Just before Panama imported Roberto Duran into the American boxing scene in 1971 there was another sports figure from Panama who made a major mark.
Jockey Jorge Velasquez won more races than any other jockey in America in 1967. In 1969, the 23 year old Velasquez was the top jockey in money winning.
Born in Chepo, Panama, Velasquez is most famous for his part in the 1978 rivalry of Affirmed and Alydar. Velasquez rode Alydar to second places finishes in each Triple Crown event – Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes – losing by less than a combined two lengths to Affirmed. Velasquez later won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Pleasant Colony but finished third at Belmont in 1981.
His friend Roberto Duran declared himself to the boxing world in Madison Square Garden in 1971, when he knocked out Benny Huertas in the first round. Less than a year later on June 26, 1972, Duran defeated Ken Buchanan in Madison Square Garden to win the World Lightweight title.
I had the chance to discuss with Velasquez some of his boxing and Duran memories…
Question: Who were your Favorite Boxers to watch?
Jorge Velasquez: “Wow. Man, I tell you what… Muhammad Ali. Joe Frazier. Sugar Ray Leonard. Roberto Duran. And another guy by the name of Ismael Laguna from Panama. I used to see him fight, oh man. He was very stylish, old style, like Sugar Ray, something like that. But he was so fast. Beautiful fighter. Probably the best stylish fighter I’ve ever seen. He was pretty and so fast inside the ring. Amazing. Unbelievable.”
Q: Any boxers you like today?
JV: “Today I don’t have a favorite fighter really.”
Q: Favorite fights you’ve seen?
JV: “When Muhammad Ali fought Frazier…when he got beat the first time. And when Duran fought Ken Buchanan. And he became 135 pound champion in the world. Lightweight. I remember that one really well. And when Muhammad Ali beat Leon Spinks the second time they fought. That was one of the greatest fights. Some of the greatest fights I’ve watched.”
Q: Your greatest boxing moment?
JV: “When Duran beat Sugar Ray Leonard. It was a great moment for me. (Why?) Because I bet on Duran [laughs]. The last bet that I made they gave me 7-5 (odds). (How much did you bet?) About $5,000.”
Q: Most painful boxing moment?
JV: “When Duran say No Mas to Sugar Ray. I don’t know what happened. But my opinion … he got frustrated. Sugar Ray was boxing and was making fun of him and all that. And Duran is a guy that has like no education. He got so pissed off this guy was making fun of him and he couldn’t get close and he just quit. I think that’s what happened. I don’t know. But I’m glad I didn’t bet on that fight.”
Q: Ringside memories?
JV: “Many times I sat ringside. I was ringside when Duran fought Buchanan. I was ringside when Muhammad fought Spinks the second time. It’s amazing the sound of the punches. Kind of like hurts every time you hear that Bam Bam. It’s amazing. I don’t want to be a boxer [laughs].”
Q: Funny memory from boxing?
JV: “One time Roberto came to the house. And we were playing the bongos, the congas. And he had a shot of cognac. But I mean it was like a half a glass, like that. And he took the whole thing and then Wham, and then whoa. We had to drive him home after that [laughs]. This is way back after he fought Sugar Ray, after he beat him the first time. He came to New York and I went to NYRA (New York Racing Association), talking to them about having a handicap race in his name. And they did after that.