On June 20, Sugar Ray Leonard (27-0, 18 KOs) was making his return to Montreal, the city where he won a gold medal just four years previously in the 1976 Olympics. On this night he was poised to make the second defense of his WBC Welterweight crown against Roberto Duran (71-1, 56 KOs).
The year was 1980.
Scheduled for 15 rounds, the two were about to make history by beginning a trilogy that would last in the minds of boxing fans for all eternity.
The bout needed no hype. Leonard, 24, was the undefeated, flashy gold medalist who had won the Welterweight title from Wilfred Benitez in November of 1979. He had become a household name whose persona would leave an indelible image on the sport.
The 29-year-old Duran, nicknamed “Hands of Stone,” was a relentless bruiser who put opponents to sleep. Duran’s power was terrifying. Rumor had it that, on a bet, he had once knocked out a horse with one punch. He had unified the lightweight titles in 1978 and was now eager to meet Leonard for the Welterweight crown.
While a cold rain fell outside, over 46,000 fans packed the indoor confines of Olympic Stadium. In the days and weeks leading up to the bout, it became more and more clear that the two fighters didn’t seem to like each other very much.
Duran began baiting Leonard at press conferences, hurling insults at the champion. Leonard, clearly agitated, promised to “kill” Duran during their fight. The bad blood escalated at the weigh in when Leonard blew a kiss at Duran who quickly responded with a word that isn’t printable by this writer.
On fight night, the challenger, Duran, entered the ring first to a thunderous ovation. As he shadowboxed in the ring, the crowd began to rev up even more as it let out a deafening roar. Many jumped up and down while waiving the Panamanian flag.
Leonard wasted little time and entered the ring to far less fanfare and a smattering of boos. Although Leonard was a 9-5 betting favorite, Duran was clearly the crowd favorite inside Olympic Stadium.
Both fighters bounced up and down and tried to keep warm in the ring. Leonard looked calm, flashing the now well-known smile while Duran paced like a caged tiger who couldn’t wait to unload on his prey.
After referee Carlos Padilla provided final instructions, the moment of truth was finally upon them as the bell sounded to begin Round 1.
The bout aired live on pay-per-view television as well as closed circuit television.
Bill Mazer, seated alongside Ferdie Pacheco, immediately recognized that Leonard was standing flat-footed in the center of the ring. “Ferdie, Leonard is flat footed! He did not come out to dance! He wants to go toe to toe with him. Would you believe it? Is Leonard coming to Duran?”
Wearing white trunks with red trim with “Sugar” emboldened across his waistline, Leonard immediately pressed Duran then slowly began to move backward behind his piston quick left jab.
Duran, also sporting white with red trim, had the Panamanian flag sewn onto the front of his trunks. He began stalking Leonard midway through the first round and into the second. Duran then bum rushed Leonard as the crowd roared.
Pacheco screamed over the ringside crowd. “Duran is charging in. Did you see that charge? It’s intensity! Its fierce! It’s exciting!”
Halfway through the second round, Duran walloped the champion with a pulverizing right hand followed by a blistering left hook. Leonard staggered backward into the ropes as Duran attacked with reckless abandon.
Mazer wailed, “Oh he hurts Leonard! Oh he hurt him! He’s got him going! He hurt Leonard with the left hook!”
The crowd rose as one while Leonard held on for dear life. Duran bullied and battered the champion against the ropes until the bell sounded to end the round.
As the early rounds continued, Duran was able to get under Leonard’s punches and hammer the champion to the head and to the body. Pacheco was stunned that Leonard was willing to go head to head in close. “Duran is landing 10 punches to every one for Leonard!”
Round after round both fighters were content to blast away at one another. The ebb and flow and the pace of the action was being dictated by the challenger.
Duran was in total command. Pacheco masterfully described the fight as it had unfolded, “The champion has been fighting his heart out but Duran has been calling the shots.”
The fight moved quickly as the action seemed nonstop. The mid-to-late rounds saw the back-and-forth action get closer and closer as Leonard refused to succumb to the relentless attack from Duran.
Entering the final three minutes of action, the crowd again stood and roared as the bell sounded to begin Round 15.
Duran now began to toy with the champion. Pacheco hollered over the crowd, “Now he’s playing with him! He’s playing with Sugar Ray Leonard!”
Both bombed away while Duran mugged Leonard, no doubt believing that he had won the fight.
The bell sounded to end a splendid 15 rounds of back-and-forth combat.
The decision was originally announced as a split-decision win for Duran, however, after a mistake was identified and corrected, the cards were re-tallied and the decision was changed to a unanimous-decision win for Duran.
The judges’ scorecards read 145-144, 148-147 and 146-144. Two of the main topics of debate after the fight were the closeness of the scorecards and the potential for a rematch.
After the fight, Duran spoke about his 15 rounds inside the ring with Leonard. “He is the best I have fought. He hit me hard a couple of times but I was never in bad shape. He was pretty good, but he had to be because he was fighting me.”
Leonard faced countless questions about his decision to stand toe to toe with Duran.
“I said I would fight Duran flat-footed and I did. I had no alternative. I wouldn’t change if I had to do it all over again. People questioned whether I could take the big punch. I showed them. I have to give Duran a lot of credit. He is the toughest man I’ve ever fought.”
On June 30, the Sports Illustrated headline read “The Brawl in Montreal.” ABC Wild World of Sports would replay the bout the following month late in July.
Duran solidified himself on that night as the man to beat in the Welterweight division.