These were the words no boxing fan ever thought he would utter. Roberto Duran quit. Humiliated to the core by Sugar Ray Leonard the round before, Duran gave up his World Boxing Council title 16 seconds before the end of the eighth round tonight.

Nothing of the kind in any bout ever was quite like what suddenly took place near the ropes between both corners, not even Sonny Liston's failure to answer the bell for the eighth round against Muhammad Ali in 1964. Duran was supposed to be the essence of courage, to exude the sort of primitive stubborness that demanded he stop flailing only when the last bit of sense was beaten out of him.

You make Roberto Duran stop fighting with a gun, not your fists, legend has it. When somebody this week asked Duran's trainer, Ray Arcel, what his man would do if he lost to Leonard he said: "Suicide."

For what his reputation semmingly demanded, what Duran did tonight was worse.

Still standing, seemingly unhurt except for the gigantic bruise to his ego Leonard delivered in round seven, Duran all of a sudden stopped and raised his right hand in a sort of who-needs-this-aggravation gesture. A stunned Leonard did nothing for an unstant and Duran turned his back and started to walk away. Leonard was as shocked as the paying customers in the Superdome and hundreds of closed-circuit sites around the country. He was certain he could win before the fight and certain he was winning it. But he never in his wildest fantasies imagined he could goad Duran into turning his back on a fight -- and on his career.

Was this some sort of trick?

This must have danced through his head -- and the instant it seemed possible Leonard went back on the attack. He went after Duran, who was walking away, and smacked him perhaps four more times. Then the referee and everyone else knew the bizarre act was in fact real -- and Leonard skipped across the ring and jumped onto a strand of ropes.

Leonard was winning -- and big. In contrast to his plodding style when he lost Fight 1 five months ago in Montreal, Leonard began The Dance of Duran's Doom early and was so confident of victory he got recklessly stylish in round seven.

Perhaps by design. Before both fights, Leonard had wanted to use Duran's bullheadedness against him, make him stupid with rage. Leonard's antics, nearly the entire Ali repertoire, was his ultimate red cape. And Duran charged blindly into the trap.

"I like everything that's gonna be happening here tonight," Angelo Dundee had said a few hours before his man Leonard tried to avenge his Montreal defeat. "Ray knows Duran now, in the ring and out of the ring. We've lost respect for Duran now, recognized him for what he is -- Sonny liston."

Even Dundee could not possibly have realized how prophetic that might become.

If he danced ahead of Duran when the fight began, Leonard matched macho with macho before. Instead of his usual patriotic-looking robe and shoes, Leonard entered the ring in black. Whatever evil he could muster was going to be obvious to this sawed-off Clint Eastwood.

The ultimate irony was that before the fight Duran had called Leonard all the names disgusted witnesses were calling him when it was over: Scared. Cowardly. That sort of jive.

Ordinary fighters quit with stomach cramps. Duran quit only with his last drop of life. That is the sort of heroic foolishness he encouraged his entire career; that is the standard by which he must be judged. A pussycat will soon be walking a lion in Panama.

Are you embarrassed?

"No? Why should I be ashamed? It could happen to anybody. An accident."

Are you a better man than Leonard?

"A thousand times."

Why won't you fight again?

"I have been fighting a long time." This was his 74th fight. He was 72-1 before tonight. Veterans obsessed with this sort of number immediately could recall him being knocked down just twice, by left hooks from Estaban DeJesus in the first rounds of their first two fights.

"I am tired of the sport," Duran continued through an interpreter, "and I feel it is time for me to retire."

Duran's estimation of Leonard"

"Because he beat me this time is no reason to have respect for him."

From the herd of reporters, behind some floodlights but loud enough for Duran, who understands more English than he admits, came a shout: "But Leonard didn't quit the last time."

What about Leonard's taunting?

"That never worried me whatsoever."

Will he change his mind about retirement"

"No. I'm not fighting any more."

As the champion, Duran had arrived for the noon weigh-in today with his mean face firmly in place, in black from his cowboy hat to his beard to his leather jacket to his scuffed shoes. Close up, he could be seen wearing two diamonds in his right ear and one in his left. Diamond-tough, he was saying. He blew kisses to his admirers and threw crude gestures to the Leonard camp.

"Duran mistook the respect and decency we gave him (before Fight 1) as being scared," Dundee said before the fight. "Now we know him for what he is. And we just laugh when he gives us this and that." He was referring to Duran's X-rated methods of communication.

By the end of the seventh round, when Leonard's Ali imitation had ended, his lawyer was communicating victory. Thumbs up, Mike Trainer gestured for everyone to see. Within seconds, much of boximg would be giving duran, who worked a lifetime for the enormous respect he so coveted, the nastiest kind of thumbs down.