The Hardest Hit
There it was, the power right -- blam! -- like a goddamned torpedo launched from Tony's shoulder, through his elbow and out his glove. The blow hit the champion's brow, which immediately parted like the Red Sea, streaming blood into his left eye. No one saw it coming, especially not the champ. The hordes of chanting Puerto Ricans, the judges, the referee -- they were all disbelief and outrage. But Tony believed. So much training, so many smaller bouts, culminating in this one punch, the fight of his life, win or lose. Soon all he could hear was the voice of Denny, his cornerman, telling him to stay off the ropes. And then the bell signaled round three.
Tony Duran loved boxing. And because of that, Mark Fernandez loved Tony. At Adams City Junior High, the schoolyard lessons had come quick and hard -- like an algebra textbook upside the head. "You either had to know how to fight or how to run," Mark remembers. By the start of seventh grade, he'd run marathons from potential ass-whuppings. And then he met Tony. "He became my best friend from day one," Mark says. "I didn't have to do anything, just introduce myself."
Tony asked if he was a boxer.
"No," Mark answered, a little self-conscious. "I'd like to be one, though."
Tony took him to the Commerce City Boxing Club, where he'd been flinging jabs since he was eight. Now, at fourteen, Tony had hundreds of amateur bouts under his belt, some sanctioned, some not. The club operated out of a community-center gymnasium, where Rich Martinez would hang heavy bags from the basketball hoops and coach a dozen teens in the basics: Square your shoulders, punch straight, this is a jab, this is a body punch. Either get in there and fight or go home, Martinez would say. He didn't waste time with kids who were afraid of getting hit. And while Mark left the club that first evening with a bloody nose, he continued training there with Tony every day after school.
Both inside the ring and out, the boys had no greater allies than each other, especially in the daily battles of adolescence. Tony was the second-youngest of five kids and was quiet, sometimes sullen, with his family. He'd call Mark, looking for an escape, and the two would meet on the train tracks between their houses in the DuPont area of Commerce City, tramping along the wooden ties, past the junkyards, warehouses and power lines. Their meetings were usually marked by a calm silence: Tony did most of his talking in the ring.
Tony's athletic ability -- in wrestling, running, football -- was excellent, and boxing seemed to focus all his energy. Boxing was a sport of brutal extremes, physical risks and unlikely monetary payoffs, but it was also the stabilizing factor in his life, as it has been in the lives of so many young men and women. After one of their friends was stabbed to death at a roller rink and another buddy thrown in jail following a gun battle with two Denver high school students, Mark and Tony became even more committed to the ring. When they weren't selling candy door-to-door for extra money, they were training together. And as their skill grew, so did their reputation. They became known among neighborhood scrappers as a two-for-one special: Mess with one, be prepared to mess with the other.
With its oil refineries, acid pits, manufacturing facilities and railyards, Commerce City wasn't a place of permanency. It was more a city of conversion, where the rawest of materials arrived to be processed, tempered and refined, then sent away. It was a place of beginnings. Like those soon-to-be products that rumbled by inside freight cars each day, Mark and Tony developed their talents on the amateur circuit, fighting their way through local opponents and ringers.
This wasn't the best time to start a boxing career. In 1977, the year Mark and Tony met, the Colorado Legislature had disbanded the fifty-year-old Colorado Athletic Commission amid accusations of racism and corruption. The commission had overseen all money matches in the state; once it was gone, professional boxing descended into twenty years of near anarchy. But the boxing culture continued to thrive where it mattered most: in neighborhood gyms and at local tournaments.
Every summer, Commerce City would host Derby Days in its small downtown area. And every night through the event, the Commerce City Boxing Club would hold amateur exhibition matches called "smokers" to raise money for traveling expenses. Martinez would erect a makeshift boxing ring on the gymnasium's stage, and people would pay two bucks each to watch their neighborhood fighters take on boxers from rival teams. The speed Mark had developed to avoid fights as a kid worked well inside the ring, earning him the nickname "King Cobra." Tony was short, but he was a smart right-hander and wicked powerful in the gloves; he was dubbed "Dynamite" because that's what he had in his fists: explosives. The Derby Days match-ups didn't count for any stats, so the fights sometimes lacked spark. But Tony always fought with a rhythm and diligence that won over the audience. Every fight was like his last.
"Every match was 100 percent," remembers Mark. "We'd always go down fighting, that's what we'd always say. We'd never take a dive for nobody."
Jim Smith -- "That's Smitty to you" -- spits out sentences like he's thrusting a medicine ball from his chest. The trainer/manager of Poor Boys Boxing is the biggest promoter in town, the "backbone of the local boxing community," says Chris Morris of Rocky Mountain Boxing magazine.
"Boxing is a tough and dirty game," Smitty says. "Don't let anybody bullshit you about that."
With a current stable of 23 professional fighters both in and out of Colorado, Smitty has produced multiple world champions and promotes numerous boxing events, including the highly regarded Melee on the Mountain series at the Mountain High Casino in Black Hawk. He coached Tony Duran through some of his fiercest fights, and later partnered with him on training gigs and gym operations. Off and on for seventeen years, the two would see each other every day.
On most Monday nights, Smitty can be found at the Thornton Police Athletic League gym, putting his professionals through the grinder. At 7 p.m., the strip-mall storefront is alive with percussion. In the corner of the room is a small box, a round-timer programmed to emit a loud bleep that signals the start of three-minute rounds and thirty-second rest periods. When the alarm goes off, a dozen pros thump blows against swinging bags; in the ring at the center of the floor, sparring partners take turns punching each other's foam headgear. Along the wall, young neighborhood kids stare wide-eyed, gloves dangling from their shoulders, waiting for the session to end so that they can mimic the older men.
"Single jab popper!" Smitty commands. A fighter reacts mechanically, thrusting his right glove into the trainer's black mitt like a piston. "Again!" he shouts. "One-two...power right... again...uppercut hook."
Around town, Smitty is known as a zealous, old-school trainer who's taken a few hits himself. All that gold and silver in his mouth wasn't installed for bling appeal, but as replacements for the 24 teeth he lost during the years he spent in the Midwest as a bare-knuckle fighter. Such fights are illegal now, but Smitty isn't afraid to get tough on behalf of his guys. In March, during a match-up at the Paladium in north Denver, an after-the-bell hit on Art Medina impelled Smitty to leap into the ring and charge the corner of undefeated welterweight contender Anthony Mora, inspiring several minutes of pandemonium as security guards and hangers-on from both sides joined in.
Smitty's boxers have five fights coming up in the next month, and Thornton is his third gym of the day. He works the graveyard shift at a local trucking company and sleeps when he can -- usually two-hour fits of slumber between various commitments. But this evening he's wide awake and pissed. He's just discovered that a fighter he's been training for five months isn't an American citizen.
"What am I supposed to do here?" he asks, telling the fighter that because of his illegal-immigrant status, he can't get a federal ID card and therefore cannot be booked into sanctioned matches. "I don't care if you're illegal," Smitty says. "I'm not going to get you deported or anything. But I ain't gonna mess with training you, either."
Taking a break outside, Smitty thinks about how many times he's wasted months, years, developing boxers who don't have their hearts in the game. "That's the thing about some of these new guys," he says. "They're out there chasing broads, partying, going to jail. The thing about Tony and some of the guys from the early days -- Tony could have been in a fucking hospital bed and he would still have made the fight."
In 1978, the Duran family moved to nearby Northglenn. When fifteen-year-old Tony showed up at the Thornton PAL -- then located inside the old Highland High School -- Smitty recognized him from various leagues. He started coaching Tony, who thrived under his strict discipline. Tony fought as a lightweight in various amateur matches and went with the Golden Gloves all the way to the nationals, as did his younger brother, Johnny.
Tony's competitive career took a two-year hiatus when he joined an ROTC program that allowed him to enlist in the Army and get out of the house at sixteen. Although he didn't box at Fort Bragg, he earned some of the Army's highest physical-training awards. Tony liked the structure of the military, but he didn't like people yelling at him all the time. So after two years, he returned to Colorado and jumped back into boxing. A lot of his old friends were having a high time smoking weed or doing harder drugs. But Tony stayed away from any excess that could upset the balance of his training.
Or impact his romance with Melody, a girl three years younger whom he'd met through mutual friends. Melody found Tony charismatic, a very take-charge kind of guy. He was handsome, with a beautiful smile and a physique that "was just perfectly cut," she remembers. They fell in love immediately.
A year later, just before her sixteenth birthday, Melody gave birth to their first daughter, Dvonne. Twenty months after that, baby Jeanelle came along. The young family lived at Melody's mother's house in Northglenn. Tony was working at a manufacturing company, but his real job was boxing. He talked about going for the world title someday and kept himself in fighting form. Melody remembers one time when they were driving down the street and came upon a 10K race that was about to start. Tony parked the car, entered the marathon on a whim, and finished in the top fifty.
Tony began training with Sam Boardman, a journeyman fighter from the 1940s whose son, Larry, had been a world-ranked lightweight in 1957. Boardman operated out of the St. Joseph's Boxing Gym in Globeville, and Tony would often take his toddler daughters along to his workouts. They still recall the former church's tall, gothic spires and the musty, grandfatherly smell of the long-closed gym. Boardman was in his seventies by then, an old-fashioned trainer who instructed Tony on the finer points of the pugilistic arts. He focused on taking the fighter's power and refining it with technique, teaching him to not just attack an opponent, but to observe him. Look for angles, he'd say; defend yourself, then go for the kill. Tony also worked with trainer and former pro-boxer Denny Nelson, who helped with his conditioning. Tony's body weight fell to a lean 124 pounds -- all of it muscle.
In 1985, Boardman took Tony to his first professional fight. Dynamite lived up to his handle: He knocked out Denver boxer Tony Wells in the first round. Three months later he pulled the same feat against another local boxer. Soon he was gaining a reputation as a fighter who could send adversaries to the canvas with a single punch, and the media began to take notice. In 1986, 9News broadcast a story that showed 23-year-old Tony as an up-and-coming boxer. His family cheered when Tony's face came on the TV screen.
Tony hit the road with his trainers and quickly disposed of challengers in Wyoming and North Dakota. By 1987, with a record of 9-0, stats-watchers no longer considered him a greenhorn: He was a prospect. But up to this point, Tony had been matched against relatively inexperienced pro fighters with non-existent records -- a common practice for managers who want to build up their fighters. Meanwhile, his old buddy Mark had already fought for two featherweight titles, including the World Professional Athletic Council Junior Lightweight in 1987, and had fought in Hawaii, Australia and South Africa. Commerce City had even painted a large mural of Mark on a wall a few blocks from where the friends had fought during Derby Days.
If Tony was ever going to become a contender, it wouldn't be in Colorado. Without a state boxing commission, fighters here had to deal with shady promoters who'd bail out on payments or match up opponents who were horribly outclassed. "They didn't give a fuck if you didn't have any experience, didn't care what your weight was. They'd match you up," Smitty says. "There was no ambulances, there was no doctors, there was no insurance, there was no fight records."
Official boxing organizations that issued titles and belts were reluctant to hold sanctioned matches in Colorado, and often wouldn't recognize ones that were held here. So for Tony to achieve national recognition, Boardman had to take his fighter to the next level: Las Vegas.
Over the next three years, Tony fought five times in Las Vegas against more seasoned fighters, winning just twice. One of his losses was against Abe Gomez, a 128-pounder from California, in 1989. The fight, which was broadcast on ESPN, was eight rounds of sheer warfare. Denny Nelson, who worked Tony's corner, remembers the two evenly matched prospects pummeling each other like jackhammers. Tony managed to knock down his opponent in the second round, but Gomez came back to beat him on a technical knockout late in the fight. "Gomez had just enough juice left at the end to get by Tony," Denny says.
Melody never attended any of these fights. She'd sat ringside at a half-dozen of Tony's early bouts but had worried herself to the point of physical sickness. She'd resigned herself to the risk of Tony getting hurt, but she didn't want to be there to watch the damage as it happened. Instead, she wanted to think of Tony as the ultimate provider for her and the kids. He was always concerned about the financial welfare of his family, sometimes almost obsessively so; he wanted Melody and the girls to be as well cared for as his body.
Unfortunately, boxing carried a lot more risks than riches. The average fighter had a better chance of winning the lottery than making a fortune through fights. Although Tony managed to bring home a prize purse of around $1,000 every few months, that wasn't nearly enough to support his family. So he worked full-time in the encapsulation department of Broomfield's Geneva Pharmaceuticals, one of the nation's largest makers of generic drugs.
Despite the demands of his job and his training, Tony found the time to coach his girls' soccer team. It was a role he relished and held until his daughters were in high school. Even though money was tight, Tony would often dig into his pocket to buy cleats for team members whose parents couldn't afford the equipment. He couldn't stand to see people held back from something they loved, especially if that love involved sports.
In 1990, Melody and Tony went to the county courthouse, signed a piece of paper and were officially married. The same year Melody formally received the last name of Duran, Tony gave it up. His younger brother, Johnny, had quit boxing in his late teens and had gone on to rack up a series of traffic offenses and marijuana busts -- often using Tony's name. The impersonation caused so many legal problems for Tony -- not to mention a temporary stay in jail -- that he had his name changed to Tony Durazo. He used the new name on all legal documents, and Durazo is listed as an alias on Tony's online boxing records.
In the early '90s, Tony embarked on a series of matches against heavy hitters in Texas, New York and Nevada. He lost all but one. To toughen his fighter, Boardman sent Tony to a California camp run by boxing promoter Babe Griffin. Tony returned to Colorado not long after; he wanted to be with his wife and kids. In a sport so ruthlessly competitive, such a choice can be the deciding factor of who breaks into the bigtime. Boardman knew it and was furious with Tony.
But others wondered if Boardman had moved Tony up too quickly. Had he thrown his fighter to the Vegas wolves, when Tony could have been eased into the den more effectively? One poor decision by a manager -- an unwise match-up made because of cockiness, quick cash or poor negotiation skills -- could destroy a boxer's future. That's what had happened to Boardman's son, whose bottle rocket of a career had effectively fizzled out by the time he was 21. Tony wasn't some pimple-faced tenderfoot, though. He was a hard-muscled amateur who'd barreled his way through hundreds of fights before Boardman launched him professionally. But now, six years later, Tony had been boxing for three-quarters of his life -- with no title belt to show for it. He was two years from thirty, and if his shot was ever going to come, it had to be soon.
Though Tony was grateful to the old man, he and Boardman parted ways following a squeaking loss to then-undefeated national Golden Gloves champion Eddie Hopson in 1992 at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas. Denny Nelson stepped in; he'd been carrying Boardman's spit bucket for ten years and knew Tony's fighting style as well as anyone.
Denny had had a promising future as a pro fighter, too, until a lead pipe in a mid-'70s street brawl shattered his skull and boxing career. After that, Denny says, he "jumped into a liquor bottle." He didn't emerge until 1983, when he began coaching others in the "sweet science" as a volunteer at St. Joe's gym.
A decade later, Colorado's boxing scene was coming around. In 1993, boxing officials and enthusiasts formed the non-profit Colorado Boxing Alliance, intending to bring a semblance of order to local fights by creating standards and regulations. Although the alliance had no legal teeth, it slowly began refurbishing the reputation of boxing in this state ("Down for the Count," February 6, 1997).
But when Tony's big shot came, it wasn't even in this country. He finally got his chance at a title against a mean-faced Puerto Rican whose record was equally scary.
By 1993, John-John Molina had won thirty of his last 33 fights, many by knockout. He'd earned and lost and re-won the International Boxing Federation's Super Featherweight title. He'd trounced contenders who had more wins than Tony Duran had matches. A fight between the two, in Denny's words, would be "a hell of a battle." And it would be on John-John's home turf.
In Puerto Rico, boxing isn't just a sport; it's a religion. Fighters like John-John are practically canonized as divinely ordained saints with clenched fists and black eyes. Tony and Denny learned this quickly, when they stepped off the plane to a barrage of questions from reporters. Who was this Mainlander fighting John-John?
They quickly sensed that things were stacked against them. The organizers had put Tony's training gym in a small fishing village so far away from San Juan that they spent much of the week driving back and forth to the capital city for press conferences rather than preparing for the match. Then, when they showed up on fight night, Tony and Denny discovered that the three judges and the referee were all Puerto Ricans -- not a good sign when the hometown hero was a near deity. So Tony focused on strategy. Both fighters weighed 133 pounds, but John-John was four inches taller -- definitely not somebody he'd be able to take out with one punch. Never a dancer, Tony liked to be close to his adversary, where he could feel the guy's breath as he knocked it from his lungs. He knew he'd have to come in strong and work the champ relentlessly.
Suddenly, the bell. Early on, Tony sank jabs into John-John's ribs and face. The champ returned the favor. Come round two, Tony took some body blows but let loose with a cannonball of a right hook that opened a gash over John-John's right eye. It was a chink in the armor, and Tony began needling the wound with jabs.
John-John was getting nervous. This fight was supposed to be a gimme for the champ, and now it was turning into a toss-up. He'd already signed a multimillion-dollar contract to fight Manuel Medina the next month; the possibility of losing had never crossed his mind. But Tony easily won the second round.
Denny knew the judges were getting edgy, and he warned Tony against getting trapped on the ropes. "They're looking for any reason to stop the fight," he said. "And not because of the cut."
The bell signaled round three. John-John quickly boxed Tony up against the ropes, then hit him with a flurry of combinations. The fight was stopped on a TKO -- just like that. "It was home cooking all the way," says Denny.
The title shot was gone.
Tony Duran didn't go down without a fight. He went back to his old trainer Smitty, who was now handling Mark Fernandez, too, and over the next five years went up against some of the biggest names in American boxing: Jeff Mayweather, Jesus Chaves, Floyd Mayweather Jr.
By this point, though, it was clear that Tony had become a professional opponent, a fighter brought in not to win, but to lose. An opponent creates victories for up-and-coming prospects -- and Tony did, padding the records of other fighters who would go on to become contenders and title holders. Though some of the bang had left Tony's punch and some of the hunger had left his gut, he always gave the big names a run for their money. He remained ready to fight at a moment's notice. He was so well conditioned, he could hit the gym for a week and be ready for eight-round headline matches in Atlantic City or Dallas.
These high-profile fights brought in money. Tony put a down payment on a brand-new four-bedroom house in the Hunter's Glen development in Thornton. He bought a new car for his wife and started saving for his girls' college educations. His family was his championship belt, and he bragged about them constantly at work, with sparring partners and to fishing buddies. Tony started attending church every week. He considered himself a born-again, 34-year-old silent fighter for God.
And then he got the fight of his life. Just three months after the family moved into their new house. Tony was at the dentist's getting his teeth cleaned when his neck and face began to itch. His lungs burned; he couldn't breathe. It was like he was being crushed from the inside out. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors determined that he had experienced a reaction to his dentist's rubber gloves: He had developed a severe allergy to latex.
In the mid-'80s, when concerns over AIDS prompted many industries to require the use of latex gloves, doctors began seeing many patients with latex allergies. The demand for gloves had grown so large that manufacturers began mass-producing them, often leaving out stages in the process that would have cleansed the protein-powder coating from the rubber. Since he'd started working at Geneva, where he operated a machine that prepared prescription pills, Tony had always worn latex gloves, sometimes going through twenty pairs a day. And each time he took a glove off, he breathed in a puff of latex/protein powder.
After that episode, Tony began having frequent reactions to latex. Dr. Ronald Balkissoon, an expert on latex allergy, treated him at National Jewish Medical Center. Some people with the affliction might experience only skin rashes or even asthma, but Tony suffered from the most severe form, where he'd descend into anaphylactic shock. When Tony's lungs encountered latex, a chain reaction would occur in his body: Airways would close, his blood pressure would drop, and he often lost consciousness. For months, Tony was taken from work in an ambulance at least once a week, recalls Luis Silva, a fellow employee at Geneva who's also a boxing instructor at Thornton PAL. Geneva provided Tony with non-latex gloves and revamped the air-duct system; when that didn't help, the company moved him to the printing department.
But latex can also be found in carpeting, erasers, rubber bands, car tires and shoe soles -- not to mention the air that permeated the building. The very air he breathed was poisonous to Tony, and he developed severe asthma. The anaphylactic reactions were treated with massive doses of anti-inflammation steroids -- usually Prednisone -- that caused him to gain as much as twenty pounds. For Tony, a fit, lightweight fighter who'd always hovered near the 130-pound mark, the change felt massive.
His body grew hypersensitive to foods like fruits and vegetables -- the types of foods he'd eaten to stay in shape -- which it mistook for latex proteins. One day Tony was allergic to celery, the next to oranges. A week later it was spinach and carrots. Tony loved apples and ate them constantly; now he couldn't go near them. After eight months of recurring hospital visits, he finally went on workers' comp. Melody had a job at a nearby bank, but Tony worried constantly about the family's finances.
His health was uncertain, but he continue to fight -- both for the money and to convince himself he could. From 1997 until 2000, Tony took eight bouts against such top fighters as Juan Jose Arias, Ray Oliveira and Harold Miller. He headlined at venues like the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City and the Celebrity Theater in Phoenix. He would provide special, non-latex gloves for the referees, but he still had to avoid the padded corner posts and any clothing that might contain latex. When he had reactions, Tony would pull an EpiPen syringe from a medical-supplies pouch he always carried and inject epinephrine into his own thigh.
"His record went to shit," says Smitty, who worked as cornerman in many of these matches. "But you know, it takes more guts to fight people in the ring when you know you can't win." Smitty, like all of Tony's boxing friends, was aware of the fighter's illness but never knew the true extent of his struggle. "He was always so protective of his family and that side of his life that he never talked about how sick he was. He would just say it was nothing and hid it from us," Smitty explains. "So nobody knew."
In four years, Tony added thirteen losses to his stats.
But he also added a new dimension to his love of the sport. As a wingman to Smitty, Tony began training local boxers. Team Dynamite's roster included Marcia Budde, who was in her forties when she decided that she wanted to box. Most trainers would laugh at the idea of taking on a middle-aged woman, but Tony stepped up to the challenge, giving Marcia the nickname "Two-Guns" because she wore camouflage shorts to the gym.
In 1998, Tony began training Ray Mascarenas, a 22-year-old from west Denver who'd never boxed before but had been in enough street fights to last the rest of his life. Ray had heard that Tony was the type of trainer who was willing to take chances on fighters with less-than-promising outlooks, and he also liked the idea of being trained by a professional still taking fights. The first time Ray called, Tony asked his weight.
"I'm about 277," Ray answered.
"You've got to be kidding me. A Hispanic heavyweight?" Tony was skeptical. "What's your height?"
"Six-one," Ray replied.
"All right," Tony laughed. "We'll get you down to 250 in no time."
Tony worked him hard those first days. "He was a little guy, but he had me hurting!" says Ray, who was used to weightlifting but had never experienced a boxer's workout. They went through stretches and one-twos, worked the heavy bag. For a week afterward, Ray couldn't lift his arms. As time went on, he learned how to bob and weave and, most important, how to read people. Within four months, Ray had dropped to 250 pounds, and Tony enrolled his fighter in some local Toughman competitions. Before working with Tony, all Ray had known was how to destroy somebody. Tony showed him how to be a powerful fighter and at the same time coordinate that power.
Ray won all of his Toughman fights. Marcia began taking pro fights in Tacoma, Sturgis and Austin.
Tony's boxers saw only fleeting moments of their trainer's sickness. He was a calm and cautious trainer who pushed him hard, Ray remembers, but also liked to joke around. He never asked for payment, and whenever Ray offered money, Tony always brushed him off. "No, that's cool," he'd say. Sometimes Ray would take Tony out to dinner just to try and even things out.
In 2000, the Colorado Legislature voted to reinstate the Colorado State Boxing Commission as a state agency charged with overseeing all boxing, kickboxing and mixed martial-arts fights. Commission director Josef Mason often got calls from Tony wanting to know about rules and regulations. "He gave me a lot of different scenarios -- what if this happened, what if that happened. He wanted to know everything," Mason remembers. "It showed me he really looked out for the fighter, and it showed me that maybe he had things that happened in his past as a fighter that he didn't want to have happen to the fighter that he was representing."
That same year, Tony received a small settlement from Geneva along with a commitment to pay any future medical costs connected with his work-related illness. By now, Tony's latex allergy had taken a toll on his psychological health as well. The steroids that had stopped his brutal allergic attacks had created a chemical imbalance in his brain: Among Prednisone's side effects are increased irritability, troubles with concentration and elevated moods. Doctors initially prescribed anti-depressants like Zoloft, but those only seemed to make Tony's moods more erratic. For the first time in his life, Tony felt trapped in his own body. His entire life, he'd communicated through physical action. Now his body was not only refusing to speak for him, but it was rebelling.
Tony became severely depressed. Psychiatrists finally diagnosed him with bipolar disorder and began treating him with various mood stabilizers. "When you have an imbalance in your brain like that, doctors don't know how this medication will affect you or how this one won't," Melody says. "It's called 'practicing medicine,' because that that's exactly what they did: They practiced." The mixture of drugs had a huge effect on Tony, who'd rarely taken even over-the-counter medications. He started sleepwalking at night, and by day was distant and paranoid. He'd go through weeks of manic phases, where he felt euphoric and energetic, and then crash into days of deep depression. The new drug cocktails made him gain even more weight, and Melody had to constantly check to make sure he was taking his medication. She began to feel more like a monitor than a wife. She could handle the drudgery of Tony's physical problems, but the psychological ones were dragging her down, too.
Friends started noticing the changes in Tony's demeanor. Once outgoing and happy, he'd become withdrawn and uncomfortable. "He wasn't the same guy," says Luis. "We should have known something was up."
The drugs he was taking for manic depression began causing seizures, and Tony went on Depakote. External pain was something he knew how to handle, but this internal pain was different. He felt like a failure as a husband and a provider. He'd built up his family the same way he had built up his body; now he felt useless in both respects.
In January 2004, Melody asked for a trial separation, and Tony moved into a nearby apartment. They still saw each other every day, though. Tony had set up a gym in the unfinished basement of their home where he was training fighters, including his young nephew Angelo.
In early March, after another anaphylactic reaction and another injection of Prednisone, Tony intentionally overdosed on Depakote. He was in a coma for two days. After he was released from the hospital, he immediately checked into West Pines, a behavioral health facility in Wheat Ridge, and began attending a treatment group for people struggling with bipolar disorder. Tony had always been religious, but now he was becoming obsessed with the idea of moving to the other side, of entering heaven and being with God. He studied the Bible constantly and felt that he had found a loophole that would allow him through the holy gates even if he took his own life.
"He always thought he could fix everybody, you know," Melody says. "He'd take guys who didn't want to work, that were smoking and drinking, and he'd say, 'I can help you turn your life around.' I just wish he could've done that for himself at the end."
On April 11, 2004, three Northglenn police officers walked up a flight of wooden stairs toward apartment K-202. The tenant who lived below had told them that approximately fifteen minutes earlier, around 4:30 p.m., he'd heard a loud thump on his ceiling. This was shortly after a man had called the police, saying he had a gun and planned to kill himself.
Tony had considered everything. He'd gone to bingo the day before with his mother, then watched the DU hockey championship game with Smitty at his apartment; he was supposed to go to Smitty's that night to catch a boxing match on HBO. Although Melody had decided to make the separation permanent, that morning he'd been back at the house with her and the girls, coloring Easter eggs. But he'd been lethargic and aloof, and it was clear he was not taking his medication. He and Melody had argued, and Tony had threatened to kill himself if the two did not get back together. Tony then returned to his apartment; he was expected back for dinner.
Instead, he phoned 911 and asked officers to come clean up the mess. He also gave them Melody's phone number.
A few minutes earlier, he'd called his mother, sounding strange and upset. She couldn't quite explain it, but she was concerned enough to go to Tony's apartment building, where she waited in the parking lot with Melody's sister while the officers crept toward Tony's unit. Melody had never been able to watch Tony's matches, to watch her husband fall, and this was no different. So after the police called, she'd sent her sister with a key to Tony's apartment in her stead.
By the door, one officer peeked through a crack in the blind and saw a person lying on the floor of the apartment. Another officer unlocked the door, and the three entered cautiously. The fighter, now a light heavyweight at 170 pounds, was down, barely alive, a pool of blood around his head. He lay on his back with his arms outstretched, wearing a striped dress shirt, gray slacks and black shoes. His right leg was straight, his left leg folded under him. On the carpet near his right hand was a black Taurus revolver. The officers lowered their weapons. Investigators later concluded that Tony had been standing in the hallway near his front door when the self-inflicted gunshot knocked him backwards.
It was the hardest hit he ever took.
Tony had left a note to be read at his funeral: No matter who you are, no matter where you've been, no matter what you've done. God is madly in love with you. The Bible says if you come to him he will in no way cast you out. Everyone is welcome to him. It doesn't matter what race you're from. It doesn't matter what background you have. It doesn't matter how you grew up. Now's the time to come to him and give your all to him. You see, God is in Love with you.
More than 200 people attended the reception for Tony at a Federal Heights mortuary. Many of them were boxers Tony had trained, or trained with. Promoters, announcers, officials -- associations made throughout the years. Tony was all about respect, his friends say. He earned it because he gave it. And for all the hurt, for all the sweat, for all the fighters who built up their bodies and destroyed them for nothing and everything, there wasn't a thing Tony respected more than the sport of boxing.
That's why Tony's death hit everyone so hard. For a man who'd fought more than 42 professional fights, who'd keep going no matter what, it was a bitter and uncharacteristic end. "He was a tough guy. He was invincible," Marcia Budde says. "It was hard to believe, because I always thought he would come out on top. Quitting was never an option."
Smitty didn't cry when his father died, but he cried for Tony. "You worry about them, and then you're close to them," Smitty says. "I miss him like a son. Sometimes I wish he would come through that door so I could kick his ass."
Before Tony killed himself, he'd phoned Denny Nelson. His former trainer didn't get the message until he'd returned from St. Anthony's, where Tony died after eight hours on life support. Tony had apologized to Denny for losing the title shot in Puerto Rico. He was sorry they hadn't realized their dreams, but he knew there was a place for him in heaven. "Please, please make sure my wife is okay," Tony had pleaded. "Don't take this out on her. I love her so much."
The final words at the service came from Mark Fernandez, who still thinks of Tony as his champion, the brother he'd always wanted. "There's a saying in boxing," he told the crowd. "'Don't let boxing take from you. Instead, you have to take from boxing.' Well, boxing took everything from Tony, and Tony still gave back."
Angelo Duran gasps through his mouthpiece and looks up into the fierce lights of the Stockyards Arena. The thirteen-year-old is boxing in the championship bout of the 119-pound class at the 2005 Colorado Golden Gloves Tournament. It's the first big match for Angelo since his Uncle Tony killed himself a year before. Angelo now works with the 20th Street Gym's Robert Baca, chosen by Tony after he became too debilitated to train his nephew.
Inside his white headgear, Angelo has a thin dusting of hair on his upper lip that hovers above a perpetually cocky grin. When the bell rings for round two, he approaches his opponent, Jose Contras, who is taller by at least five inches. But as the two boys make contact, it's clear who's more confident in the ring. Angelo ducks and slips beyond Jose's punches, only to pop up with a fast uppercut or body jab. With his muscular build, Angelo has a low center of gravity that allows him to target his opponent's midsection. Periodically he steps back and eyeballs Jose's movement, parrying incoming punches and sticking jabs to the head. Angelo thinks back to the hours spent in his uncle's basement, practicing hours of combinations and punches. He can hear Tony's voice: Use your footwork, think before you strike, observe the guy at all times.
The third round comes with an upswing for Jose, who lands some point-scoring blows to the top of Angelo's head. As he steps back a few paces to look for an opening on his wobbly challenger, Angelo pauses. He seems lost for a moment, like his mind has stalled, unsure of where to go next.
"Quit messin' around, Angelo!" his mother screams from the folding chairs at ringside. His father, Tony's brother Johnny, throws shadow punches in the dirt.
Angelo snaps alert. He finishes out the round, landing a few punches. A few minutes later, the three judges give their decision to the announcer -- and the referee raises Angelo's arm in the air.
Tony would have loved it.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Reader: Heroin Crisis Caused by Mexican Cartels Losing Pot Money in Colorado
Sun., Oct. 11, 12:00pm
University of Denver Pioneers Volleyball vs. University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks Women's VolleyballSun., Oct. 11, 2:00pm
Wed., Oct. 14, 8:00pm
Fri., Oct. 16, 12:00am
- Wanted: A Brewery for DIA's New Hotel
- Anti-Gang Activist Terrance Roberts Found Not Guilty of Attempted Murder