JUNE 20, 1980 was the date for the first in a trilogy of fights between Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard. The fight was nicknamed the “Brawl in Montreal” and attracted more attention worldwide than any other non-heavyweight contest in history, with the exception of Sugar Ray Robinson’s middleweight match-up against Carmen Basilio in 1956.
THE Olympic Stadium in Montreal was the venue for the fight, the same place that Leonard was crowned Olympic champion in the 1976 Games, capturing the hearts of the American public in the process.
LEONARD was defending his WBC Welterweight belt having earned the title in the previous November, beating Wilfred Benitez on a technical knockout with just seconds remaining in the 15th and final round. He then successfully saw off Dave Green of Great Britain three months prior to arriving in Montreal.
DURAN had struggled with his weight, which fluctuated between fights and made it difficult for him to continue defending his title at lightweight division. He stepped up to welterweight to face the fresh-faced Leonard, with a guaranteed purse of £650,000, the largest amount ever for any non-heavyweight challenger.
BOTH fighters were admired by the watching public, but for very different reasons. Leonard was young, smart and well-groomed, whereas Duran embodied the working class hero; a well-versed brawler who was both rugged and fearless. The media dubbed the contest “boxer vs fighter, youth vs experience, fast hands vs stone hands.”
EXPERT opinions were heavily split leading into the fight. Many believed that Leonard’s speed and guile would be too much for the Panamanian, whereas others preferred Duran’s endurance and ability to wear his opponent down before capitalising in the latter stages.
DEFENDING champion Leonard made the mistake of fighting on Duran’s terms. The American fought toe-to-toe with the heavy-hitting challenger, negating his superior height and reach advantage and playing to the veteran’s strengths. The Panama icon was able to pin Sugar Ray to the ropes and unleash and array of powerful shots to his head and body.
DURING the second round, Leonard was caught with a strong right hand to the head which left him staggering. A flurry of punches helped him to limit the onslaught, but not for very long as Duran forced the 24-year-old back against the ropes and continued to rough him up.
LEONARD fought back well and gained the upper-hand between the fifth and eighth round, but the smaller, more aggressive Duran responded by bullying his way back into control in the ninth, cutting his opponent’s right eye in the process.
THE fight went the distance with Leonard taking the final round, but it was too little too late. Duran had caused enough damage and earned a close but unanimous points decision over the American puncher. The pair would go on to clash two more times, with Leonard winning on both occasions against a lacklustre Duran who was in significantly worse shape than he was in Montreal.