There is a particularly ugly element in an ugly sport. It is uglier than the spectacle of gladiators pummelling each other’s faces before screaming, mindless throngs; worse than the legion of minions and ego-slaving hangers-on; more frightening than the aura of criminality penetrating the cigar smoke; sadder than the pathetic remnants of men, drooling punch-drunk in musty gyms. It is the “fix,” the “dive,” the “tank,”—a part of boxing throughout its tedious evolution from bareknuckle brawling to worldwide satellite transmissions.
The fix takes many forms, but in the arena it is as difficult to prove as it is to explain why people willingly pay millions to watch two men fight. Usually, the fighter who has been paid or intimidated will fall and not get up right away. Thus the element of ugliness escalates in direct proportion to the amount of money involved. Last week in New Orleans, millions of dollars were at stake.
The reaction — like a scene in a B movie — is always the same. Those on the inside, the cigar-smoking guys in the grey fedoras, nod knowingly at each other. The suckers, the guys in the cheap seats who have invested their paltry wages or, worse, their hearts, on their hero, sit in bewilderment, then scream their outrage. There was such
outrage in New Orleans last week, and the suspicion that somewhere, before the smoke cleared, nods were exchanged.
it was the same reaction in Havana in 1915 when the black man America loved to hate, Jack Johnson, rolled over on his
back and appeared to shield his eyes from the sun as the referee counted him out. It was the reaction in 1964 when the baddest black champion of them all, Sonny Liston, sat on his stool and abdicated his throne to a young Cassius Clay. The reaction was repeated last Tuesday night in the Louisiana Superdome and in closed-circuit outlets around the world in the eighth round when Roberto Duran walked away from Sugar Ray Leonard, his welterweight crown, his reputation, his honor.
This was the man whose legacy was the single-handed preservation of machismo. This was a man who had lost only once in 73 professional fights, the 'street urchin of Guararé, Panama, who was the embodiment of Panamanians’ sense of esteem in the world. This was the man who pummelled opponents relentlessly with his famous manos de piedra, who kicked Louis Bizarro in the groin during a fight because he taunted him; the man who implied before and during the first fight with Leonard last June in Montreal that Leonard lacked the anatomical prerequisites of manhood; the man who his co-trainer Ray Arcel thought “would gladly die in the ring.”
There were few at ringside who doubted that Roberto Duran would beat Sugar Ray Leonard. He had bulled, shouldered, butted and clawed his way to Leonard’s title in Montreal, launching savage flurries while pinning Leonard on the ropes. And just as in Montreal the “heart” money was on Duran, but just as in their first fight the betting odds were against him. In New Orleans, the line was 6 to 5 for Leonard. The “smart” money was on the challenger, the made-by-TV, boyishly good-looking star of the small fighters whose future, as a champion, could be nothing but a string of multimillion-dollar pay days. Leonard’s potential income is unfathomable, but in relation to his value to promoters and cable TV companies, networks and advertisers, in the tradition of boxing, his share will be peanuts.
On fight night, there was an air of anticipation, though not enough to attract more than 25,000 to the 79,758seat Superdome. Perhaps it was because the tickets were scaled from $1,000 to $40, with stops at $500, $300 and $200 for any chance of intimacy. Perhaps it was that few had forgotten the fiasco in Las Vegas just a month earlier when Muhammad Ali took $8 million of the suckers’ money to be Larry Holmes’s punching bag for nine rounds before quitting. Or perhaps it was that few in New Orleans really thought that Leonard had a chance.
Don King Productions and Facility Enterprises Inc. handled the fight. Don King, whose hair is coififed in grotesque imitation of a crown, is the most successful boxing promoter in the world. He was known as the King of the Numbers racket in his native Cleveland before serving four years for manslaughter. He has said that he entered prison “with a peashooter and emerged with an atom bomb of experience and wisdom.” His “wisdom” told him that the live gate in New Orleans could break the record $6.2 million set at the AliHolmes fight (it didn’t come close) and that closed-circuit revenues could reach $38 million (they didn’t). He also knew that before the fight a letter of credit in Duran’s name for between $7 to $10 million sat in a bank in Panama awaiting only a major newspaper story indicating that Roberto Duran had appeared for the fight. The headline blared: QUITTER.
The welterweight limit is 147 lb. With his well-known fondness for food and soft drinks, Duran reported to his training camp in September at 172 lb. The day before the fight, he was 148. After fasting, he made the weight at eleven o’clock the morning of the fight, then went to a restaurant and ate a couple of steaks, some beef bouillon and orange juice. As the interminable Panamanian national anthem crackled over the Superdome’s public address system, he looked like an implacable savage. Earlier in the week, he had said, “Leonard is afraid of me. Leonard is garbage.” Sugar Ray had responded:
“Duran walks around like he owns the world. He wants people to bow down to him, and that leaves a bad taste with me. Sometimes I think that he wants to intimidate the whole world—men, women and children.” In the ring, as Ray Charles belted out Amey'ica the Beautiful, Duran glared across the ring, sneering as only he can.
And he smiled and shook his head when Leonard, dancing and moving as he had failed to do in Montreal, landed two solid rights to Duran’s chin. Leonard smiled back when Duran hit him with a left-right combination in the third. Duran charged, bulling Leonard to the canvas in the fifth, but this time he couldn’t pin Sugar on the ropes, where he had won the first fight. When they fought in close, Leonard was beating him to the punch. Sugar landed left jabs and combinations as he danced in the sixth.
“I hadn’t planned it. It just came naturally,” Leonard would say later of his masterful performance in the seventh. “I was demonstrating that I was in total command.” And he was. He danced and circled for the first half of the seventh, Duran charging in too late to swing wildly, hitting only the ropes. Then Leonard dropped his gloves to his sides, stuck out his head with a bewildered expression on his face and dared the macho man to hit him. Duran couldn’t.
The eighth round dissolved into pandemonium, confusion, ugliness. Sugar landed hard jabs, danced, weaved, never letting Duran cut off the ring, land clean punches or take out “the garbage.” At 2:44 of the round, Duran raised his right hand and waved Leonard away and headed into his corner. Leonard jumped for joy but the referee brought him back and told them both to “fight.” Leonard went after Duran with a right hook to the stomach and a left to the kidney. Duran hardly noticed the blows, waving Leonard away again, and walked to his corner. The suckers screamed.
Ringsiders recalled Muhammad Ali fighting on with a broken jaw, Henry Armstrong gulping blood for five rounds after the referee told him that he would stop the fight if Armstrong kept bleeding. They could recall nothing like what they had just witnessed.
Minutes later, Duran said that he was “paralysed with cramps in my stomach. My body and arms were getting weaker.” He said he was retiring (a position he reversed later in the week). “I am tired of the sport. I don’t want to fight anymore. No more fight,” adding that he still does not respect Leonard and that he was still “1,000 times” the better man. The Louisiana State Athletic Commission announced immediately that it was withholding Duran’s purse—already securely in Panama. Duran entered Baptist Hospital at 2:30 a.m. complaining of stomach cramps. Dr. Jack Ruli examined him and would say only that Duran was fine, but had apparently suffered acute gastritis. Later that morning, millions of dollars richer, Duran gobbled a steak he dangled from a fork above his head as bystanders at the Hyatt Regency restaurant stared and the commission fined him $7,500 for an “unsatisfactory performance.”
Meanwhile, in an endless string of interviews, Leonard protested that he had won back his title “fair and square,” but there is an ugly look to the crown. Louisiana state legislator Ben Bagert asked, “Why did this occur? Was it a fix, a sting, a real physical hurt, a failure, or what? We need to know.” Perhaps the real question is whether there are still suckers out there who care.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.