Roberto durán and Sugar Ray Leonard fought for the first time in 1980 kicking off what would become an iconic rivalry in boxing and while their second fight gets most of the attention due to its bizarre ending, their first encounter remains one of the most entertaining matches in boxing history.
On the 40th Anniversary(June 20) of this gem of a fight, I think it is only appropriate to take a trip down memory lane for such an extraordinary bout.
Duran was known as a brutal fighter. He was a skillful boxer whose skills were missed by many, overshadowed by his unrelenting savagery. Duran used grappling techniques to subdue his opponents, making use of his head, shoulders, and chest to wrestle them into corners.
Leonard was known for his movement and speed and his footwork and rhythm. It was so refined that he could use them in lieu of a jab to set up powerful shots simultaneously.
Duran enjoyed a record of 71 wins to one loss with 56 of his wins by knockout. But most of the boxing community including Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson predicted that Leonard would easily win the fight.
The pre-fight proceedings were as heated as they could get. With personal stabs and verbal insults at each other’s loved ones, the stage was set for a fiery battle. Duran had one strategy up his sleeve that ultimately brought in huge returns on fight night. He got into Leonard’s head.
Tensions were high on fight night. Both the fighters were pumped up and in top form. At the ring of the bell, both men instantly got into executing their respective game strategies. Duran wanted the fight to evolve into a straight-up brawl. He wanted to get Leonard to a point where he was aimlessly swinging and creating gaping holes in his otherwise impeccable defense.
This worked partially and only on some occasions through the fight. But this is where the mind games came into play. Leonard was pumped with energy to go into that ring and finish Duran as fast as possible. Unfortunately, this played right into Duran’s wheel-house.
He had conditioned himself to take a battering. Leonard had a five-inch reach advantage. He usually used this to keep Duran at a safe distance(kind of ironic in today’s age). Duran, however, was a master at the art of feigning punches and his head.
So, whenever Ray would launch his signature jab, Duran would slightly duck, get in closer to Leonard and sneak a few heavy shots to his torso. In the process, Leonard’s jabs would almost land.
At this point, Duran’s strategy was almost crystal clear. He was tiring Leonard out in the early rounds to unleash his inner wrath on him in the later rounds. As I mentioned earlier, he was a master at grappling the opponent, which enabled him to get in close with the opponent to absolutely demolish the torso.
As the rounds went on and on, exhaustion was the highlight of Leonard’s body language. His swift and masterful footwork was the only thing keeping him alive in the game as he paced around the ring. The first five rounds were clearly Duran’s, but in sixth and seventh Leonard showed signs of a comeback with some powerful hits that landed straight on Duran’s jaw. But the contest still looked in favor of Roberto Duran.
This was around the time when Duran released his signature hook. In contrast to the conventional side-hook, Duran converted into a deadly “looping” hook. It appeared to almost charge at you out of nowhere.
By the looks of it, Duran was dominating the fight. In the ninth round, the boxing community witnessed one of the most fierce exchanges of hits. For 20 seconds straight, the two powerhouses threw close to 20 HEAVY punches back to back. It got so intense and stressful to watch that Leonard’s wife, who was watching from the sidelines, fainted to the ground. Took her two rounds to comprehend that bloody exchange.
The fight went the complete distance. The two fighters had boxed the life out of each other, but Duran had been more dominant in this endeavor. The shocking fact about the match was that no one ever hit the canvas. These two beasts showcased a top-notch rendition of pure will and sheer determination. They held their ground with great execution.
Unsurprisingly, Duran returned the victor. A unanimous decision in his favor was issued. But, Leonard was not one to give up. The duo went on to have two more blockbuster fights. Including the infamous ‘No Mas’ bout with arguably one of the weirdest endings to a fight.
These two gentlemen although bitter rivals in the ring went on to become very close friends. Deep down they respected each other. Their grit and perseverance is a very prevalent example for budding boxers around the world. For example, Leonard is Mike Tyson’s personal hero, next to Muhammad Ali. According to Mike, Leonard was one of the greatest influencers in his terrorizing reign over the boxing scene. Mike Tyson was in tears when Leonard guest-appeared on his podcast- Hotboxin’ with Mike Tyson.
Years after the fight, Duran revealed that the mentality and strategy that earned him the win in ‘The Brawl in Montreal’ was a seemingly false aura he had masked himself under. Duran had made Leonard fight his fight. While doing this he had kept Leonard from staying on his swift toes.
One thing I want to make very clear is that I do not serve a bias towards any of the fighters. I just analyzed and wrote about the fight, the way I saw it. These two fighters are all-time greats and one of the most respected athletes in the circuit. I have nothing but respect for these gentlemen.