Before Duran and After

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

At 8:30, as Navarro commences his hourlong broadcast with a rundown of the previous day's baseball scores, Felix Zabala and his son push into the narrow room carrying posters and papers. "Tuto" Zabala, Miami's most successful boxing promoter, and Tutico, his matchmaker, are regular guests on the radio show. This Saturday there's a lot of boxing to talk about: Mike Tyson's comeback, three title fights the Zabalas are staging at Miami Jai Alai, an upcoming junior welterweight title bout in Las Vegas featuring a Puerto Rican fighter associated with the Zabalas' Allstar Latin American Promotions. Leonardo "Moro" Mas, the Puerto Rican, is a frequent crowd pleaser at the fronton.

"I wouldn't be surprised if Moro Mas beats Frankie Randall," Navarro ventures, gesturing and nodding emphatically with every statement. "The last time I saw Randall -- the only man ever to defeat Julio Cesar Chavez -- he was not the same fighter. I don't know why, but he is nothing like he was."

"This is Moro's most difficult fight in two years," remarks the elder Zabala, a tall and hefty silver-haired man resplendent in a tropical print shirt. Dark glasses shadow his large, mournful-looking eyes. "He has to take advantage of this break."

"Anything's possible," adds Tutico, pulling his mike closer. "Frankie Randall is 33, and he's won enough. Moro Mas is 26, he's just starting out in his life and his career. Tiene hambre. He's hungry." (As it happened, on the day before the fight Randall declined to fight Mas.) Tutico himself is still in his twenties, and like his father, he's a massive presence. Besides "making" matches -- the fine art of pairing fighters -- he helps with the endless marketing and promotion work that's necessary to make local club fights profitable, and he works corners during bouts.

A caller wants to know whether the recent postfight death of Colombian Jimmy Garcia will change boxing. The three men blame Garcia's death on a lack of training, rapid weight loss, and an overzealous family. They agree boxing isn't as deadly as its reputation. "There are more deaths in auto racing, for instance," Navarro concludes, "because in the ring, there are just two men."

After the show the trio adjourns for breakfast at the rustic, bustling Cuban restaurant Rancho Luna, owned by a long-time sponsor of both Navarro's show and Allstar Latin American Promotions events. The palm frond- and horseshoe-accented cafe is a favorite spot for fighters; the place, Tuto Zabala confides, is also known as la casa de los campeones. Roberto Duran always liked to eat here, too, Navarro adds. "Lunch, dinner, and snack."

Tuto Zabala and Navarro have been friends for some fifteen years, ever since Zabala moved his boxing promotions to Miami from Puerto Rico, where he settled after the Cuban revolution. The two men share a lifelong involvement in sports and an unbreakable attachment to boxing. "Boxing is my business," says Zabala. "And it's hard to promote, so sometimes I don't like it so much. But Minito is completely dedicated to it."

Seated across from one another with a cell phone between them, the Zabalas order cafe con leche, scrambled eggs, and ham. Navarro, having three hours earlier eaten the breakfast he makes for himself every morning without fail (two scrambled eggs, juice, cereal), opts for only a frothy pink mamey batido.

It was this sort of moderation and daily regimen that Navarro tried to instill in the impulsive, excessive Roberto Duran. Certainly Navarro wasn't the only self-disciplined person to concern himself with Duran's physical and mental conditioning: Hector "Plomo" Qui*ones, the man who took Duran from a shoeshine boy in the slums of Panama City to a world champion, was his principal trainer until just a few years ago, and Duran has worked with other prominent trainers for individual fights. "Minito was like his counselor," remembers Fausto Miranda, a sports editor for El Nuevo Herald and a friend of Navarro since the Thirties. "He provided psychological and mental support. He also sometimes worked in Duran's corner as a second."

As Navarro remembers it, he first met Duran in 1972, after the Panamanian defeated Ken Buchanan in Madison Square Garden for the world lightweight title. Navarro was covering the fight for WRHC, for which he had recently begun working. "I had been in Miami more than ten years then and hadn't been involved in boxing, but I said to myself, 'Someday I'm going to work with him,'" Navarro says. "We became good friends after that fight." When he wasn't on the road covering baseball or boxing events, Navarro began spending many hours with Duran, sometimes traveling to the fighter's training camps in New York and California.

By June 1980, when Duran signed to challenge Sugar Ray Leonard for the WBC welterweight title, Navarro was helping his friend prepare for one of the toughest fights of his career. The quick, devastating Leonard was favored, but Panamanians and Central Americans considered the fight a test of national pride. Gen. Omar Torrijos, president of Panama at the time, had planned to attend the bout at Montreal's Olympic Stadium, but the general's physician feared a loss by Duran would be too hard on the president's heart. So Torrijos watched the match at home on television, his doctor by his side. He need not have fretted: Duran, Mano de Piedra, won a unanimous fifteen-round decision. The victory prompted more news reports about the psychological boost to his paisanos. Navarro, who has filled a huge scrapbook with clippings and photographs related to that fight alone, keeps in a small orange gym bag the red gloves, now autographed, that Duran wore.

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