By: Sean Crose
“When I get into the ring to fight,” Roberto Duran said, “I always give the best.”
There is little doubt that Duran gave “Sugar” Ray Leonard his best, and more, when the two met in Montreal on June 20th of 1980. Close to 50,000 people had gathered at Olympic Stadium to see two of the biggest names in sports, much less boxing, battle for welterweight supremacy. It’s hard to imagine anyone having been disappointed by the quality of the fight they ended up seeing. Unlike many superfights, Leonard-Duran I, was a matchup that lived up to its hype. As Sports Illustrated’s Willian Nack put it at the time, the contest proved to be “a magnificent, memorable combat between a boxer, Leonard, and a brawler, Duran.”
Leonard was the sport’s golden child, the heir apparent to Muhammad Ali. Having won gold at the 1976 Olympic Games, the handsome, likeable Leonard had gone on to win the WBC welterweight title from the great Wilfred Benítez just over six months earlier. His title defense over Dave Green the following March on live television made the Maryland native into even more of a star. If he could best Duran, Leonard would arguably be able to claim legend status by the young age of 24 – truly an impressive feat.
Duran, however, was far from a slouch, something seasoned sportswriters were aware of. Although Leonard was the considerable betting favorite, many – if not the majority of – sportswriters picked Duran to win in Canada. They had good reason to be confident of their prediction, for Duran may well have been the greatest lightweight in history, a viscous, snarling whirlwind of fists and high energy whose skills managed to meet his anger. Having decided to move up to welterweight, he brought with him a record of 71 wins and only 1 loss. In all, he had fought well over twice as many opponents as the 27-0 Leonard had.
What’s more, Duran was not to be denied. Carrying about a nastiness and volatility unnerving even by boxing standards, Duran had even gone so far as to harass Leonard’s wife in the leadup to the bout. It was as unsportsmanlike as it was unbecoming. Yet when the opening bell sounded on that cold, rainy June night in Montreal, Leonard inexplicably decided to fight Duran’s fight. Perhaps Leonard had let Duran’s harassment get the better of him. Perhaps he just had a need to prove himself. No matter what the reasoning behind it was, it proved to be a fatal decision.
For Duran ended up walking out of the ring that evening with Leonard’s belt in his possession. Leonard ended up walking out with the first loss on his resume, courtesy of a unanimous decision by the judges in favor of Duran. That, however, only tells part of the story, for Leonard-Duran I was a war.
Leonard may have indeed made a mistake by fighting Duran’s fight, but the truth is, he almost pulled it off. Leonard nearly gave the Panamanian as good as he got. It was a thrilling affair, a fight for the ages. It also proved to be quite the learning experience for Leonard. He’d get his second chance against Duran less than six months later, and this time he wouldn’t be letting his mind wander from a winning strategy.