LAS VEGAS, Nev. — I once shared a car with a man who claimed to be Roberto Duran’s promoter. He wore a lot of jewelry and a cheap brown suit and had a Spanish accent and was standing in front of the Las Vegas airport, flapping his arms, trying to catch a taxi.

It was 7 p.m., we were both late for a fight (Hagler- Leonard) and all the cabs, it seemed, were someplace else. He looked at me and said, “Split a rent-a-car?” I said sure. On the way in, he told me about Duran, how he was pretty fat and having money problems, but still had his great boxing skill. One day, he said, he would fight the big one again.

“How did you get to be his promoter?”

“Oh, I’ve known him a while,” he said.

Sure, I figured. And I’m Duke Ellington. I thanked him for the lift and never saw him again.

And now, it turns out, maybe I should have asked if he needed any investors. Duran, who fights Sugar Ray Leonard tonight in the “Oldies But Goodies” section of your sports page, is indeed promoted by three men who got him for a song, one of whom is named Louis DeCubas, and, for all I know, was the guy behind the wheel that night. The second promoter is a famous “silent partner,” whom I will tell you about in a minute. And the third is Mike Acri, 32, a man you never heard of who is about to make more money than you will earn in 10 years.

This is a story about how you become a rich and famous fight promoter.

First, you pick the right restaurants . . . Fat and flat “I met Roberto in a restaurant in Miami a few years ago,” Acri said. “We talked a little. Then I watched him destroy a guy named Juan Carlos Gimenez. He killed him. The way he fought that night, I knew there was still something there.”

Not only that, but at the time that something was going cheap. Duran was fat and laughable, a has-been with a no mas stain on his reputation. Acri, a small-time promoter from Erie, Pa., and two partners, were able to purchase Duran’s contract from his former promoter (who, it turns out, was in trouble for drugs; this is the boxing world, don’t forget). The price: $30,000.

Tonight, win or lose, that same promotion team will split a third of Duran’s $7.6 million purse. Let’s see. That’s $827,000 per man on a $10,000 investment. Not bad for meeting a guy in a restaurant, huh?

“I had to scrape to come up with my share two years ago,” Acri confessed.
“But there aren’t too many investments that pay off like this. I’m real happy to be associated with Roberto Duran.”

Then again, Duran has been helping businessmen all his life. He is known as a “fighter of the people.” Sometimes I think he wants to give each of them a chance to manage him. Unlike, say, Marvin Hagler, who stuck with the guys who discovered him for nearly 20 years, Duran has been steered by a wacky cast

of characters:

There was Sammy Medina, a Panamanian fighter-turned-security guard, who discovered Duran, then a 12-year-old shoeshine boy.

There was Alfredo Vasquez, who guided Duran’s first pro fights. Vasquez was a jockey. A jockey?

Next came Carlos Eleta, a millionaire in the airline and communications business, who remembered Duran as a poor kid who tried to steal coconuts from his estate.

I am not making this up.

Eleta paid Vasquez the whopping sum of $300 for Duran’s contract. (And Sam Phillips thought he got ripped off for Elvis Presley.) They were together through the glory years, the furious victories over Ken Buchanan, Pepino Cuevas and of course, Sugar Ray Leonard. Duran was a champion back then, so ferocious that if he looked at you, you felt spit. Find the man with the jewelry Those days are long gone. Duran is 38 now and fights a weight problem. He and Eleta split a long time ago, and Duran says Carlos “took all the money.” Meanwhile, Acri, DeCubas and a guy named Jeff Levine jumped on Duran’s horses. Why did the boxer trust these guys? “I think he saw we were straight shooters,” said Acri. Maybe. Or maybe Acri paid for dinner with an American Express card that didn’t bounce.

Wait. A twist. Levine sold his share of Duran to Gerry Cooney — yes, the Gerry Cooney, a supposed heavyweight boxer who, as near as I can tell, mostly sits in his garage and waits for some fool to offer him another bout.

So let’s see if we got this straight. A security guard, a jockey, a millionaire, an indicted drug criminal, three no- names and a blubbering heavyweight. Oh. Did we mention Duran’s new personal trainer? Carlos Hibbard, a former New York City cab driver, who “read a lot of magazines” to prepare for the job and has gotten Duran down from 200 pounds to 160 in a few short months.

“I give him 100 per cent credit,” says Duran. Not to mention a nice tip.

Of such staffs are champions made. Or broken. We’ll see tonight. If Duran loses, someone will surely drop out, perhaps to be replaced by an auto mechanic, or blackjack dealer. Of course if Duran wins, I’m looking for that guy with the jewelry and the cheap suit. And I’m gonna tell him I believed him all along.

Mitch Albom will be signing copies of “Bo” and “Decade of Champions” Friday, 5 to 6 p.m., at Little Professor on the Park, 380 South Main, Plymouth.

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