June 20, 1980 – W 15 Sugar Ray Leonard I, Olympic Stadium, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
In the year since beating Carlos Palomino to earn the WBC’s mandatory ranking Duran fought three times, winning all three and scoring two knockouts. He was initially troubled by the taller Zeferino Gonzalez’s speed but still won a wide 10-round decision while against Joseph Nsubuga (KO 4) and Wellington Wheatley (KO 6) he showed enough to earn victory without exhibiting every signature skill. Critics said Duran lacked the fire and punch of his lightweight days but they also knew Duran saved his very best stuff for his very best opponents.
For that reason, those same critics still saw a showdown between Duran and WBC champion Sugar Ray Leonard as the decade’s first “dream match.”
The 24-year-old Leonard was a brilliant fighting machine. Standing 5-feet-10 and armed with a 74-inch reach, “Sugar Ray” was the quintessence of the perfect welterweight in terms of physique and proportion.
His punches had comet-like speed, his legs were Astaire-like and his ring acumen was advanced. He also was growing as a fighter, for in his first defense against Dave “Boy” Green Leonard answered those who questioned his punching power with a terrifying one-punch knockout in round four that left the Briton unconscious for several worrisome moments.
But as formidable as Leonard was physically, his persona was even more impressive.
His megawatt smile and pleasant on-camera demeanor moved ABC’s Howard Cosell to embrace his cause during his run to Olympic gold at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and, with the considerable help of lawyer Mike Trainer, his business acumen was such that he re-wrote the book on how to market a fighter. Instead of signing with a single promoter, Leonard formed his own corporation and sold his services to the highest bidder. The results were extraordinary: Not only did Leonard achieve generational wealth before age 25, he also was poised to replace the iconic Muhammad Ali as the face of boxing.
Duran saw all this and seethed.
He perceived Leonard as many critics did: A spoiled, over-praised “creation of television” that had everything handed to him and an American darling that embodied the country’s excesses.
Duran also was profoundly insulted by Leonard’s elevation by the media, for he, Carlos Monzon, Jose Napoles and other international stars were swallowed up by Ali’s all-consuming shadow for more than a decade. With Ali finally gone, Duran believed he should have occupied Ali’s vacated spot but instead that title was handed to Leonard. Finally, many Panamanians harbored animus toward Americans for their control of the Panama Canal. Writer Pete Hamill once told Dick Schaap on Classic Sports Network (the forerunner of ESPN Classic) that at age 11 or 12, one of Duran’s favorite pastimes was to wander into Panama City, find the first big, drunken American sailor he could find and knock him out.
“That was Duran’s way of saying, ‘you guys have the power and the guns but we can punch, too,’” Hamill said.
The pre-fight mind games were as torrid as the fight promised to be. Leonard believed he achieved the upper hand by securing a deal that had Leonard making a minimum $7.5 million to Duran’s $1.5 million as well as having the fight staged in Montreal, the site of Leonard’s Olympic triumph. Additionally, Leonard sought, and got, a spacious 20-foot ring that would amplify his superior mobility. But Duran proved more than a worthy adversary on the psychological front. He unnerved and angered Leonard with gutter language in the pre-fight press conferences that included vulgar references to Leonard’s wife. Also, he instantly won the favor of the Quebecois by wearing a T-shirt bearing the word “Bonjour” during public workouts and greeting them with a few words in their native tongue. Duran was in full control of the pre-fight messaging and Leonard admitted in later years that Duran’s act had gotten to him mentally.
By fight night Leonard felt empty and out-of-sorts. He believed strongly in biorhythms and he knew that all three cycles — physical, emotional and intellectual — were down. He also was stunned at the boos that greeted his arrival and at the deafening cheers that Duran, the 3-to-2 underdog, received. The cold, clammy air that swirled about the outdoor stadium only added to his unease. Meanwhile, Duran and his camp were in top form and ready to go. Chief second Ray Arcel delivered a brief pre-fight lecture to referee Carlos Padilla to ensure that the third man, known for breaking fighters quickly as was the case in the recent Alan Minter-Vito Antuofermo fight, would “not take the inside away” from Duran. Duran, for his part, was primed for combat and once the bell sounded he finally released the fury that raged within.
Leonard began the fight unusually flat-footed, choosing to circle Duran in small arcs while Duran cut the ring and sought the best angles to rush inside. Following a close first round, the fight’s first seminal moment came midway through round two when a sweeping hook buckled Leonard’s legs. Duran was on his prey in a flash, driving a left-right to the body and bulling Leonard to the ropes. Padilla, heeding Arcel’s words and remembering the criticism he received for his handling of Minter-Antuofermo I, barely tried to break the pair and backed away when neither man stepped away.
That moment defined the terms of battle and Duran exploited them in every conceivable way. Duran used his arms, shoulders and head to bull Leonard about the ring and Leonard, knowing he was confronted with a “fight or die” proposition, did his best to retaliate within the confines of his environment. Beginning in round three, Duran trapped Leonard on the ropes and conducted a master class on infighting. He drove both hands to the body, used his head to scrape the skin around Leonard’s eyes raw and pivoted from side to side to block Leonard’s escape routes. Duran’s superb upper body movement effectively foiled Leonard’s attempts to punch his way free. The trench warfare continued even at ring center, for Leonard was determined to match macho with macho.
At times Leonard tried to obey Angelo Dundee’s demand to box Duran but “Sugar Ray” eventually was sucked back into Duran’s Lamotta-esque in-fighting game. Occasionally Leonard’s wonderful skills produced moments of brilliance but as a whole they were too fleeting to make an impact on the scorecards. Leonard overcame a heavy right in the fourth that hurt him a second time to spark a wondrous end-of-round exchange and a jolting hook to begin the fifth appeared to stun Duran. But Duran’s comparable hand speed and far superior experience were more than a match for Leonard’s youth and otherworldly talent.
The pace was relentlessly torrid and it severely tested each man’s resolve. Both strained under the brutality but each rose above it with skill, smarts and stamina. Duran stretched his lead in the middle and late rounds though the 11th and 13th rounds were tremendously action-packed sessions that pushed both fighters beyond previously thought-of limits.
Leonard produced an inspired rally in the 14th and 15th but his efforts weren’t enough to snatch away Duran’s victory. In the final 10 seconds a swaggering Duran tapped his chin with his glove, fired three jabs, danced away and brusquely batted away Leonard’s congratulatory glove. With raw emotion pouring from him he leaped into the air, shoved the passing Leonard’s shoulder and cursed at top volume. It was Duran at his rawest and yet it was also Duran at his greatest.
Although the decision was announced as split it actually was unanimous. Angelo Potelli indecisively saw it 148-147 — he scored 10 rounds even — while Raymond Baldeyrou (146-144) and Harry Gibbs (145-144) agreed that the onetime lightweight champion was the new welterweight champion.
Duran’s performance was truly historic, both aesthetically and factually. As he celebrated his 41st consecutive victory inside that Montreal ring, Duran’s record stood at 72-1 (57). By beating Leonard, Duran joined Barney Ross as the only previous lightweight champion to win the welterweight title, for Henry Armstrong, who later won a lightweight belt, actually was the reigning featherweight king at the time he dethroned Ross.
Though no one knew it at the time, it also was the final time boxing fans witnessed Duran in his purest form in terms of public standing. The greatest lightweight in history in many eyes now was now making his case at welterweight and he did so with the best performance of his career. It epitomized every aspect of Duran’s legend and he secured this landmark achievement against a fantastically equipped rival in Leonard. The events of their rematch five months later would permanently, but not irreparably, stain that reputation but in terms of performance level against a worthy rival, Duran’s fight against Leonard proved beyond doubt that few ever did it better than Roberto Duran.
Research sources used include:
“Hands of Stone: The Life and Legend of Roberto Duran” by Christian Giudice
“In the Corner: Great Boxing Trainers Talk About Their Art” by Dave Anderson
“The Big Fight: My Life in and Out of the Ring” by Sugar Ray Leonard
“25 Years Later: Duran vs. Moore Remembered” by Lee Groves
“A Passion Ignited: A Writer’s Thunderbolt Moment” by Lee Groves
Photos / THE RING, AFP
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 10 writing awards, including seven in the last three years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange for autographed copies.