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William Nack
June 30, 1980
Implacable and totally relentless in pursuit of Sugar Ray Leonard, Duran bludgeoned and bruised his way to the welterweight title
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June 30, 1980

Right On For Roberto

Implacable and totally relentless in pursuit of Sugar Ray Leonard, Duran bludgeoned and bruised his way to the welterweight title

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Roberto Duran had finished his steak and potato, polished off a helping of sausages and now was working on his second soft drink of the afternoon. It had been weeks since Duran had been able to indulge his prodigious appetite, to yield to his weakness for Coca-Cola and 7-Up, but he was getting his fill now as he held court in a restaurant of the Hotel Bonaventure in Montreal. Just 13 hours earlier, in a ring set above second base at the Olympic Stadium, Duran had taken the World Boxing Council's version of the welterweight championship of the world from Ray Leonard.

Duran's child, 6-year-old Robertito, slipped away from the table and wrapped himself in the green belt with the huge gold medallion signifying that his father was now the champion. Duran spotted him and laughed. "Show them how you box," Roberto said. The boy threw a straight right through the air and grimaced dutifully. "Hey hey!" Duran cried. For the first time in days, he was relaxed. He signed autographs. He posed for photographs. And he showed off his two new diamond rings, one for each hand, that his wife, Felicidad, had given him for his 29th birthday on June 16. There were only two visible signs of Duran's whereabouts the night before—manifestations that he took as well as gave. A mouse, violet and red, swelled below his left eye—the work of Leonard's right hand. And there was his own right hand, swathed in an Ace bandage that covered the bruises sustained when he pounded Leonard's head and ribs.

Duran leaned back in his chair, reflective at last. "I'm very content," he said. "Many people did not believe I could make it, but I did. Many people believed I was too old to win, but I was not. Many said I could not beat Sugar Ray Leonard. Before the fight I asked myself, 'Why can't I beat him?' I wondered, 'Maybe he's a phantom and you can't beat him.' Maybe they thought I was going to stand in the ring and let him beat on me, like I had my hands tied." He paused. "That's the only way he can beat me. I would have to be tied to a tree, with my hands behind my back...he would have to break me down a thousand times. He was strong, but he did not hurt me. My rage was very big. When I get into the ring to fight, I always give the best."

That simple fact could have been offered of Leonard as well. Last Friday night, in a chilly, rain-soaked stadium in Canada, the two men met and fought with uncommon courage, in a way that honored them both. The French Canadians billed the fight as Le Face-à-Face Historique. A historic face-to-face, that was to match perhaps the two finest fighters in the world today, and over the 15 rounds the bout was every bit of that. It was historic, all right—a magnificent, memorable combat between a boxer, Leonard, and a brawler, Duran. Literally, it was face to face, too, for that is exactly how these two champions stood for almost all of the 45 minutes as they flailed at one another—a four-fisted, toe-to-toe epic that swept like a malevolent wind from corner to corner and along the ropes, drifting only occasionally to the center of the ring. It was a fight that round after round brought the crowd of 46,317 to its feet, roaring. So savage and relentless was Duran's attack that Juanita Leonard, Ray's wife, was in tears by the third round. By the end of the eighth, she had passed out altogether in her seat.

"I did the best I could," Leonard said. "I think I pretty much fought from the heart." But so did Duran, who attacked at almost every turn. Leonard battled and battled back again. Still Duran wrestled and maneuvered, and Leonard had to work just to find room to breathe and swing, at times simply to survive. It was a close fight. There were many blows landed by each man. But when the decision in Duran's favor was rendered—it was unanimous—there were no serious arguments disputing it.

The drama of the fight was intensified by the contrasting styles of the men and the course of events that led up to it—the sense of expectancy, heightened for weeks, at the thought of seeing the flashy and undefeated Leonard (27-0) take on so unyielding a customer as Duran (71-1), the former lightweight champion who had abdicated his 135-pound title in early 1978 to strive for greater fortune and fame among the welters. They are, in manner and personality as well as ring style, as different as the languages they speak. The prospect of seeing them go at each other for 15 rounds stirred memories of the epic battles between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in the early 1970s. In fact, no fight had generated such interest since those Ali-Frazier confrontations, and none in history yielded greater financial returns for the contestants. Duran would earn $1.5 million, by far his biggest payday ever, while Leonard stood to make between $7.5 million and $10 million, more money than any man had ever collected for a fight. Ali's $6.5 million take, when he met Ken Norton in Yankee Stadium in 1976, was the previous record.

Into the final week, even with these massive purses on the line and closed-circuit TV outlets doing brisk business, there was some question whether the fight would take place. In a prefight physical, Duran underwent a routine electrocardiogram that gave off warnings that he could be suffering from a coronary disease associated with hardening of the arteries. He was not, of course, but an initial report requiring further tests had the fight organizers nearly frantic.

But then, the organizing of this bout had hit snags all along the way. It first became a possibility—and, suddenly, the fight that everyone wanted to see—last November, when Leonard won the WBC title from Wilfred Benitez on a TKO in the 15th round in Las Vegas. Duran was the No. 1 contender, and a fight between Leonard and Duran seemed a natural. Mike Trainer, Leonard's counsel, contacted Carlos Eleta, Duran's manager, immediately after the Benitez fight, but the two failed to get together last winter. Trainer eventually did meet with Don King, Duran's promoter, but Trainer sought such a prodigious share of the take, including the entire $3.5 million "site money" (the live gate), that King and Eleta balked.

"You're throwin' him a bone," said King when Trainer offered the Panamanian $500,000 for starters. After Trainer retained Bob Arum, King's archrival in the fight-promoting business, matters hardly got better. After considerable jousting and maneuvering, with Trainer adamant in his insistence that Leonard—as the champion and chief attraction—take home the bulk of the revenues, the negotiations finally got off dead center in April. This occurred after some persuasive and influential Panamanian politicians pressed for the match rather than a proposed Leonard-Pipino Cuevas bout.

The terms, basically, were these: Leonard would receive the $3.5 million paid by the Olympic Installations Board to stage the fight, plus all the money for the delayed home television broadcast rights—between $500,000 and $800,000. Leonard would also get 80% of the $500,000 to $700,000 from the sale of foreign TV rights, with the promoters getting the rest. Finally, Leonard would receive 80% of the closed-circuit TV revenues—with the promoters getting the remaining 20%—after the first $2.5 million of those revenues came off the top. From that $2.5 million, Duran would get his $1.5 million, and the remaining $1 million would go to the promoters to cover expenses. All in all, the package virtually assured Leonard more than $7.5 million.

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