Conquering Sugar Ray was Living — and Losing to him was Dying – for Roberto Duran

 

By Frank Lotierzo

With the bio-pic of Roberto Duran hitting the big screen, it’s the perfect time to review the things in play going into the first clash between him and reigning WBC welterweight champ Sugar Ray Leonard, since much of the movie focuses on the first two bouts between them. It’s been so overlooked during the 36 years since the bout just how important Duran’s mindset was going into the fight, often coined “Fast Hands” versus “Stone Hands.”

On March 8th, 1971, “Smokin'” Joe Frazier pushed himself beyond the limitations of a mere mortal and bettered Muhammad Ali in the most anticipated fight in boxing history. Since that night, I’ve firmly contended that Joe Frazier entered the ring against Ali better prepared in every conceivable aspect than any other fighter I have ever seen.

Only one fighter has ever approached a big fight with close to the same zeal and lust for victory that Frazier had heading into his first fight with Ali; I think you know him. His moniker was Manos de Piedra (hands of stone), his name is Roberto Duran, the fighter I consider the greatest lightweight champion and one of the top-10 pound-for-pound fighters in boxing history.

Roberto Duran ruled the lightweight division for almost seven years before relinquishing his title to move up 12 pounds to campaign as a welterweight, bypassing the beast that held the junior welterweight title, Aaron Pryor. Just as Duran was exiting the lightweight division with a record of 63-1 and with only one fighter having gone the distance with him in a title bout (Edwin Viruet), the new superstar in boxing was emerging in the person of Sugar Ray Leonard.

From January of 1979 through March of 1980, Sugar Ray Leonard fought 10 times and remained undefeated. Seven of those bouts aired live on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”  Howard Cosell did the blow-by-blow commentary for the live bouts and the voice-over for those that were tape delayed. The last two aired live. The first was against undefeated Wilfred Benitez, who Leonard stopped in the 15th round to win the WBC welterweight title. The second was his first title defense against former title challenger Dave “Boy” Green, who Leonard knocked out in the fourth round with a vicious left hook. By mid-1980, Sugar Ray Leonard was running with the torch passed to him with Muhammad Ali’s retirement as boxing’s biggest star.

 

Duran fought twice in 1978, weighing 142 and then 151 pounds after his last defense of his lightweight title. By January of 1979, Duran was a full blown welterweight. Since abandoning the lightweight title, Duran was 8-0 (4). His most impressive win came against former WBC welterweight champ Carlos Palomino in the fifth of those eight bouts. It was in this fight after winning nine of 10 rounds against Palomino and dropping him with a beautiful right hand in the sixth round that Duran proclaimed he’d win the welterweight title. After Leonard won the title from Benitez, Duran clamored for a bout against him.

To Duran, Leonard represented everything that Ali did to Frazier……the fighter who loomed bigger than life that robbed him from being showered with all the accolades he thought he deserved. That Duran already had a legacy as a great champion, something Frazier didn’t, made no difference. Duran viewed fighting Leonard as his personal holiday, believing that once in the ring with him, Leonard’s 7-Up commercials, Pepsodent smile, good guy image, good diction and gaudy style wouldn’t be able to save him from being taken apart. For Leonard, he didn’t understand why Duran had so much animosity towards him, which pretty much tells you about the world in which Ray lived.

Roberto Duran, the fighter, was as slick and shrewd as any fighter you’ll ever see. The subtle things he did in the ring such as his little head and shoulder feints as he worked his way inside without throwing any punches along with exposing his left shoulder, then dip to his left and come over the top with his right to the head, chest, or neck, weren’t reported and certainly were no accident. In addition to all of that, Duran, because he was insulted and incensed by the way Leonard carried himself, did any and everything under the sun to get inside of Leonard’s mind, including hurling crude insults at Juanita Leonard, Ray’s wife. Duran gets much ado today for the way he messed with the psyche of Sugar Ray Leonard. Although it played a role, what’s missed is the fact that both Sugar Ray Leonard and his trainer Angelo Dundee were certain that Ray could beat Duran in any type of fight that evolved. Dundee was emphatic, saying my guy’s the bigger banger. Duran was viewed by Leonard and Co. as an overfed lightweight, one who Ray could walk over.

The thing that really had Duran so fired-up that was under-reported and has been forgotten was the money. Leonard was guaranteed eight million dollars compared to Duran’s one and a half million. This made Duran nuts and he was totally insulted by it. It also made the rematch easier to make and persuaded Duran to take the fight without adequate time to get ready, because he would be paid a million and a half more than Leonard.

On June 20th, 1980, in the first super-fight of the decade, Sugar Ray Leonard, 27-0 (18) made the second defense of his WBC welterweight title against the former undisputed lightweight champ, Roberto Duran, 72-1 (56). The fight took place at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, Canada, the same venue where Leonard won an Olympic gold medal in 1976. Just as Muhammad Ali had no idea who Joe Frazier really was standing in the opposite corner and what was about to come at him, neither did Sugar Ray Leonard in regards to Roberto Duran. Duran was never so determined to break a fighter like he was the night he first met Leonard. Leonard respected Duran, but ultimately saw him as the lightweight champ, believing he held the surprise for his opponent instead of the other way around.

Over the years it’s been assumed that Leonard fought Duran toe-to-toe of his own volition, but that’s wrong. Duran forced Leonard to fight it out and trade via his non-stop pressure, inside fighting and body punching. Ray had never experienced anything like that before and was only saved by his superb athleticism and ability to box and punch really hard at 147.

The Fight:

Duran came out fast in round one looking to force Leonard back. Leonard tried to counter and sucker Duran with quick combinations. The turning point in the fight was the second round. Midway through the round, Duran, who was getting low and underneath Leonard’s lead punches, aimed at his head, countered an overextended Leonard with a massive left-hook that almost dropped him. Duran went after Leonard and tried to get him out, but Leonard was able to tie up Duran and mount just enough of a counterattack to survive. The second round of the first Leonard-Duran fight was the first glimpse boxing fans got into the heart of Ray Leonard and found out that he also had a great chin.

Starting in round three the fight was fought on the inside where both fighters waged war and raised hell. In the time that’s passed since the fight, it’s been routinely assumed Leonard fought the wrong fight. I don’t agree with that and believe the tactic Leonard adopted further proves his ring genius. I say this because of how he was hurt by Duran’s left hook. By fighting with his back to the ropes, Leonard knew Duran would try to crowd him and stay on top of him. This aided Leonard for two reasons.

Since Duran was on top of him, it was easier to slip and catch his left hook that he knew would only come from the right side. The other thing it did was take away the power in Duran’s straight right. With the fighters being at such close quarters, Duran couldn’t get everything on it. I believe Leonard didn’t want to chance getting countered while reaching for Duran as he was crouching, by Duran going up top if he missed with a flurry. Leonard also wasn’t outmanned by Duran physically, and thought his hand speed would compensate against Duran’s aggression, being able to get off multiple punch combinations. And Leonard also believed in his punch.

From rounds three through 15, Leonard and Duran fought on the inside, with Duran getting slightly the best of it in most of the rounds. There was plenty of holding, but there was also plenty of fighting with both fighters getting off with their Sunday best. The difference was that Duran was in his comfort zone fighting opponents with their backs against the ropes. He could sense when they were about to launch a counter and make them miss. At the same time he knew when they were intent on resting and not working, allowing him to work both hands to the head and body.

Leonard’s fast combinations thrown with plenty of zing kept Duran from dominating him. But the ferocity and cockiness of Duran was evident the entire fight. He feinted and slipped as he moved towards Leonard and even showed he could do it moving back as drawing Leonard to him. There were plenty of exchanges that Duran beat the faster Leonard to the punch. At the bell ending the fifteenth round, Duran reacted as Frazier did towards Ali, showing the same relief that only getting in the ring with the entity they believed was the root of their pain could provide. The unanimous decision in Duran’s favor was a mere formality. His jubilation was obvious! In fact Duran was so hell-bent on breaking Leonard that when Ray raised his hands after the fight concluded, trying to convince everyone that he won, Duran rushed at Leonard grabbing his groin and shoved Leonard’s arms down as Leonard raised them in a victory salute.

The Aftermath:

However, as Frazier found out about Ali, Duran learned the same regarding Leonard. He was more than just glitz and hype, finding out that there was a real fighter living underneath the image. In the aftermath I still think Duran’s victory isn’t thought of as the monumental accomplishment it should be. Here Duran, aged 29, with his best years physically behind him, was fighting 12 pounds above his optimum weight with a natural welterweight entering his prime who just turned 24. And this wasn’t just a welterweight champion; it was an all-time great welterweight champion who I believe only takes a back seat to Sugar Ray Robinson at 147.

Every once in a while you see a fight in which one of the fighters is on a mission. He fights as if winning means living and losing represents dying. The fighter on the night in question refuses to be denied. Roberto Duran and Joe Frazier both lived in a world where losing to Leonard and Ali, respectively, was viewed as death to both of them and winning meant life. Well, they both lived because of their singleness of purpose on the biggest night of their professional careers.

On Monday night, March 8th, 1971, I never saw a fighter better prepared for his opponent the way Joe Frazier was for Muhammad Ali. Nothing could’ve changed the result that night simply because Frazier refused to be denied. Only Roberto Duran on Friday night, June 20th, 1980, rivaled Frazier’s intensity for one fight. Duran was on a mission in his first fight with Sugar Ray Leonard and he refused to be denied. And he wasn’t.

In the June 16th, 1980 edition of Sports Illustrated, Roberto Duran looked out from the cover with the caption “No Way Sugar Ray” next to his scowling picture. Go back and watch the fight and you’ll see he never spoke truer words pertaining to his career or any bout he participated in.

Incidentally, with the recent passing of Muhammad Ali, there’s a great case supporting that Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard are the two greatest fighters still living.

Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com

 

COMMENTS

-Radam G :

Great stuff! Where are you, Commish RG? I wanted to hear your take and/or spin on this piece. After all, you have alleged "A Glove Affair," where all time popular rumors say that Panama Lewis tampered with "Hands of Stone" Duran's gloves by taking out most of the horse hair. Don't be hiding, Commish! Holla about your suspicions and evidence, as much as you can. I know that a lot is coming out in your book, "A Glove Affair" -- or something to that effect. Holla!


-teaser :

Duran was the fire that forged Ray Leonard ...anybody else would have been destroyed that night ...where do you see that intensity today ?


-brownsugar :

Fascinating history... I still believe that Leonard would have easily out boxed him if he hadn't allowed Duran to get inside his head. But having some one like Duran calling his wife a whore stripped him of his his reason and his ability for logical thinking ....Ray took the bait and fought a stupid fight but handled the loss with class. Duran is the gold standard for latino's who hold him up as the pinnacle of Latino boxing, I still get debates forced upon me by Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and south Americans about the fight on my face book feeds from boxing groups on a weekly basis...so Im not going to debate it here.....I'm tired. His victory over Leonard is a source of much ethnic pride...Duran was the man. But so was Leonard. They will be forever be linked like Ali and Frazier.


-Brad :

C'mon Frank get your facts straight. You're a boxing writer. Duran didn't "bypass the beast that held the junior welterweight title, Aaron Pryor" to fight welters....he beat Sugar Ray Leonard BEFORE Aaron Pryor held the JUNIOR welterweight title. Duran beat Leonard for the welterweight crown on June 20,1980. Little Aaron Pryor beat Cervantes for the Junior title in August 0f 1980. Same day Hearns destroyed Cuevas. Lazy reporting.


-Radam G :

C'mon Frank get your facts straight. You're a boxing writer. Duran didn't "bypass the beast that held the junior welterweight title, Aaron Pryor" to fight welters....he beat Sugar Ray Leonard BEFORE Aaron Pryor held the JUNIOR welterweight title. Duran beat Leonard for the welterweight crown on June 20,1980. Little Aaron Pryor beat Cervantes for the Junior title in August 0f 1980. Same day Hearns destroyed Cuevas. Lazy reporting.
Grandmaster journalist F-Lo is right. He was an active pug in those days. Dude is solid as a diamond rock. Ev'ybodee and dey momma knew how pugs were using "Hawk Time" Pryor as a sparring partner and then firing him. Testimonial films are everywhere. Nobody and dey nephew between 135lbs and 147lbs wanted any part of the "beast" Hawk Time. Hands of Stone could have fought Hawk Time at lightweight or light welterweight, but took wise counsel from his team and bypassed Hawk Time. The only reason that he even got a shot at light welterweight was because of stolen outrageous money for smaller weights at that time that swindling bank thief/promoter Harold Smith, aka Barney Ross, paid "the snake dancing champ Cervantes." Sorry, my friend! There are mucho things in da game that are not as they seem! And truths won't be brought out until a challenge. I cannot let you call out one of my favorite boxing journalist like that. Holla!


-Brad :

Grandmaster journalist F-Lo is right. He was an active pug in those days. Dude is solid as a diamond rock. Ev'ybodee and dey momma knew how pugs were using "Hawk Time" Pryor as a sparring partner and then firing him. Testimonial films are everywhere. Nobody and dey nephew between 135lbs and 147lbs wanted any part of the "beast" Hawk Time. Hands of Stone could have fought Hawk Time at lightweight or light welterweight, but took wise counsel from his team and bypassed Hawk Time. The only reason that he even got a shot at light welterweight was because of stolen outrageous money for smaller weights at that time that swindling bank thief/promoter Harold Smith, aka Barney Ross, paid "the snake dancing champ Cervantes." Sorry, my friend! There are mucho things in da game that are not as they seem! And truths won't be brought out until a challenge. I cannot let you call out one of my favorite boxing journalist like that. Holla!
cut the bs. Duran was fighting Leonard who was 5'10" and a true 147. Little Aaron 5'6" wasn't even a champ and was a underdog two years later against Arguello!!!!! Pryor wasn't a beast compared to Leonard,Hearns, Hagler......none of whom the beast Pryor ever fought. He stayed at 140 while all the big boys fought at 147,154,160


-Radam G :

cut the bs. Duran was fighting Leonard who was 5'10" and a true 147. Little Aaron 5'6" wasn't even a champ and was a underdog two years later against Arguello!!!!! Pryor wasn't a beast compared to Leonard,Hearns, Hagler......none of whom the beast Pryor ever fought. He stayed at 140 while all the big boys fought at 147,154,160
Cut what you want. You don't know what you don't know that you don't know. "Leonard was listed at 5'10. He ain't 5'10. Pryor sparred with him as an amateur and a paid sparring partner for "Leonard" in the pros long before "Leonard" fought Duran. And "Leonard" is on record saying that Pryor got the best of him in sparring sessions and put him on his arse a couple of times. I don't know why you brought up height. It doesn't matter in boksing. It didn't help Tommy Hearns against "little Aaron." Little Aaron beat the syet outta him in GGs. The game is conducted by weight divisions, not height divisions. Of course "Little Aaron" was not a champ until one stopping ducking him and fought him. My friend, with all your c9cksureness, you are buzzing like the crowd that Uncle Roger always speak about. Hopefully some of the other readers who are in da know and not bulljivers and trolls will tell you the open history of the great "Little, Aaron who beat da hebejeebeez outta a lot of big @$$e$. Size ain't syet! And it doesn't matter to wrecking-machine humans with brains and don't believe in myths about Blunderbores. Holla!


-teaser :

Pryor fought and beat tall Tommy Hearns in the amateurs...just about anybody would have been an underdog against Alexis ...that's what made it the ring magazines fight of the decade ...the man really was a beast


-Brad :

so what you're saying is Duran after leaving the lightweight division decided to fight Palomino in 1979, then Leonard in 1980 because he was afraid of "the beast" Aaron Pryor at 140 who wasn't even a champ at the time... Cervantes was? Is that what you're saying? Because if it is you don't know what you're talking about. By the way amatuer fights mean nothing. Henry Tillman beat Tyson twice at that that level.


-Brad :

Pryor was easy to hit. DuJuan Johnson, Cervantes,Kemenda all had Pryor on the canvas....guys like Leonard, Duran, Hearns hit a thousand times harder. I love Pryor but there was a reason he never went up in weight class to fight those guys.


-Radam G :

And, YUP! I hope some other readers jump in and school you about Pryor. No darn body and dey cousin would fight him at 147lbs. SRL ducked out of a signed fight. Tommy Hearns took counsel from the late, great WBG Manny steward and stayed away from him as a pro welterweight. Roberto Duran took counsel from the late, great trainer Ray Arcel and Panama Lewis and stayed away from him at lightweight and light welter, and up-and-coming Don Curry, Merrick Taylor, Sweet Pea Whitaker and Terry Norris all took wise counsel and let the old, drugged-out "Hawk Time" alone. No syet, dude! I hope that some legit wise mind school you. Trolls, posers and bulljivers got you c0cky as a bone-skinny ho on crack with three teeth, but she is delusional that she is still fine as wine and is a cross between a rap video ho and J-Lo. I would drop some YouTube videos to suppose my points, but I ain't no darn troll and his bromance. Holla!


-Brad :

So while Duran,Cuevas,Leonard,Benitez,Hearns,Palomino were all fighting at 147 (in other words all the money and fame)the BEAST stayed at 140 for what reason?


-Radam G :

Pryor was easy to hit. DuJuan Johnson, Cervantes,Kemenda all had Pryor on the canvas....guys like Leonard, Duran, Hearns hit a thousand times harder. I love Pryor but there was a reason he never went up in weight class to fight those guys.
Wow! I guess that you don't know all the softies and marshmallows that had Leonard, Duran and Hearns on the canvas. Getting knocked down don't mean syet. I can name a 100 elite boxers off the top of my head that got knockdown. And it didn't stop their greatness. All Leonard, Duran and Hearns have been KTFO. Pryor just missed the count by going back down. The three that you named could not beat the count. Holla!


-Brad :

just tell me why Pryor stayed at 140 when all the big names were at 147. Duran moved up to 147 to fight the big boys, hell he even went after Hagler at 160...why did Pryor stay 140 when there were so many top fighter at 147?


-Radam G :

So while Duran,Cuevas,Leonard,Benitez,Hearns,Palomino were all fighting at 147 (in other words all the money and fame)the BEAST stayed at 140 for what reason?
My friend, you need to drop the c0cksure stance and do some research. Bigger pugs stayed away from the smaller ones on da reg. HAwk Time would have moved up to welterweight and torched arses for just decent moolah. There is a long trail of smaller pugs doing this during the smaller the weight, the smaller the money eras. Pucking pugs below heavyweight didn't make nice, big dough until Howard Davis did it back in 1977. He made more money in his debut than "Homicide" Hank Armstrong made in his whole career. Check the records, my friend. Holla!


-Brad :

You're talking crap.


-Radam G :

just tell me why Pryor stayed at 140 when all the big names were at 147. Duran moved up to 147 to fight the big boys, hell he even went after Hagler at 160...why did Pryor stay 140 when there were so many top fighter at 147?
PLEASE! Some other real boksing person($) come in and skool Brad. I refuse to always be the provider of diz, dat and da third. Puckin' A! I know that it is some wise minds out there who is just sitting back, chillaxing and laughing his arse off because his pride won't let him get in a beef about da real real. At one of you aficionados ought to tell how "Little Aaron" pulled over on the side of the rode and cried like a bytch because SRL pulled out of the bout because of eye trouble from the Hearns' scrap. I'm finished. Holla!


-Brad :

Leonard pulled out of a fight with Roger Stafford that was scheduled for May 1982 because of his "eye trouble" not Pryor. If you knew what you were talking about you wouldn't be pleading for help from others in the forum.


-Radam G :

so what you're saying is Duran after leaving the lightweight division decided to fight Palomino in 1979, then Leonard in 1980 because he was afraid of "the beast" Aaron Pryor at 140 who wasn't even a champ at the time... Cervantes was? Is that what you're saying? Because if it is you don't know what you're talking about. By the way amatuer fights mean nothing. Henry Tillman beat Tyson twice at that that level.
Both Hawk Time and Hand of Stones were at 135lb, but HOS went up to 140lb and fought Monroe Brooks in an over the weight limit bout. Hawk Time was stalking da heck out of HOS. Because of more money at the time, HOS blasted out Palamino and started ignoring HT because SRL was looking to beat an overweight lightweight that he thought HOS was. And the rest is history. (Bullsyet that Tyson lost to Tilman even once. Tyson was robbed because of an on-going disagreement between the head amateur director/ruler at that time and the late, great Cus D'aMato. One can go to YouTube and see Iron Mike beat Tillman TWICE. Howard Davis didn't even beat HOS twice in 1976, but the late, great amateur Davis got two decisions that he did not really win. Maybe I will put the films on YouTube.) And I'm really fading to black this time. Have a great night, USA! Holla!


-Radam G :

Leonard pulled out of a fight with Roger Stafford that was scheduled for May 1982 because of his "eye trouble" not Pryor. If you knew what you were talking about you wouldn't be pleading for help from others in the forum.
You are 100-percent in La La Land about that. Holla!


-Radam G :

You're talking crap.
Call it what you want to. It won't change the history that SRL was scheduled to whup Roger S's arse in a tune up before going against Aaron Pryor for that bout that was already signed. The proof is everywhere even on boxrec. Hehe! You should ask for HELP. I don't need it. Holla!


-Radam G :

just tell me why Pryor stayed at 140 when all the big names were at 147. Duran moved up to 147 to fight the big boys, hell he even went after Hagler at 160...why did Pryor stay 140 when there were so many top fighter at 147?
The smaller weights started getting PAID. Before the 1980s, fighting at less than heavyweight was chiefly fighting for peanuts. Pugs went us in weight for a nickle or dime more before the 1980s because da game is prizefighting. Not an elephant at a low weight fighting for puckin' peanuts. Marvelous Martin Hagler never fought Michael Spinks at light heavy and nobody at the new division of super middleweight because the top pay for him was coming from smaller pugs invading his middleweight class. He was not trying to hear a super middleweight or light heavyweight wanting to dance with him for peanuts. Holla!


-amayseng :

Fascinating history... I still believe that Leonard would have easily out boxed him if he hadn't allowed Duran to get inside his head. But having some one like Duran calling his wife a whore stripped him of his his reason and his ability for logical thinking ....Ray took the bait and fought a stupid fight but handled the loss with class. Duran is the gold standard for latino's who hold him up as the pinnacle of Latino boxing, I still get debates forced upon me by Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and south Americans about the fight on my face book feeds from boxing groups on a weekly basis...so Im not going to debate it here.....I'm tired. His victory over Leonard is a source of much ethnic pride...Duran was the man. But so was Leonard. They will be forever be linked like Ali and Frazier.
Ray got hurt in the second round I believe by body shots, his legs and their ability to move and stay at a distance were gone for many rounds. I do not believe Ray decided taking those hellacious shots were enjoyable and he would stay inside because it is fun. He had no choice, he will never admit it but Roberto hurt him bad and it is what it is. That is why in the rematch he stayed waaaaaaaaaaay at distance and fought and danced around far far far from Duran.


-Radam G :

Ray got hurt in the second round I believe by body shots, his legs and their ability to move and stay at a distance were gone for many rounds. I do not believe Ray decided taking those hellacious shots were enjoyable and he would stay inside because it is fun. He had no choice, he will never admit it but Roberto hurt him bad and it is what it is. That is why in the rematch he stayed waaaaaaaaaaay at distance and fought and danced around far far far from Duran.
SRL is the real deal. He has admitted for years that he was caught and hurt by HOS. The thing about great pugs, they don't tell great lies when it is over and done. Maybe only one great lied to the end. And that would be Jack Johnson. He appeared to have gotten cracked by Jess Willard and put too sleep. True he was shielding the sun from his eyes. But most sleepy heads did that in that era of fighting outside during the sunlight hours. Holla!