By Scoop Malinowski
Roberto Duran’s first fight after the infamous No Mas fiasco in November 1980 was against Nino Gonzalez in August 1981, in Cleveland, Ohio, televised by CBS. It was a close, hard fought ten rounder. The scorecards were 44-48, 45-48 and 43-47.
I was able to chat with Nino Gonzalez about his Duran fight memories…
Question: What is your first memory of Roberto Duran?
Nino Gonzalez: Talkin shit at the press conference [laughs]. He was talking shit about Puerto Rico and beating Esteban DeJesus twice after DeJesus beat him the first time. Duran was saying he was gonna teach me a lesson I wouldn’t forget. I got mad, I said, “A Puerto Rican might go down but he doesn’t quit!” I also called him Manos de Mierda, instead of Manos de Piedra, instead of hands of stone, I called him hands of shit! He hated that. When we fought, he put out his hand to give a high five but I tried to kick his ass.
Question: You sparred with Duran a year before the fight right?
Nino Gonzalez: I sparred with him about a year earlier, before his first fight with Leonard. We sparred three rounds. I believe it was in Great Gorge (a ski resort in Vernon, NJ). I kicked his ass for two rounds. He asked for another round and I kicked his ass again. Then I kicked his friend’s ass too. I loved training up there in the mountains, there’s hills and it’s beautiful, up and down slopes to run on.
Question: So how did the Duran fight offer come to you?
Nino Gonzalez: I had two choices – fight Wilfred Benitez for the junior middleweight title (Nino was ranked no. 10 in WBC 154 division), or fight Duran. My people didn’t think I was ready for Benitez yet so we fought Duran. I watched Duran fight on TV with my father before I even started boxing. My training camp for Duran was in Cleveland. Because I wanted to get out of Bayonne, NJ and being with the wrong people, and smoking grass every day. I trained in Cleveland for four and a half, five weeks. I ran every day, ate good, went to bed early. I had two sparring partners Gil Rosario and Lamont Haithcoach, who had good hands, good moves, he drew with Buddy McGirt (in his first pro fight in 1982). I was in the best shape of my life. Even my own family told me Duran was going to knock me out. People in Bayonne didn’t think I could beat him.
Question: What made Duran great?
Nino Gonzalez: He was a bad mother fucker. Very, very smart. Very good technique. He knew his shit, bro. He was hitting me with punches I don’t know where they came from. In the 8th and 9th rounds I started to feel the pain. I was in shape. I tried so hard to win that fight. I could have beaten anybody that day. I thought I won the fight. But Duran is Duran. He was Don King’s fighter.
Question: Have you ever seen Duran since the fight in 1981?
Nino Gonzalez: No. One night one of his friends called me from New York at 2 am. He said he was with Duran and Duran wanted to send a limo to pick me up and hang out. I said no because I was working. I couldn’t go fuck around with him.
Question: How did you get into boxing?
Nino Gonzalez: My father was an amateur boxer, he was five-foot-four with really fast hands. I got into boxing from seeing Chuck Wepner vs Muhammad Ali (1975). When I heard he’s from Bayonne, I said, I’d like to do that one day. My friend took me to Bayonne PAL. I was maybe 12.
Question: Did you sustain any injuries from fighting Duran?
Nino Gonzalez: My shoulder. He kept hitting me on my right shoulder. Every time I threw a right it hurt but I had no choice, I had to keep throwing right hands. I had a little black eye and some scrapes on my face from the gloves.
Question: How much did Don King pay you for the Duran fight? He paid Duran $75,000 tax free.
Nino Gonzalez: $50,000. My best payday. We waited a couple of weeks after the fight then we drove into New York City to Don’s office (on east 65th Street). What a beautiful office he had. And his two secretaries were knockouts. I remember Don yelling, “MY MAN NINO!” He gave me a check for $50.000. Went to the bank, waited for it to clear, then came back and they gave us the $50,000. They used the counting machine twice.
Question: Would you say the Duran fight was your finest performance?
Nino Gonzalez: One of my best performances. Then I fought in Giants Stadium (East Rutherford, NJ) against the Jewish middleweight… Rusty Rosenberger. Everybody was telling me I was gonna lose. I gave him his first loss. I never was knocked out. I was stopped three times. I was stopped by John “The Beast” Mugabi in London (KO bty 1 1984). I never should have taken that fight. I was stopped by that Kronk middleweight, I forget his name. He had a bullet lodged in his neck. He got shot in the mouth. (Duane Thomas TKO by 8 in 1983 in Atlantic City.) And I was stopped by Matthew Hilton (8th round 1984 at Montreal Forum).
Question: Who was the hardest puncher you fought? Was it Duran?
Nino Gonzalez: No. It was Matthew Hilton. That mother fucker could hit. I was sure he had something in his hands. He chipped my two front teeth. He knocked me down in the first round. I didn’t know where I was but I got up. I was stopped in the eighth round.
Question: Duran talked about your fight with him in his book “I Am Duran” for three pages, did you know that?
Nino Gonzalez: Really? I never knew that. I’d love to see that. Mike Tyson mentioned me in the Cus Damato book. I have that book. I’m saving it to show to my sons but they’re eight and ten years old, still a little too young to understand.
Notes: Nino’s last fight was against Charles Williams was three months after the Mugabi loss. It was at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, a TKO win. Nino turned pro in May 1978 at Totowa Ice World, a decision win vs. Henry Rosa. His final ring record was 30-7-1 with 17 KOs. He won the NJ Welterweight Championship in 1980.