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.
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.
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