At the finish, it was a simple confession by Roberto Duran that he couldn't lick this man.
He uttered it with his abrupt decision to abandon the battle while it still raged, with 16 seconds left in Round 8. He walked away from it, literally, and headed toward his own corner and refuge with his handlers. He had to know he was being set up for worse by Sugar Ray Leonard, and with a last gesture toward him, a wave of a now-heavy glove, he was saying, "This is useless." He was suddenly giving Sugar Ray his title back, would no longer contest him.
Duran's resignation was a startling act. All his life, Duran has been the ferocious one, the brawling winner of 72 of his 73 fights. Momentarily, Leonard was left agape, but not so catatonic as to refrain from getting in a couple of more licks at the retreating Duran, in case this was some kind of a trick. It was no trick. Duran wanted no more of Leonard.
The astonishing manner of the finish was the only aspect of the second meeting between Duran and Leonard that could be called unpredictable. We could foretell the result in New Orleans, my colleague, Dave Kindred, and I, who were ringside seatmates at Montreal in June when we saw Leonard euchered out of a rightful decision, with one judge daring to call 10 of the 15 rounds even and another changing his scorecard to give Duran the edge.
In passing months, the myth grew that Duran was by far the superior fighter. But there was a certainty that the next time he met Leonard it would be oh, so different. Leonard had not only dominated the last seven rounds in Montreal but he had learned much about Duran, a single-track fighter. Next time Sugar Ray would avoid the bulling to the ropes, would return to his stick-and-dance, dance-and-stick, while waiting for the spot to unload one of those fastest hands in boxing.
During the intervening months, Duran could well have profited from a Spanish translation from the French of one of Napoleon Bonaparte's most cogent admonitions: "You must not fight too often with one enemy or you will teach him your art of war."
Nothing could have been more topical Tuesday night in the Superdome. Duran was a pigeon for Sugar Ray the second time around.
Duran was a loser in New Orleans from the opening bell, unlike his fast start against Leonard in Montreal, where he staggered Sugar Ray good in the second round, had him hanging on in the third and was far ahead at the end of seven. In New Orleans, he couldn't find Leonard, who was sticking him and rocking him and winning six of the eight rounds they fought.
There were also signs of a clever coup by Leonard in New Orleans before a blow was struck. A psychological blow was struck by Sugar Ray when, with both fighters in the ring and awaiting the opening bell, Ray Charles appeared to sing "America the Beautiful." No greater stimulant for Sugar Ray could be imagined than the presence of this longtime idol at ringside, belting it out. It is a fallacy that Leonard was named after the great Sugar Ray Robinson. His parents were Ray Charles fans. Leonard is his namesake.
How the Duran camp let Leonard get away with this ploy is a mystery.
Duran's claim of cramps -- in his stomach, someone said; in his shoulder, said somebody else -- may or may not be true. Devastating to those claims are his handlers' admission they were taken by complete surprise when Duran quit. They didn't speak of any detailed consultations with Duran before he decided he wanted out. Something about a shoulder after the fifth round, but there appeared to be little wrong with Duran in the eighth except for the same futility he encountered against Sugar Ray beginning with the first round.
Leonard found the bullish Duran completely manageable this time, and was boss of the fight after their tentative first round when each was searching out what gives. The second round was all Sugar Ray's. From there on, he defused Duran's savagery, made the bull submissive.
When Leonard poured it on in the seventh with his clowning act, he was avenging himself for all the abuse he had heard from Duran for nearly a year. His shimmy while daring to carry his hands low and jut his chin at a baffled Duran was showboating. Sugar Ray does that sometimes to hype the show, a direct and admitted steal from Muhammad Ali. But toward the fighter who many times had bad-mouthed Sugar Ray repeatedly, saying, "I will kill him," and, "I will knock him out," it was a decent show of contempt.