Why did Roberto Duran quit?

That was the question on a thousand tongues today after an unmarked and unhurt Duran refused to continue in the eighth round of his WBC welterweight title fight against Sugar Ray Leonard on Tuesday night.

Among those with questions was the Louisiana State Athletic Commission, which voted today to fine Duran $7,500 for an "unsatisfactory performance."

"He was saying he had cramps," said Otis Guichet, commission member. "But if he had cramps, they never asked for any doctors. The fans felt like they were jilted."

The commission had moved to hold up payment of Duran's share of the take for the fight but announced today it was releasing it. Guichet said Duran's share was $8 million.

But none of the commission's actions, or its symbolic wrist-slap fine, answered the questions.

Was Duran exhausted and dehydrated after losing 25 pounds in the last 10 weeks before the fight -- a revelation that did not surface until after the fight?

Did Duran get stomach cramps because he wolfed down three steaks and a variety of side dishes after his noon weigh-in?

Did Duran simply take the easy way out?

Did Duran have a secret heart condition, like the heart flutter that a Montreal doctor claimed to have found in June? When Duran's left arm became numb, he became nauseated and his upper body cramped in the middle rounds, did he fear a heart attack far more than he feared Leonard?

Or, in the ludicrous words of Duran's business advisor, Luis Henriquez, did Duran get cramps and quit because "the water here is New Orleans is really bad and the Hyatt Hotel never changed the menu"?

In other words, was Duran too hungry a fighter (for midnight snacks) or not hungry enough. Did he have a heart condition, or just not enough heart?

Duran's manager, Panama industrialist Carlos Eleta, told a new conference today Duran ate his way out of the title. Duran "didn't feel good in the fifth round, got worse in the seventh and broke into a cold sweat that made him feel as though he was going to faint," Eleta said. "He was sweating and felt like he couldn't see."

Eleta said Duran passed a heart examination 15 days before the fight and was declared sound by his physician.

Eleta acknowledged the widespread skepticism at the finish of the fight. "When I left the Superdome, I heard people saying Roberto quit so there would be a third fight. I want to get that out of everybody's mind. There won't be a third fight. Roberto is retired."

Why is Duran retiring?

"He didn't have the desire he had in other fights. He has money; he doesn't need anything."

He might need an explanation for what happened Tuesday. There were reports -- shot down by Eleta -- that Durn had been ordered back to Panama immediately by government strongman Gen. Omar Torrijos. "Duran doesn't take orders from the general," Eleta said. "I called the president at a radio station in Panama and he said he felt 'something must have happened' because he knows Roberto is quicker than he showed and not afraid at all."

In boxing, common sense dictates that nothing can be exactly what it seems. The simplest explanation for Leonard's eighth-round TKO in the Superdome is that the Sugar Man controlled every aspect of the fight so convincingly, and humiliated Duran so badly with his deft boxing skills, that the Panamanian simply had enough and retired.

"Everybody built up this myth of Duran, like when he walks past the snow is supposed to melt," said Leonard. "Now, all I hear is excuses. Well, face it, I beat Duran . . . I outboxed and outclassed Duran . . . I made him look like an amateur and he quit."

That elementary explanation almost certainly holds the largest portion of the truth about this stunning fight. Leonard revamped his tactical and psychological approach to Duran and it produced a spectacularly one-sided dancing and boxing match. Just one week before this fight, manager Angelo Dundee held a secret one-hour teaching session with Leonard in which he demonstrated a half-dozen tricks of the trade. They all worked. Also, in Dundee's words, "For four months, we did countless things to try to upset Duran, just the way Cassius Clay tried to upset Sonny Liston before their first fight in 1964 . . . there are special ways to treat a bully . . . last night was like watching Clay versus Liston all over again . . . our goal was to frustrate him completely."

Duran probably quit because he was being badly outboxed, and even outpunched on the ropes. Nonetheless, the richest aspect of the aftermath of this fight will probably be rumination over the factors that led Duran, the No. 1 tough guy of this era, to permanently tarnish his reputation by "retiring" when he was obviously still capable of fighting.

As Leonard said, "I don't think Duran took the easy way out. Look how people are reacting. In the long run, I think he took the worst way out."

"I understand they're checking Duran's papers and birth certificate back in Panama," said Leonard's lawyer Mike Trainer, retelling the most frequent joke here. "They think he may be Guatemalan."

Of all the theories in the humid New Orleans air today, the most plausible was that Duran had a fairly serious problem in losing weight for this fight, while the most far-fetched notion was that he had a heart condition.

"I think Duran is really Italian," said Dundee. "He loves pasta. We heard that he went up from 147 (the welterweight limit) to 168 after the first fight."

It was more than that. "All that partying after he won in Montreal, and then those midnight snacks even after he was supposed to be back in training," lamented 83-year-old handler Ray Arcel. "His weight got up over 170 and didn't go back down until September. Nevertheless, we had enough training time. That wasn't a problem. By the last 10 days, Duran was fine. He's had to lose a lot of weight many times in his (72-2) career."

It may not have been Duran's long-term eating habits that contributed to his cramps from the fifth round until the fight's end. It may have been his ravenous approach toward beef on the day of the fight. "He gulped down two thermos bottles of beef buillion a soon as he got off the weigh-in scales," said the ever-watchful Dundee. "We made sure to tell Sugar Ray to dig him to the body early and not wait until the late rounds, like he did in Montreal."

"I told him to eat those steaks slowly," said Duran's trainer Freddie Brown. "But he's a fast eater. He practically eats like a wild animal. He gulps it down. It don't go down easy."

"Roberto ate two big steaks at 1 p.m., drank orange and tomato juice and ate another small steak at 4 p.m.," Eleta said. "The doctors at the hospital said he had indigestion. He never had that before in his life."

Does Duran usually eat that much before a fight?

"He has eaten, but not as much. He was training hard to lose weight. Nothing like this ever happened before. When I saw Leonard dancing and throwing punches and Roberto was not coming in and throwing punches, I knew something was wrong.

"He was very much ashamed," Eleta continued. "He cried when I took him to the hospital."

Does Duran feel he made a mistake quitting?

"No," replied Eleta, "because he said he coundn't do anything he wanted to do. He didn't quit because he was afraid, but because he could not raise his arms."

"We have been accused of being a party of every sort of thing in the hours since the fight," said Arcel, a handler of 19 world champions. "An old friend asked me to my face how I could go along with my man taking a dive. But the most ridiculous of all the speculations is that Duran has a bad heart.

"After that situation in Montreal (reports of an irregular Duran heart beat), we went to a heart institute and had every imaginable test done," said Arcel. "Duran got a complete bill of good health. Then, when we were working out in Miami earlier this month, Carlos (Eleta) wanted to protect himself for this fight. He was afraid that the Louisiana State Athletic Commission, or some publicity-hungry politician would start dragging this heart stuff up again to get his picture in the paper. wSo, we had Roberto take another battery of tests in Miami a week or so before we came to New Orleans -- electrocardiograms and everything. We even have an affidavit that his heart is perfect," said Arcel.

Folks have always come to the Crescent City hoping to accumulate great wealth with little labor. The first foolish settlers here were misled by reports that New Orleans soil was rich with gold and silver, as well as miraculous plants that gushed oil, flowed clear water, grew buttons and cured all wounds. People died in the crush at the Paris offices of shippers bound for this swampy lowland.

Duran arrived here clad in the appealing outlaw role of that handsome pirate Jean Lafitte, who teamed with Andrew Jackson to beat the British at the battle of Chalmette. The only blemish on that victory was that it was fought two weeks after the War of 1812 had officially ended.

This welterweight battle of New Orleans had something of the same conclusion. This fight was really won by Leonard befor it began. The Sugar Man won in the gym with his jabbing, dancing, uppercutting, and sidestepping tactics. And he won with his taunting tactics by which he convinced Duran that their first fight, far from intimidating him, had merely made him bolder. Finally, Duran, by getting fat and indulging himself, gave himself an additional 25-pound fight to win before he ever met Leonard.

Duran arrived here with illusory expectations of an easy fortune. When he discovered the truth -- that fighting a primed and near-perfect Leonard was barren, thankless work -- he took the worst way out.

It is a decision, for all its complexity, that he will probably long regret.