Died on this day: Esteban de Jesus
His victory over an all-time great in his prime defined his career. Tragedy and heartbreak defined the rest of his life. And in the middle of all that, he managed to leave behind an extraordinary body of work that still stands out among the best that his island has ever produced.
Esteban de Jesus was born on August 2, 1950 in Carolina, Puerto Rico, where he started boxing at an early age alongside boxing’s ultimate prodigy in Wilfred Benitez. Training under the guidance of Benitez’s father, Gregorio, De Jesus made his debut in 1969 and proceeded to score twenty consecutive wins. He became Puerto Rican champion in 1971 and took his act on the road, scoring wins in Venezuela and the mainland US that got him ready for his biggest win.
In 1972, De Jesus was matched with a young unbeaten Panamanian power puncher by the name of Roberto Duran in New York’s fabled Madison Square Garden. Against all predictions, De Jesus dropped and decisioned Duran over 10 rounds to win what would end up being the first chapter of a trilogy that would continue two years later, when he traveled to the lion’s den in Panama to challenge Duran for the WBA lightweight title.
De Jesus was stopped in 11 rounds, and one year later he also failed to defeat Antonio Cervantes for the junior welterweight belt that the Colombian legend would later lose to his old gym mate, 17-year-old Wilfred Benitez. But the best was yet to come for De Jesus, as lured Japan’s Guts Ishimatsu to Puerto Rico in a fight for the WBC lightweight belt. The warmth of his local crowd carried him to victory and he finally achieved his goal of becoming world champion, defending it in three occasions before one final meeting with his nemesis.
Fighting in a unification bout with the Ring magazine belt at stake, De Jesus was stopped in 12 rounds and thus surrendered his WBC belt at the hands of Duran in Las Vegas in 1978 in what would be their final meeting. After six more fights and one final challenge for a title, De Jesus finally called it quits after an 11-year career in which he defeated names such as Alfonso “Peppermint” Frazer, Jimmy Blevins, Edwin Viruet, Ray Lampkin and others.
It was then that his personal tragedy truly started.
De Jesus had already admitted publicly to using drugs during his boxing career, mostly cocaine and heroin brought in by his older brother, Enrique.
Three months after his retirement, De Jesus was involved in an episode of road rage that ended with 17-year-old Roberto Cintron Gonzalez being fatally shot by De Jesus, who was under the influence of drugs.
De Jesus was sentenced to life in prison, but a more severe sentence had already been handed out to him. While in prison, De Jesus tested positive for HIV, likely through sharing needles with Enrique years earlier, and as his AIDS symptoms kicked in he received a commuted sentence and was allowed to spend his final days with his friends and family.
It was during that time that one of the most heartbreaking moments in the early history of the AIDS epidemic took place, when his old foe Duran came to visit him in his final hours and embraced him at a time in which people with HIV were treated like lepers. The image of that moment traveled around the world as a message of kindness and compassion that still resonates today.
De Jesus died on May 11, 1989, only one month after being released from jail. He was only 38 years old. His final record was 57 wins and 5 losses, with 32 wins by knockout.
Diego M. Morilla writes for The Ring since 2013. He has also written for HBO.com, ESPN.com and many other magazines, websites, newspapers and outlets since 1993. He is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He has won two first-place awards in the BWAA’s annual writing contest, and he is the moderator of The Ring’s Women’s Ratings Panel. He served as copy editor for the second era of The Ring en Español (2018-2020) and is currently a writer and editor for RingTV.com.