the most popular panamanian that ever lived," said Ruben Blades, the fighter's friend and a singer-lyricist who is to music in Panama what Duran is to prize fighting.

We can see only Duran the Dark. Duran with the scruffy black beard and raven black hair. Duran with the chilling, leopard's eyes burning under a brow of menace.

Sugar Ray Leonard comes to the June 20 welterweight championship fight in Montreal as America's darling, the Olympic hero who grades 97 on every charm test. We see Duran as evil. Because America needs villians to make its heroes more heroic . . . because we don't take to dark foreigners who speak a strange language . . . because Duran's fury in the ring is undisguised rather than hidden by the smiles of a Sugar Ray -- maybe for all these reasons, we see Roberto Duran as an animal. We owe him more than that.

"He's a nice man, a real nice man," said Blades, 32, who has known Duran 15 years.

"It is too bad Roberto does not speak English. Americans would love him. He is a natural wit. Next to Roberto, Ali is nothing in saying funny things. And he is genuine and real.

"He is what I would categorize as a knowledgeable innocent," Blades said. "All the fame and money have not changed him, and that is why Panamanians love him. They have respect for his innocence.

"You go to his house, there he'll be in his shorts. It is not a plastic thing, Roberto's life. It is amazing. The more attention he gets, the less complicated he gets.He is very, very close with all his relatives. He doesn't travel with people who want to make him feel great by saying, 'Yes, yes, yes, Roberto,' all the time building up his ego. He doesn't need them or want them.

"When he wins a fight, he goes back to Panama. They make him a party. That's all. Then he goes with his wife and four children to the interior or to the beach or to a movie. Nothing glamorous."

The second of nine children of a Mexican father and Panamanian mother, Duran lived on the streets of Chorillo, Panama, a runaway who quit home and school at 14 to shine shoes, dance on the corners for nickels and dimes, and catch fish in the dirty water at street's edge. Armed with a survivor's angry instincts, he first fought for money at 16. Five years and 28 pro fights later, Roberto Duran was the world's lightweight champion. He held the title six years through 12 defenses before abdicating to move to the welterweight division, up from a 135-pound limit to 147.

He once stole coconuts from the farm of Carlos Eleta. Eleta became his manager a decade later and helped Duran make enough money that he now owns a grand home, two apartment buildings and five cars. He could make as much as $5 million from this championship fight. At 29, he has three or four big money years left.

"Roberto had very humble beginnings," Blades said. "The stories about him being raised on the streets, they are not cliches. They are all true. He lived with some family. Not his family. It was very rough and he has come a long way."

The people of Panama share Duran's great success, Blades said. "It is not like America, where everyone is on the make and wants to take success from a star. If John Wayne whose movies were big in Panama, had walked down the street, people would have said. 'There goes tall John Wayne,'" Blades said. "But they would not abuse him. People don't bother you. You are part of the city. We admire, but we don't crowd. Roberto is one of the people, nothing else, who made it -- and that means they have made it. They are happy for him and with him."

Roberto Duran, this supposed prince of darkness, this real man, is a dominoes player.

And a softball player.

And a bongos player.

"He sings, too," Blades, the singer, said.

Does Duran sing well?

"He is a very good dominoes player," Blades said, laughing. "I made an album and on the cover I dressed like a boxer. Roberto asked me, 'Why in hell are you wearing 18-ounce gloves? Why do you have on those horrible pants? Who are you to play a boxer?'

"So I asked him, 'Can you sing?'

"He said nothing then."

Oh, yes, another thing about Roberto Duran, the man.

He keeps a lion in his backyard.

"This high, the lion is," Blades said. He held his hand waist high.

There was a pause in the action while people thought of lion-in-the-backyard questions.

"Roberto's had this lion since it was like a puppy," Blades said. "You go to his house and the house will be full of people playing cards and dominoes and music. And there will be babies walking around. All with the lion right there."

Blades said he just thought of something.

"Roberto is the only one who can handle the lion," he said. "So with Roberto gone from home so long now, who's walking the lion?"