Wednesday, November 25, 2015

No Mas

"It would require a deal of convincing to shake the conviction here that Duran had to be sick or injured because Roberto Duran was not, is not and never could be a quitter."

Red Smith

The Belfast Telegraph recently published a list of the 10 greatest fighters of all time.

The sixth–greatest fighter, the Telegraph said, was Roberto Duran, and he beat the fifth–greatest fighter of all time, Sugar Ray Leonard, for the welterweight title in Montreal on June 20, 1980.

They met in a rematch in New Orleans on this day in 1980 in what became one of the most famous fights ever. It is known to history as the "No Mas fight" because that is what Duran said to the referee at the end of the eighth round, indicating that he was conceding the fight. In case you aren't fluent in Spanish — and I certainly am not — "no mas" is Spanish for "no more."

After the fight, Duran tried to save some face by insisting that he was suffering from stomach cramps, but I always thought it was because he just couldn't reconcile the Sugar Ray he fought in New Orleans with the fighter he fought in Montreal five months earlier.

It was a moment that really defined both men.

My memory of Leonard is that he was like Muhammad Ali, light on his feet in the ring, always moving. But Leonard, in the face of Duran's prefight taunting, adopted more of a flat–footed style and went toe to toe with Duran in that first fight. He wanted to beat Duran at his own game. He didn't. Duran won by a decision.

Five months later, they met again in New Orleans, and the old Sugar Ray appeared to be back.

Gone was the plodding flat–footed style. It was like watching an entirely different fighter in the ring, one who looked like that other Sugar Ray Leonard but certainly didn't fight like him.

Apparently Duran was baffled by it as well. He shouldn't have been, though — if he prepared for that first fight by observing footage of Leonard in the ring. That Leonard was back.

Leonard was always the good guy in the equation. Duran was the bad guy, known at one time as the meanest man in boxing. He was said to have knocked out a woman and a horse.

Boxing is a macho sport, and Duran, with his cold, demonic eyes, was the most macho man in boxing 35 years ago. My guess at the time was that Leonard didn't just want to win the fight. He wanted to seize the crown of most macho fighter from Duran as well.

I didn't see either fight in progress; I saw them after the fact, in replays on TV, but what stands out in my mind about that first fight was that, even before it was over, the announcers were talking about how they could see a rematch coming in the final rounds, when Leonard tried desperately to retake ground he lost to Duran in the early rounds — resuming the style with which he had succeeded in the past. But it was too late.

Not long after he lost the fight, Leonard actively pursued a rematch. Duran had been celebrating his victory in New York, partying and overeating. Leonard felt a key to winning the rematch would be to have it as soon as possible — before Duran could lose the celebratory weight he had gained.

Nevertheless, by the time of the fight, both men were in great condition.

Millions of dollars were offered to both fighters for a rematch, and the agreement was reached. The fight would be in the New Orleans Superdome.

Once the fight was in progress, it seemed pretty even — until the seventh round, when Leonard began to openly taunt Duran, and Duran had no answer for it. He seemed lost, and Leonard appeared to be in control.

It was a part of fighting that a lot of people overlook — the psychological fight. Sure you hear people speak about fighters getting inside each other's heads, but I think a lot of people just see that as descriptive speech, allegorical — when it is much more accurate than most people probably want to believe. On this night in 1980, Leonard wasn't toying with Duran. He was implementing part of his strategy, just as he did when he used the bolo punch.

He was turning the tables on Duran, making him the object of the laughter instead of the other way around. For five months, Leonard had felt as if people were snickering at him over his loss to Duran. He wanted to make Duran the object of the ridicule he had been feeling — and probably imagining. I don't recall hearing anyone — in my personal conversations or in boxing programs I saw on television — who thought any less of Leonard for going the distance with Roberto Duran and losing.

In the eighth round, Duran had had enough. He looked at the referee and said, "No mas."

On this night in 1980, Leonard avenged his loss. Duran couldn't even go the distance. Leonard frustrated him, bewildered him. He got inside his head. It was not allegorical. It was definitely real.

The outcome was unheard of. Boxers just don't quit. They'll let their heads get beaten to mush, and they still won't quit.

Yet the most macho fighter on the planet quit. And when he did, everyone forgot his triumph over Leonard five months earlier. Few people remember it today. If you speak to a boxing fan about Leonard and Duran, the phrase "no mas" comes springing to mind, not images from that night in Montreal.

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