Sporting Bygones: Duran’s ‘hands of stone’ left unheralded Yorkshire boxer in need of an operation, but with a lifetime of memories and a new friend

Dave RadfordDave Radford
Dave Radford
The date is November 15, 1997; the venue, the Carousel Casino in Gauteng, South Africa.

In the blue corner stands one of the all-time iconic fighters of the 1980s.

Roberto ‘Hands of Stone’ Duran, the people’s champion of Panama, is coming to the end of one of the most storied careers in boxing history, yet still packs a punch to make some of the most hardened fighters shake to the very core.

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In the red corner stands a man who has done the rounds in the British super middleweight division but has never dared dream he would one day fight one of the men he idolised as a teenager.

David Radford, from Hemsworth in Pontefract, has a record of 12 wins from 25 fights and has only once fought outside the British Isles.

The leisure centres and sports clubs of northern England are his traditional domain, yet here he is, set to go head-to-head with one of most decorated and controversial fighters of the era.

When the bell goes the two men advance. Radford lands a couple of blows he will later look back on with pride, while Duran – a man who has used every trick in the book and then rewritten the book – goes to work on the burly Yorkshireman’s midriff.

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After landing a handful of these blows, the referee interjects. Radford is winded and retreats. Duran is warned but as Radford later acknowledges, he was never going to stop a fight involving a box-office draw like the former world middleweight champion.

Not that Radford wants the towel to be thrown in on this his biggest night in boxing.

For round after round he absorbs all Duran can throw at him, including a few more of those shots below the belt.

Radford even has the ageing superstar reeling in the fourth and the seventh, but he can’t capitalise.

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At the end of the scheduled eight gruelling rounds, Duran is declared the winner on all three judges’ scorecards.

Radford has no complaints. Nor does he have 16 years on when reflecting on the fight he will remember for the rest of his days.

What makes it so surreal is the mere circumstances about how the fight came about.

“I remember it was a Tuesday morning and I got a call from my manager asking if I could meet him at my house,” begins Radford.

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“I was on a plastering job at the time so was a bit reluctant, but he persuaded me.

“When I got there he just said ‘I’ve got a surprise for you, you’re fighting Roberto Duran’.

“I wasn’t in much shape to fight because I wasn’t due in the ring for over a month, but you’re not going to say no to that and within two hours I was on a flight from Manchester to South Africa – it was as quick as that.

“Four days later I was fighting Duran. The guy Duran was supposed to be fighting was a lad called PJ Goossen, who was out there training but broke his ankle, so Duran’s management needed a quick replacement.

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“They needed someone who was in the top 10 in Britain and I was ninth. Duran at this time was ranked sixth in the world.”

The great Panamanian showman had been part of a quartet of boxers who defined an era.

Together with Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas ‘The Hitman’ Hearns and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, they elevated middleweight boxing to a golden era it has come nowhere close to matching before or since.

“I used to love watching Duran’s fights, especially those against Hagler, Hearns and Leonard,” says Radford.

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Between them the four men were among the toughest in the history of boxing, and when Radford stepped in the ring with one of them, he understood why.

“I was 28 and Duran was 46 but I’ve never been hit as hard as that,” remembers Radford, who has chronicled his life in the ring in a book to be released shortly called ‘Blood is only Red Sweat’.

“The last time I got hit as hard as that was when my dad caught me smoking!

“I rattled him a few times, and I’m proud I lasted the distance.

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“It was a good old scrap. But he was in a different class from the guys I was used to fighting. It was basically man against boy.

“After the fight I had to have a hernia operation because of the low blows. He was a dirty fighter, but crafty with it.”

If Duran lived up to his animal reputation in the ring, outside of the ropes, Radford has known nothing but a gentleman.

From the welcome he received in South Africa, when he was treated like a champion from the minute he was picked up at the airport to the champagne that was left in his suite at the end of the fight – though Radford was in too much agony to drink – the Yorkshire fighter was given the experience of a lifetime.

And the two have stayed friends.

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Duran was the special guest at the opening of Radford’s Hemsworth gym in 2010, and both men have met their respective families.

“When he came to open my gym he brought a replica of one of his world title belts,” says Radford, who remains active in the boxing world, even if his professional career lasted only two more fights after Duran.

“We get on well. The Duran fight is the one that will always stay with me. Not only because of the memory – but because of how long it took me to recover.”