Aussie Title Bids Part III: Hector Thompson vs. Roberto Duran

A look at Australian title attempts

The Manny Pacquaio vs Jeff Horn bout sees a popular champion in Pacquiao place his title on the line against an unknown Australian contender. Australia has a rich boxing history, with many great fighters such as Jack Johnson, Archie Moore, Sam Langford and Emile Griffith having fought in Australia during their rise to the top. Throughout boxing history, similar matches have been made where popular world champions have defended their titles against Australian boxers, who were heavy underdogs as they were yet to make their mark on the world scene.

 Hector Thompson vs. Roberto Duran

Roberto Duran “The Hands of Stone” made the second defence of his WBA and lineal lightweight championships against Australia’s Hector Thompson in his hometown of Panama City, Panama on the 2nd June, 1973. It was the first true test of Duran’s title reign and the fight with Commonwealth and Australasian champion Thompson was his first step back towards universal recognition as champion. With former champion Ken Buchanan campaigning heavily for a rematch, the WBC recognising Rodolfo Gonzalez as their champion at lightweight and Duran losing in a non-title bout above the lightweight limit to Esteban De Jesus, the lightweight division was a mess and the public, at this stage, were unsure who the top fighter at 135lbs was.

Ken Buchanan had taken both the WBC and WBA titles from another Panamanian, Ismael Laguna, but the Mexican-based WBC stripped Buchanan when he gave Laguna a rematch rather than face Mexico’s former champion Mando Ramos, who had lost the title to Laguna. The then unheralded, undefeated Roberto Duran dethroned Buchanan in New York in controversial fashion in June of 1972. Duran out-punched Buchanan early in the contest, dropping him briefly moments into the fight and building an early lead on the cards. The champion battled back in the middle rounds but Duran was leading on the cards heading into the championship rounds. Buchanan initiated an exchange after the bell to end round 13 and Duran retaliated, landing a right hand below the belt which dropped the Scotsman to all fours. The doctor examined Buchanan between rounds and referee Johnny LoBianco ruled he wasn’t fit to continue and, as he didn’t see the low punch, crowned Duran the new champion.

Mando Ramos held the WBC title after winning two out of three fights with Spain’s Pedro Carrasco, but lost it to another Mexican Chango Carmona in September, 1972. Carmona then lost the WBC title in his first defence to hard punching Mexican-born Californian resident Rodolfo Gonzalez in November. Gonzalez had turned pro in 1959 at age 14 in Mexico, building up a 51-1 record with 46 knockouts before moving to the United States. Losing three of his first four bouts, Gonzalez won 21 of his next 23, with one of the losses coming to future world junior welterweight champion Antonio Cervantes of Colombia, before decision wins over Jimmy Roberton and Ruben Navarro set up his fight with Carmona.  Gonzalez dominated the contest over 11 rounds before Carmona didn’t answer the bell for round 12.

Buchanan had bounced back from the Duran loss with perhaps the most impressive win of his career, a sixth round stoppage of Carlos Ortiz. Ortiz, who had held the lightweight title from 1962-1968 (minus a six month period where he had lost and regained it from Laguna), had won ten fights in a row since losing the title. Originally Ortiz was preparing to fight Duran in a non-title fight, but when Duran withdrew 10 days out with bronchitis, Buchanan stepped in on short notice and stopped the former champion. It was the only time Ortiz had been stopped in 69 professional fights and he retired after the bout. Duran recovered and stayed busy with non-title fights above the lightweight limit, winning two contests in Panama before returning to New York for the De Jesus bout. De Jesus dropped Duran in the first round with a left hook and outboxed the lightweight champion, who appeared slow and sluggish, over ten rounds to win comfortably on the scorecards.

Duran finally defended his title for the first time, knocking out three of Jimmy Robertson’s teeth in the first round before knocking him out in the fifth in January of 1973. De Jesus won the North American Boxing Federation title in February with a decision over undefeated American Ray Lampkin while Gonzalez knocked Ruben Navarro out in March to retain his WBC title. Duran wanted a rematch with De Jesus to reverse his only professional loss and called out the Puerto Rican after knocking out Robertson. He also took two fights in California to try and build up his name on the west coast for a potential unification bout with Gonzalez. Buchanan was also in the mix and he put more pressure on Duran for a rematch with wins over Chang-Kil Lee, future champion Jim Watt and Frankie Otero. Duran, however, returned to Panama for another non-title match in April before signing to fight Commonwealth champion Hector Thompson.

Hector Thompson

Born in Kempsey in the Mid North Coast of New South Wales in 1949, Hector Thompson began boxing at the age of five in the boys home he grew up in. Thompson turned professional at the age of 20, fighting occasionally as a preliminary fighter in Sydney and Melbourne but mostly on smaller shows in regional towns outside of Sydney as he was without a manager. Known for his exceptional physical strength, Thompson’s stiff jab and body punching earned him 20 wins from his first 23 bouts, fought mostly at junior welterweight, although he made the lightweight limit for the right bouts. One of Thompson’s early opponents, Roko Spanja, died from injuries sustained in a tenth round knockout loss to Thompson in 1970.

After winning the New South Wales state lightweight title, Thompson travelled to Melbourne to outpoint local Leo Young for the Australian junior welterweight title. This attracted the attention of managers Brian Ogilvie and Doug James, who relocated Thompson to Brisbane, Queensland in 1972 where he became a regular headliner at Brisbane’s Festival Hall.  A pair of wars with New Zealand’s Manny Santos, who was ranked in the top ten lightweights in the world, gave Thompson national attention as they were shown live on Australia’s TV ringside program. Thompson survived a third round knockdown and a slow start to battle back for a draw before outpointing Santos in the rematch in two thrilling bouts, earning Thompson a world ranking himself. A 15 round victory over Ghana’s Joe Tetteh for the Commonwealth junior welterweight title followed and, while training for a May 14 bout in Melbourne, Duran’s team offered Thompson a title shot.

Thompson jumped at the chance to fight for a world title at the age of just 23 and cancelled his May 14 bout to begin preparing for his chance. Despite his impressive record, the 21-year-old champion seemed vulnerable following his loss to De Jesus. There was unfortunate pre-fight hype used to sell the fight. Thompson was labelled as a “killer” and a “ring assassin” (referring to Thompson’s tragic bout with Spanja earlier in his career) in an attempt to sell the bout. The champion was expecting an early night, predicting a knockout inside of five rounds and stating that Thompson would “have to walk over my dead body to take my title.” The pre-fight antics worked and 15,000 fans filed into The Nuevo Gymnasium to see the popular champion defend against Thompson.

Thompson wasted no time at the opening bell, sinking a left hook into Duran’s body followed by a right hand over the top. Duran stayed composed, boxing cautiously behind his jab, using it to set up his own attacks to the body and he landed with a series of body shots towards the end of the first round with Thompson trapped on the ropes. Hector returned fire with an uppercut that scored but was having trouble matching the champions pace early on. Thompson bided his time and attempted to slow Duran down with his own attacks to the body but the feints and changes of tempo from the champion kept Thompson guessing and Duran was able to set up his attacks beautifully. The final minute of the second round saw Duran land heavy leather with both hands to the head and body, although Thompson never looked shaken and returned fire.

Thompson had more success in the third round with his jab and landed a pair of hard right hands early on but Duran continued to maneuver his way inside and score to the body as well as landing several long right hands over Thompson’s jab. Duran found himself with his back to the ropes near Thompson’s corner in the final moments of the round but nailed the Australian with a hard left hook to the jaw after Thompson threw a wild uppercut, dropping him for the first time in the fight. Thompson was up before the referee had finished sending Duran to the neutral corner but had to take the mandatory 8 count. The fourth was more of the same as Duran backed Thompson up with his jab, confused him with feints and mixed up his attacks to the head and body to keep Thompson guessing.

Despite losing the first four rounds, Thompson landed his best punch of the fight to end the fourth round, a hard right hand to the champion’s jaw. He continued in the fifth, backing the champion up and landing with a right hand to the chest and a hard left hook. Duran tried to return fire with hard combinations but Thompson was landing his best punches of the fight, in particular several left hooks to the side of the champion’s face and two hard right uppercuts to give him his best round of the fight. Duran came out for the sixth with swelling below his left eye but showed his, sometimes, underappreciated boxing skills. Using his jab to draw leads from Thompson, he effectively countered with hard two-handed assaults to the head and body to turn the tide back in his favour.

Encouraged by the swelling under Duran’s eye, Thompson came out with confidence in the seventh and backed Duran to the ropes several times, scoring with stiff left hooks to the head and digging in right uppercuts to the body, one of which reportedly broke Duran’s ribs. Duran used his jab and boxed on his toes early in the eighth round, but quickly gave into his fighting instincts and traded punches with Thompson midway through the round, which brought the Panamanian crown to their feet. Thompson landed several hard right hands to the body and then one over the top but Duran turned the tables suddenly with a huge left hook which froze Thompson in place. A follow up left hook and a right hand sent Thompson down heavily. Thompson was out on his feet as he rose but was allowed to continue by referee Nick Drake. Duran immediately jumped on Thompson, forcing the stoppage with two hard right hands and a left hook.

Thompson complained the stoppage was premature and that he would have knocked Duran out in the next round due to his rib injury. From all accounts of the bout and after watching the film of the fight, Thompson was clearly out on his feet and the stoppage was justified. It wouldn’t be the last time Thompson challenged for a world title. After winning 15 of his next 16 bouts, Thompson returned to Panama to fight another longtime world champion, Colombian Antonio Cervantes, who was making the tenth defence of his world junior welterweight title. Cervantes had previously beaten De Jesus in 1975, as well as Italian-Argentinian legend Nicolino Locche and Panama’s Alfonso Frazer. Thompson fought gamely and had Cervantes hurt briefly in round three, but a cut suffered in the fourth round led to the ringside doctor to halt the bout before the start of round eight.

Two bouts later, in April of 1976, a second Thompson opponent, Chuck Wilburn, died from injuries sustained in his bout with Thompson. The two ring fatalities have stained a rather remarkable ring career as Thompson is rarely talked about among the greatest Australian and Aboriginal boxers without these two unfortunate incidents being brought up. From 1971 until 1977 Thompson didn’t lose to an Australian boxer and gave two of the greatest champions of all-time, in their respective weight divisions, competitive fights. Thompson continued to hold the Australian and Commonwealth junior welterweight title from 1972 until 1977, when he lost it, regained it, then lost it again to Perth’s Lawrence Austin. He also won the Australian welterweight title in 1977 before the second loss to Austin but lost a series of fights, many due to cuts, before retiring in 1980 with a 73-12-2 record.

Duran took out tough Japanese fighter Guts Ishimatsu with a one-sided ten round stoppage in his next defence three months later. The victory over the Oriental Pacific champion Ishimatsu, at the time, seemed insignificant but seven months later Ishimatsu dethroned Rodolfo Gonzalez with an eighth round knockout to win the WBC title. Guts also won the rematch in the twelfth round, then outpointed Ken Buchanan, which ended any hopes Buchanan had of a rematch with Duran. Duran, meanwhile, had taken his revenge on De Jesus, brutally beating down the Puerto Rican before stopping him in round 11. With Ishimatsu having taken out two of the leading challengers for Duran, but taken such a beating to the Panamanian, and Duran having taken out De Jesus, there were no doubts as to who the best lightweight on the planet was.

There would be a third meeting between De Jesus and Duran. After losing the challenge to Cervantes, De Jesus returned to lightweight and lured Ishimatsu to Puerto Rico, where he easily outpointed him over 15 rounds to win his first world title. After three title defences De Jesus and Duran, making the twelfth defence of his WBA title, would unify their titles in 1978. Now aged 27 and at his physical peak, Duran had developed into a fighting machine and he thoroughly outboxed and outfought De Jesus before stopping him in round twelve. Duran would dethrone Sugar Ray Leonard two years later, bringing his remarkable record to 72-1 with 56 knockouts before his career began to decline following the infamous “No Mas” rematch with Leonard. He would win two more world titles with wins over Davey Moore and Iran Barkley but was never the same fighter after his first bout with Leonard.

De Jesus retired after losing a second shot at a light welterweight title in 1980 and, like Hector Thompson, was unfortunate to have come along at a time when one of the greatest pound for pound fighters of all-time was at his peak.

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