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Looking Back – Sugar Ray Leonard Vs Roberto Durán I

Sugar Ray Leonard vs Roberto Duran

Photo via Boxer Rec

We look back at the very first fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran.

The great Cus D’Amato was interviewed by Sports Illustrated and asked for his prediction and this is what he said:

If Duran stays on top of Leonard, he’ll win. But he can’t stop and rest because that will give Leonard a chance to use his superb talents.

He would prove to be right on the money.

(This is supplemental material to our new podcast series The Fabulous Four. In our first episode, we discuss this very fight.)

The Stage

June 20, 1980

Sugar Ray Leonard: 27-0 with 18 KOs, WBC Welterweight champion
Roberto Durán: 71-1 with 55 KOs

Sugar Ray Leonard Vs Roberto Durán I – The Brawl In Montreal

The entrance

Duan: Both of these guys have ridiculous entourages. Thunderous ovation for Duran’s entrance. He’s soaking it all up in centre ring. Ray Arcel, the wise old head that he is, walks him back to the corner, settles him down and gets him to refocus on the task at hand. Duran’s boxing idol Ismeal Leguna is introduced to the live audience. Huge crowd response for Leonard too, but it’s a mix of some positive and some negative. It appears Ray’s mind is elsewhere. He has a lost look to him as he makes his way in. Very casual going through his keep warm exercises too.

Round 1

GG: The announcers are in awe that Leonard wants to exchange with Durán and Durán looks happy to see it. What’s interesting is that in reading articles leading up to the fight, it seemed like Durán hated the training and if there was a strategy, it would be to make him chase, which he would not have wanted to do. Durán wins the first round simply by being more active.

Duan: There’s a nervous look in Ray’s eyes during final instructions. The commentator mentions that Angelo Dundee has predicted a Leonard stoppage in the 4th round, if not sooner. He’s always maintained that his guy was the puncher in this fight. I wonder if he truly felt they could blast Durán out quickly. Anyway, at the bell, Leonard comes out with his feet planted indicating he was there to fight. He’s fighting on emotion. Durán is the one doing all the thinking. He looks to box his way in and then release the thunder when he gets close. You can see already that Ray is clearly surprised by how quick he is.

GG: Durán 10-9
Duan: Durán 10-9

Round 2

GG: Durán is a bit awkward with his stance and at times, off-balanced. But he caught Leonard with a left hand that wobbled him and was able to land some big right hands. Leonard landed some punches off the ropes, but mostly held on.

Duan: Arcel believed that Durán would have a big advantage late, but he got off to an absolute flyer too. Ray was rattled on three separate times in this round. The first, off a big looping left hook, was the worst, and that’s what set up a dominant Durán round. Ray had that look of “what the hell was that” when he got tagged and had to glue himself to Durán for the rest of the session just to weather the attack. The difference between them here is that Duran is the one fighting with confidence. He’s willing to commit to his shots and put himself in danger. Both guys are so sharp that they each needed to take risks to get the shots off. Roberto was the one more prepared to do that.

GG: Durán 10-9
Duan: Durán 10-9

Round 3

GG: Leonard sat on the ropes and took major punishment early in the round. Late in the round, Leonard flurried with his back in the corner, but I didn’t see him winning the round countering after taking punishment.

Duan: There’s clearly worry in the Leonard corner going into the third. Angelo tries to rev him up and get him back in the game. Ray again looks to close the distance just to try temper Durán’s aggression. This time Roberto rips away with a mix of brutal body shots on the inside and short uppercuts to the head constantly keeping him guessing what’s coming next. Leonard was again hurt. His knees were dipped by a punishing body attack midway through the session.

GG: Durán 10-9
Duan: Durán 10-9

Round 4

GG: There’s a real Rocky vs Apollo feel to the fight where both guys are digging and throwing hooks from their heels. Well, except for the over-exaggerated selling of the punches. Duran won the early part of the round again, very visibly tagging Leonard with the right hand and pushing Leonard backward. But late in the round is really the first sign that Leonard is finding his way as he flurried to try and steal the end of the round.

Duan: Wilfred Benitez says he sees it as an even fight up to this point. I can’t agree with old Wilfred on that one. Roberto is doing a great job of controlling the distance in this round as the shorter man. He’s winning the boxing match on the outside now too. Durán suckered Ray in for a big right hand, Ray bought it completely and was again staggered. Leonard showed amazing determination to battle back late in the round, landing his best work of the fight so far, but it was not enough to save it on my card. I have a Duran sweep through 4.

GG: Durán 10-9
Duan: Durán 10-9

Round 5

GG: For most of the round, it was more wrestling match than boxing match, but in about the last minute, the action picked up. Leonard leaned on Durán for a lot of the round. I’m not sure if they were starting to get tired, or maybe Leonard was trying to lull him a bit. Leonard hit him with some great combinations late in the round to take his first one on my scorecard.

Duan: Those first 12 minutes are as intense as any fight you will ever see. I don’t think Ray had to put in as much work in his 27 prior bouts combined as he did in those first 4 rounds. Leonard stings Durán with a sharp left hook right at the start of the round. It was so fast you could hardly even see it in real time. Leonard has come alive and he is in the fight now. He’s firing off with quick bursts of combinations and he’s starting to get the better of some of the exchanges. He wobbles Durán for the first time late in the round. It doesn’t wilt Roberto’s resolve at all though.

GG: Leonard 10-9
Duan: Leonard 10-9

Round 6

GG: Leonard figured out how to get Durán to duck down and drop his hands a bit and when his gloves were lower than Leonard’s arms, he’d throw lightning quick combinations before Durán could get his gloves back up. He did it several times, making Durán look slow.

Duan: Leonard is fighting smarter in this round. Durán is all guts and work-rate, but Ray is getting off the telling shots. Whenever there is a break in the action, Sugar Ray steps forward and quickly snaps off one or two well-placed punches to take back the advantage. Those are the shots you remember at the end of the sixth.

GG: Leonard 10-9
Duan: Leonard 10-9

Round 7

GG: I think this round leaned slightly toward Duran, but it was close. Durán was a little more physical in the round, pushing Leonard around like Leonard did to him two rounds before. Leonard hit Durán with one great right hand, but I think Durán hit him with stronger punches throughout.

Duan: This is a physically draining round if ever there was one and there’s very little separating them in it. Ray seems to be the one more comfortable with the fight tempo at this juncture and Durán looks to be forcing his work a lot more than he was in the early going. Leonard is now able to push him back, wrestle him to the ropes and spin out when Roberto tries to turn him.

GG: Durán 10-9
Duan: Leonard 10-9

Round 8

GG: Ray boxed a lot more this round, not engaging until late in the round. He had the round in hand and I gave it to him, but Durán hit him with a nasty right hand and followed up late, possibly stealing the round from Leonard, which is Leonard’s forte.

Duan: Quieter round – that’s going to suit Leonard. His natural boxing ability becomes most pronounced in the moments where he has some room to breathe. Durán is doing a little bit too much following here. He did find a home for a couple of monster shots in the last minute, but over the three minutes, I liked what Ray was doing more. After giving away the first four straight, I have Ray taking the next four on the spin to leave it even after 8.

GG: Leonard 10-9
Duan: Leonard 10-9

Round 9

GG: This was yet another really close round. It was more Durán’s style of round and neither really landed anything really solid until the end of the round. Leonard landed a nice shot, but then it was almost like he woke up Durán who fired back even harder.

Duan: Both men look to be on empty in the corner going into the 9th but they don’t show it at all when the bell rings. The commentators ponder whether the shots Durán landed so far would have been enough to put away most lightweights. Watching some of those connections on replay, I’m almost sure they would have been. What a chin Ray has in any case.

This was a big round for Roberto though. Ray was really starting to take control of the fight and if he had another strong three minutes here, there might have been a danger of Durán just drifting out of the contest. Roberto wasn’t going to let that happen. He dug deep into his bag of tricks and pulled out all the rough stuff he needed to swing the bout back in his favour. Headbutts, elbows – you name it, you got it, and it broke up Leonard’s momentum.

GG: Durán 10-9
Duan: Durán 10-9

Round 10

GG: These rounds are getting harder and harder to score. Neither guy really did anything major until the end when Leonard flurried strong, so I’ll give it to him. Durán was really comfortable early on though, goofing off.

Duan: Leonard’s corner is working on the cut from the butt between rounds. Ray looks anxious. This is a super close round. For me, Durán just about stole it. Ray was being cautious to protect the injury from being targeted. Roberto did a really good job of just keeping the jab in his face and making sure it was always a factor for Leonard to overcome whenever he wanted to get something going himself.

GG: Leonard 10-9
Duan: Durán 10-9

Round 11

GG: This was one of the better action rounds of the fight and it was an amazing display of guts. Both guys looked exhausted, but their output of punches was amazing. Leonard was still fighting off the ropes, but looked like the stronger fighter in the round.

Duan: What a ferocious round that was. They would each take turns at leading the exchanges with neither man ever willing to allow the other to control the flow of the fight. Every flurry of punches was answered by one equal or better the very next time they came into contact. There’s no way to split them in that one.

GG: Leonard 10-9
Duan: 10-10

Round 12

GG: This was yet another Leonard round. At this point, Leonard looks to be the stronger fighter and gaining steam. Durán is still connecting solidly on some punches, stopping Leonard in his tracks, but Leonard looks confident in his ability to stand right in front of Durán and beat him at his own game.

Duan: This was a really peculiar round. I felt Ray just let it slip away from him. Durán appeared to be the one gasping, but he was also the one who was prepared to battle through it, while Leonard took his foot off the gas and let himself be outworked.

GG: Leonard 10-9
Duan: Durán 10-9

Round 13

GG: Durán lands two early left hands that make Leonard stop punching and open his eyes really big. He also throws a lead right that Leonard isn’t ready for. All it does is fire Leonard up and he lands a right hand of his own. The round turns into a brawl with Leonard picking up steam, but I’ll still have to give it to Durán for the early huge shots.

Duan: Another hellacious round. The power is back in Durán’s punches again and he had Ray in trouble for the first time since very early on in the fight. Tremendous heart from Leonard to survive the big hits this deep into a championship fight and actually come out the other side stronger. He turned the tables late in the stanza, hurting Durán and forcing him to grab hold. Roberto controlled the balance of the round though.

GG: Durán 10-9
Duan: Durán 10-9

Round 14

GG: Leonard didn’t have the same fire in the 14th like he did in the previous late rounds. He woke up late in the round, but took some hard punches from Durán. Leonard held Durán on the back of the head and threw a bolo punch which was his best shot.

Duan: Dundee reads the riot act to Leonard going into the 14th and Leonard responds in kind. Both had their successes in the round, but it was Ray this time that was doing that bit more. It’s all big, wide, looping swings from Leonard, but they are working. For better or for worse, there aren’t many guys in the sport who would try the bolo punch in the penultimate round of a fight of this magnitude. Sugar Ray had some serious guts. He’s gunning for a knockdown or knockout to save his title. I believe he knew deep down that he needed it.

GG: Durán 10-9
Duan: Leonard 10-9

Round 15

GG: Durán did a lot of holding on, while Leonard was trying to open up. Leonard was trying to load up on the right hand. Durán did a lot of ducking of Leonard’s right hand and then taking shots to the body. Durán clearly thought he had it in the bag.

Duan: Standing ovation for the final round as you would expect. Durán, as most tend to agree, gave away the 15th. He felt he had the fight in the bag and rather than take any major risks, he decided to spend it clowning and trying to frustrate Leonard instead. Ray just kept plugging away in search of that opening that would secure him the bout but it never came. His work was tired and sloppy, but he put it all on the line and just kept pushing out the punches until the final bell.

GG: Leonard 10-9
Duan: Leonard 10-9


Duan: Just looking at the two opposing sides in the post fight tells you the full story of the contest. Durán and his corner look like the winning team. Leonard’s do not AT ALL. Ray is visibly on edge as they wait for the cards. He looks nervous, he looks dismayed, he looks beat up, and he is surrounded by a lot of sad faces.

For a fight that was incredibly close, I think everybody in the ring could just feel which way it was going to go. And that’s what it is in this one; it’s just that feeling that Duran deserved it. Every time I watch this fight back – whether I actively score it or not – I always come away with that same feeling. I can see that there are more than enough toss up rounds to swing the fight Leonard’s way. I can rationalize how on a different viewing I might score it to him, but when it comes down to it, I just never do. I may flip the scores in some close rounds and end up with a different final tally, but the winner never changes. This was Roberto Durán’s fight. On this night, he was just better than one of the best.

GG: Durán 143-142
Duan: Durán 144-142

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