Panama has produced a considerable number of outstanding world athletes and a few bona fide legends. Many of them have come from the ranks of Panama’s poorest families.
Panama is known for producing great boxers, the best known of whom is Roberto Durán. Nicknamed Manos de Piedra (Hands of Stone), he held world titles in four weight categories: lightweight, welterweight, junior middleweight, and middleweight. He earned the welterweight title in a famous match against “Sugar” Ray Leonard in June 1980. But his career took a sharp downward turn during a rematch with Leonard in November of that same year.
Durán, after being taunted repeatedly by a fast-moving Leonard, told the referee during the eighth round that he wanted to stop the fight. The two words he spoke to end the match, no más (no more), would haunt the rest of his career and cause an uproar back home. The words are better remembered today than the fact Durán went on to win two more world titles. His best days behind him, a car accident finally forced him to retire in 2002 at the age of 51. He is considered one of the best boxers in history, with 104 wins in 120 fights, 69 of them knockouts.
Panama has also produced champion horse-racing jockeys, by far the most famous of whom is Laffit Pincay Jr. In 1999, Pincay broke Willie Shoemaker’s record for career wins. He rode until April 2003, when a fall during a race left him with a broken neck and forced him to retire at the age of 56. By then, he had racked up an astonishing 9,530 victories.
But in sheer volume of great athletes, Panama’s biggest contribution to world sports has been the disproportionate number of major-league baseball players. These include Hall-of-Fame first baseman Rod Carew, who retired in 1986 with 3,053 career hits. He was born on a train going from Colón to Panama City and was named Rodney after the doctor who delivered him. Stars include New York Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera and Houston Astros left fielder Carlos Lee.
Panama’s greatest international football (soccer) star to date is forward Julio César Dely Valdés, who earned the nickname “Panagol” for his prowess as a striker while playing for Nacional de Montevideo in Uruguay. He spent much of his career playing in Spain and Uruguay before retiring in 2004 at the age of 37. He’s considered one of the best football players to come out of Central America.
Panama has also had some track and field stars. Long-jumper Irving Saladino won a gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games, Panama’s first.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition