For Roberto Duran, it was: I won, so take that -- rude gesture and all.
The gesture captured some essence. It comes to all sports competition, to all arguments, to all war, to all sexual seduction. But in the boxing ring, that essence is distilled. It is the pure undeniability of physical conquest. Some people may say he is smarter and, in the case of the Sugar Ray Leonard-Robert Duran fight, one man may get paid more than the other for fighting the same fight. Duran got $1.5 million, while Leonard got more than $8 million. The world may be an unfair place. But when it came to the one-against-one, then Duran found justice in his hands. He hit and pushed and got hit and triumphed against the odds.Such action appeals to anyone who has ever got a bad deal and wanted to hit out.
But the Capital Centre crowd had no cheers for Duran. They roared only when Sugar Ray's graceful combination of punches would tatoo a rapid beat on Duran's head. Leonard is the local boy, he is American and he is black. He is one of us. And what we would like him to say about us is that we are tough: he should tell the world that there is a breed of man in Washington, D.C., unconquerable in battle; great warriors, stylish men.
In the row ahead of me in the Capital Centre, a young black man stood as the boxers were being introduced on the screen, and sang Leonard's praise as his heart's representative in the pit. "My man," he said. "Boy's from just down the road and he's getting an $8-million payday. No one ever got that. My man." Hands were slapped all around, joints of marijuana and bottles of Jack Daniels black put down for a moment to join in the communion. "Home boy, home boy," everyone said of Leonard as hands were slapped.
Around the Capital Centre were thousands of Sugar Ray Leonards -- old men, young men, out-of-shape men, all whom still remember the drive to be the toughest kid on the block. Some of these men were in full plumage, with large hats, shirts open to the navel and suits cut tight to the body. On their arms were women, usually eye-catchers in dresses that showed what they had, and thick, bright makeup. They were sparkling trophies of conquest in this boxing crowd, attachments for their macho men. As they walked around, some of the men gave a throaty chant, declaring "Sugar Ray, all the way."
But just as Sugar Ray has his backers, so does the other fighter. As Roberto Duran walked to the ring in Montreal, he was surrounded by dozens of red and white flags from his home country, Panama. He is a national treasure there -- a representative of those people. He is so treasured there that he pays no taxes. Duran's people would like you to know that they, too, are unconquerable, as brutal and powerful as their man, Duran.
In New York, where there is a large Hispanic community, all the newspapers picked Duran to win, against the odds in the rest of the nation. Duran was adopted as their home boy. In schoolyards, children imitated his style by dropping their hands and charging in -- not unintentionally like that masculine animal, the bull -- and then throwing wild, powerful punches.
It was home boy versus home boy. No one could be neutral. After the fight Friday night, the crowd piled out of the Capital Centre sadly. When Leonard lost, they lost, too. Duran told a television interviewer after the fight that Leonard "didn't want to fight, he wanted to box." It was like an insult from Duran. His macho was in triumphant bloom. In his world a man should want to fight, brawl it out, not finesse a battle. Sugar Ray had fought well, boxed beautifully. But he did not run at Duran, trade power punches as often as Duran. For Duran, this meant simply that Leonard did not come to fight. In the Capital Centre, there was no noise as the decision -- Duran the winner -- was read aloud. The crowd had no reason to cheer. They retreated. Some part of their macho spirit had been beaten down, left a loser.
How a boxer comes to mean that much to some people is part of our own madness -- we need surrogates for the young buck that is part of our minds and bodies. Ray Leonard was Washington's man in the ring. Ray Leonard was born here. He learned to fight here. He lives among us.
Ray is our romantic young warrior. Fighters like him are individuals climbing into public space to declare themselves more powerful than another, risking being shown less powerful in absolute terms; they could be knocked down and unable to get up. That kind of stagement of individuality in a Washington world of office politics, false political loyalties, friends of convenience and mass bureaucratic conformity stirs the blood. It is particularly a statement of individuality for black Washington, where fame, opportunity and money can often be in short supply. For all those reasons, Sugar Ray came to represent us, the male Washington. And for all that, Sugar Ray's defeat was like a kick to the stomach for those who see themselves as a strutting, powerful young male, a fighter, a Sugar Ray.
Before his fight, Sugar Ray had told me that he thought some people wanted him to lose, to fail, because they thought he had done too much too successfully at too young an age. He said they thought he couldn't handle a defeat. Now, Sugar Ray will face that challenge.
But even as fatherly advice would say, "Take it easy, young bucks, you can't win them all," fight promoters are anxious to invest millions in the next Leonard-Duran fight. They are betting that Leonard and much of male Washington are itching to get another shot at knocking out that little Duran.