December 7, 2016
December 7, 2016
Sugar Ray Leonard vs Roberto Duran

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‘Superfight is just a mirage’ wrote Harry Mullan, in this, our original fight report from Leonard-Duran III on December 7, 1989 in Las Vegas.

THE decade went out with a whimper rather than a bang as the third super fight between Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran became the most disappointing major match-up since Muhammad Ali flopped against Larry Holmes in 1980.

Leonard won a landslide unanimous points decision, but will not look back on it with any great satisfaction. The pair earned a fortune – Leonard was guaranteed $17.6m, Duran $7.5m – but forfeited their reputations in the process.

Duran, once the embodiment of macho fighting qualities, fought like a bored old survivor whose sole aim was to get through the night’s work with the minimum inconvenience or embarrassment so that he could go home and count his pay. Leonard was quite happy to go along with Duran’s policy of non-aggression, and spent most of the 12 rounds retreating briskly around the ring while the 38-year-old Panamanian plodded aimlessly after him.

The result was a dreadfully uninspiring encounter, a super fight turned superbore, and as early as the third round the crowd of more than 16,000, who paid an all time gate receipts record of $9m, broke into whistles and jeers of derision. Chants of “bullshit, bullshit” continued throughout the later rounds, and long before the end of this desultory affair people were streaming away from the arena in hundreds. It was a case of one man no longer having the ability to fight, and the other no longer having the desire to do so. But it is the loss of Duran’s reputation, more than Leonard’s, which diminishes the sport.

He has held centre-stage for almost 20 years, having won the first of his four world titles at lightweight in 1972, and his own extraordinary brand of snarling, swaggering brawling made him the most loved and feared fighting man of his time. His hold on public affection was such that he was even able to recover from the shame of the “No Mas” surrender against Leonard nine years ago. Only Duran, alone amongst his contemporaries, could have lived down a humiliation of that magnitude.

Interestingly, too, he was the crowd’s favourite, despite America’s currently strained relations with Panama. He was accorded the sort of ecstatic reception which Leonard, once the all-American hero, used to enjoy. Times have changed: Leonard’s arrogant, calculating manipulation of his sport and his cavalier treatment of some of the most long-serving and loyal members of his team have alienated his public, and this cynically effective display will have done nothing to regain their affection.

It was unquestionably a technical masterpiece, a highly skilled exercise in evasion and frustration, but for $17.6m – which a bonus percentage deal will probably push over the $20m mark – he might reasonably have been expected to offer some entertainment as well. Merely winning is not enough at this level, or for that sort of money.

Duran’s performance will be forgiven: even Macho men get old, and he is now 38. The old warhorse has given the public so much over 20 years that he will not  be remembered for this tame workout. Leonard, though, will not be so readily forgiven for his decision literally to take the money and run.

Leonard justified his strategy on the grounds that, on the one occasion when he did try to please the crowd (in the 11th round) Duran hit him with a right which inflicted a horrible cut on the left eyebrow, one of three facial wounds which later required 60 microstitches.

Viewed from a purely professional standpoint he is of course right: the job of a boxer ideally is to hit without getting hit himself, but to take that attitude to the limits to which Leonard stretched is to ignore his responsibility to his public, who had paid him handsomely to fight.

There is a distinction to be made between what Leonard did last week and what Herol Graham did against Rod Douglas in October. Graham gave a masterly display of evasive boxing, but all the time he was looking to land those strength-sapping counters, whereas Leonard appeared to be set on an inflexible course of least risk and minimum discomfort.

The fight was officially only for Leonard’s WBC super middleweight title although Leonard, the supreme egotist, had dictated that the match be made at 162lbs, a full six pounds below the championship limit. The WBC had, as ever, meekly agreed to this perversion of their own rules to accommodate him, just as they did when Donny Lalonde was obliged to come in seven pounds below his championship weight to defend the light-heavyweight title against Leonard, and when Thomas Hearns reportedly had to scale below 11st 10lbs for his super-middleweight challenge against him in June.

Duran’s WBC middleweight title was not at stake, but as Leonard scaled exactly the middleweight limit of 11st 6lbs with Duran two pounds lighter, and since the match was fought under full championship conditions, Duran’s title should surely either be awarded to Leonard or declared vacant. The WBC, though, have no plans to take either course, which will surprise  nobody.

But whether his championship future is decided in the ring or in a committee room, Duran’s day as a top-flight performer is numbered. The first decent middleweight he meets will almost certainly dethrone him, and that could mean either of Britain’s two hopes in the division, Herol Graham or Nigel Benn, whose one round win over Jose Quinones a few days earlier had caused a considerable stir in Vegas fighting circles.

Duran certainly will box again. Even this huge payday will have served only to clear existing tax bills and support his extravagant lifestyle for a few months. It seems, sadly, that his super win over Iran Barkley in February was the last hurrah for old ‘Hands of Stone’. Leonard refused to be drawn on his future, but after this result it is likely that he, too, will be tempted back into the ring.

Whatever weaknesses Hearns exposed in his chin last June, Leonard’s legs and tactical brain remain almost as good as ever and the temptation for him to pick up another $20m or so – possibly in a third match with Hearns – will be hard to resist.

The fight was a colossal financial success for promoter Bob Arum and for the owners of the new Mirage hotel, who paid a site fee of $8m in an effort to establish themselves as serious rivals to the Hilton and Ceasars Palace as a major venue. The gross was expected to be somewhere between $60m and $70m, but whatever the balance books show, the history books will record it is a flop of heroic proportions.

It was almost totally devoid of action highlights, with round following boring round in the same unvarying pattern: Leonard skittering around the ring, winding up a Bolo (“I did it to remind him of New Orleans”) while the bearded, slightly podgy middleweight champion walked after him in half-hearted pursuit.

I doubt if Duran landed a worthwhile punch in the first half of the fight, although he did succeed in drawing blood from Leonard’s lip with a  butt in the fourth. Leonard scored with jabs when he could, but generally remained on the ring perimeter while Duran’s tentative jabs fell far short of their target.

The crowd were prepared to tolerate such tactics for a couple of rounds, but when by the third round there was still no signs of the pair getting down to serious business, whistles and boos were heard from all around the high-tiered arena. The jeers intensified late in the round when Leonard popped Duran in the face with two fast jabs, and then stood still and wound up a right hand bolo before walking away without throwing it.

He was clearly trying to confuse and intimidate Duran, as he did on that memorable night in New Orleans, and the signs were that it was working – although even Leonard could not have expected that Duran would repeat that notorious “No Mas” walkout.

Duran has always had trouble with movers, a fact which Mickey Duff appreciated earlier than most of us when he matched Kirkland Laing with him, and against all expectations bar Duff’s, Laing pulled off a stunning points win. Leonard was aware of Duran’s problems in coping with that kind of style.

As the rounds drifted by, so Duran’s frustration and confusion mounted, and his commitment waned. The pride was still there, though, even if the fire was not, it was pride which kept him upright in the sixth round when Leonard at last went to work. A left hook followed by a series of stunning rights to the head had Duran reeling in a corner and along the ropes, and he was badly hurt as the round ended.

It was the one stage in the fight when an inside-schedule finish was on the cards, but surprisingly Leonard did not pursue his advantage in the seventh and instead went back to his evasive, don’t-get-involved routine and allowed Duran to recover his composure.

And that was the way it remained, apart from a brief flurry from Duran, which earned him a share of the eighth on my card. Even then Leonard ostentatiously directed him to his corner.

By the 10th the chants of “Bullshit, Bullshit” were deafening, and it must have been galling for two men who between them have won nine world titles to hear themselves subjected to the ultimate insult which the American boxing fan has to offer. These were once the two finest fighters of their generation, but on this night they were more like two middle-aged businessmen intent on getting the maximum return for the minimum pain, and the punters who had paid up to $800 were understandably angry and resentful.

There was still one last, improbable chance left for Duran. Late in the 11th round, blood gushed from an ugly cut above Leonard’s left eye. Had it occurred earlier in the fight, it is unlikely that he could have survived.

His cornermen were unable to staunch the flow during the final one-minute interval, and sent him out for the 12th with blood seeping from around and under the blob of grease on the cut. Now, surely, was the moment for one last death or glory attack by Duran.

He must have known that he was far behind on points, despite his absurd post-fight claim to have done enough to win. The worst that could have happened to him was to have been knocked out, while on the plus side there was still a real chance that, even this late in the fight, referee Richard Steele might have been forced to intervene, especially given Leonard’s history of eye problems.

But instead, the Lion went out like a lamb. The Duran who had spat glorious defiance at Marvin Hagler in the last round of their memorable encounter or had marched grimly towards Thomas Hearns in the cold certain knowledge that he was about to be knocked out is only a memory. The December 1989 version was happy opt for survival, and coasted through the final three minutes while the chants and jeers rolled down from the top tiers.

It was all so sad, and so unworthy of what the man had been. For the record, all three judges gave it to Leonard by wide margins. Jerry Roth and Joe Cortez, both from America, scored it respectively 119-109 and 116-111, while Belgian judge Bob Logist gave Duran a share of the first and last rounds for a score of 120-110.

I made Leonard win by 119-109, but really this was a night when Duran lost so much more than just a decision.