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Boxing History

Modern Classics: Leonard-Duran 2

By: Sean Crose

“It was bizarre to witness,” William Nack wrote, “so swift and devastating a collapse of a man’s name.” The Sports Illustrated writer was referring to a battle forever known by two single syllable words: No Mas. Whether or not Roberto Duran actually uttered those words in the eighth round of his welterweight title rematch with “Sugar” Ray Leonard, as it has been said he did, matters little. What matters is that Duran, the hero of Panama, the sporting legend, the defending WBC welterweight champion of the world – quit. It’s an ugly word, quit, but it’s an apt one to use when describing Duran’s refusing to fight on in the middle of a major sporting event. The boxer would eventually recover his good name – but that achievement would be years in the making. 

The second bout between Duran and arch nemesis Leonard went down on November 25th, 1980, less than six months after the two men’s stellar first battle in Montreal. Duran had won that first encounter, perhaps in large part because Leonard, an almost criminally skilled 24 year old tactician, decided to go toe to toe with one of the greatest brawlers in history. The strategy made for a fight for the ages – but it ultimately failed Leonard. After having Duran belittle both he and his wife leading up to fight, Leonard had to suffer the indignity of losing to man who had so little respect for him that he refused to touch gloves (a common show of sportsmanship) after the match had ended. In the spirit of turning lemons into lemonade, however, Leonard almost immediately took the painful experience of that night in Montreal and turned it into a life and career changing lesson. 

From now on, Leonard would do what he had to to win. The days of trying to beat an opponent at his home game were over. Leonard knew he could best Duran, and he wanted to prove it as quickly as possible. The rematch, then, was set for the following November in New Orleans. Dave Jacobs, Leonard’s longtime trainer, left his camp because he felt the newly defeated fighter needed a few soft touches before facing Duran again. But Leonard wasn’t having it, nor was legendary trainer Angelo Dundee, who returned to train Leonard in the rematch. Dundee wasn’t happy with Leonard’s decision brawl with Duran the first time around. This time he wanted his man to do what he did best – box. With the disagreeable taste of Montreal still fresh, Leonard was on board with the strategy. 
Duran, on the other hand, had ballooned in weight. He reportedly showed up to training camp over 170 pounds, which meant he had to drop almost 25 pounds in a matter of weeks. While Leonard had been staying fit after Montreal, and had even taken to altering his training for the rematch (there would be no going overboard in physical preparation for the second go-round with Duran), the defending champion had clearly decided to live the good life. What’s more, after finally making weight, Duran decided to eat like there was no tomorrow just before entering the ring to defend his title. Not that it may have mattered. When the opening bell rang at New Orleans’ packed Superdome that evening, Duran met a different Leonard than the one he had faced the first time. 

Not that the match wasn’t close. The ironic thing about Leonard-Duran 2 was the fact that Duran was very much in the fight. He was losing, though. Of that there was no doubt. For Leonard wasn’t standing and fighting this time. He was moving, moving his head, moving his feet, moving Duran. Peppering his man with a world class jab, Leonard – who this time was the challenger – asserted control through sheer ring generalship. Then the bill came for Duran.

After mocking Leonard, after harassing Leonard’s wife, after showing nothing but disrespect for an individual he should have respected, Duran had to live with the indignity of Leonard mocking him in the ring, in front of millions of people. It may have been payback on the part of Leonard. More likely, though, Leonard – knowing that boxing was as much psychological was it is physical – wanted to get in his man’s head. 

If that was Leonard’s plan – it worked.
Duran, the bully, had no idea how to deal with man of equal skill who clearly wasn’t afraid of him. Perhaps it was the humiliation. Perhaps it was all the food he had eaten . Perhaps it was simply a case of a tormentor not being able to ply his trade. Whatever the reason, Duran puzzlingly, inexplicably, stopped fighting in the closing seconds of the eighth round. The referee, understandably confused, tried to get the two men to engage in combat again, but Duran asserted he had had enough. Leonard, redeemed and once more a champion, went on to credit losing the first Duran fight with making him the legend him became. Duran, years later, finally regained the public’s respect through game efforts against the likes of Marvin Hagler, and a stunning late 80s title win against WBC middleweight champ Iran Barkley. The consequences of his quitting against Leonard, however, were long lasting and severe. “That’s it,” Duran’s trainer, the famed Ray Arcel, said after the fight. “I’ve had it. This is terrible.” He would never train Duran again, so upset was he with his fighter’s actions that evening. 

“What happens to the human mind?” he asked aloud in reference of Duran. “Who knows?”

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