A Boxing Memory: Esteban De Jesus
By Lea Worrall
Born in Puerto Rico on 2nd August 1951, Esteban De Jesus was a skilful boxer with a fast array of sharp punches. He turned professional in February 1969, aged eighteen, defeating fellow debutant El Tarita. De Jesus won by a second round knockout and Tarita never boxed again.
In his twentieth contest, he travelled out of his homeland for the first time to take on Venezuelan Armando Mendoza, in his home city of Caracas. Mendoza had only lost the one contest in his thirteen fight career, but De Jesus kept his undefeated record going with a seventh round TKO victory.
He next fought six weeks later on 24th July 1971, challenging Josue Marquez for his Puerto Rican lightweight championship. Marquez had only been champion for a month, after his points win over Victor Ortiz. De Jesus was too good for the defending champion, taking the title with a twelve round points decision.
He knocked out Ortiz in the fourth round, his national title not at stake, before facing Marquez once more at the beginning of September. He had to go the distance again, keeping the crown after twelve rounds of boxing.
De Jesus returned to Caracas, where he had four fights, losing the last contest to Antonio Gomez on a ten round points decision. De Jesus dropped to 26-1 (18 KO’s), getting back to winning ways with a unanimous decision over journeyman Percy Hayles from Jamaica.
He made his American debut at the Felt Forum in New York, outclassing George Foster. The Puerto Rican put his man down in the second, third and sixth rounds, before referee Mark Conn halted proceedings in round eight.
Three weeks later he was at the Felt Forum again, defending his Puerto Rican lightweight title against Josue Marquez. The challenger must have been sick of the sight of De Jesus, who stopped his man in the twelfth and final round, meaning Marquez had lost to the same man three times in a ten month period.
Four victories later he found himself in with the undefeated WBA lightweight champion Roberto Duran, whose title wasn’t on the line. The slick De Jesus rocked Duran with a high right hand and moments later the Panamanian was on the canvas from a left hook. Duran got up, shaking his head and smiling form the knockdown. Duran pressed forwards, but it was the slick moves of the Puerto Rican who was landing the telling punches, notably the left hook and the occasional right.
It seemed that Duran couldn’t shake off the effects of the left hook, as De Jesus went on to control rounds two through to seven with his combinations and dangerous left hook. His punches were keeping his man bemused and off balance, but De Jesus still had to be careful as Duran was landing some of his trademark solid shots.
A right hand to De Jesus’s eye in round eight looked like Duran would turn the tables on his opponent, but the Puerto Rican survived to win a unanimous decision, as Duran suffered his first defeat in his 32nd contest. De Jesus improved to 34-1 (20 KO’s) but had to wait until March 1974 to get his shot at Duran’s WBA belt.
The victory over Duran earned him a shot at the vacant NABF lightweight title against Ray Lampkin. De Jesus used his superior punching power as he knocked his undefeated opponent down twice in the first round and once more in the twelfth and final round, winning by a unanimous decision. After another two victories, he defended the NABF belt again against Lampkin. There were no knockdowns as the champion retained the title with another unanimous decision.
Four more wins finally got him a rematch with Duran for the WBA lightweight crown. Both men had similar records, the champion was 41-1 whilst De Jesus was 42-1, but the power was with the Panamanian who sported thirty-five kayos, compared to the challenger’s twenty-three.
Duran was a two-to-one favourite to avenge his sole loss, but the Puerto Rican challenger failed to read the script. With 90 seconds of the contest elapsed, Duran found himself on the canvas from a blistering hook, just like in their first meeting. Last time out the champion couldn’t shake off the effects of the punch; this time he got up and exchanged blows like nothing had happened.
The two warriors traded power-punches freely in round three, with Duran’s home crowd cheering with every big shot the Panamanian landed. By the middle rounds the champion was showing his dominance, thanks to his blistering pace and the hot humid conditions his home country had to offer.
In round seven a five-punch combination from Duran, which he concluded with a hook to the body and a right to the temple, floored De Jesus in the final 60 seconds. The champion continued the barrage with vicious attacks to the ribs, as the challenger nearly tasted the canvas again.
Had it not been for De Jesus’s fighting heart to get him through to the eleventh round after taking a high volume of the champion’s power shots, the contest would have ended a lot sooner. By the time of the stoppage, De Jesus had nothing left and only began to rise after the second knockdown of the bout after referee Isaac Herrera reached ten, at the one-minute 11 seconds mark.
De Jesus got back to winning ways, winning three on the spin before challenging Antonio Cervantes in Panama for the WBA light-welterweight crown. The champion from Colombia was making his ninth defence of the title. De Jesus was the top contender, but was floored in the first, twelfth and fifteenth rounds on his way to losing a unanimous decision.
Two more victories put him in line for a crack at Japan’s Guts Ishimatsu for the WBC lightweight championship on 8th May 1976. The Japanese won the title from Rodolfo Gonzalez and was making defence number six. After fifteen rounds the challenger came away with the WBC belt with scores of 150-135, 150-137 and 149-139.
A third meeting against Duran took place at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas on 21st January 1978. De Jesus was making the fourth defence, whilst the WBA champion was looking to make defence number twelve. Duran was slightly the heavier man, crossing himself as the bell sounded and touched De Jesus’s glove. Both men circled each other throwing jabs and the occasional right hand. They traded sporadically, with the first round being pretty much even.
The WBC champion was behind on the scorecards going into the twelfth round and needed a knockout to win. With a minute remaining of the round a looping right hand dropped De Jesus. He crawled over to the ropes to help himself get to his feet. The referee allowed the action to continue, but he had nothing left. Duran teed off on him until he dropped to the canvas for a second time, with the fight coming to a close at the two-minute 32 second mark.
De Jesus carried on boxing, winning six bouts, before challenging Saoul Mamby for the World Boxing Council light-welterweight title on 7th July 1980. Brooklyn’s Mamby was making the first defence of the belt he took from South Korea’s Sang Hyun Kim in February 1980.
De Jesus, who was already a cocaine and heroin addict, lost by a thirteenth round stoppage. This proved to be his final fight, as on Thanksgiving day in 1980 he shot dead a teenager in a petty traffic incident and was jailed for life in May 1981. De Jesus claimed he didn’t know he killed anybody as he was high on cocaine. It was his wife who informed him of what happened. Whilst in prison he turned to religion and became a minister.
In his early career De Jesus started using drugs, starting with smoking marijuana, then snorting cocaine. By the end of his career he was shooting up speedballs of heroin and cocaine, sharing needles with his elder brother, Enrique and his friends.
In 1985 he learned that Enrique had died of AIDS. Not long afterwards De Jesus tested positive for HIV, finally dying of AIDS at the age of thirty-seven on 12th May 1989. Whilst on his deathbed he was paid a visit by his old adversary, Roberto Duran, who kissed him a tearful goodbye.
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