The first fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran in Montreal in June was the biggest moneymaker in boxing history. Their second bout -- The Super Fight in the Superdome Tuesday -- could be a super dud.
The first was a gold mine. The second could be a rathole down which millions of dollars have been poured.
The reasons are complex and go to the heart of boxing's real heavyweight division -- the backroom world of money men, wheeler dealers, and hustlers who put together that generic orgy called a big fight.
However, before we se how this second Leonard-Duran fight was made, what arms were twisted and who cried "uncle" first, let's look at the finished product -- a boxing extravaganza that is teetering at a financial razor's edge.
"We paid too much for this fight. We're the guys hanging onto the end of a limb by our fingertips," says Denzel Skinner, head of the Hyatt Management Corp., which operates the Superdome, which carries the full financial burden of this fight, having bought it lock, stock and ancillary rights.
"Boxing has reached the point of financial saturation. We're squeezing every cent out of promoting and marketing this great fight an it still may not be enough," said Skinner. "We knew we overpaid for this fight. But we also knew the competition (Caesars Palace in Las Vegas) and how high they'd go. It was either over-pay or lose the promotion.
"That's why we had to raise ticket prices for both live gate and closed circuit TV.Lord, the prices were absolutely indefensible for the last fight. Now, they're higher -- an average of $23 for closed circuit in even the smallest communities and up to a $50 average per seat in New York and Washington. We're all on thin ice. How much will the public pay?" said skinner, who, so far, is looking at meager advance sale of 13,000 tickets in the cavernous Dome. That, roughly, is only half the early business of the Montreal bout -- hardly a good omen.
"We're holding our breath," said Skinner, the Dome man who signed the deal that guarantees the two fighters $17.2 million net -- $7 million for Leonard ($1 million of it nonrefundable and prepaid even if Leonard and Duran never touch gloves) and close to $10 million for the amorphous Duran group that includes promoter Don King and manager Carlos Eleta. "This fight couldn't possibly be scheduled at a worse time. We're up against Thanksgiving holidays and Christmas spending and the height of the football season.
"This fight should have been made for February when as many factors would have been on our side as are against us now. But some people were in a hurry . . . yes, it was the Leonard camp that set the time frame for this fight," continued Skinner.
In short, it gives Skinner a massive headache to think about everything that can go wrong throughout his network of variables that includes the biggest world-wide closed circuit TV web in history -- 365 sites. And tickets are not moving briskly for the closed circuit telecast, either.
How in the world did a big-league operation like the Superdome get itself in a spot where, as Skinner says, "A lot of things have to go right for us to reach our break-even gross -- $5 million live gate and $30 million in closed circuit TV"?
This Super Fight is really the result of a super arm wrestling match between Leonard's lawyer, Mike Trainer, and Duran's street smart promoter, Don King. They each outlined a basically identical account of their struggle, though each places a vastly different interpretation on the facts.
Trainer accuses King of reneging on a $17 million agreement and hints that King may soon face a new lawsuit as well as the current (unrelated to this fight) grand jury investigation that hangs over him. King says Trainer offered Duran and Eleta $10 million if they would dump him.
After each had done his damnedest following the Montreal fight to squeeze out the other, push his adversary to the wall with every trick of fiscal hard ball, both Trainer and King had to face a shocking conclusion. After months of deals and counter deals -- throwing million-dollar units around like nickles -- they both had won.
They made wild money demands, and to their amazement, folks from far and wide, Houston, Las Vegas, New Orleans, came forward and said, "Okay, we'll pay."
Trainer was the big wheel behind the Montreal fight, with King, despite his bombast, pushed to the periphery of the scene. That is the worse possible blow to a self-selling promoter. As King says, "You're either in the picture, or you're out in the street."
When Duran beat Leonard and took his crown, many assumed that the clout and leverage in the welterweight world had swung to Duran's camp, and that Leonard would have to come crawling for Fight II.
"It didn't work out that way," says King. "You have to face reality. The people who can pay $20 to $50 for a (closed circuit) ticket are mostly Leonard fans -- not Duran fans, mostly North Americans, not Latin Americans.
Or as Trainer says, "You can't put on a Leonard-Duran fight in Panama City with tickets (at ringside) scaled up to $500. Duran has the championship belt, but it doesn't mean much because Ray is still the one who sells the tickets. That green thing (money) speaks."
"Give Trainer credit," says King."He's bamboozled people into thinking Leonard is still the champion. Damn, look at the (gambling) odds. Leonard's the favorite for this fight. His people have convinced the world that they didn't see what they saw."
In August, Trainer had his traps all laid when he met with King and Eleta in Las Vegas. "We'd seen 90 percent of the take from the first fight," said Trainer. "It was going to net about $15 million. And I thought I could see ways to lmake more the second time."
So, Trainer figured a way around the ego issue of "percentages" -- the eternal shouting match about the relative cuts of the pie due to the champ and the challenge.
"Don't talk percentages to me," said Trainer to Duran's camp. "Talk dollars. How big a deal do I have to put together to get you to fight Ray again. What's your price?"
The answer was $10 million -- almost a 10-fold increase on Duran's first fight piece of the action.
"If I could meet that price," said Trainer, "they swore they'd go along with my deal."
"I didn't think he could ever come up with a figure like that," admits King now.
But Trainer did. As usual, he employed tactics that were new to boxing. Instead of consulting the usual cronies of the fight crowd, Trainer went to the world of rock music.
"I put together a new entity from New York and Houston . . . a rocket network with the people who book the more significant acts, like the Eagles or Linda Ronstadt, across the country. I dealt primary with Shelly Finkle (an all-purpose promoter) in New York."
Trainer got his total package all neatly wrapped. A date and place were set -- Nov. 25 in the Astrodome in Houston. A closed circuit network was built. A new and better deal for delayed broadcast TV rights was struck with ABC-TV that would put the second fight in prime time just before Christmas; that new pact alone would sweeten the pot by $1.5 million over the first fight.
The Trainer group had only one special stipulation, one key condition. King's role had to be absolutely minimal, even if his name was titularly on the product.
And when that $17.2 million package (with $7 million guaranteed for Leonard) was complete, Trainer dropped it on King like a bombshell. "I think it was the worst day of Don King's life," says Trainer. "I've always believed that the money should to to the fighters, not the middlemen like King who just make a few phone calls. In effect, we were dividing the fight evenly between Leonard and Duran, then giving King something to buy him out and keep him from messing things up."
When Trainer brought all these combustible ingredients together for a New York meeting, the predictable explosion occurred. "King went crazy," said Trainer. "He started ranting about wanting 50 percent of all profits and demanding veto power. It was a preposterous proposition. He was just trying to monkey-wrench the deal. I apologize to the Houston-New York people."
It's possible that Trainer knew all along that King, for reasons of saving face, would have to match the deal with one of his own. What else could he do? Let Trainer steal the show again while he, the man who had the champion in his watch pocket, sat on the sidelines like a small-timer?
Trainer also had a hole card: the memoranda signed by King and Eleta discussing their willinghess to go along with a Trainer-built deal. "Those memoranda with a Trainer-built deal. "Those memoranda just might stand up in court," says Trainer now. "In fact, Shelly Finkle and his friends may still sue King over this."
When King's customary mock fury subsided, Trainer threw down the gauntlet. "Okay," said Trainer to King, "you're the one who said you could match any deal I could put together. Now's the time to prove it. If you can match my $17.2 million, then I'll step out of the picture, just sit back and watch the fight."
Now, looking back, Trainer says, "I never dreamed he could do it. Especially not in a week, which was all he had under our agreement."
To make things doubly difficult for King, Leonard's group had emissaries in Panama spreading word of the $10 million that Leonard's camp was offering Duran. "We wanted to put the pressure on in Duran's backyard so he couldn't back out of the fight," says Trainer. "We wanted to make it clear to Duran's fans, to the Panamanian government that likes tax revenues, to everybody, that Duran had the deal of a lifetime on his table and that if he didn't take it, it was just Don King's backroom politics that was preventing the fight."
"I shocked 'em right back," said King. "They beat the bushes and set the price and I had to match it. They went to Panama and . . . offered all kinds of astronomical money (to Duran and Eleta) to defect from me. But Duran was loyalty personified," orated King. "He wouldn't 'gee or haw' without me. He remembered all I've done for him."
What King managed, in a coup of power brokering, was to play off Caesars Palace against the Superdome until the Dome came across with that $17.2 million promise that even Skinner now admits was much too high.
"Where Trainer and Finkle and the Astrodome miscalculated was in not allowing for Don King's ego and personal need for involvement," said Skinner. "Don did not feel that he was properly recognized at the first fight. Now, he represents the two greatest champions in the world -- Larry Holmes and Duran. He was feeling his oats and could not bear to be shunted aside again. King wouldn't sell out.He said, 'I have the champion. Why should I stand out in the cold.'"
Of course, some might say that the Leonard camp figured perfectly all along. Perhaps they just used the Finkle group to flush out King. Perhaps they knew how hot the Superdome would be for a fight at any cost. Or, most likely, Trainer just worked out a lightning play, one-against-the-other combination of his own where he and Leonard won either way.
"I'm a performer. I had to deliver and I did," says King. "I was never better. I didn't have but a week, and I put together the biggest money fight in history."
No one can gainsay that.
"I'm amazed at the reputable people who do business with King," says Trainer. "The people from the Dome and Hyatt weren't even back home and off the airplane before they'd worked out the figures and knew they'd paid too much for the fight. But the Dome was worried about Caesars. They'd lost out in trying to get the Montreal fight (and others). They wanted to get in the picture. Badly."
Two questions remain. Why are facilities like the Astrodome, Superdome and Caesars Palace so anxious to become part of a boxing promotion that as it now proves, is such a dicey deal? And, why is this fight taking place now, instead of in February.?
King can explain the first paradox. "We may be reaching the dollar saturation point for a big fight the way things are set up now with closed circuit TV," he says. "But you don't have to look far ahead to see the day of huge fights on cable TV. Now, you're trying to get a million people to come for closed circuit at $30 a head. But the time is coming when you'll have a viewing audience on cable of $20 million at $3 a head."
In other words, you're either "in the picture" or "out in the street." And those long-sighted businessmen who run the likes of the Astodome or Superdome are willing to take some risks, today, even admit that they have overpaid because of the bonanza that may be coming.
"We wanted to fight Duran again while everything was right (primed)," says Trainer. "What if he fights somebody else and loses? Or gets hit by a car? There's no good reason to wait."
"They said that they'd either fight Duran before 1980 was out, or they'd go elsewhere and make another fight," said King. "We wanted to wait, let Roberto fight somebody else, 'cause we're sure he'd win. But what if Leonard fights in between and loses? We couldn't risk that.
"My rights to the fight ran out with the end of the year," said King."Leonard forced the issue all the way. But, you know, haste makes waste. We're seeing that now. The price of this product is extremely high, especially under these unfavorable conditions."
Early ticket sales are an indication that the gate for Super Fight -- both live and circuit -- are substantially lower than The Brawl in Montreal. But neither fighter will be financially hurt. Leonard, in particular, believes that this is the fight that sets him up for life. "I see that figure $7.5 million for me from that Montreal fight," he says with a shake of the head. "Well, between what you read in the paper and what I see in the bank account is a big difference. It gets eaten up a lot of ways. Wouldn't call myself a millionaire yet, because a millionaire is a man who can spend a million dollars and still not be worried about the future. I'm not in that category. Yet . . . "
King knows that, fair or not, his name is on this deal and he will take the most flack if it bombs.
"People are already getting ready to blast me," says King. "They'll say, 'Look what King done to so and so.'"
It won't be the Superdome doint the blasting.
"We're big boys, we knew what we were getting into," says Skinner. "A lot of people have come and gone in promoting boxing. Mostly, they've gone a little bit broke. We hope, come Wednesday, we're not in that group."
When you get in the ring with boxing's true heavyweights, those are your risks.