Leonard vs Duran 3: A Rivalry That Deserved Better

Leonard vs Duran 3: A Rivalry That Deserved Better

If ever a rivalry deserved a better send-off, it was the one that featured Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran.

Montreal gave us one of the greatest fights in history, New Orleans served up one of the most controversial. But we went from ‘No Mas’ to ‘Uno Mas’ to the majority now saying ‘No More.’ Enough is enough.

One writer said it was one fighter who couldn’t fight no more, and the other could still fight but didn’t have the desire to do so. It was harsh, it wasn’t entirely accurate, but after 36 minutes of largely nothing, anyone could be forgiven for having that viewpoint. In many ways, their third fight in 1989 was one fight too many.

There were chants of bullshit and the crowd dispersed in large numbers as the fight closed out. The chorus of boos had started much earlier. The trilogy fight was held at the new Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas but it was more a mirage of a fight.

Leonard remembering what happened in 1980, a painful night that left many physical scars, chose to do what he didn’t do in Montreal. He instead replicated what he did do in the New Orleans Superdome. Leonard kept moving in Vegas, some would say he took the money and ran.

Coming off a controversial draw in his belated rematch with Thomas Hearns, Leonard made changes in his inner circle. The overly inflated entourage was reduced from twenty one down to a more manageable six. Long time member of his training camp Dave Jacobs was let go. And in another sign of the ruthlessness, Leonard could and often did show, so were his brothers. He could be as ruthless as he could be calculated.

Pepe Correa would be the man in charge of guiding Leonard further away from the bitter taste the rematch with Hearns had left. Leonard was fortunate to leave Vegas with that controversial draw against Hearns in 1989. Floored twice, Leonard salvaged his night with a desperate last round rally that came very close to forcing the stoppage.

But Leonard was losing more than his skills. The public backlash was hard, the love affair was waning as Hearns received sympathy for not getting the win many believed he deserved. Even Leonard conceded many years later that Hearns should have had his hand raised. It was a bad night for Leonard. He hoped it was just an off night. But Leonard had long been fighting for the wrong reasons. The endless comebacks were to try and camouflage a bigger fight with his many inner demons. A fight Leonard would eventually win.

Duran had recovered his reputation since his moment of madness in 1980. There were more defeats, but he had some very good nights sandwiched between the indifferent ones. The Panamanian legend was now a four-weight world champion recently turning back the clock one more time to defeat Iran Barkley to claim the WBC middleweight title. But at 38, was that one last hurrah for Duran. Leonard defending his WBC super-middleweight title was the betting favourite. But the odds narrowed as the first bell edged closer. The fight promised plenty even if both fighters were way beyond their primes.

The fight was a big commercial success but it will largely be remembered as a fight that delivered very little. The excitement for the fight quickly died down. From the opening seconds, the pattern was set. Leonard 33 and five years the younger fighter found the movement from another time. It was a little slower, but it was all he needed on a night where his opponent did practically nothing.

There was a little nostalgia in the 3rd round as Leonard returned to some of the showmanship and taunting that made Duran turn his back in their previous meeting. There was a slight hint of the old Duran in the 4th round, he headbutted his rival and caused some degree of damage to Leonard’s mouth. It was in truth, one of the few times he connected.

Round 6 showed glimpses of what could have been. Leonard showed a little more aggression, a little more showboating. It didn’t last. The frustrated crowd soon returned to their seats and reverted to type. It was that kind of night. Any faint hopes it would get better were soon extinguished.

Duran once raged war, but he seemed to accept his fate long before the final bell. Even when he drew blood, and plenty of it, in the closing stages, there was no desperation to rescue the fight. He seemed content to let the fight drift away from him.

It was a strangely subdued performance from Duran. It was the fight he always wanted after his earlier humiliation at the hands of Leonard. But when he got what he craved so badly, the fire in his belly had dimmed too much for revenge to be exacted.

Leonard won with some ease, and with some comfort. But it was too comfortable for most. The scores were wide and deserved. 120–110 and 119–109 were accurate, the 116–111 card far less so. Duran claimed he won the fight, which was absurd. And wrong. He didn’t even come close to winning.

One couldn’t, one wouldn’t was a narrative formed by many. Duran seemed to finally age in front of our very eyes. Leonard said the outside was his territory. He was right, but it left everyone cold. Both were paid handsomely for their efforts or rather lack of, but for what they were paid, should they have done more to offer something more resembling a fight. Boxing is a hurt business, but it was a fight that didn’t hurt enough for the hundreds who left the arena long before the final bell.

To be fair to Leonard he did what he had to do to win. Duran didn’t. Sometimes it’s that simple. Duran was the only fighter to ever beat Leonard in his prime. Leonard reversed that loss twice, but both times his victories were clouded by what Duran did and then didn’t do.

Duran continued fighting past his 50th birthday until a car crash finally forced Duran to call it a day in 2001. His last opponent and final defeat came against Hector Camacho.

Leonard also fought on, but this was the last fight he would ever win. Defeats to Terry Norris and one final fight in 1997, ironically also against Camacho, and even Leonard had to admit it was over.


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