He now recalls that final hour, those last moments in the dressing room and that long walk through the crowd to the ring, as if it were less lived than dreamed—a disturbingly vivid and unpleasant hour in which he felt himself moving in a kind of trance.
The memory is of a Friday evening, June 20, 1980. Sugar Ray Leonard, who had won the Olympic light welterweight gold medal in Montreal in 1976 and was now WBC welterweight champion, had come back to that city to defend his title against the former lightweight champion of the world, Roberto Duran.
Arriving at the stadium, Leonard had felt mentally keen. "My mind was on it, my mind was right," he recalls. "I knew what I was going to do and what I had to do." He would go flat-footed against Duran, meet him head-on and beat him at his own game, on the attack.
About an hour and a half before the fight, Leonard's brother Roger, a junior middleweight who had won a preliminary bout against Clyde Gray, returned to the dressing room he and Ray shared. Shortly after that, Leonard says, he felt his mind go blank.
November 24, 1980
"I was sitting there and it all vanished," he says. "All the adrenaline, all the momentum, diminished. It was all going away. I was lost, lost entirely. I look at the films, at my face, and it was like...somber.
"I walked to the ring and wasn't thinking of anything. I got into the ring and just held out my hands and then I raised one hand toward Duran. That's not like me. I was like an android—I was just there, just senseless, no sense of who I am, just there. I got caught up in it all, the hype. It's like a web, a spider's web. You fiddle around a little too much and all of a sudden you catch one of the sticky spots and then you become stationary and the hype comes to you and does what it wants to do to you. I was caught right in the center."
He was caught there, of course, in the presence of a fighter who held the world lightweight championship for seven years (1972-78) and whose record (71-1, with 56 knockouts) and reputation for ring savvy and savagery had given him an almost mythical aura. What further unsettled Leonard was that he couldn't relate to Duran. "I couldn't talk to him," Leonard says. "He couldn't understand me."
Roberto Duran took the title from Leonard that night, beating him narrowly but unanimously, in a war that locked the two fighters in a kind of brutal dance and swept them from one side of the ring to another for 15 rounds. In what it revealed of the skills and the wills of both men, in the unrelenting intensity and fury with which it was fought, nothing quite like it had been seen in a prize ring since Muhammad Ali beat Joe Frazier in Manila almost five years earlier.
Duran had fought as he had over the years—tenaciously, behind hands and chin of stone—but it was Leonard who, for the first time, revealed himself as a true champion, resourceful and resilient. It may turn out that the WBA champion, Thomas Hearns, will ultimately prove to be the best fighter in this division, but Hearns' day of judgment will have to wait. There was only one fight to be made after Leonard-Duran, and that was Leonard-Duran II.
So it was made. On Nov. 25, just five months and five days after their first meeting, Leonard and Duran will have at each other again, this time in New Orleans' Superdome, and with even more on the line. In their first fight, with his career at stake, the 29-year-old Duran took home a purse of $1.5 million. Leonard, working for a percentage of the closed-circuit gate as well as a guarantee, earned more than $9 million. Next Tuesday night, with Leonard's future on the line, they will be fighting for the largest purse in boxing history, $15 million—$8 million for Duran, $7 million for Leonard—before what could be a record boxing crowd in terms of both gate and numbers, 80,000 fans in the Dome (1,297 of whom will pay a record $1,000 for a ringside seat), perhaps 1.7 million in 345 closed-circuit locations around North America and thousands more who will view the fight via satellite on other continents. All told, the fight could gross $50 million and be seen by 3 million.
Given the state of mind in which Leonard entered the ring in Montreal, the even gaudier hype to be expected in New Orleans raises questions. With Leonard in another world, Duran won the early rounds and with them ultimately the fight. Can Leonard compose himself amid the New Orleans clamor—steer clear of the sticky web, as he calls it, and come out for the first round loose and unaffected by the scene? Will he answer the first bell, as he didn't in Montreal, unintimidated by Duran's icy disdain? These are the critical questions, but they aren't the only ones. There are also these:
1) Having fought the best fight of his life in Montreal, can Duran, at the age of 29, lift himself again to that extraordinary physical and mental peak against the 24-year-old Leonard?
2) With the experience gained in the Montreal bout, will Leonard be able to adapt intelligently to Duran's style, to come up with ways of dealing more effectively with the Panamanian?
3) Or will the final truth of the evening reveal itself not in the efficacy of left hooks and righthand leads but in something as elusive and immeasurable as one man's strength of will?
When the fight in Montreal was over, there was considerable doubt whether these questions would ever be settled. For Leonard it had been a brutal, taxing experience—in the testing of his will, his instincts and his intellect, it was by far the most difficult of his 28-bout professional career. Fighting woodenly and obviously bewildered by the furious pace and variety of Duran's attack, Leonard was almost gone before the end of the second round. He had moved in the first round, as the two men felt each other out; he was flat-footed in the second, and Duran caught him with a sharp left hook to the chin that buckled Leonard's knees and almost dropped him.
"I think I was really dazed because I was not into the fight mentally," he says. "I was stiff. You know, that one punch, if I was warmed up and into the fight, it wouldn't have done that much damage. From Rounds 2 through 15 he threw the same punch—and a lot more—and didn't do the same damage. After that second round, he couldn't hurt me. That one punch made me mad, woke me up."
And the fight was truly on. For the remaining 13 rounds, often with his back against the ropes and Duran squarely in front of him, Leonard remained flat-footed—trading shots, countering, slipping punches, going to the body behind upper-cuts with both hands. In the 14th, as if in desperation, he wound up like a soft-ball pitcher and scored with a bolo punch to Duran's chin. In the later rounds, with Duran tiring, Leonard connected with more telling blows than that—uppercuts to Duran's body, combinations to his head. In the course of it all, he took everything that Duran had to offer—righthand leads over the top, hooks upstairs and down, uppercuts and crosses. Uncannily quick, Duran bobbed and dipped under punches, slipped others and stalked the champion endlessly. He lunged into Leonard, buried his head in Leonard's chest, pushed him around the ring and into the ropes. He showed him every sleight-of-hand and trick in his remarkable repertoire, and it was enough to win on every judge's card.
When it was over, looking into the dressing room mirror, Leonard decided the price he had paid was too high. After taking the title from Wilfred Benitez almost seven months before, he had flinched when he saw the discoloration under his eyes. But in Montreal he was faced with a new sight altogether.
"I said, 'Damn! Look at my face. Is it worth this? All that money, but hell, look at your health.' I was really puffy—swollen and sore. My body was sore. My back was sore. I had little knots on the back of my head. I was dehydrated." Worst of all, as a result of the blows from Duran's right hands and from the rubbing of Duran's head against his during the innumerable clinches, Leonard's left ear had become hideously swollen and gnarled. A doctor drained it after the fight, a painful operation that left it tender and raw. Leonard suddenly envisioned himself as an old palooka with cauliflower ears.
"I felt terrible," he says. That night, exhausted and too sore to move, he told his wife, Juanita, that he had had it as a fighter. "This is it," he said. "I gave it all I had, but this is it."
The next day Leonard and his wife returned to their apartment in Palmer Park, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C., and from there left for a 10-day vacation in Hawaii. Juanita repeatedly urged Ray to stand by his decision to quit.
"I'll have to think about it," he kept saying. He didn't have to think about it very long.
They had been in Hawaii only a day when Leonard began to feel encouraged to fight again. First of all, the swelling of his face and ear had gone down quickly, and his body no longer was aching and sore. And everywhere he went—into stores and restaurants along Waikiki Beach—strangers waved and called to him, "You'll get him next time, champ." On the second day he was there, Leonard got up early, put on his sweats and started out the door to do roadwork.
"Hey, what are you running for?" Juanita asked.
"I just feel like it," he said.
One afternoon, leaving his wife on the beach, Leonard returned to the room and shadowboxed in front of the mirror. He had made up his mind, of course, and he let his wife know as they walked later along the beach. "You might not like what I'm going to tell you," he said, "but you know I want to fight that sucker again, don't you?" Juanita didn't answer, but she didn't argue, either.
This time it will be different, Leonard says. He has been through the hype, and he can handle it. "I see what's what," he says. "I see what's there. I know what to do. I know I must not get lost in it. Just wait, just float. Don't get too close. It is a web, a dangerous web. Now I'm going to move with it."
He had met and gone the distance with Duran—with the legendary hands of stone—and discovered that the myth was only a mortal after all. Not only had Leonard taken Duran's best shots, but he had also fought his way out of serious trouble. Perhaps more important, he had shown he could go toe to toe with the man, that he was able to take it and dish it out, too. Leonard feels he went to school on June 20, taking the most violent crash course in his boxing life. "I educated myself over five years of boxing in the Duran fight," Leonard says. "Five years of experience in one night."
When he returned from Hawaii, Leonard began preparing for another go, watching replays of the Montreal fight, analyzing it over and over again. He had fought Duran on Duran's terms for personal as well as tactical reasons. "I wanted to show this guy something," Leonard says. "And I was conscious of silencing the critics who didn't think I could go 15 rounds like that. If I had stood there and I had beaten Duran at his own game, people would have said, 'This guy is something.' I also thought it was the most surprising way to beat Duran. Everybody figured I would dance, dance, dance. But...."
He didn't. Nor will he dance in New Orleans, he says, but rather fight more from the balls of his feet, moving a little more laterally and showing Duran more angles than he did in Montreal. "The way I decided to fight him the first time limited me," Leonard says. "It took away my jab, my ability to slip punches. It took away everything. It made me a basic, standup fighter." On the balls of his feet, he says, he will have more mobility, enabling him to slip Duran's righthand lead more effectively and counter off that.
"I'm going to move, but I'm not going to move that much," Leonard says. "The first time I didn't move at all, except the first round and the last few. Just a little bit of movement made a lot of difference. I actually had him reaching for me. He was reaching up for me and coming in low with his head down. I see it now and I say, 'Damn, why didn't you throw punches?' I was just moving away." Duran ducked under countless hooks and right hands. "I was trying to nail him then, but they were bad punches," Leonard says. "When he comes in now, I'll bring the punches under. He can't duck uppercuts, especially when they're perfectly timed. These are the key punches I'll be using."
He'll be using them coming off the ropes, says his trainer, Angelo Dundee, working them to the body as he pivots left and right. One enduring memory of the first fight is of Leonard being driven to the ropes and standing there, his legs spread apart as he covered up, then fighting back and trying to survive. "I was forced into the ropes," Leonard says. "I never thought about doing something different. Just fight back." With legs spread, he could do little else. "He was spread too far," Dundee says. "He couldn't get away."
In sparring sessions Dundee has Leonard pivoting off the ropes, throwing uppercuts and constantly changing the angle at which he faces an opponent; he urges his fighter to avoid staying directly in front of the man. "You play checkers," Dundee says. Dundee also has Leonard working the jab to the head and body. Leonard is trying to shorten his hook. "Everything has got to be short and timed perfectly," Leonard says. "You don't realize how elusive he is."
Leonard came to realize it all too well in Montreal, and since he began intensive training the first of November he's been at work trying to make use of what he learned there. "It will be a war," he says, and he doesn't doubt that prediction, even if some respected boxing men disagree. "I came away [from Montreal] with the impression that this was the greatest possible effort Duran could have made," says veteran Manager/Trainer Cus D'Amato, who guided Floyd Patterson to the heavyweight title. "What Duran did that night was what he had to do to win. It seemed a supreme effort. I don't think he'll be able to duplicate it."
"Bull," says Duran with a contemptuous shrug. On the contrary, he says, he expects to be even tougher in New Orleans than he was in Montreal. "Look, for him to beat me, he still has a lot of learning to do," Duran says. "He can't beat me in this rematch. In the first match I won and I was sick."
"He was with a cold," says Duran's personal doctor, Orlando Nu‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±ez. "All his muscles were sore."
"I didn't say anything because I didn't want anyone to say I was making up excuses," the champion insists. "I stayed quiet. I'm prepared for him now. I haven't hit him like I'm going to this time. Sure, he took my punches, but I was sick. I was tired from the fifth round on. I couldn't do a thing. I kept going and going and going. I had no force behind my punches. I want him to take what I have for him now."
It matters not a whit what adjustments Leonard plans to make, Duran asserts, because there is really nothing he can do to make a difference. "Leonard says he is going to box, move, slip, dance," Duran says. "He's not going to do a damn thing. He says he's going to be faster, slip and sway, throw hooks, uppercut more. He can do whatever he wants, but there is one problem: once in the ring, you can't get out. To hit me, he has to stop to hit me. So there. If he didn't do anything in the first one, he's going to do less in this one...."
Indeed, there is a line of thought that goes like this: if Leonard goes to the balls of his feet, he's playing with fire. He must come up with something better. "If he does that, he may get knocked out," says Gil Clancy, a longtime manager and trainer. "The way for him to beat Duran is to back Duran up. If he can't make Duran back up, he's not going to win the fight."
But some say, put tactics aside, view the bout as a struggle between a champion who has reached the limit of his will and a challenger who is just on the verge of reaching it now. "You're watching a contest of wills more than of skills," says D'Amato. "Skill only prevails when it's so great that the will isn't tested. It was the will of Duran that won the fight in Montreal. Leonard was beaten, but he proved himself a champion. He fought back, at times outfought Duran. But he didn't sustain it; Duran sustained it. If Leonard recognizes this, all he has to do is sustain the action—meet the will with a will of his own—then his skills, intelligently employed, will make the difference in the fight."
In the small Miami gym where Roberto Duran trained, there is a handwritten sign bearing a message signed by the fighter himself. It speaks truth, too: Uno no es lo que dice que es, sino lo que demuestra ser. That is, one is not what one says he is, but what one demonstrates himself to be. It is a philosophy both champion and challenger subscribe to.