FRANKIE DUARTE was not yet 21 years old when he sparked a riot at the Olympic Auditorium. A raucous split decision over Famosito Gomez in April 1975 sent the afición into a liquor-fuelled frenzy. They obliterated seats, set bonfires, hurled bottles into the ring (one of them struck Duarte in the head), sprayed water hoses every which way, and charged through the ropes, where Referee Larry Rozadilla promptly kayoed one of them with a dead-aim right cross. That was how much heat the Southern California scene could produce in the 1970s. And that conflagration acted as a metaphor, of sorts, for the tumultuous life and career of Duarte, who nearly self-immolated with alcohol and drugs.

Duarte should have been the next Bobby Chacon, the freewheeling featherweight whose charisma and concussive left hook made him a wealthy man before he petered out in his mid-twenties. The irony was that, in some ways, Duarte did become the next Bobby Chacon. Duarte had in common with Chacon more than just boyish good looks, a Chicano background, and a thrills, chills, and spills ring-style. Duarte also loved partying and he also shared a self-destructive worldview that limited his success in the ring. Like Chacon, Duarte wasted his best years, but he never came close to achieving what “The Schoolboy” did. At his peak, in the mid-1970s, Chacon won a world title and set a record for a featherweight purse during an era when the little big men ruled the West Coast, including Danny Lopez, Ruben Olivares, Chango Carmona, Chucho Castillo, Jesus Pimentel, Carlos Zarate, and Alfonso Zamora.

But Duarte never rose above local hero status and that was because of a dark side that seemed almost incongruous with his appearance and demeanor. Soft-spoken, with a cherubic smile, barely 5-feet-3, usually no more than 120 pounds — Duarte hardly seemed big enough to contain so many demons. Yet he could say, almost sheepishly, that he had been expelled from kindergarten, ran with street gangs, and began sniffing glue before he was a teenager. After Duarte dropped out of high school, his father took him to the Teamsters Boys Club in Los Angeles for boxing lessons, hoping to keep Duarte away from the sun-drenched but seedy streets of Mar Vista and Venice, where the bodybuilders shared equal time on Muscle Beach with cholos and surfers.

A solid amateur during a competitive era, Duarte turned pro in 1973 and quickly established himself as a crowd favorite in Southern California, warring often at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. By the late 1970s, however, everything began catching up to Duarte, and everything meant PCP, liquor, LSD, and heroin.

“I was my own worst enemy, a follower, a loser,” Duarte told the Los Angeles Times. “I didn’t believe in myself. I had a bad attitude. I just wanted to get my fights over so I could party. I didn’t care. I just wanted to be with the boys.”

‘Heroin was the worst… I never really got hooked on any of them until heroin at the end’

Duarte had built a solid 28-2 record, had crashed the bantamweight top ten, and had established himself as a box-office attraction. But all that was set to collapse. A WBC title eliminator against featherfisted Alberto “Tweety” Davila on June 9, 1977, ended disastrously, with Duarte hitting the deck three times en route to a fifth-round TKO loss. His feeble performance against Davila – who had entered the bout having scored only six knockouts in his career – alarmed his followers, but the truth was that Duarte was in no condition to fight. He was barely in condition to live. Not your run-of-the-mill substance abuser, Duarte hollowed himself out year after year full throttle with needle, bottle, pill. After being stopped by Davila, he lost himself in a permanent midnight.

From February 1979 to May 1985, Duarte fought only three times, dropping a pair of decisions in Honolulu while going through the motions. Eventually, even the pretense of being a prizefighter gave way to his addiction. “Heroin was the worst,” Duarte told KO Magazine in 1987. “I never really got hooked on any of them except for the heroin at the end.”

And the end had almost come early for Duarte when he overdosed one night among a crew of fellow junkies. They tried to revive him — with CPR, with ice cubes shoved down his pants, with lit cigarettes stubbed out on the soles of his feet — but Duarte was seemingly too far gone. The next afternoon, however, he miraculously stirred from his mini-coma, rose groggily to his feet, and staggered off, bleary-eyed, into a future as bleak as it was uncertain. “I had given up on life. Just drifting. I was broke, no car, no home, nothing. A job here and there, pool maintenance, or, once, repairing luggage in a luggage factory. But, really, nothing. I couldn’t even sell anything because I already sold everything I ever had. And just think: I had been a contender.”

His life now suggested what filmmaker and photographer Bruce Weber once said about troubled jazzman Chet Baker: “His idea of being normal was being out of it.” Where Baker continued recording and playing shows throughout his difficulties, however, Duarte had given up even his profession, the one thing that had offered him a sense of distinction. Shame and guilt now haunted his waking moments. Worse, his regrets infiltrated his sleep.

“In the dreams, I was always in the ring with a top contender. I could hear the crowd chanting, ‘Frankie, Frankie.’ And then I’d wake up in a nightmare. That’s when the nightmares started, when I woke up.”

Frankie Duarte

Eventually, these existential terrors drove Duarte back to the gym for the first time in years. He began training with Joe Goosen in North Hollywood, determined to reverse his self-image as a failure, and to rid himself of an anonymity that distressed him more than anything. “I went to Santa Monica College,” he told sportswriter Jim Murray, “and we go through this roll call and no one ever remembers me. I mean, I’d been on national TV, even. I’d fought contenders, and they didn’t even know who I was.” Duarte returned to the ring with a TKO over Luis Hernandez on May 30, 1984.

It took only three comeback fights before Duarte decided to accelerate. In May 1985, for a purse of $5,000, he accepted an over-the-weight bout against undefeated WBA bantamweight champion Richie Sandoval in Sacramento. With wins over Jeff Chandler and Edgar Roman, the smooth-boxing Sandoval was arguably the best 118-pounder in the world, but he had decided to stay busy between defences with non-title fights, and he considered Duarte little more than a hangover from another era.

For 10 rounds, Duarte pushed a cautious Sandoval to the brink, but the years he had lost to alcohol and drugs had left him a step behind. He dropped a split decision that divided the crowd at the Municipal Auditorium. “I went in there to win,” Duarte said after the fight. “I didn’t come out glad to have gone the distance with the champ. I went in there for the knockout. Anything else would have been the attitude of a loser.”

In the mid-1980s the Forum, home of the Los Angeles Lakers, sponsored tournaments across various weight divisions, broadcast on cable television, and promoted by Dr Jerry Buss. Surprisingly, Duarte entered the bantamweight tournament scheduled for the spring and summer of 1986, which not only promised difficult fights in succession but also guaranteed an all-or-nothing outcome. Each stage of the tournament offered a minimal purse; only a victory in the finals would pay off. Here was Duarte, a 31-year-old bantamweight with a harrowing backstory and enough mileage on his wheels to qualify for the scrap heap, trying to buck a series of longshot odds. Yet he powered his way through the opening rounds, defeating younger, stronger pros who might have reminded him of himself when he had been a popular draw in the 1970s. In the finals, he battered undefeated Jesus “The Hawaiian Punch” Salud from round to round for an upset TKO victory. With the win, Duarte not only earned $50,000 (in those days a fortune for little men), but he had resurrected himself as a boxer — and as a man.

By beating Salud, (a future world titlist) Duarte also established himself as a legitimate contender, for the first time since 1977. During his heyday, when he electrified crowds with his kamikaze style, Duarte had never received a title shot. Now, after a comeback that had bordered on miraculous, the Hollywood ending seemed in reach: Duarte signed to face WBA bantamweight champion Bernardo Piñango. His first chance at championship glory would take place at The Forum in Inglewood, on February 3, 1987, and it would generate wistful hopes from Duarte, a man who had once been little more than a walking suicide. “I just want to do this one more time,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “No, two more times. Win the title, then make one successful defense. Then I’ll buy that little house on the prairie I’ve been dreaming about and disappear.”

An awkward volume-puncher with tireless legs, Piñango had won a silver medal at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and had parlayed his skittish moves into a remunerative career as an itinerant champion. This would be his fourth consecutive title fight on the road. In less than a year, his passport had been stamped in New Jersey, Turin, Johannesburg, and now Inglewood. “If the money is right, I go,” Piñango said about facing Duarte in California and about hostile crowds, in general. “They can’t come in through the ropes. They can’t help him.”

Originally from Caracas, Venezuela, Piñango was now fighting out of Panama City, Panama. Both locales had been headquarters for the WBA at one point or another, and the judges for the fight hailed from Argentina, Panama, and Puerto Rico (another WBA stronghold). Even before the opening bell rang, it seemed as if Duarte would have to overcome more than just Piñango to win a title.
In a dramatic 15-round battle, Duarte and Piñango rumbled from bell to bell while a partisan crowd roared itself hoarse. As if to see his fictional creation become a reality for the nth time, Sylvester Stallone and his entourage sat at ringside, cheering on Duarte. What the man who played Rocky saw was an example of how, in boxing, reality nearly always outstrips fantasy.

Faster and rangier than Duarte, Piñango darted in and out, unloading pesky combinations that may not have had much power but scored points. They also left Duarte with bruising and a deep cut above his right brow that sent rivulets of blood pouring down the side of his face. Piñango took an early lead with his haphazard attack, but Duarte barreled forward, like a miniature Sherman, for every second of every round, absorbing an assortment of jabs, crosses, hooks, and uppercuts. There were also several body shots that strayed below the belt, and Piñango lost points in the second, fourth, and eighth rounds for low blows. These deductions kept Duarte in the fight. Despite facing a hail of blows from the champion, Duarte consistently returned fire with both hands and staggered Piñango in the 10th. Two rounds later, he finally broke through and floored Piñango with a pinpoint right cross. The crowd erupted when Piñango hit the canvas, but the tough Venezuelan beat the count and survived until the bell rang. Over the final three rounds, they took turns hammering each other, with Piñango holding a slight edge because of his accuracy and work rate.

When the final bell rang, the decision seemed uncertain, but the scorecards were unanimous: Bernardo Piñango had retained his title and Frankie Duarte saw his dream shattered.

While a case could be made that Piñango, who was the busier fighter, had indeed outpointed Duarte, at least one of the scorecards seemed unmoored from reality. Judge Juan Maio tabbed the bout 145-140 in favor of Piñango, a tally that seemed not only objectionable but also mathematically implausible. After all, Piñango had lost three points for infractions, had been knocked down once, and was staggered in the 10th round.

Longevity is hardly a given for most bantamweights and Duarte was 32 with a past that had been physically damaging – both as a slugger with a shaky defense and as a sometimes-homeless drug addict and alcoholic. Losing to Piñango, however, wrecked his psyche. “I figured I got robbed,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “After that fight, I was never the same.”

On June 27, 1987, Duarte made his last run at a future in boxing, and it would begin with a figure from the past: his old nemesis, Alberto Davila, who had knocked him out a decade earlier. Davila, the smooth-boxing bantamweight who had retired from boxing in 1980, finally won his first world title in his fourth attempt, on September 3, 1983. Celebrating was out of the question, however, when his opponent, 21-year-old Kiko Bejines, died after slipping into a coma. A few months later, Davila injured his back and underwent surgery. He was stripped of his championship and forced to lay off for more than a year. After dropping a decision to Miguel “Happy” Lora in a 1986 title bid, Davila was thought to be finished. But the same could be said of Duarte, who had been on borrowed time ever since he had returned to the ring in 1984. Bantamweights rarely made the cut for national television, but CBS was so enthralled by the Piñango-Duarte brawl, it decided to broadcast this non-title crossroads matchup between two 118-pound men whose dreams were closer to delusions.

Duarte and Davila staged a Grand Guignol at The Forum that might have qualified as a “video nasty” if it had been distributed on cassette in the United Kingdom. They had nothing left, but what they had, they poured out. It was a bloodbath that finally ended in the 10th round when Davila was ruled unfit to continue due to a cut above his left eye that leaked like a keg with a hole in it.
With another marquee win under his belt, Duarte had guaranteed himself one last shot at a title, but he was unable to capitalise on the Davila fight. He began bickering with his promoter, Dan Goosen, and more than two years passed before he finally fought for a championship again. This time, he faced Mexican southpaw Daniel Zaragoza at The Forum on August 31, 1989, for the WBC super-welterweight title. He never had a chance. Zaragoza dominated en route to a 10th-round TKO stoppage.

Although Duarte failed to win a world title, he had, after rising from the ashes of an incinerated life, achieved one of his primary goals in a remarkable comeback. “Stopping drinking, it was hard,” he once said. “But then I started getting a couple of pats on the back. It was easier then. Pats on the back – that’s one of the reasons I’m fighting again, or ever did. The crowd chanting, ‘Frankie, Frankie’ again.”