Duran-Leonard I: June 20, 1980

By George Kimball


Duran-Leonard I: June 20, 1980

Yet another excerpt from George Kimball’s work-in-progress, FOUR KINGS: How Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran Saved Boxing From Itself in the Post-Ali Era

After Sugar Ray Leonard won his first world title by stopping Wilfred Benitez in November of 1979, there loomed an obvious candidate for a big-money fight, and his name was not Roberto Duran.

In early 1980, the Mexican welterweight Jose Isidro (Pipino) Cuevas was boxing’s longest-reigning world champion at any weight class, having won the WBA welterweight title in 1976 and successfully defended on ten occasions. 

A showdown between the two 147-pound claimants seemed not only natural but inevitable, and the groundwork for the fight was laid after Leonard’s first WBC title defense, a 4th-round, one-punch knockout of England’s Dave “Boy” Green in March of 1980.

A deal for a Leonard-Cuevas fight to unify the welterweight title had actually been reached, with both sanctioning bodies initially approving the arrangement, but the proposed matchup rapidly began to unravel amid charges of backroom politicking involving some strange bedfellows.

Although Leonard was the standard-bearer of the WBC, the organization was headquartered in Mexico, and WBC president Jose Sulaiman implored his countryman Cuevas to step aside and pave the way for a Roberto Duran challenge to Leonard.

The WBA, whose title Cuevas held, was based in Duran’s home country, and the military government there turned the thumbscrews on a pair of Panamanian nationals, Rodrigo Sanchez and Elias Cordova, who were, respectively, the WBA president and chairman of the organization’s Championship Committee.

There were reports that the WBA offices had been visited by Col. Ruben Paredes, who headed up the National Guard of the Panamanian dictator, Gen. Omar Torrijos, and that Paredes had strongly intimated that it would be in Sanchez’ best interests to pull the plug on Leonard-Cuevas.

Paredes represented the muscle for Torrijos, whom he would later, albeit briefly, succeed.  Torrijos’ principal padrone was Carlos Eleta, Duran’s influential backer, but the Duran camp denied having exerted undue influence.

“We never pressured anyone,” claimed Luis Enriquez, another Duran advisor who served as Panama’s Honorary Consul in New York. On behalf of his people’s government, said Enriquez, “We merely asked the WBA to do what was right for the sport of boxing and the people of Panama.”

To which the curmudgeonly New York scribe Dick Young replied “On behalf of the New York Daily News, I would like to say one word: Bullshit!”

Leonard’s attorney Mike Trainer recalled that “some very influential people” wanted to see a Leonard-Duran fight come off before Cuevas got his crack at unifying the title, but for public consumption it was announced that Cuevas was withdrawing from the proposed Leonard fight due to an injury incurred in his April bout against Harold Volbrecht.

Even though the WBC had now endorsed a Leonard-Duran match, there remained several obstacles to be overcome, among them that there was no contract, no site, no purse structure, and no promoter.

Both Leonard and Duran were technically promotional free agents, but Bob Arum, as the promoter of the aborted Leonard-Cuevas fight, could claim some currency with Leonard. Don King had Eleta’s ear and attempted to negotiate on Duran’s behalf, a process which left Trainer convinced that the flamboyant promoter was more concerned about Don King’s interests than he was Roberto Duran’s

Convinced that King had become an impediment to the negotiations, Trainer and Arum decided to try an end run around The World’s Greatest Promoter, flying to Panama in order to take their case directly to Carlos Eleta.

They had underestimated King’s intelligence network.  In the first-class lounge at Kennedy Airport as they waited to board their flight, they were joined by King, who just ‘happened’ to be stopping by.

The rival promoters refused to even acknowledge one another’s presence, and any discourse was conducted through Trainer, who was uncomfortably seated between them. At last the Maryland lawyer had had enough.

“Look, this is ridiculous,” he told them. “There’s plenty enough in this for everybody. Either you two guys work this out or I’m going to Panama by myself.”

Then as now the sport’s pre-eminent promoters, Arum and King could not have come from more diverse backgrounds. 

A native New Yorker, Arum was in his youth a Talmudic scholar, and was educated at NYU and, subsequently, at Harvard Law School. In 1961, on the recommendation of his Harvard classmate Richard Goodwin, a top presidential advisor in the Kennedy Administration, he became an assistant US Attorney in the Justice Department under Robert F. Kennedy.

King had grown up a street tough in Cleveland, and along about the time Arum was prosecuting federal tax cheats was more or less the overlord of the Cleveland numbers racket.

It was a position that sometimes required that he act as his own enforcer. Years earlier he had shot and killed a man (in what was subsequently ruled justifiable homicide), but in 1967 he had overzealously attempted to collect a delinquent account from a gambling associate named Sam Garrett. King so savagely stomped Garrett in a street confrontation, that, as as he would later describe it, “much to my regret, the gentleman subsequently expired.”

Convicted of manslaughter, King used his 3 year, 11-month stretch at the Marion Correctional Institution to educate himself, voraciously devouring the works of Shakespeare, Aquinas, Voltaire, and, apparently, P.T. Barnum. King also emerged having mastered what might as well have been new language of his own creation, a dazzling locution that combined Ebonics with polysyllabic malapropisms.

Both men had risen to prominence in the sport on the coattails of Muhammad Ali. In 1962 Arum had been dispatched to investigate suspected tax fraud in connection with the 1962 Sonny Liston-Floyd Patterson rematch, whose ancillary rights were controlled by the notorious conservative lawyer (and Bobby Kennedy arch-enemy) Roy Cohn. On the night of the bout, Arum had agents waiting to pounce on the box-office receipts at every closed-circuit venue in the country.

It was a major coup for the young lawyer, who was nonetheless astonished to realize just how much money could be made in boxing. A few years later, after John F. Kennedy’s assassination had rendered his future in the Justice Department unpromising, he approached former NFL star and Ali confidante Jim Brown with a suggestion:

“Why can’t we do what Roy Cohn did, only better?” he asked.

 Brown brokered an introduction to Ali, and Arum’s nascent promotional firm Top Rank would go on to stage most, though not all, of Ali’s fights in the 1970s. During the post-exile comeback, Arum also served as Ali’s personal attorney even for fights he did not promote.

That he had assimilated the necessary nuances of the sport became evident when Newsday’s Bob Waters caught Arum red-handed in what might charitably be described as a misstatement. When it was pointed out that he had said precisely the opposite just 24 hours earlier, Arum responded with what should have become his personal entry in Bartlett’s:

“Yes, but yesterday I was lying. Today I’m telling the truth!”

King, having been released from prison in September of 1971, had an even faster track to the top. In 1972 he had promoted an Ali exhibition to benefit a local hospital in Cleveland, and in early 1974 he separately approached both Ali and heavyweight champion George Foreman with promises of then unheard-of $5 million purses.

King came away with contracts bearing the signatures of both boxers. What he did not have, of course, was ten million dollars, but that oversight was shortly corrected via a mechanism that would become a hallmark of Don King promotions: OPM -- Other People’s Money.

A British millionaire investor named Rover Leavitt provided some of the cash, and, hoping to boost tourism in his emerging nation, Mobutu Sese Seko, the president of Zaire, dipped into the national treasury to come up with the rest. Thus was born the Rumble in the Jungle, and while his role had actually been more that of matchmaker than promoter, King was able to claim much of the credit and emerged from Zaire as the veritable face of that epic fight.

Ali had retired for the third time following his reclamation of the heavyweight title from Leon Spinks a year earlier, and at the dawn of 1980 the championship had two claimants. King promoted Larry Holmes, the WBC champion, Arum John Tate, who owned the WBA belt. Both promoters had been cagily attempting to lure Ali out of retirement, hoping that The Greatest would confer legitimacy on his half of the championship by challenging his man, but in March Arum’s quest had been dealt a severe blow when Tate was knocked out, in the 15th round, by the even more obscure Mike Weaver. (On the same night – March 31st -- and on the same televised card, Leonard had kayoed Dave “Boy” Green.)

Although they had joined forces in an earlier marriage of convenience to promote the 1975 Ali-Frazier III “Thrilla in Manila,” Arum and King roundly despised one another. In recent months, Arum had likened King to Idi Amin, and King had described Arum as “a snake” and “a Jewish Hitler.”

They would make strange bedfellows indeed, but the result of that meeting at Kennedy Airport was the establishment of a new promotional super-firm called BADK, Inc. BADK would promote exactly one card before dissolving in acrimony shortly after the Duran-Leonard gate receipts were tallied.

Mike Trainer would later explain that he had wanted both promoters involved all along – Arum for his unchallenged expertise in the world of closed-circuit television, and King because he would almost certainly have devoted his energies to undermining the promotion had he been excluded.

Once it became clear that Duran was seeking a $1.5 million guarantee, negotiations became frighteningly easy.

“We can do that,” said Trainer, attempting not to show his surprise.  (Indeed, after joining forces with Arum, King failed to improve Duran’s guarantee at all, but he was able to up the promoters’ share he would split with his partner from $1 million to $2 million.)

“It was almost embarrassing,” Trainer would recall the final tally, in which Duran collected a career-high purse of $1.65 million. Leonard, who in lieu of a purse had taken the site fee and an 80% upside of both the closed-circuit and foreign-rights television sales, wound up with nearly $10 million -- by far the most any boxer at any weight had ever earned for a single fight. (The previous record had been the $6.5 million Ali got for his third fight against Ken Norton.)

The Quebec Olympic Installation Board, still smarting from the cost overruns of the Olympics four years earlier, ponied up a $3.5 million guarantee (all of which went to Leonard) against the live gate, reasoning that the allure of the biggest fight of the year coupled with Leonard’s residual popularity from the 1976 Olympics would make the fight a big draw in Montreal.

The intriguing matchup between the stylistic boxing virtuoso and a man widely regarded as a barely-domesticated animal was scheduled for the night of June 20. Leonard was 24 years old, Duran 29, and their combined records 98-1.

For a fight which would be billed as “Le Face a Face Historique,” the 78,000-seat Stade Olympique was scaled from $500 for ringside seats to $20 tickets in the upper-deck nosebleed sections. Tickets in both of the aforementioned denominations moved briskly from the outset; it was the ones in between that remained a problem. In the run-up to the fight, sales for the mid-range tickets, ranging from $300 to $75, were disappointing.

The bout was formally announced in April at a press conference at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. Leonard wore a conservative business suit, while Duran was resplendent in jewels. Leonard, presumably to show he was not going to be intimidated, promised “I’m not just going to beat Roberto Duran, I’m going to kill him.”

Leonard would later explain that he had been speaking only figuratively, and that his message had been delivered in a language Duran could understand. It was, in any case, an unfortunate choice of words.

“When Leonard told him in New York ‘I’m going to kill you,’ he made a grave mistake,” Duran’s octogenarian trainer Ray Arcel told Baltimore sportswriter Alan Goldstein. “If he had said that to Roberto on the street, Mr. Leonard would still be stretched out in an alley.”

Duran remained in New York for the initial phase of his training, sparring at Gleason’s Gym with Teddy White and with a young New York pro named Kevin Rooney, who would later distinguish himself as Mike Tyson’s trainer.

The Duran camp then relocated to Grossinger’s Resort in the Catskills. Leonard opted to remain nearer to home and based his training camp at a Sheraton in New Carrollton, Md., just off the Capital Beltway, and did his morning roadwork at nearby Greenbelt Park.

For the first Duran fight Leonard didn’t exactly splurge on sparring partners, using Don Morgan, a journeyman welterweight who had made a career of losing to bigger-name opponents, and a local amateur named Mike James.  Roger Leonard, the champion’s  somewhat less talented older brother, and Odell Leonard, who identified himself as Ray’s “cousin,” also shared time in the New Carrollton ring.

At the champion’s request, the sparring partners all wore t-shirts with “DURAN” stenciled across the front.

“I have a tendency to ease up when I spar,” Leonard explained to Philadelphia Bullletin scribe Ray Didinger. “But I see that name and I want to tear the other guy’s head off.”

A few weeks before the fight, publicist Charlie Brotman arranged an open workout at the Beltway hotel. Sportswriters from up and down the East Coast were invited to come in, watch Leonard spar, and to engage in a Q-and-A session afterward.

It was there that Didinger asked Leonard if he’d ever reflected on how things might have gone had he been able to stick to his original plan after the Olympics and never turned pro at all.

“I’d still be under pressure, but a different kind,” he told Didinger. “I’d be a senior at the University of Maryland, getting ready to take my final exams and wondering what I was going to do after graduation. I’d be plain old Ray Leonard again, and I wouldn’t have to worry about looking at Roberto Duran’s ugly face next week.

“And,” he added, “I’d be a whole lot poorer.”

Apparently unpersuaded that Duran’s fearsome knockout prowess had traveled with him to the 147-pound division, the oddsmakers posted Leonard as a 9-5 favorite, a view which appeared to be shared by a preponderance of boxing experts.

In a June issue which featured the two boxers on its cover, Inside Sports polled a select panel of insiders. Muhammad Ali, Gil Clancy, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jimmy Jacobs, Red Smith, Bert Sugar, and Edwin Viruet (who had gone the distance with both Leonard and Duran) all picked Sugar Ray to win.

Harold Lederman liked Duran, albeit for the wrong reasons (“He’ll get Leonard late”), while Cus D’Amato was, it would turn out, pretty much right on the money: “If Duran has the will to apply his skills with determination and courage, he will neutralize Leonard’s ability.”
The final tally favored Leonard by a 7-2 margin, with one abstention. The tenth member of the Inside Sports panel, Arthur Mercante, still hoping that he might be named the referee, declined to pick a winner.

“The casting is perfect,” said Angelo Dundee. “You have Sugar Ray, the kid next door, the guy in the white hat, against Duran, the killer, the guy with the gunfighter’s eyes. It’s the kind of fight where you can’t be neutral!”

A month before the fight, Duran began experiencing severe back spasms, and a specialist was summoned to Grossinger’s. Members of the camp were sworn to secrecy, but the condition was severe enough that Luis Enriquez seriously contemplated asking for a postponement.

Duran arrived in Montreal a few days before Leonard, and polished off his sparring at the Complex des Jardins.  It had been widely assumed that Leonard would have retained his popularity among the locals who remembered him from the 1976 Games, but Duran, who wore a t-shirt saying “Bonjour, Montreal” at his workouts, quickly captured the hearts of the Quebecois.

The boxers worked out in the same ring at des Jardins. The gym had been converted from an old ice hockey rink. The novelist (“Fat City”) Leonard Gardner watched both boxers prepare; one afternoon he saw Leonard knock Mike James down with a right hand.

Gardner was not the first to notice that Duran had never quite mastered another time-honored practice of boxers-in-training.  The Panamanian, observed the novelist, skipped rope “like a drunk.”

Dundee, who would turn 60 a year after the Montreal fight, was regarded as a venerable figure (“He’s been around the fight game longer than the Marquis of Queensberry,” wrote Didinger), but he was positively a spring chicken compared to Arcel and Freddie Brown.

“Those two guys are older than water,” said Dundee of Arcel, who was 82, and Brown, 73. As a young cornerman in New York in the late 1940s, in fact, Dundee had learned many tricks of the trade from the courtly Arcel, whose experience went back to the days of Benny Leonard.

Freddie Brown could also claim a lengthy boxing pedigree. In Marciano’s corner a generation earlier, wrote Gardner, Brown had acquired “a degree of immortality as the cut man who closed the rip on Rocky’s nose in his second bout with Ezzard Charles.”

“Arcel, when he’s not screaming, sounds like the chairman of a college English department,” noted Vic Ziegel in describing the venerable duo. “Brown is a white-haired man with a nose that resembles a low flush in clubs. His sentence structure is equally dazzling.”

Duran and his boisterous traveling party were booked into the staid Hotel Bonaventure. Leonard and his crew, once they arrived in Montreal, took up residence nearby at the more modern Le Regence Hyatt.

Their sumptuous digs were a far cry from the Leonard family accommodations in Montreal four years earlier.  During the Olympics, of course, Ray had stayed in the Olympic Village, but his parents Cicero and Getha, wife-to-be Juanita, Dave Jacobs, and several Leonard brothers and sisters had driven to Canada together in a beat-up Volkswagen van they nicknamed “The Sardine.”

The ladies, sleeping on beds, chairs, and available floor space, had shared a single room in a budget motel. Jacobs, Cicero, Roger and Kenny slept in the van, which was parked on the street nearby, and made occasional forays from the Sardine to the motel room to sneak in a shower. 

Now, in 1980, Duran’s and Leonard’s respective headquarters were only a few blocks apart, and it was inevitable that there would be chance encounters in the days leading up to the fight.  Roberto Duran might not have spoken much English back then, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t give Leonard the finger whenever he saw him.
One morning Leonard’s sister Sharon was walking down the street when she looked up and saw Duran leering at her from a passing car, “flashing a message,” wrote John Schulian, “that did not require an interpreter.”

The macho gamesmanship would take its toll on Sugar Ray. Angelo Dundee would later admit to Dave Anderson that “(Leonard) got out-psyched. Duran abused Ray, and Ray couldn’t handle it. Duran would see Ray walking with his wife in the streets in Montreal and he’d yell ‘I keel your husband. I keel your husband!’ The night of the fight, Ray wanted to keel him. Ray wanted to fight the guy, not box him.”

Twenty-seven years later, Leonard conceded that Duran did a masterful job of winding him up.

“I don’t think it was calculated,” said Leonard. “It was more a case of Duran being Duran. He had that bully’s mentality, and he always tried to intimidate opponents. But he did challenge my manhood, and I wasn’t mature enough to know how to respond. All I could think about was retaliating.”

The boxers reported to the local commission offices on Monday for their routine pre-fight physicals. Shortly thereafter Arcel got a phone call in his hotel room, informing him that Duran’s EKG had revealed an irregularity -- an unexplained arrhythmia -- and that the fight might be in jeopardy.

“How can he have a heart condition?” asked Arcel. “Duran doesn’t even have a heart.”

Arcel informed Eleta, who phoned Torrijos, and by nightfall the foremost cardiac specialist in Panama was en route to Montreal on a private jet.

The next morning Duran underwent a four-hour battery of tests at the Montreal Institute of Cardiology and was cleared to fight. The cause of the irregularity on the initial EKG was never confirmed, but it was widely speculated that it could have been precipitated by diet pills Duran had consumed in a frenetic attempt to shed extra poundage in the days before the fight.

The diet apparently succeeded. At the weigh-in, both made the welterweight limit with ease. Leonard weighed 145, and Duran was just half a pound heavier.

In retrospect, believes Leonard, “I probably came in too light for that fight.”

Jose Sulaiman, the WBC president Arum once described as “a fat Mexican dictator,” had elected to stay at the same hotel as Leonard. Sulaiman had further enraged the Duran camp when he appointed Carlos Padilla as the referee.

The previous November Padilla had intervened to stop Leonard’s fight against Benitez with six seconds left in the final round, and more recently had somewhat squeamishly stopped the Alan Minter-Vito Antuofermo fight, costing Antuofermo his title.

“I want a referee that’ll let my fighter fight,” moaned Arcel.

At the weigh-in Arcel made it a point to lecture the Filipino referee. Arcel plainly hoped to gain an advantage for Duran when he reminded the referee that the customers had paid to see the two boxers, not him.

“Give us a great fight,” he said to Padilla. “The whole world is going to be watching. Let them fight.”

With the advance sale less than half a house, the local promoters had been relying on a big walk-up crowd the night of the fight, but it began to rain early that afternoon, and a steady drizzle continued to fall as the preliminary bouts got underway.

In its original concept, Stade Olympique was to have included a retractable domed roof, which would be opened and closed by cables suspended from a giant, 574-foot tower. On the drawing board, the roof resembled the lid of a giant teapot. Inhospitable weather, a protracted labor dispute, and engineering foul-ups had conspired to delay its completion, and the 1976 Olympics had taken place in the open air.

The tower remained, but four years later the 60,000 square-foot roof was still in Paris. The roof wouldn’t be installed until 1986, and in 1991 it collapsed, raining 55 tons’ worth of concrete to fall into the fortunately unoccupied interior.  The initial cost of the stadium had been estimated at $120 million, but by the time the Expos fled to Washington the figure topped a billion dollars, and eight per cent of the price of each pack of cigarettes purchased in Quebec was going to defray the overrun from an Olympiad held three decades earlier.

That the roof cover was still not in place for the Duran-Leonard fight proved a boon for those who had purchased tickets in the cheap seats, most of which were protected from the elements, but the ring had been set up in the baseball infield, between the pitcher’s mound and second base, meaning that the prime ringside seats were at field level and fully exposed.

Ushers in the $500 sections walked about dispensing ponchos. When they ran out of those, they distributed plastic rubbish bags for the high-rollers to wear over their clothes.

Paid attendance would eventually reach 46,195. Had the Expos been able to draw such numbers they would still be in Montreal today, but on this evening it translated into nearly 32,000 empty seats, meaning that far from recouping its investment, the Quebec Olympic Installation Board would be driven even further into its financial hole.

The ringside press seats were also exposed to the elements, and many of us watched the undercard from beneath the shelter of the roof, in the stands above the first base line.

Tragedy would visit the proceedings in the second bout of the evening. In the final minute of their 10-round lightweight bout, Canadian Gaetan Hart was raining a succession of unanswered blows to the head of his American opponent, Cleveland Denny.
Far too late, the Canadian referee, Rosario Ballairgeon, tried to stop the fight, but even in his belated intervention he was hopelessly out of position.

The result was that Ballairgeon stood behind Hart, frantically waving his arms, while Hart, unable to see the referee, kept pounding away at Denny.

Once Hart was pulled away, Denny keeled over, his head thumping off the canvas. For several minutes he lay there as apparent chaos reigned in the ring.

Eventually a stretcher was summoned. Denny, still experiencing convulsions, was strapped to it and wheeled from the ring. By then I’d gotten back down to ringside, and as I looked at him on the gurney, Denny’s eyes had rolled back into his head, evincing only white, and his mouthpiece was still clenched between his teeth.

I exclaimed to one of the paramedics “You’ve got to get that mouthpiece out!”

A familiar face emerged from the mob surrounding Denny.

“I’ve been trying for the last ten minutes,” a weary Ferdie Pacheco told me.

The ‘Fight Doctor’, scheduled to work as part of the broadcast team, had followed his instincts and his Hippocratic Oath, abandoning his TV position to assist the stricken boxer.

My Boston Herald-American colleague Tim Horgan had been assigned to write the Duran-Leonard lead that night. Now it appeared that this preventable tragedy might also be an important story. After quickly conferring with Horgan, I jumped into a cab and followed the ambulance bearing Cleveland Denny to the hospital.

At Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital, Denny was scheduled for immediate surgery to relieve a subdural hematoma, but no other information seemed to be forthcoming. Denny’s wife Clarine had accompanied him in the ambulance, but less than an hour later, on the advice of the hospital staff, she summoned another cab and returned to the stadium.

“Well, if she’s going back to the fight, I’m going back to the fight,” I reasoned.

Denny would linger for nearly two weeks. His brain stem had probably herniated when he hit the floor. He was pronounced clinically dead on July 2, but his wife elected not to remove him from life support systems, opting to rely on prayer instead. He lasted five more days before he died on July 7.

In my absence a pair of Canadian middleweights, Eddie Melo and Fernand Marcotte, had battled to a 10-round draw, but I got back in time to see the conclusion of the semi-final, which on another night might have provided comic relief.

In what was supposed to be the first step in the rehabilitation of John Tate, Arum had matched him against the Canadian heavyweight champion, Trevor Berbick.

Fighting in the same city where he had been ingloriously knocked out by Teofilo Stevenson in their gold medal match four years earlier, Tate had more than held his own for eight rounds, but in the ninth Berbick caught him with a big right hand, and Tate responded by turning his back and literally running away.

As Tate fled across the ring, Berbick chased him, still throwing punches, the last of which caught the American on the back of his head and knocked him headfirst through the ring ropes. Landing with a belly-flop on the canvas, Tate came to rest with his head dangling over the edge of the apron, a position he retained as he was counted out by the referee.

Duran, the first of the main event competitors to make an appearance, seemed so eager to fight that he almost raced from the dugout to the ring, accompanied by the beat of drums. When Leonard approached center stage, his wife and sister climbed atop their chairs, dancing as they sang “Hey, Sugar Ray!”

I also seem to recall that once they reached the ring, the main event performers were forced to stand through three different national anthems, and that, as usually happened in Montreal, the rendition of “O, Canada!” turned into a contest between the French and English-speaking segments of the crowd, each trying to drown out the other by singing in its preferred tongue.

As the principals were introduced another division of loyalties became evident. Despite his history in the venue, Leonard was far from an overwhelming crowd favorite. The cheers for Duran were even more pronounced, and boos and whistles could be heard amid the applause which greeted Leonard’s name.

Leonard, for possibly the first time in his career, was even outswaggered. Duran exuded confidence. Leonard, despite a nervous smile, looked like a man about to face a firing squad.

“This was a big fight, bigger than anything I’d ever experienced before,” said Leonard. “I can remember looking around at all those people in the stadium, looking at myself on the big TV screen, and thinking ‘Wow. This is huge.’ I was in awe from the sheer magnitude of it.”

Whether Leonard’s hand speed and ring quickness would offset Duran’s street-fighting tactics would quickly became a moot point, as for much of the night Leonard tried to beat Duran at his own game.

The tone for the evening was set at the opening bell, when Duran charged straight out of his corner and tried to hit Sugar Ray in the balls with the first punch he threw.

Duran spent most of the opening three minutes trying to bull his way around the ring, and Leonard spent most of it trying to shake his way clear. Duran landed the best punch of the round when he speared Leonard with a right-hand lead, and Ray responded by shaking his head to indicate that he hadn’t been hurt by the punch.
When a boxer does that, it is usually a safe bet that he was.

The second round saw Duran catch Leonard high on the head with a left uppercut that knocked him backward into the ropes. Stunned, Ray tried to clinch, but even as he grappled and looked to the referee for help, Duran kept pounding away.

“Starting out I’d given him some head movement and a few little feints, but then Duran caught me with an uppercut and just knocked the shit out of me,” said Leonard.

Before the fight Dundee had predicted that “The key will be Ray’s left hand,” but Leonard hadn’t even showed that weapon. On the other hand, he had answered another question that hadn’t been asked in his 27 previous fights.

“I showed I could take a punch,” he would ruefully recall later.

Duran continued to punish the champion over the next two rounds, pounding Leonard with solid right hands, and while Leonard was sometimes able to land spectacular flurries of punches, he spent much of the evening allowing himself to be pushed around the ring. Leonard, who had been expected to set the tone with his jab, failed to establish a rhythm that would allow him to use it, and when he tried to go on the attack, Duran was able to rely on his superior counterpunching ability.

The Leonard camp would later complain that Padilla (with, perhaps, Arcel’s pre-fight admonition ringing in his ear) had abetted Duran’s roughhousing tactics by allowing him to escape unpunished when he held and hit, used his elbows and forearms to maneuver Leonard around the ring. From the corner, Dundee pleaded for the referee to be more assertive in breaking up the frequent clinches.

As he recalled these early stanzas two decades later, Manos de Piedra told his biographer Christian Giudice that Leonard (or, perhaps, Dundee) had committed a tactical blunder by smearing his body with Vaseline. The theory had been that the ample coating of grease would cause Duran’s punches to slide off him, but by the fourth round the substance had been transmitted to Duran’s gloves. When Leonard tried to tie him up, which was often, Duran was able to yank his hands free and resume his attack.

Although he was ostensibly the quicker man, Leonard already had rope burns on his back from the numerous occasions Duran had driven him to the ropes. Ray was no longer even trying to dance. In her ringside seat, Juanita Leonard had begun to sob.

Leonard finally sprang into action in the fifth, and began to fight back for the first time, unleashing dazzling combinations of punches that impressed the judges, if not his opponent.

“I couldn’t tell you why,” Leonard said of the abrupt change in approach beginning with the fifth. “I think my fighting instincts just took over.”

Duran disdainfully sneered in response, but when it was over it was clear that Sugar Ray had claimed his first round.

The sixth saw Leonard once again become the aggressor, using his jab to set up combinations. Now Ray was forcing Duran to tie him up.

“By then I felt I was in control of the fight,” Leonard recalled to his Boswell, Al Goldstein, “but the one thing that concerned me was Duran’s head. He was using it as a weapon. Every time I moved inside, he tried to butt me.”

By the seventh the fight had turned into an all-out street war, and by the time it ended, both men looked so tired that it was hard to imagine this fight lasting eight more. We thought Duran had probably won the round, but all three judges scored it even.

As the two engaged in a toe-to-toe brawl in the eighth, stadium ushers rushed to Juanita’s ringside seat. Overcome by the intensity of what she was watching, Ray’s wife had fainted.
Dave Jacobs, working the champion’s corner with Dundee and Janks Morton, looked as if he was about to pass out himself.

“Box!” He kept pleading.

The ninth round produced another vintage Duran move. He charged into Leonard, butted him squarely in the forehead, and then, as Ray clinched, raked his head across his eyes. Leonard, once he extricated himself, wiped himself with his glove to check for blood.

Once again, all three judges scored an even round.

“Leonard showed tremendous courage,” an admiring Arcel would say later. “Duran landed some body shots that would have shook Hitler’s army, but Leonard kept fighting back.”

The tenth was on the way to being another close round until Leonard clocked Duran with his best punch of the night, an overhand right that came out of nowhere and rocked the Panamanian in his tracks.

The 11th was another nonstop, three-minute brawl. Leonard, who opened with a right-hand lead followed by a staccato flurry to the body, probably did enough to win it, but Duran fired back in kind and was battling at its end, setting the stage for the 12th, in which Duran would win his last round of the night.

The 13th proved to be Leonard’s most dominant stanza of the evening as he dug into Duran with a left to the body followed by two rights to the head. Later in the round the second half of a left-right combination snapped Duran’s head backward.

Leonard continued to jar Duran with combinations in the penultimate round, but the challenger countered by putting his head down and charging forward to tackle Ray in an effort to smother the onslaught.

From the corner, Dundee shouted “Why don’t you break ‘em, Padilla?”

Leonard closed the show with a dazzling final round that impressed all save Duran, who, playing to the crowd, mocked his opponent. Apparently confident of victory, Duran did a little Leonardesque dance and pointed to his chin, daring Leonard to hit him one more time.

When the final bell sounded Leonard reached out and tried to tap Duran with his glove, but Duran ignored him and strode to his own corner.

When he got there he suddenly wheeled and, pointing to his own genitals, unleashed an incomprehensible torrent in Spanish.

“What did Roberto say?” I asked Jose Torres.

“He called him, you know, a pussy,” said Torres. “A cunt.”

Duran would later claim that he had been addressing his remarks to Wilfred Benitez, not Leonard, but my impression remained that he had been looking right at Ray when he did it.

Benitez was, however, conspicuous at ringside. He had been invited by Howard Cosell to sit in on the telecast, but, said Leonard Gardner, “had abandoned his post to yell insults at Duran.

“A security guard picked him up and was about to throw him over the ropes into the press section when I convinced him that Wilfred was a valuable commodity,” wrote Gardner in recapturing the moment.

An eerie silence pervaded the stadium while the verdict was awaited. Sugar Ray Leonard had closed the show, but now what had heretofore been unthinkable had begun to cross his mind – the possibility that he might have lost.

In the initial reading of the scorecards the French judge, Raymond Baldeyrou, had it 146-144 for Duran, the Italian judge, Aneglo Poletti, scored the fight even at 147-147.

For a brief instant it appeared that a fight this close might come down to a split draw, but then came the British judge’s card: Harry Gibbs scored it 145 Duran, 144 Leonard, rendering it a majority decision.

Though clearly disappointed, Sugar Ray didn’t quibble about the verdict. In his dressing room he conceded that Duran had won most of the early rounds in what he termed “the hardest fight of my career,” but pointed out that once he did get untracked, “I stood my ground.”

“You never fight to a guy’s strength, you try to offset it,” sighed Dundee as he attempted to explain to SI’s Bill Nack how the best-laid plan had gone awry. “It was strictly Duran stuff – elbows, knees, head-to-the-face. The guy who had more practice at that won the fight.”

An hour later Bob Lee, then a WBC supervisor, entered the press room to sheepishly announce that there had been a mistake in the tabulation of the scorecards, and that Poletti had actually scored it 148-147 for Duran.

While it made the decision unanimous, the one-point correction didn’t alter the outcome, but it made it all the more outrageous in that it confirmed that Poletti, who had flown from Italy to Canada on the promoters’ dime because of his alleged boxing expertise, had scored ten rounds of a 15-round fight even. It was a cop-out so infuriating that even his fellow judges condemned the Italian.

“Calling ten rounds of a fight even is a diabolical disgrace,” said Gibbs, athough in truth none of the judges that night was particularly decisive. Between them they scored 18 of a possible 45 rounds even.

But in the end, Ray Leonard had lost for essentially the same reason he would beat Marvin Hagler seven years later. He had allowed his adversary to dictate the terms under which the battle was waged. He had fought Duran’s fight.

Why had Leonard allowed himself to be drawn into a battle for which he was ill-suited?

“It’s hard to think when you’re getting your brains knocked out,” supposed Freddie Brown. “This ain’t football, you know. And Duran is like Marciano. He never gives you the ball.”

Elsewhere in the new champion’s dressing room the new champion was asked what had made the difference in the fight. Duran responded by pounding on the left side of his chest to indicate “Corazon.”

Was he suggesting that Leonard had lacked heart?

“No,” Duran replied through an interpreter. “If Leonard did not have a heart, he would not be alive tonight.”

Afterward Leonard said that he was contemplating retirement.

“I was serious, or serious about considering it, anyway,” Leonard confirmed many years later. “It had nothing to do with the decision. I didn’t like the fact that I’d lost, but I wasn’t demoralized the way the rest of the guys were. Janks, Dave, even Angelo were devastated. Mike (Trainer) was so crushed that I don’t think he even came into the dressing room.”

Elsewhere in the stadium, Trainer told Bill Nack “As far as I’m concerned, (Ray) can pack it in.

By winning a world title, Leonard had “accomplished what he set out to do,” said Trainer. “I don’t enjoy this. I don’t enjoy seeing him get hit.”

“I was mentally and physically exhausted,” Sugar Ray recalled. “I’d never taken such a physical beating. The doctor had to come up to my hotel room later that night and drain blood from my ears.”

Roger Leonard, who had run his pro record to 14-0, had been the only Leonard to win his fight that night.
He had outpointed Clyde Gray, a 33 year-old former Canadian welterweight champion who had in the space of eight months the previous year been knocked out by Tommy Hearns, Pete Ranzany, and Chris Clarke.

Now, after his brother’s loss in the main event, Roger proclaimed that he would avenge the family honor. 

“I want Duran next,” he told anyone who would listen.

“Roger,” Dave Jacobs said wearily, “shut up.”


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