Before Duran and After

Cuban exile and WRHC-AM sports talk-show host Minito Navarro has always had a passion for punchers

The press conference at Victor's Cafe had been convened to introduce Jorge Luis Gonzalez to Miami. The heavyweight amateur boxing champ from Cuba defected a few months earlier while at a meet in Finland, and now, on this June afternoon in 1991, he was a hot property. Dozens of representatives of the Spanish-speaking media were present, along with an ample assortment of managers, trainers, fighters, matchmakers, fans, and hangers-on.

At six-foot-seven, his scalp shaved in front and with long locks in back, the saturnine Gonzalez was a striking figure. Already the owner of two Pan Am Games gold medals, he was expected to have no trouble dispatching William Campudani, the Texan who would oppose him in a bout at Tamiami Park the next day. Gonzalez's manager, Luis de Cubas, gloated about his coveted prizefighter with words as shiny as his own slicked-back black hair. "This is the world heavyweight champion of the future," de Cubas proclaimed. "This kid is 26 years old and he's ready for the career he deserves!"

At this a voice suddenly pierced the chatter of the assembled reporters. "­Parate!" the man shouted. "Stop! You're a liar! Jorge Luis Gonzalez isn't 26. He's almost 30."

The source of the outburst was an old man wearing a guayabera and a baseball cap, standing at a table and waving a small ID card. It was a Red Cross ID, the man explained, and he'd acquired it from the Finnish government after Gonzalez sought asylum there.

Most of the journalists knew Minito Navarro from his twenty-odd years as sports commentator for Cadena Azul, WRHC-AM (1550). A few knew him from times and places more distant. "You're undefeated, but who have you beaten?" he challenged. "­Muertos! Stiffs! When you're world champion, I'll be a priest!"

The crowd laughed, Navarro sat down, and the press conference proceeded without further incident.

It would take nearly four years, but Navarro got the last laugh when the still-unbeaten Gonzalez finally entered the ring against a top-ranked foe. In Las Vegas this past June, World Boxing Organization heavyweight champ Riddick Bowe knocked out the Cuban defector in the sixth round.

The way 80-year-old Minito Navarro sees it, passing yourself off as a world champion when you're not the material is no small offense; it's tantamount to messing with history. It's a disrespectful slap to all the great Cuban fighters, many of whom he has known.

Beyond his two decades as an observer of sports history, Navarro himself is somewhat of a historical figure. In his wallet he carries snapshots of his wife Beda, his two daughters, his grandchildren, and a small black-and-white head shot of a man he describes as his younger daughter's godfather. This man is Fulgencio Batista, the last president of Cuba before Fidel Castro came to power. Navarro also carries a laminated photo ID showing him at age 45, its ornate cursive print identifying Minito Navarro (no one calls him by his given name, Yrmino) as Mayor of San Jose de las Lajas, a small city 32 kilometers southeast of Havana. Navarro was the last mayor of San Jose before the revolution. Like Batista, he fled Cuba as Castro's army marched into Havana on New Year's Day, 1959.

Navarro has many more photos he displays with the same reverence, though they depict a more recent past and an entirely different world. These are photos of Roberto Duran. Navarro was closely associated with the Panamanian boxing legend for eight years, beginning in 1980, a pivotal time during a career in which the fighter won a world championship in one of boxing's most exciting battles, only to retire months later after quitting in the middle of a title defense. Navarro, by all accounts, was largely responsible for Duran's comeback, in which he joined the handful of fighters who have won four world titles in four different weight classes. Ring en espanol magazine termed the turnaround "the amazement of the boxing world."

Says Miami writer and former boxing manager Enrique Encinosa: "Minito was like a Svengali to Duran. He pumped him up with words."

Duran, now 44, is still fighting but Navarro has retired as Svengali, believing the man he thinks of as a son has been finished as a fighter for years. Ironically, Luis De Cubas, Jorge Luis Gonzalez's manager, has handled Duran for the past two years.

The host of WRHC's Saturday morning call-in show Desayuno Deportivo (Sports Breakfast) always arrives at the studio early. While he waits in the booth, Navarro studies the Herald's sports sections, both English and Spanish. His eyes are gray and he wears gray-rimmed glasses to read. Large ears and a sparse fringe of gray hair protrude from under his baseball cap. A navy blue nylon jacket covers his guayabera as insulation against the air conditioning. He sits in one of three chairs pushed up to a narrow ledge, each chair with its own microphone hanging like fruit on a vine from a branchlike apparatus. A blinking phone sits on the ledge next to him. Behind him, outside the vertical-blinded windows on the back wall, sunlight is spreading over the roofs and trees of Little Havana and Navarro's house, less than two dozen blocks away.

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