The Men and the Myths: Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran and 'No Mas,' 35 Years Later

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterNovember 25, 2015

Sugar Ray Leonard, right, taunts at Roberto Duran in the ring during Tuesday night's WBC Welterweight Championship fight in New Orleans, La., Nov. 25, 1980.  Leonard won the rematch fight and the title in the eighth round.  The referee is Octavio Meyran.  (AP Photo)
Associated Press

Just five months after one of the greatest fights in modern boxing history, Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran met in a rematch that somehow managed to transcend the original. No classic in the ring, it was well on its way to being a notable fiasco. Had the bout gone to a decision as seemed its destiny, it would be remembered merely as a disappointment, proof that lightning rarely manages to strike twice.

Around 60,000 tickets remained unsold as the two entered the ring, and in the second round, the jury-rigged ring buckled. Leonard, after a courageous showing in the first bout, was content to dance. Duran, fat and tired after months of celebrating, was either too disinterested or too exhausted to chase him all that hard. 

But all was forgotten when, in the eighth round, Duran simply waved Leonard away, telling the referee he didn't want to box anymore. Did he really say "No Mas," a phrase that has entered the popular consciousness? And why did the most fearsome man in boxing walk away from the biggest fight of his Hall of Fame career?

Thirty-five years later, the best we can do is speculate. In boxing, history is part truth and part mythology. When discussing "No Mas," it's not always easy to separate the two. Even the existence of a "No Mas" moment is hotly disputed.

"From his mouth, he never actually said 'no mas.' The actual words no mas," Duran's son, Robin, said at the New York screening of a documentary about the fight. "It's very hard for a fighter to speak with a mouthpiece on. He just waved his hand."

Although little is steeped in certainty, we know this much—it's a story that begins not in the then-Louisiana Superdome on the night of November 25, 1980, but months earlier in Montreal, where the two men began their famous feud.

Dos Manos de Peidro

Juanita Leonard finally couldn't stand to look anymore. Tears ran down her face as the implacable and cruel Duran did exactly what he said he would do in a series of ugly pre-fight confrontations. In the eighth round, she fainted. Her husband, however, was forced to endure seven more grueling rounds.

Leonard chose to stay flat-footed with Duran and slug it out. His belief in his punching power ultimately proved to be his downfall. In an all-out war, Leonard lost the decision, even as he gained the respect and admiration of boxing fans for the manner in which he fought.

Ray had given it his all. For the first time in his professional life, that hadn't been enough.

"He threw his best," a shaken Leonard said at the post-fight press conference. "I threw my best. The best man came out on top." 

Some fighters are classy in victory. Duran was not one of those fighters. Immediately after the bout, he pointed to his crotch and called Leonard a "p---y" in Spanish. Incensed, Ray's brother, Roger, came charging across the ring and got dropped by a right hand. Such was the bedlam in the ring, few even noticed.

"I knew I was going to beat him," Duran told the press. "I'm more of a man than he is."

While Leonard considered retirement in the immediate aftermath of his first career loss, it didn't take long for him to recommit himself to the sport. As William Nack wrote in Sports Illustrated, a vacation with his wife to escape boxing soon turned into a working trip of sorts:

They had been in Hawaii only a day when Leonard began to feel encouraged to fight again. First of all, the swelling of his face and ear had gone down quickly, and his body no longer was aching and sore. And everywhere he went—into stores and restaurants along Waikiki Beach—strangers waved and called to him, "You'll get him next time, champ." On the second day he was there, Leonard got up early, put on his sweats and started out the door to do roadwork.

Duran became an immediate international sensation.
Duran became an immediate international sensation.Richard Drew/Associated Press

The loser sulked and reconsidered his life. The victor, meanwhile, reveled. Nearly 700,000 fans greeted him at the airport in Panama after the fight. Already a folk hero, he became something more. A walking party, he took a huge entourage back with him to New York and proceeded to redefine the word indulgence. 

Duran, who once punched out a horse on a bet to pay for a bar tab, was suddenly flush. Decked out in Armani, he hit the town instead, spending $100,000 in just a few months by picking up every bar and restaurant tab for an expanding entourage.

While the champion ate and drank through the night, Leonard's team started putting the rematch together. Janks Morton, Leonard's bodyguard, had seen Duran in New York and told him that the champion was partying every night and approaching 200 pounds. Leonard, never one to let an advantage slide, pushed for an immediate rematch and hit the gym.

"It was calculated on my part," Leonard told author George Kimball in Four Kings. "I knew Duran was overweight and partying big time. I've done some partying myself, but I know when to cut it out. I said to Mike 'Let's do it now, as soon as possible.' In retrospect, it was pretty clever of me."

The party for Duran never stopped.
The party for Duran never stopped.Suzanne Vlamis/Associated Press

While Duran's camp has been criticized for agreeing to the rematch despite knowing he was in poor condition, it's not quite that simple. Duran was so out of control, there was a real fear that even a tuneup fight could cost him dearly.

"I made that rematch in three months because he started drinking," Duran's manager and patron Carlos Eleta told Duran's biographer, Christian Giudice. "I worried if he fought again, he would lose to a second-rate fighter." 

Either Duran would find the will to train again or he would lose. Better, his inner circle thought, to lose to Leonard for a record payday than to lose to a lesser fighter for a fraction of the financial gain.

The Money

Don King had the rights to the fight and committed an astronomical $15 million to get both fighters' signatures on the bottom line. Somehow he managed to get the Superdome and Houston's Astrodome into a bidding war that Louisiana "won." According to Kimball, for $17.5 million, they got 90 percent of the promotion. 

King with both fighters.
King with both fighters.MARTY LEDERHANDLER/Associated Press

Not only was King off the hook for the huge fighter salaries, but he kept the foreign television rights for himself. Had every ticket been sold, including the front row seats at $1,000 a piece, the Hyatt Corporation could have turned a small profit. But on the night of the fight, 60,000 empty seats stared back at them no matter how many times they blinked their eyes in disbelief. 

Local fans who weren't on the road for Thanksgiving, it seems, were happy to stay home on a Tuesday night and watch the fight with the rest of the world 30 days later on ABC, which paid a record $2.5 million to air the bout. That was bad news for executive Neil Gunn, who had spearheaded the deal.

"Neil Gunn was an awfully nice fellow, and we did our best to help him out," Leonard's manager, Mike Trainer, told Kimball. "But they had vastly overpaid for that fight. They took a beating."

In Leonard's camp, intensity was the watch word. His original trainer, Dave Jacobs, was out. He'd wanted a tuneup before the Duran rematch and split when the fighter insisted on an immediate rematch.

By the Numbers: Leonard and Duran
FighterLeonardDuran
Height5'10"5'7"
Reach74"66"
Record36-3-1 (25 KO)103-16 (70 KO)
boxrec.com

His chief sparring partner was Dale Staley, a fighter who not only worshipped Duran but may have been even meaner. In a 1979 fight, he was disqualified for biting an opponent. While that was beyond the pale for the training room, he was encouraged to employ every dirty trick in an outlaw boxer's repertoire. 

"He fought like Roberto Duran," Leonard told NPR. "He used his head and dirty tactics and what-have-you. And it made me more aware, from a defensive standpoint, so when I faced Duran, I was prepared."

The Fight

Duran's downfall began the moment moment the Panamanian national anthem played. "Like the noise made by two gypsy wagons rolling over on their own violins," the estimable Bert Sugar wrote in The Ring, a contrast to the magical musical moment to follow.

Ray Charles, Leonard's namesake, then entered the ring for a rousing rendition of "America the Beautiful."

"If that didn't touch, didn't move, didn't cause a chill along your spine," television announcer Howard Cosell said, "I don't suppose anything could."

It was a gorgeous moment, made even more special for Leonard when the blind singer hugged him after it was done and passed on a message.

"Kick his ass."

As the bell sounded for their rematch, Leonard immediately began to display the lateral movement lacking in their first fight. Duran, as hard a puncher and excellent a boxer as he was, seemed flummoxed. Rather than properly cut the ring off, Duran began to follow Leonard, eating jabs and check left hooks as he bounded in.

"Duran's pace was not the same," Showtime boxing analyst Steve Farhood said in 30 for 30: No Mas. "Because he wasn't facing that pace, Leonard was able to box. There was no running. It wasn't a track meet. Ray Leonard was giving him a boxing lesson."

The fight, later a disaster for Duran, was almost a disaster for everyone in the second round. The premium tickets for the fight were set up on what would have normally been the football field. To help improve sightlines, promoters actually bolted the ring on top of another set of ring posts, raising the whole contraption 10 feet into the air.

Already strained to its limits by the enormous entourage that followed the champion into the ring, the middle of the ring collapsed as the fighters alternately danced and shuffled around. As Kimball reported, though most failed to notice, the ring was sagging in the middle:

Between rounds (promoters) hastily summoned a platoon of the football players recruited as security guards. The college boys managed to reposition the center column, and then were ordered to remain there, with the weight of the promotion literally on their shoulders for the remainder of the fight.

Crisis averted, it was a close fight in the early rounds. Duran was throwing more punches and landing fewer. As time passed, however, Duran was simply unable to keep Leonard pinned to the ropes. His body attack disappeared, and Duran began to head hunt with single shots, all full power and speed.

He looked lost, mouth open, his famed sneer replaced by a sad gasping for air. All the while, Leonard bounced around the ring, countering effectively and rolling off Duran's punches.

In the seventh round, Leonard's clowning, until that moment present but not predominant, took center stage. He stuck his chin out and dared Duran to hit him. The champion couldn't. Leonard was mimicking Neo in The Matrix before such a thing existed.

No longer fearful of Duran's power, Leonard began to mock the legendary Panamanian. First, a shrug of the shoulders. Then an Ali Shuffle. Before long, Leonard faked a bolo punch and popped a seemingly awestruck Duran dead in the face with the jab.

While the punch did its work, making Duran's eyes water, according to Leonard, Nack believes it was the psychic damage that did the most harm:

Leonard may have hurt Duran with blows to the body and brought water to his eyes with stinging jabs to the nose, but Leonard knew where to sink the blade to make the deepest wound. That slip-jab off the mock bolo in the seventh round may have been the most painful blow of Duran's life, because it drew hooting laughter from the crowd and made Duran a public spectacle—a laughingstock.

Despite the objections of the boxing purists, Leonard's taunting of Duran did its wicked work; it was undoubtedly the most sustained humiliation Duran ever suffered. Leonard had his number, and Duran knew it. Perhaps, as Arcel suggests, "something snapped." And so, facing seven more rounds, Duran turned and raised his arms in the eighth, as if emerging from a trench.

Associated Press

For the first time in his career, Duran looked less the killer and more the unwitting prey. Howard Cosell's shouts above the din of the crowd suggested Duran was still an enormous threat to Leonard. Instead, the taunting seemed to have an emasculating effect on the great Duran. As he sat on his stool, tended to by his team, the look in his eyes ceased to be that of confidence. It was fear.

"I did everything I said I was going to do, and he couldn't accept it," Leonard said after the fight. "He was frustrated, confused. I did everything I could to make him go off, like a clock wound up too tight. He got wound up so tight, he blew a spring."

In the eighth round, Leonard remained firmly in control. As seconds wound down, the bell just 30 ticks from ending the round, Duran turned to his left and raised his right hand. Octavio Meyran, the third man in the ring, signaled repeatedly for the fight to continue. He, like Cosell, the ticket-buying audience and the millions watching on closed-circuit TV, refused to believe what he was seeing.

Leonard, with Duran's back turned, pounced. But Duran was through and Meyran called the fight off at the 2:44 mark. Roberto Duran, the most dangerous fighter pound-for-pound in the world, was committing boxing's biggest sin.

"He quit," Leonard's brother Roger shouted as his brother looked around befuddled. "He quit on you, Ray."

The Aftermath

US boxer Sugar Ray Leonard (R) celebrates after winning his World Boxing Council welterweight championship fight against Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran (not pictured) on November 25, 1980 in New Orleans Superdome.        (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Ge
AFP/Getty Images

The crowd, like the millions who would later watch on television, was confused. Confused and eventually furious.  

"Quitter, quitter," they chanted, according to the New York Daily News' Phil Pepe. "Fix, fix, fix."

Confusion reigned ringside as well, with Duran's corner as perplexed as anyone.

"He just quit," Duran's veteran trainer, Freddie Brown, told Nack. "I been with the guy nine years and I can't answer it. The guy's supposed to be an animal, right? And he quit. You'd think that an animal would fight right up to the end."

In The Ring, the dean of boxing writers was aghast. Machismo, Bert Sugar believed, died that night in New Orleans:

It was thought there were but four immutable laws which governed the universe: That the Earth always goes around the sun; That lawyers always get paid first; That every action has an equal and opposite reaction; And that Roberto Duran would have to be carried out on his shield, blood streaming out of his ears, before he would ever quit. Now you can scratch one of the above.

While two words, "No Mas," would eventually come to define the fight, only one seemed to matter in the aftermath—why? The story shifted with time. World Boxing Council President Jose Sulaiman claimed an injured right shoulder was the culprit. In Duran's locker room, attention turned to stomach cramps, blamed on the enormous meal he'd eaten after the weigh-ins that same day. 

As Thomas Boswell reported in the Washington Post, Duran began gorging himself almost immediately after leaving the stage:

As soon as the breakfast steak hit his plate this morning, Duran, the fork encircled by his fist and held backhand like a death instrument, impaled the meat as though it might try to wriggle away. Once center-shot and speared, the steak was never allowed to leave the fork as Duran simply picked up the slab and gnawed around the fork, tearing the meat off with a twist of his head. Anybody can have good manners; only Duran, in his leather jacket, wool stocking cap, diamond earring, collar-length black mane, piratical beard and white neckerchief, can make eating seem so carnal that it ought to be X-rated. This is boxing's ignoble savage.

But no matter which story was for sale, few were buying, even within Duran's camp.  

"He said, 'To hell with this fellow. He's making fun of me and I'm not going to fight anymore.' Stomach Cramps? Maybe that's true, maybe it's not," Eleta told reporters. "But Duran didn't quit because of stomach cramps. He quit because he was embarrassed. I know this. Roberto was crying after the fight when I took him to the hospital for a checkup. In the car, he said to me, 'I'm ashamed of myself. I never should have done that. That's not me. I am not proud of myself.'"

Later that night, before a perfunctory trip to the hospital, Duran was seen partying in his hotel room. Down the hall, his 81-year old trainer, Ray Arcel, wept. 

"The whole situation was more than I could take," he told biographer Donald Dewey in Ray Arcel: A Boxing Biography. "It took a long time for me to get over it, if I ever did."

Famed columnist Mike Lupica, writing in the New York Daily News, was hyperbolic to the point of cruelty, but reflected the general consensus. Duran didn't just lose a fight, he wrote. He betrayed the very essence of his sport:

Roberto Duran was indeed a quitter in the Superdome Tuesday night. Duran, who was supposed to be the greatest street fighter of them all, with a fighting heart the size of Panama, turned one of the most anticipated boxing rematches in years into something foul-smelling and dirty.

Former light heavyweight champion Jose Torres, writing in The Ring months later, explained that Duran's decision stung worse because of how he'd been built up in the media:

Duran played this part quite well. He spoke about killing opponents. He grunted like an animal and his eyes would become cold as ice. There was foam in the corners of his mouth as he snarled at his rivals.

... Given the social background of Durangrowing up very poor in the ghettos of Panama and shining shoes to surviveold philosophies were revived and new ones were developed about "Hispanic machismo."

At a press conference afterward, as Duran attempted to explain himself, a lone voice can be heard clearly from the peanut gallery yelling "You're a disgrace." Things were worse in Panama, where the former champion was forced to remain a virtual prisoner in his own home.

"I am retired from boxing right now," Duran said at the time. "I don't want to fight anymore."

That promise, however real it may have felt at the time, of course couldn't hold. Duran would return to the ring 45 more times in his career, earning redemption of sorts in a middleweight title fight against Iran Barkley and even facing Leonard in a best-forgotten 1989 rubber match.

It wouldn't matter. To boxing fans, No Mas overshadowed all that preceded it and all that was to come. For Leonard, it was the ultimate revenge.

"I made him quit," Leonard said. "To make a man quit, to make a Roberto Duran quit, was better than knocking him out."

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.

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