Leonard vs Duran 1: The Brawl in Montreal
Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran shared a ring on three different occasions. We remember the second fight for the wrong reasons. We barely remember the third and final meeting. In many ways, a fight too many.
But the opening chapter in their personal rivalry is a fight that is impossible to forget. One of the best welterweight fights in history. Probably one of the best fights ever. Trust me, it was that good.
Leonard had won gold at the 1976 Olympics but his return to Montreal four years later was a painful one in several ways. He showed immense courage against Duran but he suffered well because of it. And lost because of it also.
Duran brought an impressive 71-1 resume to Canada, his only defeat to Esteban de Jesus was subsequently reversed on two different occasions. The world lightweight champion had given up his titles in 1979 to chase glory at a second weight. But in truth, his patented extravagance and lifestyle had forced his hand. Making lightweight was now too much of a tight squeeze for his expanding waistline.
Leonard (27-0) won the WBC welterweight title in 1979 in a tough fight against Wilfred Benitez. Leonard stopped the reigning champion in the closing seconds, but the former Olympic champion knew he was pushed close to his limit. Duran would push him far beyond it.
At 24, Leonard was physically ready for what Duran would bring. Mentally, far less so. Duran would very quickly set about doing his groundwork. Leonard often a master of mental warfare, found someone who was better at it. Duran made Leonard think he was out of control, an animal, a madman. In simple terms, he got under his skin. With each passing insult more and more damage was being done. Duran knew what he was doing, Leonard only realised when it was too late.
Angelo Dundee would later say:
‘Duran abused Ray and Ray couldn’t handle it. Duran would see Ray walking with his wife in the streets in Montreal and he’d yell ‘I keel your husband. I keel your husband!‘
Duran many years later told The Guardian what he said to Leonard’s brother:
‘Your brother only has a few more days as champion. I am going to kill him. He’s going to end up dead.’
Leonard had other problems, a training camp entourage that was growing in size seemingly by the hour. There were distractions, petty squabbles, the hangers-on more focussed on the nightlife than doing their job. Leonard admitted in his autobiography the lack of focus was there minutes before he stepped inside the ring to face Duran. He said his eyes looked vacant and disinterested, he wanted to be somewhere else. Duran just wanted Leonard.
Everything was a new experience for Leonard. He was booed, and heavily so, Duran was the favoured fighter with the crowd if not the betting public who made Leonard the slight favourite. Duran oblivious to everything just stood and glared at the man in front of him. Leonard looked away, another tell what Duran was about to do.
Leonard conceded he was lost and caught in a fog in the opening 4 rounds. Almost certainly any chance of victory had already gone. Boxing News said Duran was tireless and without equal in the manner that he defeated Leonard. On perhaps his best ever night, Duran just wouldn’t be denied. A relentless marauding machine intent on inflicting some serious damage to the perceived showman in front of him. Leonard was angry and fought stupidly. The concentration had gone and with it the game plan. Leonard needed to box and move. He did anything but. With his back too friendly with the ropes Leonard was proving he had guts and could take more than anyone thought he could. Leonard was always more than just a showman. But he was losing.
Duran caught him flush the 2nd round, Leonard tried to disguise it but he was hurt badly and did well to stay on his feet. Things didn’t improve much until it was too late. Leonard rallied as the fight went on, and started to find some semblance of control. But every bit of success was earned and repaid in kind. Duran made him work for everything. But as much as Leonard tried, and try he did, Duran was a little too much for him.
Both raised their hands after 15 scintillating rounds of ferocity, Leonard in hope, Duran with conviction. The scores were close, 146-144, 145-144 and 148-147 all for Duran. The judges scored 18 out of the 45 rounds even, one judge had 10 even rounds on his scorecard. Even with his bad start Leonard very nearly saved his night.
Leonard admitted post-fight that there were always elements of a street fighter lurking somewhere inside. Duran brought it out. To the cost of the now former champion. Leonard proved his courage, he brawled and fought Duran on his own terms. Leonard showed his heart, something which even Duran acknowledged:
‘If Leonard did not have a heart, he would not be alive tonight,’ Duran chillingly stated in the immediate aftermath of their titanic struggle.
Not for the first or the last time Leonard considered retirement. He took a severe physical beating, blood was drained from his ears in his hotel room. The inner damage far harder to see.
Duran celebrated his stunning victory, and he kept on celebrating. Once the pain of his first professional defeat had subsided Leonard started to plot his revenge. He knew Duran was still enjoying his win a little too much, Leonard wanted the rematch sooner rather than later. He got what he wanted. In many ways, Duran should have said ‘No Mas’ long before his moment of madness in New Orleans.
Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated