June 20, 1980 – Roberto Duran W 15 Sugar Ray Leonard I, Olympic Stadium
Leonard's second defense of the WBC welterweight title was to be a homecoming of sorts, for it was during the 1976 Olympics in Montreal that “Sugar Ray” became a household name. His dazzling athletic skills and his even more dazzling personality charmed, disarmed and created a highly marketable brand. When he won his first world title against Wilfred Benitez the previous November, he cemented his place as boxing's next worldwide superstar.
Several thousand miles away in Panama, Roberto Duran seethed. For nearly a decade, the generation's greatest lightweight toiled in the shadow of Muhammad Ali and he strongly believed that he, not Leonard, had earned the right to bask in the limelight. After all, Duran entered the Leonard fight with a sparkling 71-1 record that included 12 lightweight title defenses – including a then-record 10 consecutive KOs in championship competition – as well as eight straight wins at welterweight, including a sensational 10-round decision win over recently dethroned WBC titlist Carlos Palomino.
As champion Leonard was to make $7.5 million to Duran's $1.5 million and he secured a strategic advantage by getting a 20-foot-square ring. But Duran crushed Leonard in terms of pre-fight psychological warfare. Leonard was profoundly offended by Duran's profane language toward him and his family but the fiery Panamanian also managed to win the hearts of the Quebecois by bearing a T-shirt bearing the word “bonjour” at public workouts and by greeting the crowds with a few words in their native tongue. Duran may have been a 3-to-2 betting underdog but in terms of public adulation he was an overwhelming favorite.
Leonard, determined to beat Duran in his own street-fighting game, started the fight unusually flat-footed. Following a close first round Duran seized the momentum in the second with a sweeping hook that buckled Leonard's legs. Duran was on Leonard like a flash, using his arms, shoulders and legs to trap the champion on the ropes. Referee Carlos Padilla, lectured by Arcel to let the fighters fight on the inside, made minimal attempts to break up the action.
The third saw Duran conduct an infighting clinic as 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 often overlooked defensive skills foiled Leonard's attempts to turn the tide, which, curiously, involved going toe-to-toe with the Central American monster.
Leonard occasionally flashed the talent that staked him to 27 straight wins but those moments were all too fleeting. The unyieldingly kinetic pace severely tested both men's resolve but on this night Duran's was just a bit stronger. Duran stretched his lead in the middle and late rounds and Leonard's inspired rally in the 14th and 15th only served to create a bit of suspense when the fight went to the scorecards.
Angelo Potelli turned in a horribly indecisive 148-147 card while Raymond Baldeyrou (146-144) and Harry Gibbs (145-144) agreed that the longtime lightweight champion was worthy of becoming the new welterweight champion. It clearly was the best performance of Duran's career – and one of the greatest fights ever staged in one of North America's best fight towns.