Four decades ago, when the ink had dried on Sugar Ray Leonard’s contract to face a Panamanian they called ‘Manos De Piedra’ (Hands Of Stone), he must have thought it a home-run to host the fight in Montreal, Canada, where his flashy fistic skills had won the hearts of millions just four years earlier at the 1976 Olympic Games when he claimed gold for the U.S.
Had he chosen to fight Roberto Duran in Los Angeles or Las Vegas, Leonard would have run a rather large risk of seeing his blossoming fanbase being overshadowed by legions of Hispanic Duran fans. In Montreal though, fond memories of ‘76 would surely ensure the Quebec natives would remain pro-Leonard, right? Or so he naively thought.
‘Les Quebecois’ are a fickle bunch. They cared not for the media darling nor did they care for any assumption that Leonard was automatically the hometown favourite. They liked the look of the South American, who exuded a raw, primal ferocity in and out of the ring, though. Moving up to welterweight to face Leonard, Duran was already considered one of the greatest lightweights of all-time, a bona fide superstar in the world of prizefighting, and was so tough that stories of a young Duran sparking out a horse in the slums of El Chorrillo, Panama City, had been stitched into the very fabric of boxing folklore.
Duran, fresh off the plane, was already beating Leonard to every punch, long before they’d even meet in the ring. Immediately, Duran turned on the charm offensive towards his hosts, claiming his love for all things Franco-Canadian and turning up to sparring wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with ‘Bonjour Montreal!’ The natives were lapping it up. Sugar Ray Who?
Duran ensured he had the hometown’s support on fight night as he made his way to the ring with the usual white, red and blue flag of Panama alongside him and another additional flag, this one blue and white, called the Fleurdelisé, the official flag of Quebec.
Leonard had been a pro for 27 fights in 1980, Duran a whopping 72, and the contrast between relative greenhorn and grizzled veteran was stark. Leonard was already fighting against the first hostile crowd of his career, and it appeared his opponent was starting to get into his head too.
Leonard recounts in his biography, ‘The Big Fight’ what it was like to be around Duran in the build up to the brawl: “The first occasion where Duran and I spent any real time together was at the April press conference to officially announce the fight.
“Early on in proceedings, Duran jabbed me softly with an oversized glove that’s commonly used for promotional purposes. The photographers ate it up. For a while I went along with the unrehearsed bit. Except Duran didn’t know when to stop fooling around. Or he kept going just to irritate me. Either way, the playful taps got harder and harder. I gave him an angry glance. It did no good and was probably the dumbest thing I could do - he saw that he was getting under my skin.
“He called me “motherf*cker” and a “son of a b*tch” and told me to “kiss his b*lls.”
The menace didn’t stop on fight night either. As Duran entered the ring, heavyweight great Joe Frazier, who was ringside for the fight, was asked if Duran reminded him of anybody. "Yeah," Frazier replied. "He reminds me of Charles Manson."
The actual fight was an instant classic. Duran, the immediate aggressor, took the early rounds, Ray Leonard rallied in the middle stanzas before Duran took control again to claim the win via unanimous decision, handing Leonard his first of only three career defeats.
It was a rude awakening for Leonard, the man who’d been deemed the future of boxing by so many. Of course, Leonard would gain his revenge in emphatic fashion a mere five months later in New Orleans. This time, it was Leonard who’d become the king of both pugilistic and psychological warfare, bamboozling the poor Panamanian in to quitting on his stool, uttering two of the most infamous words in boxing’s long and storied history; “No Mas” or “No More.”
Leonard had successively neutered arguably the most ferocious boxer to ever step foot in the ring. They would fight for a third and final time in 1989, albeit each past their respective peaks, which Ray Leonard duly won by way of unanimous decision.
These days we look back at 1980 and the decade that followed as the last true golden era of boxing thanks to Messrs Duran and Leonard, as well as the two other fighters that rounded out what are described as the ‘Four Kings’ of 80s boxing, ‘Marvellous’ Marvin Hagler and Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns, but it was in Montreal where this memorable age of boxing was first awakened.