Sugar Ray Leonard, hands folded over the raspberry-colored robe covering his pajamas, comes to his feet as if on springs, moves to the center of the den and stops, planting himself in a crouch. Flames crackle in the fireplace behind him. Pivoting quickly, with his slippers flopping off his heels, he lashes the air with his fists.
"The whole fight, I was moving, I was moving," Leonard says. "And Voom! I snapped his head back with a jab. Voom! Snapped it back again. When he tried to get me against the ropes, I'd pivot, spin off and Pow! Come under with a punch." Adjusting his rhythm, weaving in place, Leonard stops and crouches again, his eyes large and unblinking.
"And every time I hit him he'd make that noise." Leonard looks upward, mimicking the eerie sound Roberto Duran makes when he is in the ring—the sound of a malevolent owl. "Hooooo.... Hoooooo.... You know that noise he makes. And then he'd get inside and I'd rip to the body and come across with the right. I did everything I said I was going to do. And he couldn't accept it. He was frustrated, confused. I did everything I could to make him go off, like a clock wound up too tight. He got wound up so tight, he blew a spring."
It is 10 o'clock on Friday morning in Leonard's home in Bowie, Md., some 60 hours after he'd regained his World Boxing Council welterweight championship from Duran in one of the most startling and controversial endings to a prizefight in the annals of a sport notorious for controversy. Leonard has every right on this gray morning to be dancing in his slippers in his den, for the full weight of what he had done has only recently settled in; he is just beginning to comprehend its magnitude.
December 8, 1980
"Most people considered it impossible," Leonard says. "They said Ray can't get up. Ray's not angry enough. Ray doesn't have that killer instinct. Ray's not that kind of person. Ray's too nice. But I didn't lose track of what must be done to carry out the mission—and it was a mission. It was like going to the Olympics. I proved myself in New Orleans. I proved to him what I could do. I made him quit. To make a man quit, to make a Roberto Duran quit, was better than knocking him out."
And that, undeniably, was what Leonard had done. At the close of a fistic tour de force in which he had beaten Duran to the punch, neutralized his brawling attacks, slipped many of his punches, danced and walked circles around him—and laughed at him, taunted, embarrassed and humiliated him—Duran, the 29-year-old WBC welterweight champion from Panama, simply threw up his arms. With 16 seconds left to go in the eighth round, he surrendered.
If Duran arrived in New Orleans with a reputation as unassailable as Simón Bolívar's—he had a career record of 72-1, after all, including his victory over Leonard last June 20 in Montreal—he left with it somewhere in the neighborhood of Papa Doc's. It was bizarre to witness so swift and devastating a collapse of a man's name. And what a name it was. Here was a man whose whole professional life had been built upon the precepts of Latin American machismo. Child ruffian, teen-age street fighter, fearless and remorseless brawler and boxer, he emerged by stages into a gladiator whose whole public person described with uncommon precision a certain standard of manliness. He had manos de piedra, hands of stone, and was extremely fast on his feet, moving with the suddenness of a mongoose, his black hair flying and his brown eyes flashing. Despite his objections, he was known as El Animal, a name he earned in the ring. He had knocked out 55 of his 72 opponents before the Leonard fights, and he seemed to possess a self-generating fury. He was a hell of a fighter.
So it was incomprehensible that Duran would quit. When, unhurt, he turned his back on Leonard and said to Referee Octavio Meyran, "No mas, no mas" one had the sensation of summer lightning in the air, freezing forever in the mind that scene and that man with his arms raised. Incredulous, the referee said to Duran, "¬¨¬®‚àö‚àèPor què?" Duran replied, by way of not answering, "No mas."
Meyran's question lingers, unanswered yet. ¬¨¬®‚àö‚àèPor què? Duran left his two veteran trainers, Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown, groping for an explanation, trying to make sense out of something they would have regarded an hour earlier as not merely unlikely but impossible. So the two were reduced to embarrassed musing. All Duran would say to Arcel was, "I quit. No gonna fight anymore."
"He just quit," said Brown. "I been with the guy nine years and I can't answer it. The guy's supposed to be an animal, right? And he quit. You'd think that an animal would fight right up to the end."
"I went to his room to commiserate with him, to console him, and I could hardly get in," said Arcel's wife, Stevie. "There was a party in the room. Roberto was singing with his wife."
"You'd think he'd won the fight," growled Brown.
"That's it," said the 81-year-old Arcel. "I've had it. This is terrible. I've handled thousands of fighters and never had anyone quit on me. I think this guy needs a psychiatrist more than he needs anything else. What happens to the human mind? Who knows? I've been associated with guys like Ezzard Charles and Barney Ross, guys who gave their all. Duran always possessed the same courage, the same determination. He was a fighter. If anyone had ever come to Freddie and me and said, 'This guy will quit on you,' I'd have spit in the guy's eye. Duran quitting? Never. He would never quit."
But quit he did. Duran said he started suffering from stomach cramps in the fifth round, and then came nausea and weakness—and all that may be true. But he was not ill after the fight—in fact he ate as well as partied that night—and a comprehensive medical examination the following day uncovered no physical disorder. Dr. Orlando Nu‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±ez, Duran's personal physician, says the problem stemmed from the fact that Duran ate too much after the noon weigh-in on the day of the fight. The bout began at 9 p.m.
When he was the undisputed lightweight champion of the world (1972-78) Duran always had trouble making the weight; even as a welterweight he has had to diet seriously to make the 147-pound limit. On the morning of the fight he weighed 148 pounds, and he spent the hours before the weigh-in drying out. He came in at 146. Immediately afterward, Nu‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±ez says, Duran drank a large thermos of consommè and half a thermos of hot tea. He then wolfed down an orange as big as a grapefruit. At 1 p.m., Nu‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±ez says, Duran ate lunch: two large T bone steaks, French fries, four large glasses of orange juice, two glasses of water and a cup of tea. At 5 p.m. Duran ate half a steak and drank more tea. (Leonard, incidentally, had a large breakfast on the day of the fight—two eggs and grits, two pieces of toast, peaches and Kool-Aid. He also weighed in at 146. So while Duran was starving himself to make the weight, Leonard was able to eat well. For dinner, at 4 p.m., Leonard had fried chicken, green peas, a glass of water and Kool-Aid.) Duran may well have had cramps from stuffing himself the day of the fight, a condition no doubt exacerbated by the right and left uppercuts that Leonard stuck in his belly. But Carlos Eleta, Duran's manager, shrugged at the suggestion that Duran had overeaten. The stomach of stone, Eleta insists, always ate that way before a fight.
Even if he was suffering cramps, the question persists. Why would Duran, a warrior one would expect to demand to be carried off on his shield, simply throw up his hands and quit? Arcel says he got a telephone call the morning after the fight, and the caller accused Duran of a calculated fix.
Does that make sense? Money has never been the principal engine driving Duran. Eleta has said that Roberto never knows how much he makes for a fight, trusting Eleta to invest his share for him. The one thing that Duran has always cared most about—the thing that money cannot buy and that he senses every moment he spends in Panama—is his status as a national hero. Would he deliberately lose a fight, especially as ignominiously as he did this one, and thereby jeopardize his place before a nation that adores him? Would a man who had fought so hard and so well and for so long—a man of inordinate self-esteem—roll over and take a dive near the end of his career? If he would behave so remarkably out of character, then we have never known him.
Surely the circumstances—and Leonard—conspired against Duran, leading him to commit the one act of which those around him thought him incapable. While Duran came to the fight at the end of a long, enervating battle against weight—according to Brown he went into training in September at 173 pounds and still weighed 160 as late as the first week of November—Leonard stayed in condition. Throughout the summer Leonard had been running, and he went to camp in late October already fit. In fact, Leonard says, he never approached a fight better prepared mentally, physically and tactically than he was for this one. He had had a falling-out with Dave Jacobs, his trainer since his amateur days. Jacobs had wanted Leonard to take a couple of tune-up fights before he met Duran again, but Leonard insisted on the rematch immediately. So Jacobs quit. That left Leonard's day-to-day conditioning program in the hands of Janks Morton, his trainer, closest adviser and best friend. And, ultimately, it also gave Angelo Dundee more of a hand in working on Leonard's technical skills.
In the past, Morton says, Leonard worked hard and continuously in preparing for a fight, sometimes sparring as many as 15 rounds a day. Convinced that Leonard would benefit from less work, Morton started Leonard sparring a week later than normal, never let him spar more than nine rounds a day and periodically gave him a day or two off.
Dundee flew to Washington, D.C. in early November, earlier than he usually arrived in camp, and began to work at once in schooling Leonard in a strategy for the rematch. After workouts, Dundee, Morton and Leonard would huddle, Dundee talking and gesturing. Sitting there listening, Leonard at times looked as earnest as a graduate student in theology. Dundee's litany was simple. "Keep the guy turning...hit him with shots coming in...belly jab...pivot off the ropes...spin out...slip jab.... Move over! Don't go straight back...push him off you.... When you spin, stay there. And nail him!"
A new Leonard showed up at the Superdome. "We were sky-high in the dressing room," Dundee says. "Different from last time. Everything was cool, smooth, good." Never was the difference more obvious than when Ray Charles, bobbing in the center of the ring, sang America the Beautiful. Ray Charles Leonard grinned hugely in admiration. Duran stood watching, impassively, from across the ring.
What transpired in the next half hour, from the opening bell to Duran's abdication, belongs somewhere under glass as a study of the fall into disgrace of one of the best fighters of modern times. Leonard seized the issue in the first round and never yielded it. Near mid-round, after the two men had cautiously felt one another out, Duran lunged into Leonard and bulled him to the ropes, just as he had done so effectively last June. But now Leonard spun away and landed a right hand. They exchanged punches. And Leonard jabbed. When the challenger caught Duran with a one-two at the end of the round, Duran smiled.
The pace quickened in the second round, and Leonard's effectiveness became more pronounced. He banged two rights to Duran's head, snapping it back, and then he circled and jabbed. Duran seemed puzzled. He started a right but then held it, sensing that Leonard had it measured. While Duran scored well in the third and fifth rounds—he won the third on all three cards, the fifth on two—he was never able to take over the fight as he had in June. He stalked his man, but Leonard repeatedly escaped, feinting to keep Duran off balance, walking away, dancing. Leonard had made a weapon of his jab, which he had not done in Montreal, and as the fight went on, he was countering well with his hook when Duran tried to move inside.
"You're laying back too long," Arcel told Duran between rounds. "You're not aggressive enough. You've got to fight this fellow like you fought him before. Get on top of him. Don't let him move."
Except in the fifth round, when Leonard went to the ropes and Dundee scolded him for it, Duran could not find a place inside. Leonard had learned how to push and pivot away. And when Duran had him inside, attacking the body, Leonard answered him with whistling uppercuts. Neither man was ever hurt, but Leonard could sense Duran's increasing frustration as the rounds went by. At one point, Leonard says, he had moved right and left and right, and then beheld a curious sight. "He was looking at my feet," Leonard says. "I was moving here and there and it tripped him out. Tripped me out. I said, 'I got him now.' He was reaching for me and couldn't catch me. I could hear Howard Cosell's voice at ringside. His voice, like, stands out: 'Duran is completely bewildered!' "
If it was one thing for Duran to be frustrated, unable to mount a sustained attack, it was another to be made a fool of, to be taunted and dared to throw a punch. Leonard does not know why he did what he did in the seventh round, but he had planned in his mind to be cute, to try to anger Duran. Late in the seventh, Leonard threw the most memorable punch of the night. Winding up his right hand, as if to throw a bolo, he suddenly snapped out a left jab that caught Duran flush on the face. "It made his eyes water," Leonard says. Having made a fool of him, Leonard continued taunting Duran mercilessly. He stuck out his chin, inviting Duran to hit him. Duran hesitated. Leonard kept it up, moving, stopping, mugging. Leonard scored again with a hook and two right hands. At the bell, Duran seemed to smile as he walked back to his corner. Three minutes later the fight was over.
Duran had lost control of his destiny in the ring. Except for one minor defeat, in a non-title fight against Esteban DeJesus in Madison Square Garden eight years ago, he had been in charge in every ring he'd ever entered in his life. And suddenly, no more.
"I didn't use my body," Leonard says. "I used my head." Leonard may have hurt Duran with blows to the body and brought water to his eyes with stinging jabs to the nose, but Leonard knew where to sink the blade to make the deepest wound. That slip-jab off the mock bolo in the seventh round may have been the most painful blow of Duran's life, because it drew hooting laughter from the crowd and made Duran a public spectacle—a laughingstock.
Despite the objections of the boxing purists, Leonard's taunting of Duran did its wicked work; it was undoubtedly the most sustained humiliation Duran ever suffered. Leonard had his number, and Duran knew it. Perhaps, as Arcel suggests, "something snapped." And so, facing seven more rounds, Duran turned and raised his arms in the eighth, as if emerging from a trench.
Immediately after the Montreal bout, in which both men fought gallantly, Duran had refused to touch gloves and had roared around the ring berating Leonard. For months he had been saying that he hated Leonard. And now, finally, he embraced him. Perhaps he had found humility at last. And, not unexpectedly, he announced his retirement, a reasonable thing to do, given what had gone before.
Many people around him, as well as thousands of countrymen back home, felt bitter and betrayed. Two nights after the fight, in a telephone interview for a Spanish-language radio station in Miami, Duran would announce that he wanted to meet Leonard a third time. But who could ever take such a fight seriously? It seemed a desperate attempt by a man who had won success through rashness to regain what one rash act had so irretrievably lost. For all Duran has done over the years, he will forever be known first as the champion who quit against Sugar Ray.
There had been one more scene on the night of the fight that, while played out in private, was perhaps a more revealing climax than the one 25,000 spectators and batteries of television and still cameras had recorded. After a press conference, Duran climbed into the shotgun seat of his gray van parked just outside the door of the Superdome. For several minutes, completely motionless, he stared through the windshield. And then here came Leonard once again. His jubilant entourage was leading him into the press room. Leonard spotted the van and saw Duran sitting behind the tinted glass. Leonard waved. Slightly startled, Duran raised his right arm and waved back. His smile was thin. Then Leonard was gone. Duran returned his eyes to the windshield, expressionless as stone. He still had Panama to face.