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Given the state of mind in which Leonard entered the ring in Montreal, the even gaudier hype to be expected in New Orleans raises questions. With Leonard in another world, Duran won the early rounds and with them ultimately the fight. Can Leonard compose himself amid the New Orleans clamor—steer clear of the sticky web, as he calls it, and come out for the first round loose and unaffected by the scene? Will he answer the first bell, as he didn't in Montreal, unintimidated by Duran's icy disdain? These are the critical questions, but they aren't the only ones. There are also these:
1) Having fought the best fight of his life in Montreal, can Duran, at the age of 29, lift himself again to that extraordinary physical and mental peak against the 24-year-old Leonard?
2) With the experience gained in the Montreal bout, will Leonard be able to adapt intelligently to Duran's style, to come up with ways of dealing more effectively with the Panamanian?
3) Or will the final truth of the evening reveal itself not in the efficacy of left hooks and righthand leads but in something as elusive and immeasurable as one man's strength of will?
When the fight in Montreal was over, there was considerable doubt whether these questions would ever be settled. For Leonard it had been a brutal, taxing experience—in the testing of his will, his instincts and his intellect, it was by far the most difficult of his 28-bout professional career. Fighting woodenly and obviously bewildered by the furious pace and variety of Duran's attack, Leonard was almost gone before the end of the second round. He had moved in the first round, as the two men felt each other out; he was flat-footed in the second, and Duran caught him with a sharp left hook to the chin that buckled Leonard's knees and almost dropped him.
"I think I was really dazed because I was not into the fight mentally," he says. "I was stiff. You know, that one punch, if I was warmed up and into the fight, it wouldn't have done that much damage. From Rounds 2 through 15 he threw the same punch—and a lot more—and didn't do the same damage. After that second round, he couldn't hurt me. That one punch made me mad, woke me up."
And the fight was truly on. For the remaining 13 rounds, often with his back against the ropes and Duran squarely in front of him, Leonard remained flat-footed—trading shots, countering, slipping punches, going to the body behind upper-cuts with both hands. In the 14th, as if in desperation, he wound up like a soft-ball pitcher and scored with a bolo punch to Duran's chin. In the later rounds, with Duran tiring, Leonard connected with more telling blows than that—uppercuts to Duran's body, combinations to his head. In the course of it all, he took everything that Duran had to offer—righthand leads over the top, hooks upstairs and down, uppercuts and crosses. Uncannily quick, Duran bobbed and dipped under punches, slipped others and stalked the champion endlessly. He lunged into Leonard, buried his head in Leonard's chest, pushed him around the ring and into the ropes. He showed him every sleight-of-hand and trick in his remarkable repertoire, and it was enough to win on every judge's card.
When it was over, looking into the dressing room mirror, Leonard decided the price he had paid was too high. After taking the title from Wilfred Benitez almost seven months before, he had flinched when he saw the discoloration under his eyes. But in Montreal he was faced with a new sight altogether.
"I said, 'Damn! Look at my face. Is it worth this? All that money, but hell, look at your health.' I was really puffy—swollen and sore. My body was sore. My back was sore. I had little knots on the back of my head. I was dehydrated." Worst of all, as a result of the blows from Duran's right hands and from the rubbing of Duran's head against his during the innumerable clinches, Leonard's left ear had become hideously swollen and gnarled. A doctor drained it after the fight, a painful operation that left it tender and raw. Leonard suddenly envisioned himself as an old palooka with cauliflower ears.
"I felt terrible," he says. That night, exhausted and too sore to move, he told his wife, Juanita, that he had had it as a fighter. "This is it," he said. "I gave it all I had, but this is it."