Across From Roberto Duran

Boxers never retire when they should. Even the best have a tendency to hang on for that one “last” fight – some for several “last” fights, as they embark on a sort of farewell tour for their fans – and hopefully, for their pocketbook. It doesn’t matter who the fighter is, they almost all hang on too long.

Sadly, all these last fights usually end up achieving, is underlining for us all to see that the fighter is but a shadow of what he used to be. Ali, Moore, Jones, et al… they’ve nearly all done it. That’s why it’s so hard to find a boxer who actually won his last fight – never mind his last nine!

Enter Michael Culbert. Culbert was a solid journeyman/fringe contender in the 80’s mostly. He put together an excellent record of only 4 losses in 35 pro fights. One of those losses was to a man who for many ranks as the greatest boxer of all-time; the legendary, International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee, Roberto Duran.

I sat down with Culbert to discuss that fight, boxing in general, and to catch up on what he’s doing these days. Covid-19 restrictions forced us to conduct our interview virtually but I was at least able to see this still fiery former boxer.

The calendar says Michael Culbert is 54 but he doesn’t look a day past 40. He’s fit and trim and looks ready to step back in the ring at a moment’s notice. He has the casual athleticism of a once world-class athlete. His movements are concise and efficient. He takes care of a few day to day things and then we begin our chat.

Me: Michael, how did you get into boxing?

Michael: Honestly Dave, it was Muhammad Ali. I was about 10-years-old. Ali was the most famous man on the planet. I saw what he did and how the world viewed him and I was hooked. I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I joined a local gym and got to work.

Me: How was your amateur career?

Michael: Good. I was 54-11. Ranked in the Top-20 nationwide. Fought Mickey Ward and lost a couple of hotly disputed decisions.

Me: What made you believe you were good enough to turn pro?

Michael: Well, that was a bit of a process. I started to notice that guys I had beaten in the amateurs were turning pro and enjoying some success. It really made me wonder. I got asked to go pro a couple of times but just didn’t think I was ready.

Then one day, Goody Petronelli, Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s trainer, asked me if I would turn pro. I had been sparring with future two-time world champion, Steve Collins at the time and he must have liked what he saw. He told me I was good enough and ready. I figured if I was good enough in the eyes of a legendary trainer like that, I’d give it a go. I said “Yes.”

Me: You amassed a very good record of 30-4-1. You won all but one of your final 13 fights. But that loss waa to the legend, Roberto Duran. How did that fight even come together?

Michael: That’s a really long story. I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version of it. Duran had recently lost a unanimous decision to Hector “Macho” Camacho. A rematch was in the works but the promoters wanted Duran to run off a few wins first, thus building credibility and making it easier to sell PPV’s.

He’d already scored a one-round knockout win in his first fight back but they needed a more credible opponent for his next bout. I wasn’t the first choice but boxing is weird. A coincidence here, an injury there, the stars aligned and I got the fight. Didn’t believe my manager either. Thought for sure it would be cancelled or something.

Then, a few days before the fight, my manager brought me the signed contract. I just kept staring at it. I might even have shed a few tears. (Michael smiles as he recalls this.) It was real. I was going to fight my idol,. Roberto, “Manos de Piedra” Duran.

Me: Do you still have the contract? Do you remember how much you guys were paid?

Michael: Yeah. I still have it. My proudest possession. I got $7500. I think Duran hauled in about $60,000 or so.

Me: At the time you fought, you had a good record at 21-3 but Duran was 98-12 with over 60 knockouts. He was already a multi-division, multiple times champion. He was already a legend. Did you believe, I mean really believe, that you could beat him?

Michael: Of course. I’m a boxer. I believed I could and would win every fight I was ever in. I’ll tell you something, I lost the fight but I never felt outclassed. Obviously he was better than me but I felt I was holding my own right to the end.

Me: Tell me what the atmosphere in the arena was like that night.

Michael: Well, (he chuckles slightly here) it definitely wasn’t a pro-Mike crowd. The fans were there to see a legend, not me. Took place in a casino in Chester, West Virginia. Was a very exciting night.

Me: Once the bell rang and the action began, did Duran surprise you in any way? Did he do things you hadn’t seen before?

Michael: You know, I remember meeting him before the fight and thinking to myself, “Damn, his face is so flat”. It made me think maybe I should get out of the game soon before that happened to me. As for the fight itself, well, have you ever seen a mongoose fight a snake?

No matter how many times the snake strikes, it just can’t catch the mongoose clean? I was the snake. Hitting Duran clean is next to impossible. He was right there in front of me, I was pretty good PLUS I was a southpaw, so awkward for a conventional fighter, yet I just couldn’t hit him. Then there was his body attack. It was unlike anything I had encountered before. He was relentless.

Me: Would you have fought him again or was once enough?

Michael: In a heartbeat! I always knew that if I’d had more than a couple weeks to prepare, if I’d had a full camp with proper sparring, etc., I’d have done much better.

Me: After the fight, you never lost again in your career. In fact, you won your last nine fights in a row and then, to the surprise of many, you retired. Why did you stop when you were doing so well?

Michael: Dave, I’ll tell you something. That wasn’t really planned. I still wanted to fight again and indeed planned to. But like I said before, boxing is a weird game. Every time my “next fight” was being talked about or arranged, I or my opponent would get hurt in training or there’d be a promotional problem, or some other obstacle. Weeks turned into months, turned into years – no fight.

Almost fought the excellent Glenn Johnson but I had separated some ribs in training and couldn’t even stand up, let alone train. Ray Leonard’s people rejected me as an opponent when they were looking for someone for him to fight. He never fought again though. By this point, I had started thinking seriously about what I’d do with the rest of my life – and then, the “rest of my life” was at my doorstep.

Me: What did you do next and what are you up to these days?

Michael: I began working with troubled youth. I have a degree in criminal justice. I felt that I could make a difference. I spent 20 years doing that. Very fulfilling but I wasn’t a State employee or anything; I worked for a contractor. When the job came to an end, I didn’t have a pension or anything like that. I tried a couple of different things before ending up in the disaster recovery/renovation business. So now I repair structures that have been damaged by fire, flood, natural disaster – whatever.

Me: Any regrets?

Michael: About my life? No. About my boxing career? Maybe I wish some of those fights and opportunities I missed had happened. Too many injuries or other problems at the wrong time. But overall, it was a blast. I had one hell of a ride!

We end the interview there. We can’t shake hands (Coronavirus again), but we do a virtual fist bump, wish each other well, and my screen fades to black. I’ve spoken with hundreds of retired boxers but Michael Culbert is different. There’s a fire burning in this man that tells me that even now, if I’m in a trench hole, Michael Culbert is who I want by my side.

He’s got my back. I imagine it’s because he walked away while on top. There’s a sort of “unfinished business” quality about Michael. Maybe it’s because he still has so much left in the tank. Michael Culbert; good boxer; great man.

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