In the closing rounds, Roberto Duran was a weary, clumsy fighter, his vigor spent and his big early lead demolished by the sudden savagery of Sugar Ray Leonard, now counterattacking.
That was inside the ring. Outside the ring, at the final bell, Duran found three valuable confederates, three myopic judges who said he had won that fight, and also had won Leonard's title Friday night in Olympic Stadium. It was one of boxing's biggest lies.
The judges were even more suspect as events developed after the fight. They refused to disclose their round-by-round scoring for several hours after the fight. One judge's verdict was announced as a draw, mistakenly, before being changed to give Duran a one-point edge. The same fellow, it was later learned, had scored 10 rounds even, breaking all known records for indecision in his profession.
Duran had another ally as well. This one was in the ring with him, in the person of Carlos Padilla, the referee from the Philippines, who overreacted in the wake of claims by the Duran people that he was too quick to break up infighting. He let Duran wrestle as he pleased in close.
At the final bell, Duran wore the look of a man dismayed, in contrast to the demonstrated joy in Leonard's corner. The challenger's deportment was hangdog, as if recognizing he had blown this big chance at the title. When they announced the numbers, Leonard's face was a picture of shock. More than Duran, the little men with their pencils had done him in.
It was a firefight all the way. Leonard-Duran, Montreal, 1980, marches into boxing history as one more memorable exhibit of sustained savagery, a valid companion piece to the three Ali-Frazier epics, the three Zale-Grazianos and Marciano-Walcott.
Leonard never encountered such ferocity in the early rounds. The eager Duran was threatening to make good on his prefight boasts of a quick finish to the fight, and in both rounds two and three he rocked Leonard with crushing punches. The suspicion then was that Leonard couldn't survive this. c
But Leonard was answering one of the big questions. He could, indeed, take a punch, and he won the next four rounds by decent margins. The champion whom Duran was going to take out of there was not only fighting back, but nailing him good on occasion.
But it was a strange Sugar Ray Leonard who was doing the fighting Friday night, a Leonard who was startling his friends by permitting Duran's simple charges to take away his own jab. And in what appeared to be a foolhardy decision he was choosing to slug it out with the rugged Duran. And it was working for him.
This was a Leonard who had abandoned his jab, forgotten his footwork, forsaken the center ring where he would be safe with his speed and permitted Duran to swarm him almost at will. On the ropes, Leonard had to play the cover-up game, lest he take a last, damaging shot from Duran.
He wasn't looking very stylish particularly for a Sugar Ray Leonard, but he was answering the big question that pervaded prefight speculation. Could he take a punch? In those first three rounds he took plenty, and refused to fall.
Leonard, in his new role as a desperate slugger, won the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds in his bid to turn the fight around, and he did.Duran was proving shifty, and there were more Leonard misses than usual, but he was scoring more hits also. In the middle rounds, Duran was on notice that this was not going to be easy. And then it got worse for Duran. Leonard evened up the 13th with a clean right-hand shot that left Duran happy to hear the bell, in addition to the bells that were ringing in his head.
Two rounds before, Leonard had begun to take charge, beating Duran in the exchanges, and leaving him to wonder about this slender fellow who dared to punch it out with him. At his own game, Duran was now losing to a Leonard who was putting everything into these last desperate rounds and slowing Duran noticeably.
In round 14, Leonard even suckered Duran into a bolo punch that shivered his chin, and it ended in round 15, just before the bell, with Leonard chasing Duran all over the place in a furious bid to kayo that kayo artist. Duran wasn't licking anybody despite what the judges said.
Leonard lost his title because fight judges sometimes act that way. As a poor decision, it was not an original. It's in the nature of the fight business, which is not a pretty thing, anyway.
The hurt for Leonard is that he lost his title on a night when actually he was magnificent, if unstylish. He came back from two near knockouts by Duran and licked that big hitter at his own game. Unofficially.