Sugar Ray Leonard had no doubt that he’d defeat Roberto Duran when the two warriors squared off in a rematch of their epic first welterweight title bout that ended in a split-decision victory for the Panamanian known as “The Hands of Stone.”
What Leonard, the legendary six-time world champion, didn’t know was that Duran – one of the most feared fighters of his generation – would surrender after uttering the most infamous phrase in the history of boxing, “No Mas.”
“I went into that second fight 100 percent sure that I was going to win,” Leonard said in an exclusive interview with NNPA Newswire just prior to the 35th anniversary of his famous clash with Duran, which took place before a sold-out crowd on Nov. 25, 1980, at the Superdome in New Orleans.
“I did everything that was necessary. I trained a lot more economically,” he said, noting that he didn’t expend the kind of draining energy he’d done while training for his and Duran’s first fight in Montreal five months earlier.
“I didn’t allow Duran’s antics to get to me,” Leonard said.
After legendary music superstar Ray Charles – whom Leonard was named after – performed “America the Beautiful” just prior to the opening bell, the young gladiator’s confidence soared.
“That was it,” Leonard said.
Now, 35 years later, Leonard, who grew up in Palmer Park, Maryland, vividly recalls the events leading up to the first fight and the rematch as if it happened yesterday.
Duran, who entered the first contest at Olympic Stadium in Montreal with an astonishing 71-1 record with 56 knockouts, had spewed hate toward Leonard and the welterweight champion’s wife, infuriating Leonard.
“He was nasty. I hated him,” said Leonard, who entered with a record of 27-0 with 18 knockouts.
“Duran was a veteran, and he knew he could get inside my head, which he did. There was also a communication gap because he didn’t speak English that well. He challenged my manhood and made me feel less than a fighter – less than a man as he used profanity toward my wife.”
Leonard said he couldn’t stand to be around his nemesis and shocked observers by choosing to brawl with the slugger, losing the decision and his title.
“I wanted to beat him so bad, and I abandoned my style,” Leonard said, noting that he over-trained for the first fight. “It’s not an excuse, I lost, but he got into my head,” he said.
In the rematch, which took place just five months after the first bout, it was Leonard who got the mastery over his opponent both physically and mentally.
“When he quit, however, it became more about what he did than what I made him do,” Leonard said, echoing his long-lived lament that was captured two years ago in an ESPN documentary about the fight, which was titled “30-for-30 – No Mas”
The documentary is shown periodically on ESPN and is available at Amazon.com.
The film provided boxing fans a closer look at how Leonard outsmarted, out-punched and out-maneuvered Duran, before Leonard humiliated his foe with the famous Ali Shuffle, mock bolo punches and even sticking his chin out, daring Duran to hit him.
While Duran never did confess and admit that he quit because Leonard had beaten and humiliated him during the rematch, the two have since become close friends.
While the Nov. 25, 1980, bout helped to highlight Leonard’s hall of fame career, he still provided boxing fans with even more memories.
Less than one year after he beat Duran, Leonard fought Thomas “Hitman” Hearns in Las Vegas. The Sept. 16, 1981, fight, dubbed “Showdown at the Palace,” was to unify the welterweight title.
“The thing with Tommy is that I had to disassemble him. He’s such an anomaly, standing nearly 6-foot-2 and super fast, Tommy was a beast and even my brother, Roger, thought Tommy would beat me,” Leonard said, noting that even he had doubts.
The turning point came in the sixth round of the scheduled 15 round slugfest.
“I hit him with a left hook and I said, ‘Damn, I can hit too,’” Leonard said.
Later, after unleashing one of the most spectacular barrages in ring history, Leonard punished Hearns with flush right and left hands leading the referee to stop the fight in the 14th round and awarding Leonard a TKO victory.
A gold medalist in the 1976 Olympics, Leonard was named fighter of the decade in the 1980s, and he would go on to win titles in five different weight classes, including a memorable clash on April 6, 1987, with middleweight champion “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler.
Leonard’s career record of 36-3-1 does little to reflect his greatness, but for boxing fans and the purist, he proved himself among the greatest of all time.
Today Leonard still keeps up with his idol, the ailing Muhammad Ali, and he continues to immerse himself in charity and other endeavors, including his Sugar Ray Leonard Foundation.
“Without Ali, I wouldn’t be here,” Leonard said. “He’s hanging in there.”
Finally, when asked how he thinks he would fare in his prime against today’s best, Floyd Mayweather, Leonard laughed.
“We bump into each other, and he says ‘I can beat you,’ and I’d say you can’t touch me,” Leonard said. “I’m a fighter, a champion.”