Roberto Duran had hands of stone. He had won 71 of 72 fights in a blistering career. He had reigned as lightweight champion for eight years. Roberto Duran had beaten the great ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard in a huge upset in his last fight to win the welterweight championship of the world. On this day in 1980 he had stepped through the ropes for the rematch. And Roberto Duran had just quit. What the hell was going on?
‘El Cholo’ was the picture of a boxing hard man. If you were making a cartoon depicting the sort of vicious, unrelenting badass boxing alone can produce, you might avoid drawing Duran for fear it would be too on the nose. The Panamanian had ripped through the lightweight division like a scythe through corn, never looking back after capturing the title from Scotsman Ken Buchanan in 1972. Duran would defend his title eleven times, in addition to taking on multiple non-title fights in between, during the most imperious phase of his glorious career.
Having scorched the earth of the 135-pound class, Duran’s next stop was welterweight. This would lead to the Brawl In Montreal, against 27-0 welterweight king ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard. The Olympic gold medalist had a flawless record as a pro, and had beat Wilfred Benitez and Dave ‘Boy’ Green. The jump in weight, and the world class nature of his opponent, meant few gave the fearsome Duran a chance against Leonard.
Not for the last time, ‘Hands of Stone’ would upset the odds in spectacular fashion. In one of the great welterweight wars, Duran drew the ‘Sugar’ man into Panama City street fight. Leonard’s slick boxing was negated by the rough-and-ready battle that broke out. A brawl was exactly what Montreal got that night, and by the end, they had a new welterweight champion.
The victory made Duran a king in Panama. Unfortunately, he partied and ate like one. Reports suggest the new champion gained as much as 50 pounds while celebrating his triumph over ‘Sugar’ Ray, a fact the now-former champion was all too aware of. Leonard petitioned to get Duran back in the ring as soon as possible, at a cost. Dave Jacobs, one of Leonard’s trainers, resigned because he believed his man should fight a tune-up before getting back into the ring with the only man to defeat him. ‘Sugar’ Ray trusted his own instincts, and would be glad he had when all was said and done.
The pair met five months after their furious first bout, this time in the vast expanse of the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. The venue was not the only thing different about this rematch. Leonard would not be drawn into a wild throwdown this time. Instead, he timed Duran’s brutal rushes, catching El Cholo coming in with sharp jabs and uppercuts. The exchanges now happened on Leonard’s terms, and whether he started them or not, he was always the one to end them with a swift flurry before moving away. One of boxing’s great masters of physical chess, ‘Sugar’ Ray was a picture of measured calm as Duran’s swings got wilder and more desperate.
Approaching the halfway stage, the champion was still in the fight. His evening had not featured a savage beating, rather it was a frustrating out-foxing for the proud Panamanian. But the effect on his psyche was more severe than the effect of Leonard’s punches. The North Carolina slickster spun his right arm to throw his famed ‘bolo punch’, before turning it into a series of jabs that rocked Duran’s head on its axis. Leonard was barely blocking by now, instead offering his face to Duran before jerking it just out of range and firing back with his own shots.
In the eighth, Duran gave desperate chase. He seemed to be willing his arms to do what they had in the first fight, but was met with the constant rat-a-tat-tat of Leonard’s speedy combinations in return. Eventually, he has enough. After attempting a final telegraphed flurry, he holds a hand up and walks away from Leonard casually. The challenger gives chase, aiming a punch at Duran but being restrained by the referee. The official tries to restart the contest. Again, Roberto raises a conciliatory hand and speaks in the referees ear. It has been widely reported and accepted that he said “no mas”, Spanish for “no more”. Duran has always vehemently denied this, while other witnesses swear blind that it did occur. Crucially, the beaten man has never denied he did quit at the moment, irrespective of his chosen wording.
There was no shame in losing to ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard, someone who would go down as one of the very best boxers of all time. In 1980, though, there was unfortunately great shame in quitting. A rugged masculine figure like Duran downing tools in such a fashion was an international scandal in a way it would never be today. The fact that Duran not only quit, but did so while only slightly behind on the cards and not particularly hurt fuelled the fire tenfold. Duran was immediately removed from advertisements he had had airing in Panama and the United States.
In his home country in particular, he was a pariah. There are tales of Duran having to go into hiding, trapped behind the locked doors of his home for fear of the baying mobs that awaited him outside. The beaten fighter tried to rationalise what had taken place. He claimed he had suffered stomach cramps during the fight, a result of making the welterweight limit. While few believed him, it is only fair to point out he never weighed in on the welterweight limit of 147 pounds again.
Leonard would not lose another fight for eleven years, when an ill-advised title challenge against WBC light middleweight champion Terry Norris would find ‘Sugar’ past his sell-by date. Duran would redeem himself in the eyes of the boxing world, and perhaps more importantly his nation. There were parties in the streets when he beat Davey Moore in 1983 to win the WBA light middleweight belt, and he would also upset Iran Barkley for the middleweight strap in 1989 at the age of 37. In his next fight, he would meet Leonard again.
The fight was a pale imitation of their ferocious first and controversial second, but it was an enjoyable opportunity to see two legends of the ring meet again. Their showdown was wryly dubbed “Uno Mas”, signifying one more go-round for the pair. There would be no quit in Duran this time. He might have lost the fight on points, but he regained his pride by taking ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard the distance.