He now recalls that final hour, those last moments in the dressing room and that long walk through the crowd to the ring, as if it were less lived than dreamed—a disturbingly vivid and unpleasant hour in which he felt himself moving in a kind of trance.
The memory is of a Friday evening, June 20, 1980. Sugar Ray Leonard, who had won the Olympic light welterweight gold medal in Montreal in 1976 and was now WBC welterweight champion, had come back to that city to defend his title against the former lightweight champion of the world, Roberto Duran.
Arriving at the stadium, Leonard had felt mentally keen. "My mind was on it, my mind was right," he recalls. "I knew what I was going to do and what I had to do." He would go flat-footed against Duran, meet him head-on and beat him at his own game, on the attack.
About an hour and a half before the fight, Leonard's brother Roger, a junior middleweight who had won a preliminary bout against Clyde Gray, returned to the dressing room he and Ray shared. Shortly after that, Leonard says, he felt his mind go blank.
"I was sitting there and it all vanished," he says. "All the adrenaline, all the momentum, diminished. It was all going away. I was lost, lost entirely. I look at the films, at my face, and it was like...somber.
"I walked to the ring and wasn't thinking of anything. I got into the ring and just held out my hands and then I raised one hand toward Duran. That's not like me. I was like an android—I was just there, just senseless, no sense of who I am, just there. I got caught up in it all, the hype. It's like a web, a spider's web. You fiddle around a little too much and all of a sudden you catch one of the sticky spots and then you become stationary and the hype comes to you and does what it wants to do to you. I was caught right in the center."
He was caught there, of course, in the presence of a fighter who held the world lightweight championship for seven years (1972-78) and whose record (71-1, with 56 knockouts) and reputation for ring savvy and savagery had given him an almost mythical aura. What further unsettled Leonard was that he couldn't relate to Duran. "I couldn't talk to him," Leonard says. "He couldn't understand me."
Roberto Duran took the title from Leonard that night, beating him narrowly but unanimously, in a war that locked the two fighters in a kind of brutal dance and swept them from one side of the ring to another for 15 rounds. In what it revealed of the skills and the wills of both men, in the unrelenting intensity and fury with which it was fought, nothing quite like it had been seen in a prize ring since Muhammad Ali beat Joe Frazier in Manila almost five years earlier.
Duran had fought as he had over the years—tenaciously, behind hands and chin of stone—but it was Leonard who, for the first time, revealed himself as a true champion, resourceful and resilient. It may turn out that the WBA champion, Thomas Hearns, will ultimately prove to be the best fighter in this division, but Hearns' day of judgment will have to wait. There was only one fight to be made after Leonard-Duran, and that was Leonard-Duran II.
So it was made. On Nov. 25, just five months and five days after their first meeting, Leonard and Duran will have at each other again, this time in New Orleans' Superdome, and with even more on the line. In their first fight, with his career at stake, the 29-year-old Duran took home a purse of $1.5 million. Leonard, working for a percentage of the closed-circuit gate as well as a guarantee, earned more than $9 million. Next Tuesday night, with Leonard's future on the line, they will be fighting for the largest purse in boxing history, $15 million—$8 million for Duran, $7 million for Leonard—before what could be a record boxing crowd in terms of both gate and numbers, 80,000 fans in the Dome (1,297 of whom will pay a record $1,000 for a ringside seat), perhaps 1.7 million in 345 closed-circuit locations around North America and thousands more who will view the fight via satellite on other continents. All told, the fight could gross $50 million and be seen by 3 million.