By Stacy M. Brown
NNPA Contributing Writer
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 Más.”
“I went into that second fight 100 percent sure that I was going to win,” Leonard said in an exclusive interview with NNPA News Wire just prior to the 35th anniversary of his famous clash with Duran that took place before a sold-out crowd on Nov. 25, 1980 at the Superdome in New Orleans, La.
“I did everything that was necessary, I trained a lot more economically,” he said, noting that he didn’t expend the same amount of draining energy while training for his first fight with Duran in Montreal, Canada just five months earlier.
“I didn’t allow Duran’s antics to get to me,” Leonard said.
On that fateful night, legendary music superstar Ray Charles – whom Leonard was named after – performed “America the Beautiful” prior to the opening bell and the young gladiator’s confidence soared.
“That was it,” Leonard said.
Now, 35 years later, Leonard who grew up in Palmer Park, Md. vividly recalled 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, spewed vitriol at Leonard and his wife, infuriating the welterweight champion.
“He was nasty, I hated him,” said Leonard, who entered with a record of 27-0 with 18 knockouts.
Leonard continued: “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, and 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.”
In the rematch, 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, titled “30-for-30 – No Más”
The documentary has re-aired on ESPN since its debut 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.
At 2:44 of the eighth round, Duran threw up his hands and said, “No Más,” quitting after realizing he had no shot at defeating Leonard, who, with the win, regained his welterweight championship.
“As a fighter, you just have to know some things, you just want to hear him finally say that he quit because he knew I had beat him,” Leonard said of his trip to Panama to visit Duran that was captured in the ESPN documentary.
Duran never did confess to quitting in the ring that night, because he was being beaten and humiliated by Leonard. According to the world champ from Palmer Park, the Panamanian fighter still struggled with the loss when they met in his home country.
“When I saw him [in Panama] struggling with that, I didn’t want to bring him down any further,” Leonard said. “It’s crazy, standing there with him in Panama, I was a nervous wreck and so was he. But, we are friends now.”
While the Nov. 25, 1980 bout was a seminal moment in 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, Nev., on Sept. 16, 1981 to unify the welterweight title in a match dubbed “Showdown at the Palace.”
“The thing with Tommy is that I had to disassemble him. He’s such an anomaly standing nearly 6’ 2” and super fast, Tommy was a beast and even my brother, Roger, thought Tommy would beat me,” Leonard said, adding that even he had doubts.
“I fought the best way that I could in the early rounds,” he said.
Looking around the packed arena, Leonard said he noticed all of the celebrities at ringside, including Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes and others.
“I said ‘Who in this arena can beat Tommy? I saw Ali, I saw everyone,” Leonard said.
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.
With Hagler the heavy favorite, Leonard silenced all doubters.
“I remember looking at the sportswriters at ringside and I would nod my head at them,” said Leonard. “After the ninth round, those guys started nodding their heads too because, they knew I was going to win.”
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, he’s a champion.”
Finally, when asked how he thinks he would fair 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.”