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The Cautionary Tale of Boxer Esteban De Jesús

Esteban De Jesús was once considered Puerto Rico's best fighters. But drug addiction, which led to his AIDS related death, curtailed his career.
December 1, 2015, 4:50pm
AP Photo/Rainier Rentas

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Boxer Esteban De Jesús became internationally known on November 17, 1972 at Madison Square Garden. At just 21 years old, De Jesús had already amassed a 33-1 record and developed a huge following in his native Puerto Rico. His matchup that night against the heralded Robert Durán had the potential to catapult his career to stardom.

Durán, also 21, was undefeated, and just a few months removed from being crowned lightweight champion of the world. Durán was on his way to having one of boxing's most storied careers, and De Jesús was about to reach the pinnacle of his.

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"I expect my man to knock out Durán by the eighth round," De Jesús' trainer Gregorio Benitez had told the media before the fight. "It has been De Jesús' dream to fight in Madison Square Garden and we will win the fight one way or another."

Durán's title wasn't on the line, but the fight still drew 10,000 fans—most of them cheering on the Puerto Rican De Jesús, who was the kind of fighter who did everything well. He knew how to box. He punched hard. He was light on his feet and smooth, even when he got into trouble.

The two lightweights spent the first few moments feeling each other out, circling and exchanging punches. Then Durán threw a soft jab—a getting-to-know-you kind of punch. But he left his right hand down and his chin out, and De Jesús ducked the jab and nailed Durán with an arcing left hook that knocked him straight to the canvas.

"He just came out of the corner and took it right to Roberto Durán," said HBO boxing analyst Harold Lederman, who was one of the judges that night. "They seemed to be boxing on even terms, so to speak, in the middle of the round, and all of a sudden he threw that left hook and caught Durán in the jaw and Durán was sitting on his rear end looking up at De Jesús. And when Roberto Durán got up, it wasn't the same Roberto Durán."

The knockdown set the tone and allowed De Jesús to control the rest of the fight. He exchanged blows with the powerful Durán on even terms and came away unscathed. Lederman and his fellow judges made it a unanimous decision.

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It was Durán's first loss, and his last defeat until the famous no mas incident with Sugar Ray Leonard eight years later. He boxed for another three decades, until 2001, and remains a beloved, if complicated, figure in the sport.

De Jesús went on to become a champion too, and is considered by boxing historians to be one of the greatest Puerto Rican fighters of all time. But outside of Puerto Rico, he is largely forgotten. If De Jesús is remembered at all, it's not for his athletic greatness, but as a cautionary tale. His victory that November night against Durán did not lead him to stardom. Instead it propelled a descent into drug addiction, which eventually led to him contracting AIDS through the use of hypodermic needles.

Duran and De Jésus would meet twice more in the ring: once in Panama, and once in Las Vegas. But the most important meeting between the two men came outside the ring, in 1989, when Duran visited De Jésus when he was dying of AIDS in a clinic in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The champion wanted to see his old rival one last time.

This was two years before Magic Johnson would announce that he was HIV positive, and deep in an era when HIV and AIDS were still painfully stigmatized and largely misunderstood. In Latin America, the stigma was heavily associated with homophobia. But without a second thought, Durán reached down and hugged the emaciated De Jesús and gave his old foe a kiss on the forehead.

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The moment was captured by an Associated Press photographer, and the resulting image became a powerful symbol that AIDS victims were not to be feared or shunned, but rather embraced.

De Jesús died shortly afterward, and his death was followed, four years later, by the death of Héctor Lavoe, the legendary Puerto Rican salsa singer. Lavoe was—and remains—far more famous than De Jesús, but their stories ran eerily parallel. Lavoe also found international success and celebrity, particularly in New York. Lavoe also contracted HIV from intravenous drug use. And Lavoe also succumbed to AIDS.

The story of De Jesús and Lavoe is the story of HIV/AIDS in Puerto Rico to this day. In most of the world—including the United States and neighboring Latin American countries—sexual activity is the number one mode of transmission for HIV. In Puerto Rico, it is intravenous needle sharing.

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"Esteban was beloved by the fans," said Jorge Perez, a boxing columnist for the newspaper Primera Hora. "He was the biggest fighter in Puerto Rico at the time. When he beat Durán he became an idol."

After the Durán fight, De Jesús beat Ray Lampkin in San Juan for the vacant NABF lightweight title. He became Puerto Rico's most popular boxer. He fought frequently, and didn't lose again until his first rematch with Durán in the spring of 1974 when he was knocked out in the 11th round.

"He was good people, you know," said Edwin Viruet, a fellow Puerto Rican lightweight who fought De Jesús to a split decision loss in 1978. (Viruet still blames De Jesús' promoter at the time, Don King, for putting in the fix.) Viruet described De Jesús as a family man, a beautiful soul, who was close with his parents and siblings. He said he still sees one of De Jesús' older brothers, Victor, around the Bronx, where they both live.

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"Sometimes you get that big money, you got a lot of people talking to you, sometimes you got a weak mind, you do things you aren't supposed to do," said Viruet.

For De Jesús, it was drugs. According to a New York Times story from 1989, De Jesús was using even before his first fight with Durán. He became a cocaine addict, and eventually started shooting up speedballs—a mix of cocaine and heroin in the same syringe.

De Jesús shot up with his friends and with one of his older brothers, Enrique. He was successful enough in the ring that from the outside, it didn't seem to be getting in the way. In 1976, De Jesús won the WBC lightweight title from Guts Ishimatsu. He held it for a year and a half before losing it to Durán in the rubber match of their trilogy in Las Vegas.

"It was a proud moment because you had two Latino fighters doing battle in Las Vegas," Durán told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "It was a tough fight. De Jesús was a very good fighter.

"I remember I got drunk after the fight and I ran into De Jesús in the elevator. We were talking and I invited him back to the room to play dominoes—he said he couldn't beat me in the ring but he could take me in dominoes. But he never showed up."

By that third Durán fight, the drugs had already wrecked De Jesús' career.

"He was a great husband, a great brother, a great son, a great father, a great friend," said writer Chu Garcia, who covered De Jesús for the paper El Nuevo Dia. "But unfortunately he had that problem."

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Garcia recalled that De Jesús tried desperately to kick his addiction. He came from a big, supportive family, and with their help, he tried to go cold turkey. He called in a psychiatrist from Mexico. He even visited a local Santero—a Santeria priest.

Twice he was arrested for drug related offenses, but De Jesús skirted charges both times. In April of 1980, he lost a chance at the WBC super lightweight title to Saoul Mamby. After the fight, he announced his retirement.

Four months later, on November 25, Durán would lose his second fight ever, to Leonard in New Orleans. Durán had beaten Leonard in Montreal a few months earlier, but he quit unexpectedly in the eighth round of the rematch and lost by TKO. It was the low point of his career, and the words no mas would haunt him for years.

Two days after the no mas fight, on Thanksgiving, 1980, De Jesús injected himself with cocaine and took off from his house in San Juan in his wife's car. He got into a traffic dispute with another motorist. Eventually, he pulled out a pistol and shot the driver, an 18-year-old construction worker named Roberto Cintrón González.

Cintrón Gonzalez died three days later. De Jesús claimed to have been so high he didn't even remember the shooting. He was sentenced to life in prison.

"He was a great boxer and a great human being," said Manny Siaca, who trained De Jesús later in his career. "The only problem was the drugs. They ate up his life."

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De Jesús was not alone in his addiction—certainly not alone in the world of boxing. Durán's other rival, Leonard, admitted to using drugs in the '80s. Mike Tyson was a drug addict, as was Julio César Chávez. It's a long list. But De Jesús compounded his addiction by shooting and killing an 18-year-old in a drug-induced rage at a time when, at 29, he should have been at the height of his boxing powers.

The story shocked the boxing world. Nobody outside of his close friends and family had even known that de Jesús was an addict. And besides that, he was a beloved figure, intense and competitive, but thought by all to be a good man. Harold Lederman equated it to finding out that Miguel Cotto was a drug addict and had killed somebody.

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De Jesús eventually found God behind bars. He became a born-again Christian, and then a minister. He tended a small chapel in prison, giving daily sermons to his fellow inmates. Garcia, who visited him in prison, said that he believed De Jesús' religious conversion was genuine. It also came well before the news, in 1985, that his brother Enrique, had died of AIDS.

De Jesús had shared needles with Enrique for years. When he heard about his brother's death, he got himself tested, and came up HIV positive. Afterward, he gave an interview to a Puerto Rican television show in which he opened up about his addiction and disease. The interview was quoted extensively in the 1989 New York Times story.

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"You start first with friends and you get so wrapped up with the drugs, that before you know it, you're hooked,'' De Jesús said. ''They take you to parties and you start using the stuff. The worst part is when you open your eyes, it's too late. You're already addicted.''

De Jesús fought to have his sentence commuted, and in 1989, the Governor of Puerto Rico granted his wish: he could live out his final days in a treatment center in San Juan.

"When I visited him he was already skinny, really skinny," said Garcia of De Jesús, who in the final years of his career fought as a 140 pounder. "His skin was wasted. He was maybe 115 or 120 pounds. And two or three months after that, he was gone."

The rate of HIV mortality in Puerto Rico is higher than any other U.S. state or territory, and nearly four times the national average, according to statistics compiled by the nonprofit AIDS United. And more than 50 percent of newly infected people in Puerto Rico are intravenous drug users, according to a report last year in The Guardian on the rising confluence of heroin addiction and HIV on the island.

"Access to services is still way too basic," says Samuel Casillas, a clinical case worker for the nonprofit Iniciativa Comunitaria, a group that works specifically with drug addicts to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS.

Government health plans, Casillas, said, don't offer nearly enough in the form of preventative care. And Puerto Rico's decade-long economic crisis, which has resulted in mass emigration and unemployment rates over 12 percent, have left the government without the funds to effectively deal with the growing drug problem.

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"Before, needle exchanges could reach a larger population," Casillas said. "Now we're in a position where the population we deal with is smaller because that's what we can afford."

Nonprofit groups have tried to fill in the gaps left by shrinking government programs, but they too are struggling to come up with enough resources to actually make an impact.

De Jesús spent less than two months in the treatment center before his death. While there, he reportedly was visited by several high profile guests, including salsa singer Cheo Feliciano and baseball great Orlando Cepeda.

Then, of course, there was Durán—the man who had helped make De Jesús' career. Durán had a relatively rough time in the 1980s. In the years after the no más fight, he was beaten by Wilfred Benitez, who was the son of De Jesús' old trainer Gregorio, and then he was upset by an obscure Englishman named Kirkland Laing. He lost a unanimous decision to Marvin Hagler in 1983, and then six months later, he was knocked out in the second round by Tommy Hearns.

Durán was considered to be one of the toughest, meanest sons of bitches in the history of boxing—and someone intimately acquainted with both sides of the machismo culture in Latin America, having been called a coward and worse after his rematch with Leonard. Considering Duran's reputation, and the actions that had sent De Jésus' life off course in the first place, the visit itself seemed unlikely.

Neither man intended to make it a grand gesture. They were simply old rivals, born less than two months apart, whose lives had taken disparate paths in the 17 years since their first encounter. And that's why the photo became such a powerful symbol. In that moment, Durán and De Jésus were human beings, nothing less and nothing more.

In the quarter century since De Jesús was embraced by Durán, the stigma about HIV and AIDS in Puerto Rico has diminished significantly. More people have embraced preventative care, and each day, more are finding the courage to get tested, Casillas said. But not nearly enough is being done to prevent people from needing those tests in the first place. The island's most vulnerable continue to plunge dirty needles into their arms.

As budgets tighten, and people continue to go without the best care, lives will continue to unravel. It's a hard truth, and as painfully true today as it was for Esteban De Jesús more than two decades ago.