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Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran 1: The tactical debate 40 years on

Duran and Leonard in their thriller from June 1980. Photo by Focus on Sport/ Getty Images
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“Leonard is flat-footed, he did not come out to dance, he wants to go toe-to-toe with him.”

There’s less that 10 seconds gone in the closed-circuit broadcast of Sugar Ray Leonard’s WBC welterweight title defense against the legendary Roberto Duran and veteran sportscaster Bill Mazer is venting his astonishment at Leonard’s tactics. In the first three minutes, Mazer, along with co-announcer Ferdie Pacheco (The Fight Doctor) voice their shock at Leonard’ strategy three more times. As the fight unfolds, Leonard’s willingness to mix it up with his rampaging opponent is referenced on countless occasions.

I was introduced to the Leonard-Duran trilogy in the early 1990s. This was long before the days of the internet, so all I had were the fights, books, magazines and a close-knit group of friends that enjoyed the sport. How simple it was! But back then, saying that Leonard tactically blew it against Duran in the first fight would have been akin to saying a boxing ring is square. That’s how obvious it was. As the years passed, however, the internet made the world a much smaller place and you’re introduced to new opinion from knowledgeable insiders.

Suddenly things aren’t quite so obvious. Did Leonard get it wrong? Did Duran just get it right? Should Leonard have boxed and moved? Could Leonard have boxed and moved? No one is looking to change history here. Duran has apologists for the vast majority of his defeats, so besmirching his greatest ever triumph would result in a storm of hate the size of Panama. Duran won this fight, won it fair-and-square (9-6 on my card), and I’m not suggesting for a second that a tactical switch by Leonard changes the result. We’re merely looking at the facts and opinions surrounding those tactics.

July 1980 issue

By 1980, the 24-year-old Leonard was the biggest star in boxing. The Palmer Park, Maryland native was unbeaten in 27 fights with 18 knockouts, and he was in the argument for being the finest pound-for-pound fighter alive. Duran, the former undisputed lightweight champion, was 29 years old, but he was already a legend. “Hands of Stone” was 71-1 (56 KOs) and he had avenged his lone defeat to Esteban DeJesus twice by knockout. Relations between Leonard and Duran were cordial … until their fight was made official.

“The minute he signed that contract he turned into another person,” Leonard told The Ring. “He cursed me, cursed my wife, gave me the finger, gave my wife the finger. He did things that were from the street, and the only thing I could do was fight him back.

“I’d trained to box; use my height, my reach, this and that, but that all went out of my mind when I entered the ring. All I wanted to do was beat him up; annihilate him. That switch occurred as soon as the bell rang for Round 1. I did nothing other than stand toe-to-toe with the guy.”

The ensuing fight, which Duran won via 15-round unanimous decision, was an instant welterweight classic, celebrated alongside Barney Ross vs. Jimmy McLarnin, Sugar Ray Robinson vs. Kid Gavilan 2 and Carmen Basilio vs. Tony De Marco 2. Although Leonard was shaken up in the second round, neither fighter was seriously hurt and there were no knockdowns, but the intensity of the action was ferocious and it has rarely, if ever, been matched. Despite both men being known for their defensive savvy, the bout was high-contact throughout because much of the action took pace on the inside or against the ropes, where Leonard frequently found himself pinned.

“The Monday morning quarterbacks, or the Sunday morning coaches, are going to say that Leonard could have moved and boxed, especially after what they saw in the rematch,” said acclaimed coach Stephen “Breadman” Edwards. “But sometimes the perception of how a fight should look is different from reality. Fights are weird like that. For example, when Leonard fights [Thomas] Hearns, it’s Hearns that needs to be the boxer and Leonard is the puncher. Leonard has to box against Duran, but Hearns knocks Duran out.

“People say that you can box and move on Duran. You can box and move on the old Duran, but it’s not easy to box and move on the Duran from [Ken] Buchanan to Leonard. He made it look like you were trying to run out of the ring if you moved on him in those days. I just don’t know if Leonard could have boxed that night, the way Duran was coming. Duran is not known for being a speedster, but while I wouldn’t say he was faster than Leonard [on his feet], his speed was comparable and he was coming forward. Leonard was the bigger guy and the bigger puncher, so going into that fight, nobody thought that Leonard had to move away from Duran.”

Not everyone agrees.

(Original Caption) Las Vegas, Nevada: Leonard (right) takes on Wilfred Benitez.

Following a tough tactical battle, Leonard scored a 15th-round stoppage over the great Wilfred Benitez in November 1979 to claim the welterweight title. Brimming with confidence, the new champion readied himself for a homecoming defense against Dave “Boy” Green, who had pushed then-WBC titleholder Carlos Palomino to the wire in an 11th-round stoppage loss three years prior. Leonard defeated Green emphatically, knocking the Englishman out cold with a pulverizing left hook in the fourth.

“I tipped Sugar Ray to beat Duran,” said Green, who faced Leonard in March 1980, less than three months prior to the Duran bout. “I thought he would dance around him, make him miss, but he thought he could beat him at his own game. You don’t fight Duran on the inside, he’s a special fighter, so Sugar Ray did get it wrong.

“He should have moved around from the start, boxed him properly, and I think he’d have beaten him the first time. Like me, Ray has a 74-inch reach. Duran is nowhere near that (67 inches), he’s short (5-foot-7), but he’s a helluva fighter when he gets inside. Ray should have kept him away. He thought he could do what he wanted with Duran, but you’re talking about a great, great fighter here. Duran’s got to be the best lightweight ever. I couldn’t see him beating Sugar Ray at welterweight but, on that night, he did.”

So Leonard engaged in a firefight from Round 1, but it’s a 15-round fight. Why didn’t he change things up when he was losing? The following year, Leonard was being comprehensively outboxed by Hearns in Las Vegas and found himself behind on all three scorecards after five rounds. Subsequently, in the sixth, he turned puncher and shook “The Hitman” to his boots. That changed the course of the fight and it changed the course of welterweight history. That’s what great fighters do. Why didn’t Leonard attempt to adjust against Duran?

“I wasn’t capable of changing that night and I’m just being honest with myself,” acknowledged Leonard. “I was 24 years old, I was angry and resentful of Duran in the ring, and I just wanted to beat him up. Anything that was rational, smart, anything that came with experience was not on my radar. My full focus was on the shootout. Everything else was just locked out of my mind. I had a lock on my brain and I threw away the key. I wasn’t allowing myself to think, and I was single-minded when it came to wanting a tear-up – that’s the best way I can put it.”

Edwards feels that it was too late for Leonard to put on his dancing shoes at the midway point and he put forth a convincing argument.

“When they’re in there, great fighters can sense the mood of the crowd,” said the Philadelphia-based trainer. “Duran had done so well early that if Ray had started to box, he’d have looked like he was running away.

“If you remember, Leonard, who was a great deep-water fighter, won the late rounds against Duran. I’m sure I gave him 13, 14 and 15. He actually had a mild case for winning. I don’t think he won, but he really closed the gap, and he did that by fighting hard and landing better shots. If he’d have moved and boxed, he might not have closed the gap the way he did.”

Victory is sweet. Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The only man we haven’t heard from yet is the winner. What does he have to say about how it all went down?

“I had to get inside his head,” Duran told The Ring’s Anson Wainwright last year. “I used tactics like insulting him, calling him names – I was disrespectful in every sense of the word, but this was a war and this was my strategy. My strategy was to get inside his head and take away his concentration, and it paid off. He took it so personally that it made him want to go toe-to-toe with me, and that was his biggest mistake: to fight my fight.”

This is where arguments can brew. This is from Duran himself and if it’s accepted that Leonard had to fight the wrong fight for Duran to win, then for some that might downplay Duran’s greatest ever triumph. Conversely, for Leonard to fight the wrong fight and perform so brilliantly is a moral victory. That is categorically unfair on Duran, right?

“I can’t argue with Duran because he’s the one in there, but a fighter’s perception will be based on how much success they had that night,” said Edwards after taking a moment to reflect. “However, if you look at Leonard’s fights prior to the Duran rematch, he’d never boxed and moved like that before. The switch to being an athletic attacker was something new. He didn’t move around the ring against Benitez, so while I agree with what Duran is saying, that’s all based on the result.”

When I pointed out to Edwards that Leonard was up on his toes in the Pam Am Games, the Olympics, his pro-debut and a variety of other fights, he did acknowledge that Leonard was capable of exhibiting the “athletic attacker” style long before the Duran rematch. It’s one thing to stay flat-footed against the Pete Ranzanys and Tony Chiaverinis of the world. Leonard was fighting Duran.

“Yes, I do think it was there prior, but Leonard had settled down as a pro,” Edwards stated. “Let’s put it this way, I think Duran had to show Leonard that he had to box. I think if someone told Leonard before June 20, 1980, ‘You have to box against this guy,’ he would have said, ‘No I don’t. I’m bigger, strong, faster, younger. I don’t have to box the smaller guy.’ And I don’t think Leonard would have boxed the way he did in the rematch if he’d gotten the decision in the first fight by standing to-to-toe. I think he boxed the way he did in the rematch because he lost.”

Duran lunges for Leonard during their 1980 rematch in New Orleans, which Leonard won in the eighth. Photo from The Ring archive

In the final analysis, I would have liked to have seen how Duran dealt with a dancing and jabbing Leonard in Montreal. Why? Because that was the best version of Duran that Leonard ever faced. “Hands of Stone” would never be that fit, fast or energetic again in his career. Leonard largely had his way with him in the second fight, and post-1980 Duran only excelled against opponents that brought the fight to him. Benitez, Kirkland Laing and Robbie Sims boxed and won. Pipino Cuevas, Davey Moore and Iran Barkley duked it out and lost. Despite winning the first Leonard fight, Duran came to Montreal as an “is” and left as a “was”.

“Duran executed his game plan and did the things necessary to beat me that night and it worked,” admitted Leonard without hesitation. “He hit me so hard, I’d never been hit like that before, and he hurt me a number of times. He was  such a smart boxer; he’d step around, shift his weight, work the body. Manos De Piedra? It’s true, it felt like being hit by a brick, like his fists were made of stone.

“After a fight like that you’re so exhausted because you push your body beyond its limits. Benitez was the first fight where I had to do it, and I beat Benitez on pure heart to become champion. After the first Duran fight a doctor came into my room that night and drew blood from the ears, if not I would have had cauliflower ears. I also lost 10 or 12 pounds in an hour.”

It was Duran’s night and no fighter deserved a victory more. But just how impressive was it in historical terms?

“As far as performances go, there’s a case for it being the best ever recorded on film,” said Edwards. “You have [Joe] Frazier-[Muhammad] Ali 1, Ali-[George] Foreman, [Henry] Armstrong over [Barney] Ross at welterweight, Leonard over Hearns. My grandfather told me that Robinson over Gavilan was tremendous, but we don’t have that on film – he was at that fight. [Willie] Pep and [Sandy] Saddler 2 is another fight that gets overlooked. Pep had lost the first fight by fourth-round KO and came back and beat him after a plane accident. [Michael] Spinks-[Larry] Holmes is another one. I like Leonard over Hearns, but Duran over Leonard is in the argument, and I can’t think of more than five or six fights that are on that level in terms of performance and historical significance.”


Tom Gray is Associate Editor for Ring Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing