This city that wishes it were Paris has given its heart to the fighter who wants to keep out the American hero.
"This whole town is pro-Roberto Duran," said Ray Arcel, Duran's manager, a scholarly, white-haired veteran of 60 years working with fighters named Benny Leonard and Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Jack Dempsey.
"The reception Montreal has given Roberto is amazing," Arcel said. "I was absolutely stunned to hear it. Did you see that thing yesterday? That thing in the Complexe Desjardins? They loved him there, and he loved them."
Hanging over railings at five levels in the mall-atrium of the modernistic shopping center-hotel complex, maybe 5,000 people had cheered, applauded and finally sung "Happy Birthday" to Duran, who in response wore a huge smile and worked the crowd like a panamanian LBJ pressing the flesh with both hands at once.
And -- this is most important -- Roberto Duran, the erstwhile street urchin who quit school after the third grade, this preceived animal who speaks English only haltingly -- Duran took the public address microphone and in forthright tones spoke a sentence or two in French, signing off with a ballad singer's mellowness as he said "Bonjour Montreal."
Maurice Chevalier, he ain't. But at that moment, Roberto Duran owned those 5,000 people. "They love him here," said Freddie Brown, 73, Duran's curmudgeon of a trainer. "I thought Leonard would be the hero here, but Roberto has fooled him. That personality of his, it's getting through to these Frenchmen better than it does to you Americans."
Here, then, is Sugar Ray Leonard, ethnic underdog.
Who would have believed it? A certain pleasing symmetry attended Leonard's return here. This is the city of the big gang that made him a star. And now, after 27 professional fights without a defeat following a gold medal in Montreal's 1976 Olympics, Leonard is back with the biggest fight of his life -- against Roberto Duran, a certifiably great champion.
Sugar Ray might as well as be a tourist from Keokuk trying to order dinner in Paris.
Instead of Montreal taking Leonard in a warm embrace of reunion, there is a feeling -- not universal, to be sure, yet a feeling nonetheless -- that it was only an accident of geopolitical sport that Leonard became a champion here. Montreal had no choice in the matter.
So in this city of 4 million people, where zealous citizens speak French and view the use of English as a bad weed that simply won't be stamped out, Sugar Ray Leonard is seen by many as an arrogant American who is tolerated because he is a very large star in the firmament of celebrity.
Make no mistake about one thing: "Le face a face historique," the historic confrontation, is important to Montreal. As proven by the mayor, Jean Drapeau, whose passionate pursuit and capture of the Olympics has sent the city more than $1 billion into debt, Montreal is as interested in glory as efficiency.
Tickets for ringside at the 70,000-seat Olympic Stadium cost $500. They are sold out. The cheap seats in the place cost $20. They are sold out. As of yesterday, though, there were more than 40,000 seats available from $50 to $300. Just in case the promoters don't make the $5.5 million at the gate they need to break even, they have paid $600,000 for an insurance policy to cover the difference. So much for efficiency.
Ah, but glory abounds. The official kit given to 575 accredited media people -- 50 of them from Europe and Asia, 232 from the United States, 293 from Canada -- carries a listing headed "Hollywood in Montreal."
There we learn, praise the Lord, that Frank Sintra will be at ringside along with Jean-Paul Belmondo (and you thought Jean-Paul was out of circulation). Blondie of disco face, Farrah Fawcett of ex-Majors fame, Sylvester Stallone of "Rocky," Woody Allen of neurosis and Guy Lafleur of the blueline will be there.
Pages 1, 2, 4 and 5 of an eight-page sports section in today's Montreal Gazette carried stories about the Leonard-Duran fight. Montreal's three newspapers sent reporters to both fighters' training camps -- Leonard's at New Carrollton, Md., and Duran's in the New York mountains -- and produced so many fights stories that the hometown Expos, leading baseball's National League East, complained of being ignored.
This fight is so big that Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier are supporting actors.
The night before the fight, Ali will speak at a $60 a plate dinner. An advertisement says Ali is "boxeur, philosophe, poete, comedien, contestataire, conservateur, missionaire, ambassadeur, vous entretenir de lui, de la boxe, de la vie comme il sait."
What does all that mean?
"He'll talk about himself," said Valentin Molpeceres, who was selling tickets to the dinner.
Frazier and his singing group, "The Knockouts," will perform after the Leonard-Duran fight. Tickets are $10 each.
"With Ali and Frazier, they add only a small part to the fight," said Molpeceres, 26, at his station in the Complexe Desjardins lobby. "There is, with the fight, a feeling of novelty, of something new that is a big thrill, something very historic and glamorous for Montreal. Sinatra, Belmondo, a lot of the very big shots will be there."
The very big shots are not helping sell tickets, however.
"the tickets, they are very expensive and the people of Montreal feel they are only for the big shots and the rich Americans," Molpeceres said. "We are selling more tickets this week, but there are many more to sell."
And which of the fighters does Molpeceres favor?
"It is Duran everyone likes," he said. "They like the way he has been acting toward the people. Here in Quebec, it is important to speak French or, at least, to try. It is not important that Duran spoke poorly. He tried. He appears to be a more simple man than Sugar Ray Leonard, less a showoff. And , oui , he is a Latin."
Marie Celestin sat at a fountain's edge in the shopping center atrium, not far from the sailboats on display. She was knitting a baby's sweater for the girl she expects to deliver next month.
"No, no, I cannot go to the fight," she said. "We must conserve our money."
She patted her baby.
Qui. Do you like Leonard?
"Duran I like," she said, "because Leonard is only come to Montreal to get more rich. He is an actor."
There is some resentment in Montreal, said boxing writer Daniel Cloutier of Le Journal de Montreal, that Leonard's $3.5 million asking price for the fight made tickets so expensive the ordinary boxing fan cannot see the fight.
"Most of the boxing fans are workers," Cloutier said. "It is difficult for them to give $100 only for a fight. And a lot of Montreal peoples were shocked by the fact the fight was not onTV until a month later.
"Generally, though, the peoples understand that this is a very special fight, historic for Montreal.
"The Montreal peoples don't know the box so well. If you brought in Antuofermo or Benitez, both good fighters, I don't think you can get a good crowd. But Leonard and Duran are big, big stars. All have watched Leonard and Duran on the TV. The peoples are more interested in the fight than in the Expos, who are winning every day."
If Duran's appeal here is that of the underdog, or if it is a reflection of Franco-American relations, or if the Panamanian is a veteran of a decade of championship fights and so is looser than a Leonard in his second title fight -- whatever has made Duran the public's darling here, it is not unanimous by any means.
Leonard's workout today in the same Complexe Desjardins was warmly received. "Bonjour, Montreal," Leonard said, though the words came out rather stiffly, as if he would rather be in Keokuk.
"Everyone here has been exceedingly nice to Ray," said Charlie Brotman, the fighter's publicity man. "He is completely recognized wherever he goes. And he has such an easy style about him that nobody is afraid to come up to him. If 100 people want autographs, he'll sign every one of them unless we make him stop."
Well, there was one problem, Brotman admitted.
"The Olympic Stadium committee gave us two security men for Ray," he said. "They were in uniforms, you know, and they're supposed to help us get in and out of places, keep people off Ray, that kind of thing.
"But they were in such awe of Ray that they just stood there staring at him, gaping. We had to replace them with our own people."