Time waits for no one, as the old cliché goes, a statement whose meaning the young can barely grasp and alas, I am young no longer. But 39 years later and the memories are still fresh: Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran and the fight the entire world could barely wait to see. It’s easy to forget how huge that event was, simply because the world has changed so much. But for boxing fans who witnessed it, the first Duran vs Leonard clash remains unforgettable.
Of course, big league boxing was different back then. Not to mention bigger. In a time when most had only a dozen channels on their televisions, before pay-per-view, before the internet, a superfight in the post-Ali, “Rocky Balboa” age was truly a massive, global event. But still, this was something unique. Sports fans were accustomed to only heavyweights commanding the big crowds and the big money. And no Latin-American boxer had ever attracted such keen interest from the general public and your average sports fan.
Both Duran and Leonard were more than just boxers; by 1980, they were superstars. And this was more than just a championship boxing match. It was the one fight everyone somehow just knew would be something memorable, maybe even momentous. The contrasting personalities, backgrounds and ring styles created an irresistible contest, the fight everyone wanted to see. It was not only one of the most lucrative matches in boxing history; it was a sports event of global significance, the richest prizefight in history, and a record breaker for closed-circuit television.
In the months leading up to June 20, that anticipation and excitement was impossible to overlook. Cover stories and feature articles ran in all the major magazines. Huge ads appeared in national newspapers and pre-fight hype was on prime-time television. Major venues showing the closed-circuit telecast such as Madison Square Garden were packed to the rafters. And the morning after, reports of the Duran vs Leonard battle were not just in the sports headlines, but actually leading the news stories of the day. Interest remained so high, the contest was aired on prime-time television weeks after it had taken place.
The organizers of the bout chose Montreal as the site because it was the city where it all began for Sugar Ray Leonard, where four years earlier he captured the hearts of millions of Americans by winning an Olympic gold medal for the U.S. His flashy boxing style, his television interviews with Howard Cosell highlighting his natural charm, and the story of how he had competed with a photo of his sweetheart taped inside his boxing shoes, all helped to make him a star and bring lucrative endorsement contracts from 7Up and Nabisco. Surely the memories of his Olympic triumph, just four short years ago, would translate into a pro-Sugar Ray crowd in Montreal, as opposed to the pro-Duran Hispanics who would have flooded the stands in Las Vegas, New York, or Los Angeles.
But it didn’t work out that way. “Les Québécois” make up their own minds, and they weren’t about to cheer for the media darling just because the television networks and corporate sponsors expected them to. Duran also made a shrewd move to win over the locals. Fresh off the plane, Duran told reporters he loved the French-Canadian people and was thrilled to be in Quebec. While training in Montreal he wore a t-shirt emblazoned with “Bonjour Montreal!” To further ensure the locals stayed in the challenger’s corner, Duran’s entourage carried aloft not only the Panamanian flag during the long walk to the ring, but also a huge blue and white Fleurdelisé. Unexpectedly, and for the first time in his career, Leonard was competing in front of a hostile crowd.
And it was, by far, the biggest crowd of Leonard’s career, not to mention Duran’s. Montreal’s massive Olympic Stadium accommodated a mob numbering almost fifty thousand that wet June night, one of the largest gatherings to attend a boxing match anywhere in the last several decades, testament to the widespread excitement the match-up inspired.
And thankfully, the battle itself more than lived up to the hype. Duran vs Leonard I was a Greek tragedy in three acts, a thrilling, fast paced, grueling war that ebbed and flowed, Duran dominating the early rounds, Leonard coming back in the middle frames, and both men battling with fury in the final stages. The contest was so competitive and hard-fought that the outcome remained in doubt until the moment the official decision was finally announced.
Before the bout Sugar Ray told the press he had no intention of showing Duran any more respect than he had shown Pete Ranzany or Andy Price, opponents he had taken the fight to and battered into submission with his extraordinary speed and considerable punching power. “Flat footed,” he declared when asked how he would box the man who, without a doubt, represented the most powerful and formidable opponent of his career. “I will not run.” And as early as the first round it was evident he was a man of his word as he caught a charging Duran with a flush left hook before spinning away and then, to everyone’s astonishment, came forward, looking to trade. Before the end of the round, that sequence had repeated itself.
But if the champion held his own in the face of Roberto’s attack in round one, in the second Duran showed why Leonard’s strategical choice wasn’t the wisest one. With Duran pressing and both fighters looking to land big shots, the challenger surprised Ray with a quick follow-up left hand that almost knocked him off his feet and forced him to hold. Leonard didn’t appear seriously hurt but the punch signaled that it was Duran who had the momentum, a fact borne out by the challenger dominating the action in the next two rounds as he continually forced Ray to the ropes and unloaded heavy shots.
But round five belonged to Leonard as he stayed off the ropes and found room to let his quicker hands go. Near its end he dug in some painful-looking body blows before willingly going toe-to-toe with Roberto and, to the astonishment of many, getting the better of the exchange. In the sixth he dictated terms behind his left hand, beating Roberto to the punch and forcing the Panamanian to respect his hook. Round seven saw Duran attempt to reassert himself as he pinned Ray again, but this time Leonard, who was getting off first, spun his tormentor and for the first time it was Roberto’s back to the ropes. A series of brutal exchanges ensued with Duran landing the more punishing blows, including some vicious inside uppercuts.
It was Leonard’s turn to score with hard uppercuts in round eight, one of which knocked Roberto back on his heels and suddenly it was the champion stalking Duran from ring center. Leonard stayed off the ropes and his quicker hands allowed him to control the action before the round ended with a furious exchange, both men landing. In round nine, Duran maintained the frenetic pace, crowding Leonard, and then a clash of heads opened up a cut above the right eye that clearly bothered Ray. Again the round concluded with a ferocious exchange.
In the tenth, the action returned to the middle of the ring where Leonard stunned Roberto with a left hook, but seconds later Duran landed a perfectly-timed overhand right. Demonstrating extraordinary conditioning, the challenger continued to apply unrelenting pressure and forced Leonard to give ground again and again, but at the end of the round the champion rebounded with a series of sharp blows.
The bout had already seen ten rounds of intense action but round eleven was nothing short of extraordinary as both warriors stayed on the inside and went back and forth with flurries of punches. Once again Duran, the relentless bull, forced Leonard to the ropes and kept him there by sheer physical strength before Leonard spun him around, but Roberto then deftly spun him back and continued to hold the upper hand, forcing the champion into his own corner and outworking him. Near round’s end Leonard tried to steal it with a series of flurries but the challenger replied with an onslaught of his own and the cleaner blows were from Roberto.
Round twelve might have been scored for either man as both had their moments, and while it was one of the less eventful rounds in this amazing war it would have constituted three minutes of fervent action in almost any other fight. Round thirteen saw Duran coming foward with renewed urgency as a vicious left hand snapped back Leonard’s head and once again the champion showed his chin was not to be questioned. A minute later, another hook from Roberto landed audibly but Leonard took the shot and fired back. A right hand lead from Duran landed flush but incredibly Leonard replied with two rights of his own before maneuvering Roberto to the ropes, but then Duran forced the champion to once again give ground. The last thirty seconds saw a non-stop, toe-to-toe exchange with Duran landing big left hooks and then Ray shaking the challenger with a series of heavy blows.
Round fourteen began with a singular moment: Angelo Dundee exhorting Leonard and pointing at Duran as if to say, “Go get that sucker!” and Duran waving back as if to say, “You want it? Come and get it!” The legend of this famous fight says that Leonard clearly took the final two rounds as Duran, having announced to his corner at the end of the thirteenth that he had won, coasted. But despite Leonard battling with fury and attempting a wind-up bolo punch, it was in fact Roberto who landed the heavier and more effective shots in the penultimate stanza, including another vicious left hook that left many wondering how Leonard could absorb such a blow without buckling.
The final three minutes brought more unforgettable moments, including Leonard waving at Roberto with both fists before the bell rang and as the huge crowd, and even the press section, stood in salute to the extraordinary battle. Roberto then refused to touch gloves, referee Carlos Padilla having to grab his wrist and make it happen, and indeed the supremely confident challenger did arrogantly concede the final round, letting Leonard get off one big shot after another while throwing little in return.
Then, with seconds left, and after slipping a series of blows without bothering to counter, Roberto taunted Ray, pointing at his chin as if to say, “You can’t touch me!” At the final bell Ray raised his arms and Duran took great exception, shoving Leonard and cursing him as a mob of people poured through the ropes. It was a fight unlike any other and the whole scene was unlike any witnessed before in the prize ring.
The unanimous decision went to Duran and there were no serious arguments to dispute it, and yet the fight was deadly close, as both pugilists had given astonishing performances, both winning their share of rounds. The battle demanded the very best of two truly great champions and for Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard “The Brawl in Montreal” ranks with the finest efforts of their illustrious careers. Among all the “superfights” of recent decades, Duran vs Leonard stands out for the skill on display and the sheer intensity of the combat.
Duran vs Leonard I was not only a great event in and of itself; it ushered in a decade of “superfights” between new stars in the lower weight divisions. In years past, it was primarily the heavyweights, and especially Muhammad Ali, who commanded huge purses and major media attention. But in the 80s, Leonard, Duran, Thomas Hearns, Aaron Pryor, Marvin Hagler and Alexis Arguello all had their share of the spotlight and earned millions of dollars. And it was that first thrilling war between “Stone Hands” and “Fast Hands” that made it possible, that lured scores of new fans to the sport while proving big bucks could be made with the smaller men.
And needless to say, this was the greatest victory of Roberto Duran’s career, a superlative performance and a win which capped an incredible decade-long run at the elite level of the sport. His record now stood at an astonishing 72-1 with 55 knockouts and boxing pundits were liberally comparing him to the true immortals of the past, putting the bearded warrior with the defiant scowl and arrogant swagger in the same league as Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis and Henry Armstrong. Given all that he had accomplished, along with his astonishing performance against the younger, faster and naturally bigger Leonard, these comparisons were entirely fitting. Which of course made the fiasco in New Orleans, just five short months later, all the more tragic.
— Michael Carbert