As a teen in Colorado Springs, Tony Biglen sat beside his father, Owen, on the family couch on White Mountain Drive and watched his boxing hero, the wicked and magnificent Roberto Duran.
Duran rose to sinister heights, even by boxing standards. He reveled in his nickname, “El Diablo.” Yes, the devil. After watching “El Diablo” pulverize an opponent, heavyweight great Joe Frazier was asked if this outlaw puncher reminded him of anyone.
“Yeah,” Frazier said. “Charles Manson.” Manson, of course, orchestrated a series of 1969 murders that terrorized Los Angeles.
On a cold night in Buffalo on Sept. 30, 1992, 27 years ago Monday, Tony found himself watching Duran. Owen, as usual, was by his side.
But this viewing carried a petrifying twist. Tony was preparing to step in the ring to face Duran in a middleweight match with Owen as his manager, trainer and motivator. Tony, a 1977 Palmer High grad, was 31 years old and working full time as an electrician in Denver. He had been paid $20,000 to travel to western New York to get knocked out by Duran. That was the promoter’s plan.
Tony and Owen devised a different scheme. Tony would not run from Duran. He would remain true to his boxing philosophy and battle the man known for his “Hands of Stone.”
Hey, we’ve all seen “Rocky.” In the movies, Tony wins the fight. In reality, the tale is not so sweet, only close. Tony veered perilously close to getting knocked out in the fourth round, but dug deep to survive and stand tall when the fight ended after 10 rounds. He was smiling, blood trickling from his mouth, as the final bell rang.
Tony and Owen sit on a sunny Saturday in the family garage at Federal Heights, midway between downtown Denver and Boulder. They never watched a full video of the fight, but details remain fresh.
Owen is likely the only father to arrange for his son to fight Duran, voluntarily placing his flesh-and-blood in the ring against a boxer who once kneed and punched an opponent in the groin at the same time.
“I was a fighter,” Tony says. “I didn’t care.”
I was sitting ringside that night in Buffalo and saw the moment when the Biglen plan flirted with humiliation and disaster.
In the fourth round, Tony was plotting a big punch and took a step toward Duran. He walked into a crushing right hand, and Duran instantly unloaded a wicked left hook, catching Tony flush in the cheek. He toppled to the mat. He had fought 24 times but never been hit with such force. His face throbbed. His mind was a haze. The end seemed near.
Somehow, Tony rose to his feet.
“There’s only a fraction of fighters in the world who could have got up after a combination like that,” Owen says.
Duran was hungry for a knockout, and for a few seconds Tony looked in supreme danger.
Remember, his father was in his corner. In boxing, a trainer can save his fighter by throwing a white towel in the ring, which translates as surrender.
Owen held the towel as he looked carefully at his son’s eyes. He wanted to protect his son, but not too much. For a few seconds, he struggled with his decision. Finally, he could see Tony regain his senses, and the towel remained in his hand.
After the round, Duran strutted to his corner, but Tony offered a surprise. “Vamos, Viejo,” Tony said. Translation: Come on, old man.
As the fight progressed, Tony gained strength and even tagged Duran with a savage right in the late rounds. Tony had finished other fighters with the same punch. Duran’s head snapped back, but he quickly flashed a smile. Tony realized he was battling a boxing superhero.
When the fight ended, Tony walked toward his corner and his father and looked up to see Duran standing in front of him. Duran sometimes ridiculed beaten opponents, even spitting on those he had vanquished. Tony braced himself for an insult.
Duran kissed him on the cheek and whispered: “You are a (expletive) tough dude.”
A few minutes later, Biglen found a pay phone. He wanted to tell his family in Denver that he had gone the distance with Duran. I was standing next to Tony and Owen when he picked up the phone.
Gone the distance? Owen had a grander plan.
“No, Tony,” Owen said. “Tell ‘em this. Tell ‘em you kicked Duran’s butt, and the officials robbed you. Tell ‘em that. It wasn’t on TV. Nobody back home saw it. They’ll never know. Tell ‘em you kicked his butt. What the hell. They’ll never know.”
After the fight and the phone call, Duran treated Tony to Corona beers in the hotel bar, and took photos of Tony with Mia, the mother of El Diablo’s six children.
“I had gotten respect from a lion in the game,” Tony says in the garage as his father nods with pride. Their boxing journey traveled from couch to ring. Tony survived a toe-to-toe clash with his highly dangerous hero. It had been a bloody, beautiful night.
Tony returned to Denver and his life as an electrician. He never fought again.