The citrus-green paint peeling off the facade of Caron's gym is the cloest thing to lushness in the landlocked Miami neighborhood.
Caron Gonzales' wife sits at the door, collecting dollar bills, a handlettered sign at her feet: "Boxing today, Roberto Duran."
For six weeks, welterweight champion Roberto Duran trained in the squalor of Caron's gym, steeling himself for his Nov. 25 New Orleans rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard.
Long before Duran arrived, Caron's place was a carpet store, and before that a mechanic's garage. Oil and grease stains are the only floor covering now.
Last year, a fire turned Caron's stock to remnants, and he opened the Brava Gym Boxing Academy. He padded the hydraulic lifts with leftover carpet. He coated the soot stains with baby-blue paint, turning the ceiling hurricane gray. And, in the center of the room, between the doors with the rusted steel bars, he built his ring. Around the ropes, he wrapped pastel ribbons, now faded with sweat.
Last month, he added the finishing touch, a sign that says, "Uno No Es Lo Que Dice Que Es Sino Lo Que Demuestra Ser -- Roberto Duran." A man is not what he says he is, he is what he demonstrates himself to be.
Duran paces the ring, pawing at the spectators beyond the ribbons. At the bell, he begins to prowl, stalking Leonard in his imagination, and celling the make-believe fight in high-pitched Spanish. "Oh, no," he says, ducking an imaginary left, "Roberto is hurt."
He glares. His black hair, matted with sweat, flies back and forth as he feints right then left; his black sweat pants, matted with balls of lint, cling to his body. Hissing and hooting, he backs Leonard into a corner, just as he did in Montreal, pounding him with both fists and pummeling him with words.
One hundred men in shorts and muscle shirts hoot and howl at Duran's sexual innuendos. "He called him (Leonard) a homosexual," a spanish-speaking reporter explains.
Time is called. A handler squeezes water from a bottle into Duran's mouth; the fighter spits it across the ring. Later, after working on the speed bag, Duran drinks again, and spits again, this time spraying some of the spectators. No one wipes it off.
After Duran took the WBC welterweight crown from Leonard's brow last June, he said, "My rage was very big tonight."
Rage is part of Duran's anatomy. He flexes it and, like a muscle, he builds it. That is why he came to Caron's gym on the seedy side of Miami, to pump the rage he learned in the Panamanian slum called Chorrillo.
Don Morgan, one of his sparring partners, said, "I think every fighter has it deep down. He just expresses it more. It's the anguish built inside. Who knows, maybe it comes from his childhood. He had it rough. He wanted to have better things. Now that he's got it, he don't want to lose it."
"It might be because of my childhood, how hard it was," said Duran, speaking through his doctor and sometime interpreter, Orlando Nunez. "Every time I jump into the ring, I see a whole picture of how it was."
Roberto Duran grew up on the wrong side of the canal in Panama City, a block and a half from the American zone. It was there that he learned to fight, to use his rage. He says he does not always know where it comes from ("No se. No se.") and sometimes its ferocity "surprises me, yes." But he knows how to tap it at Caron's gym, where the only sign of hope is the lucky red ribbon tied around a cactus. "For Roberto?" a reporter asks.
"For my gym", says Caron's wife. "Roberto rich."
Luis Henriquez, Duran's friend, says, "As a whole, coming out of the ghetto, you only feel secure when you are there, where you belong, where your home is. You are insecure when you are not there. That's why Roberto depends on me so much."
Duran's entourage -- his brother, uncle, doctor, trainers and friends -- is protective of the little man with the fists of stone. You fight with Duran, you fight his fight. You talk with Duran, you talk his language. You meet his terms. Although he understands more English than he usually admits ("I can speak a little, I can undersand more"), all interviews with English-speaking reporters are conducted in Spanish with an interpreter.
He is voluble with Spanish-speaking reporters, withdrawn with English-speaking ones. "He doesn't like to go back to his childhood," said Henriquez. "He will only talk about it with Spanish reporters. Most of your reporters are white, middle-class, educated. Your slums are not like our slums."
But the language barrier is an intimidating weapon, as well as a means of covering up. A woman interpreter who once interviewed Duran said, "You know, his interpreters interpret his words very loosely."
What had they left out? "Kiss me, kiss me," she replied.
Why had Duran defiantly refused to speak English, even though as Freddie Brown, one of his trainers, put it, "He speaks pretty good when he wants."
"He feels that if he learns English now, he would not be able to learn enough to match wits with you," Henriquez said. "Roberto does not like to lose. He's going to fight you. He's going to challenge you."
And so he does. He challenges you merely to stick around. After Duran had avoided a reporter for two days, Henriquez told her, "We know that you are from the other side. That's why everyone in camp is looking at you."
Duran believes that American sportswriters, and especially those from Washington, never have given him the credit he deserves. "The American media made Sugar Ray Leonard a hero," Henriquez said. "When he had 20 fights, he was fighting for millions. Duran had 70 fights and he wasn't fighting for that much."
"I had to prove what I was," said Duran. "Leonard was made like they were selling soap."
The injustice, real as it may be, also serves a purpose. It fuels the rage.
Four days before Duran broke camp for New Orleans, a TV crew from Washington arrived for an interview in the lobby of Duran's Miami Beach hotel. Duran stepped off the elevator, shaking his fists and his head vehemently. "He's not in a good mood," Henriquez said. "He just woke up. If he's in this kind of mood later, we're in trouble."
But he wasn't. When he returned from dinner -- hot tea and steak -- he sat down, his hands folded tamely in his lap, and spoke for 20 minutes. Above his head was a mural of a lion with its cub .
"Just like Walla," said Nunez, referring to Duran's 680-pound lion.
The next day, Duran sat in the coffee shop, regaling his friends with tales about Walla and his neighbors. Duran has just moved to a new house by a golf course, Nunez explained, and the neighbors are relieved. "At least, the neighbors said, he will be leaving with his lion," Nunex said. "But Roberto has decided to keep the lion at the old house. All the neighbors think Duran is crazy because he has this huge lion in his backyard. Every morning, he roars and everyone leans out the windows to look."
Duran opened his mouth in the shape of a roar, his eyes flashing. Then he craned his head, his face set in an unneighborly glare.
But, Nunez said picking up the translation, "Roberto says, 'Nobody can take Roberto's lion away, Not even Gen. Torrijos.'"
Duran's friends say that he is like Walla. "He's a lion in a way, when he gets in that ring," said Brown. "That's why he's the animal he is."
Duran's eyes darken at the suggestion. "I do not think of myself as a lion," he said. "I do not think of myself as an animal. I think of myself as a human being."
In Panama, Duran is neither animal nor human being. He is a god. His friend, Augustine Caballerio, said the night Duran returned to Panama as the welterweight champion "there was a bigger demonstration than when the Americans returned the canal."
That night, in one Panama City hospital, one person died of a heart attack, two were treated for bullet wounds and 144 others were treated for heart problems, nervous breakdowns or injuries sustained in the streets.
"He is an idol in Panama," said Nunez. "He's got on top of his shoulders the whole Republic of Panama."
Or, at least half the population. Friends say Duran discovered many new relatives when he discovered wealth. "He's got a good heart," Brown said. "It costs him him a lot of money. He bought his mother a new home. He supports four or five brothers, his mother-in-law, his father-in-law . . . He has to be careful and not overdo it and give it all away."
Two weeks ago while shopping in downtown Miami, "Duran saw some kids looking through the garbage," Henriquez said. "Tears came to his eyes. He got out of the car and asked what they were doing. They said they were looking for toys and food. He took them inside and spent two hours with them, bought them sandwiches, put them on the carousel. He felt he owed something to those kids."
To make sure that Duran does not end up in dept to everyone, Brown said, the Panamanian government has been helping him look after his finances. "They want to make sure he saves his money," Brown said. "They know what happened to other champions. They want to see that it is invested right. After the last fight, they started looking for ways of investing it safely."
Duran is also reportedly exempt from paying Panamanian taxes. Brown said he does pay taxes but that he, like other champions, will receive a $400 monthly pension once he retires.
If Ray Leonard is "a puppet of the American system," as Henriquez charges, then Duran is a protectorate of his.
There is much that Duran loathes about Leonard. He calls Leonard a clown, "a man with two faces (who) pretends he is a saint, well-educated and polite and he's not." But there is one thought above all others that he can not abide: Duran thinks Leonard had it easy .
"I live in reality," Duran said. "Leonard lives in fantasy." Duran will make him face reality.
For Duran, reality is this: a father who left his mother before Roberto was born, and now comes to his son's fights; a childhood spent hustling in the streets, shining shoes, hawking papers, dancing on street corners for nickles and dimes. He met Carlos Eleta, the millionaire sportsman who is now his manager, while stealing coconuts off Eleta's trees. Eleta gave him breakfast and some money and sent him home.
Now, Duran said, "Nobody is going to grab what I have away from me."
Duran is 71-1 as a professional boxer. Somewhere inside he must always have felt that losing a fight risked losing it all. "I am not going to lose again," he said. "I was not born to be a loser."
Duran, the bongo player, beats a relentless rhythm on Caron's speedbag. His feet keep time but the syncopation is all in the wrists: da-da-da-da-da-da/da-da-da-da-da-da/da-da-da-da-da-da/DA.
"What do you think that is, Leonard's head?" someone asks in Spanish.
"No," says Duran, "it's too small. His head is like a melon."
He does not miss a beat.
Duran is a celebration of the primal; it has its attractions. Montreal, a city built on urbanity, loved it. Some women love it. A female spectator at Caron's gym pleaded with a member of Duran's entourage for a souvenir. When the workout ended, he threw her Duran's T-shirt, still steamy and dripping with sweat (selling for $8 at the door, it said, "The best world champion pound-for-pound"). She clutched it to her breast.
"What are you going to do with it," she was asked.
"Wash it," she sighed.
Leonard says of his foe: "I think deep down he's okay. But after years and years of competing and building a reputation, he wants to keep it. He lives on it. It generates his fight plan. It gives him a boost."
Panamanian columnist Alfonso Castillo, who helped build the reputation by nicknaming Duran "manos de piedra" -- fists of stone -- remembers how the legend of Roberto Duran began. Speaking through an interpreter, Castillo says, "When he was 16, he was chosen by the boxing federation to represent Panama in the Pan-American Games. You have to go by certain rules of politeness and he couldn't make it. He was too agressive. Not like Leonard. So they left him behind."
Disillusioned with amateur boxing, Castillo said, Duran turned pro (March, 1968). The last 12 years haave not turned him politic. After his victory over Leonard in June, Leonard said Duran made obscene gestures in the ring. "He grabbed his jock and threw his hands up," Leonard said. "Some class, huh? . . . . The man has no sense of pride, no dignity."
Duran said the gestures were not intended for leonard, who was already beaten, but for Wilfred Benitez, who has not fought Duran and was sitting at ringside. "He was yelling things, and I did not like it," Duran said.
Later, Nunez, who had translated the conversation, tried to explain. "He is not the most gracious thing in the world," Nunez said. "But you have to understand. He came all the way fighting the hard way. Right now he is on top of everything. When you climb all those stairs, for that moment, when you get there, you express yourself. When the picador kills the bull after a bullfight, he sticks in his sword," and cuts off the ear.
In 1972, before Duran defeated Ken Buchanan for the lightweight title in the fight that ended with a notoriously low blow, Duran went to speak with Eleta, the man he calls Papa. Duran said he was afraid. "Of what?" Eleta asked. "Of killing him," Duran replied.
Does the man with the fists of stone think about the damage they can do? Does he think about Cleveland Denny, who fought on the undercard in Montreal and later died?
"None of that killing stuff, okay?" Brown prompted a reporter before an interview.
"We don't talk about that in training camp," said a friend, Luis Perez. "We don't want to worry him."
As for the fear of killing Buchanan, Duran says, "That was just talk. Nothing planned."
"Nunez says that Duran is "a real gentleman out of the ring. But when he's under pressure, he's a different guy."
Brown says he can be difficult to work with: "He's taken a swing at me, but I knew how to block it."
"You don't have to be scared," he adds quickly. "Roberto loves women."
What about the time Duran knocked out opponent Pedro Mendoza and then Mendoza's wife after she had climbed into the ring once Duran had dispatched her husband in the first round?
"He wouldn't swing at her," Brown says."She pushed him. He pushed her and she fell down."
"Don't be messing with him," says Sugar Ray Leonard, "He's crazy."
Why is he crazy? "He'll have to go to a psychiatrist to find out."
Leonard says Duran understands three things in English: "Sugar Ray Leonard, money, and fight. And if you call him crazy, he'll understand that, too." Nunez translates the key passage, "Roberto es loco."
Duran just shakes his head. "Leonard is a child," he says.
"He probably told her I was crazy so that she would not come talk to me," he tells Nunez. "But it is better that he thinks I am crazy. He is afraid."
Leonard, he says, wants "to fight in public. I want to fight in the ring."
They will meet again in 10 days in the Superdome in New Orleans. Duran reportedly will receive $8 million for the 15-round title fight; Leonard $7 million. Last time, when they fought in the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, it was called, "le face a face historique." For 15 rounds, they stood face to face, and traded blows; the decision, for Duran, was unanimously but almost as close.
Did he gain any respect for Leonard in the process? Duran cuts off the translation. "No," he says. "No."
Since Montreal, they have had a brief encounter of another kind. A month ago, Duran spent two days shooting a 7-Up comercial with the man he says "was made like a commercial."
Duran: "We didn't talk, He wanted to talk to me, but I didn't want to talk to him."
Leonard: "I told the director, "Before we start, my kid's here, if Duran acts the fool, I'm leaving. The only reason he's doing it is because of me. If he wants to act civilized and make a couple of bucks, it's up to him.' He was quite pleasant . . . Two days later at a press conference, he said, "I'll kill you." I think he's serious."
Henriquez: "We spent two days filming it, Sugar Ray and his kid, Duran and his kid. After being together for so many hours, eventually Duran grew tired of being in the same spot. They touched noses, and leonard smiled, backing up. He fell over the ropes and Duran picked him up.I could see the expression in Leonard's eyes: "Oh, man, at least he doesn't hate me." Duran just walked away.
"Two days later, a reporter asked Duran if he felt any different about Leonard and he said, "No, I still hate him." What happened? He was there all day. He got tired . . . he got nice."
Brown: "For half a million dollars, you'd behave, too." (Duran would not comment on how much money he received for the commercial).
The workout is over and Duran is the model of decorum. Outside the ring, he looks older than he is (29) and smaller than he is built up to be. The dark cholo visage (part Indian, part Spanish), sometimes described as smouldering, appears more brooding than fierce.
A fresh white towel wrapped around his waist, he makes his way across the gym to the doctor's scale Caron had installed. At Miami Beach's Fifth Street Gym where Angelo Dundee, Leonard's manager, reigns, the scale was always wrong, Henriquez says, and there were spies.
The scale has always been Duran's toughest opponent. At Caron's gym, the scale stands aloof in the corner, coolly judgmental and gleaming with precision. As he steps onto it, a phalanx of beefy men surround him, holding up towels and sheets of cardboard to protect his privacy, as well as his weight.
Nunez, who keeps Duran's medical records, says that Duran weighed close to 170 over the summer, more than 20 pounds over the welterweight limit of 147. Dinner at the counter of the coffee shop in the Di Lido hotel is brief. "He's eating dietetic," the hostess says.
Poverty is the harshest diet of all. And Duran, who had plenty of that, likes to eat. Brown must keep him hungry. "He puts weight on he shouldn't," Brown says, "and then you have to work him harder to take it off and he gets mad."
But hunger, like anger, is a state of mind. And Roberto Duran now has enough food to feed children he meets on sidewalks in Miami, as well as his friends at home on Farfan Beach, who gather on Sundays and wait for Duran to arrive with a van of wine and beer, fish and rice.
"He had more anger before, when he was a lightweight," Brown says. "You go along, you get more satisfied, you have money, you're not looking for anything anymore. You're looking to retire. It leaves you a little bit."
Duran nods at the suggestion. "Yes," he says, "I have lost some of it. I cannot say why."
Before the first Leonard fight, Duran's friend Ruben Blades said he felt sorry for Leonard because "he is not fighting a man . . . he is fighting an emotion."
If Blades is right, and Duran says he is, then so is Freddie Brown. Roberto Duran, who now can afford just about anything, can't afford "to get too nice."
Duran says he is frightened of nothing, except "death and God." He is not even afraid of losing. "I have achieved most everything, " he says. "Nobody can take it away from me."
Boxing is about territorial imperative. Leonard, who wants to take back the territory Duran took from him in June, says, "Duran wants to prove that he's the toughest thing around: the Man, the legend, 'the greatest fighter pound-for-pound." He wants to live the way they say he is."
Fight talk, says Duran, just fight talk.
And the fists of stone, are they just talk, too?
He holds out his hands."They are like any others," he says. "Skin and bones."