The ‘Manos de Pierdas’ and Sugar Ray Trilogy: A Disappointment?
08.08.06 - By MICHAEL KLIMES -- The 1970 vs. 1980s - 1980 was an interesting year for the United States and the world. Jimmy Carter’s Presidency begun to enter the sludge over his weak handling of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein started offering their opposing visions for the Middle East, which capitulated them into the Iran-Iraq War that lasted for eight bloody years. Hussein saw himself as the champion of Pan Arabism in a secular format and his generation’s Nasser while Khomeini offered a religious theocracy for Iran with a very conservative interpretation of Islam. The economic wellbeing of the United States was slightly haphazard, like it was in Britain, as both countries were still experiencing some of the economic hardships of the 1970s.
Article posted on 08.08.2006
Boxing was in an equal position as some of the stars from the 1970s like Wilfred Benitez, Roberto Duran and Alexis Arguello still had some of their finest moments to be played out in an era that ushered in some new traits and eccentricities that every decade does. Pop music, once again, went to conquer a global audience with Madonna, Prince, Kylie Minogue, George Michael and of course Michael Jackson. Led Zeppelin had expired their sell by date in 1980 and so had the Sex Pistols..
Similarly a new breed of young and hungry American fighters were looking to take back boxing from the Latin Americans who had so dominated the previous ten years. We have already mentioned Duran, Arguello and Benitez, what about Monzon, Cerventes, Gomez and Zarate? The new wave of Americans were led by Sugar Ray Leonard, ‘Marvellous’ Marvin Hagler, Tommy ‘The Hitman’ Hearns and Aaron ‘Hawk’ Pryor. They were all great fighters and became legends. Once again, the U.S.A was the superpower of the ‘sweet science’.
The Old vs. the New
Magnetism attracts opposites, if you take potassium and throw it into water there is a savage chemical reaction. The first fight between Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard was such a meeting of combustibles. It remains, arguably, the most stunning welterweight slugfest of all time and it had all the ingredients to make a classic recipe and it turned out just as it was hyped, a rare occurrence in any sport.
So what were the ingredients? Duran entered the arena with seventy one victories and one defeat. He had been the undisputed lightweight champion for seven long years (1972-1979) after he beat the brilliant Scotsman Ken Buchanan. The adept counter-puncher could find no answer for Duran’s rampaging ring violence. He subsequently made twelve title defences; two of those were against his considerable contemporary, Esteban De Jesus, who was an outstanding fighter himself. De Jesus has never been given the correct appreciation and his ‘Duran Syndrome’ is highly similar to Ricardo Valdez’s (the rival of the infamous Carlos Monzon) ‘Monzon Syndrome’. If both had not been in the lunar eclipses of their towering rivals, they would have been the towers themselves.
Duran, as great a fighter as he was needed to be cautious of Leonard. Although, Leonard was only twenty four years of age compared to Duran’s twenty nine, a very young champion in only his second title defence, the former 1976 Olympic Gold Medallist had some very fine accomplishments to his name. He had annexed the championship from the Puerto Rican sensation Wilfred Benitez. Benitez was and still holds the record for the youngest ever world champion, he won his first title at the tender age of seventeen and was a two time weight holder in his twenty one years when he squared off against the Sugar Man. He had been held to a draw in just thirty nine of his bouts.
Leonard’s first defence was a significant display of punching power against the formidable English contender, Dave ‘Boy’ Green. I don’t know how much Green is remembered now but he gave the former Mexican welterweight champion, Carlos Palomino all he could handle in a closeted classic in 1977. Green exhibited a relentless body punching, freakish stamina and a wonderful chin. One might see him as a ghost of Ricky Hatton in that respect. Palomino was just one of those typical ‘bad asses’ who casually soaked up Green’s nuclear arsenal of hooks and uppercuts and just threw it back at him with a First Strike. By the eleventh round, Green was on the canvas unconscious and left empty handed after his valiant effort.
Leonard shredded Green in just four rounds. What made Leonard such a dangerous appointment for Duran and vice versa was that neither had really seen such a complete package beforehand. Leonard was just a shorter version of Muhammad Ali and filled out Howard Cosell’s prophecy mapped out for him. His speed, footwork, charisma, looks and arrogance saturated him in rolls of fat. It was not a surprise that so many people were envious of Leonard’s incredible qualities. I also think (maybe controversially) that probably he was a slightly better combination puncher then Ali was pound for pound. Leonard’s punches as single shots had more sting to them as did his combinations. Their jabs and right hands were the same, Ali’s right hand may have been better but Leonard was superior at throwing hooks to the body and head. His right uppercut could do damage as well but so could Ali’s.
Many were hoping that the fight with Duran in Montreal would prove how sturdy his chin was and his determination to win. Since then no questions have been asked.
Roberto Duran, what could and can you say about this fighter? No one ever imagined such a fighting machine would ever have existed. His left hook to the body and straight right hand were his life stretching punches and he would couple them together beautifully. Duran would throw a feinting straight right to the head of his opponent, put them off balance and attack their exposed, right side, down below. Equally, Duran had good hand speed, a wicked chin, fabulous footwork for cutting off the ring and excellent conditioning. One weak spot was his jab which was a bit of a plodder but Duran did not get onto the inside with his jab. He had a balance, positioning and reflexes that only came to the most blessed fighters. The head feint allowed him the very subtle yet beautiful art of slipping punches and his excellent waist movement in the bobbing and weaving style made Duran an extremely elusive target.
‘The Brawl in Montreal’
Duran had two major advantages over Leonard that night, his experience (Leonard came into the fight with twenty seven victories undefeated) and that Leonard had proclaimed he would go to the trenches with Duran. This turned out to be a mistake. By the second round, Leonard had already felt the venom in Duran’s left hook, which staggered him. An extraordinary virtue Duran showed was an almost supernatural intensity fused with excellent control. The first round saw too much of a torrent from Duran but the Panama man regained control of his temper.
By the fourth round, Duran came out of his corner looking like a sadistic version of Sonic the Hedgehog with his spiky hair and short stature. The battle between Duran and Leonard was also a battle between their superb trainers in Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown who both were minders to Rocky Marciano and Ezzard Charles and Angelo Dundee that had guided Muhammad Ali.
The fight itself cannot be described. It was a war waged by two warriors at their physical peak. It was a more skilful rendition of the ‘Thriller in Manila’ at the lighter weights with both slipping punches, landing bombs and grappling. In the fifteenth round, Leonard was humiliated by Duran’s showmanship as he made him miss a lot of punches. Duran won a close but well deserved decision.
‘No Mas’?, November 25, 1980
Are these the two most controversial words in the history of boxing? You bet. After eight rounds Duran quit to the astonishment of the boxing universe in his rematch, which was in New Orleans where Sugar Ray Leonard gave a masterful boxing performance. Duran looked unusually subdued. The major difference in their physical frames was Leonard utilised his upper body to build up muscle and strength. He was considerably more chiselled compared to the first fight.
In the seventh round, he presented a mirror reflection of Ali by letting his hands drop and outclassing Duran with such ease that you could believe what you were seeing was some type of illusion. I daresay Duran landed many meaningful punches in the second chapter. After the bout Duran announced his premature retirement and claimed he had stopped because of stomach cramps. Ray Arcel was even more baffled then anyone else was and if you look at Ray Arcel’s credentials as a trainer prior to taking Duran under his wing, his monolithic experience and his age (he was about eighty years of age) during the rematch, it is a testament to just how significant Duran’s surrender was.
With such a bizarre event these things are prone to crazy conspiracy theories and there has been much speculation. I would though, go for the most simple and boring explanation. It was a combination of interlinked factors. In the second fight Leonard was intelligent and used his superb ring generalship to out manoeuvre and out punch Duran. In the second round, Leonard stung Duran into a fury with his right hands. Duran did not have the discipline of the first fight while Leonard’s confidence just grew. By Leonard’s nauseatingly cheeky smile and his upper body strength, he had the ability to overpower Duran in the clinches, whether on the ropes or in the centre of the ring. It probably just comes down to the issue of styles. In the first Duran was allowed to fight in his style and had the crucial psychological edge. Leonard was able to do the opposite in New Orleans.
I think Duran’s excuse of stomach cramps was rubbish even though an ice bucket was placed over his stomach at the end of the seventh round. When Cosell interviewed Arcel after the bout he said, ‘Duran never told me he had stomach cramps.’ There were the predictable rumours of a fix, drug taking, Duran not making the weight (nonsensical because both weighed 146 pounds) and then there was an idea Duran gorged too much food after the weigh in but that is ridiculous because fighters will eat a lot of food to regain their strength just before a fight. It is a normal procedure.
Cosell asked Duran’s doctor (at an ABC press conference after the fight) Mr Nunez, if Duran had been prescribed diuretics and Nunez seemed somewhat shy, maybe even suspiciously so. He said that Duran did not need diuretics because his sodium levels were good, his potassium levels were good and that diuretics are only prescribed to an athlete if there are problems with the digestive system. Simultaneously, Nunez claimed he did not interfere with Duran’s diet but he wanted too, which seems to be unprofessional. If there were problems with Duran’s weight due to problems in his preparation then Duran or at least somebody in his camp had to bear responsibility for it. Cosell concluded,’ We will probably never know what happened.’
Duran’s retreat was a shock but in context there have been other shocks in boxing and Duran was in a situation he knew he could not win. By the eighth round Duran went from fury to bewilderment. Leonard had become a riddle he could not solve and so he quit because he could not stand the humiliation. I believe it is as simple as that.
Now contextualise ‘No Mas.’ It was a shock when George Foreman was defeated by Muhammad Ali, it was a shock when George Foreman blew away Joe Frazier, it was a shock when Edre Jofre came out of retirement and became a featherweight and super featherweight in his late thirties, no one expected Joe Calzaghe to annihilate Jeff Lacy and no one thought Nigel Benn would comeback after his hammering from Gerald Mcllenan. Surprises are parts of boxing and it is astounding how selective peoples’ memories are.
Leonard was the matador of the bull and was the better fighter that night but still he, at the time, did not receive the credit for the victory and one could understand his resentment. Duran felt ashamed of quitting and proclaimed he wanted to comeback and demonstrate he was the superior fighter to Leonard, ‘because Leonard did not beat me but an illness, a pain beat me,’ and that, ‘I am not superman, if I have pains, I will quit.’
The Third Stanza
The final contest between Leonard and Duran was held in 1989, they were shadows of their former selves. It was nine years after 1980 and both of them had given their fans many examples of their undisputed wills to die. Duran came back and had superb victories over Davey Moore and Iran Barkley, became a champion in the junior middleweight and middleweight divisions. Leonard was a magician and beat Marvin Hagler, the great middleweight champion of the 1980s after five years of exile with just one fight in five years, an extraordinary feat.
Duran came into the match up with ninety two fights, four hundred and ninety seven rounds under his belt and the rare statistic of being a champion at four different weights. He had fifteen victories in championship bouts against four losses. He was thirty eight years of age and was the WBC Middleweight Champion. Sugar Ray Leonard was thirty three and had nine victories, one loss and one draw in championship contests. He was the only fighter to be a champion in five weight divisions. A more ominous statistic was he had been knocked down three times in his last two fights.
Duran was not the satanic serial killer of nine years before. He was more methodical and more of a steady counter-puncher. Leonard boxed safely at a distance and did not have the cat speed of his youth. Speed though and perception of fighters is all relative. Leonard was faster in feet and hands compared to Duran and that is what counted on his way to a comfortable points decision.
Both were well past their peaks but a fan can only take their hat off to two men who wanted to roll back the years one more time. Fighters cannot accept their end and we cannot either. Great fighters make successful comebacks and defy adversity but time always has the last laugh. Leonard made a comeback too many and Duran kept on putting the miles until finally retiring in 2001 after a car crash and his fiftieth birthday.
The Duran-Leonard trilogy is not one of the all time trilogies of boxing because it, unlike Zale-Graziano, Ali-Frazier, McLarnin-Ross, Morales-Barrera and Gatti-Ward only gave us one sensational slugfest. This can be forgiven however, because Leonard and Duran did enough in their first fight. Maybe the first encounter was so vicious that it could only take place once.
An exceptionally tough question is how was the greater fighter? For my money I cannot choose but can anyone?
I welcome your comments and opinions.
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