Decades later, Leonard, Duran able to laugh about ring rivalry

For this generation of boxing fans that didn’t get to see them fight, watching Sugar Ray Leonard and Robert Duran hug, smile and genuinely enjoy each other’s company must have people thinking, “These guys used to beat the hell out of each other?”

Indeed they did. And when Leonard and Duran squared off in what would evolve into a trilogy of fights in the 1980s, they were enemies, not friends.

“I used to hate that son of a bitch,” Leonard, now 57, said Friday at the Palazzo, where he and Duran were helping Top Rank and HBO Pay Per View promote tonight’s welterweight fight in Macau between Manny Pacquiao and Brandon Rios. “But I love Roberto now.”

Duran, 62, said he has no animosity toward Leonard.

“He is my black brother,” he said through an interpreter. “We are friends now.”

Because of ESPN’s “30 For 30” film series, Leonard and Duran, two of the sport’s most iconic figures, have returned to the public’s consciousness. The documentary, which aired recently on the sports cable network, reminded us of an era when boxing was still popular on network television, mostly because of Leonard, who was an Olympic gold medalist in 1976 and had lived up to the hype as a professional to win the WBC welterweight championship. Duran was feared and respected among those who followed the sport and was a stark contrast to Leonard’s glitz, having grown up dirt poor in Panama.

For the uninitiated, their first meeting came on June 20, 1980, in Montreal. Duran dominated the fight and won a 15-round decision to claim Leonard’s belt.

Leonard contemplated retirement after the loss. But after a few weeks, he wanted revenge. Duran agreed, and they met Nov. 25, 1980, in New Orleans at the Superdome.

Leonard was a much different fighter that night and was dominating Duran with his speed and quickness. Then, in the eighth round, Duran suddenly quit. Duran claims it was stomach cramps suffered in the fifth round that were getting progressively worse. But Leonard got his revenge in what has been nicknamed “The ‘No Mas’ Fight.”

It would be seven years before the two tangled one last time. On Dec. 7, 1989, on a chilly Las Vegas night, Leonard and Duran battled for Leonard’s WBC super middleweight belt outdoors at The Mirage. Leonard took some punishment, but he did enough to win a 12-round unanimous decision.

Duran and Leonard said they were treated fairly in the “30 For 30” film, and they want today’s fans to know that while they had three fights, there was respect for each other, both then and now.

“Back then, we wanted to kill each other,” said Leonard, who had a record of 36-3-1 with 25 knockouts. “Today, we love each other.”

Duran, who was 103-16 with 70 KOs and is currently involved in his own film documentary on his life in Panama, said: “Yes, I saw it. It was good. But I think they talked a little too much about the ‘No Mas’ part of it.”

The two are curious to see what happens tonight in Macau. Both have been where Pacquiao is, trying to come back from defeat (he has lost his past two fights). And both think Rios can win if he doesn’t get reckless.

“Manny’s trying to erase or minimize his loss to (Juan Manuel) Marquez,” Leonard said. “Is he shot? No. But he has so much on the line.

“If he walks into the ring as Manny Pacquiao the fighter, he’ll be fine. But if he walks into the ring as Manny the politician, he’s in trouble.”

Duran said Rios needs to respect Pacquiao’s skills and not take him lightly.

“Rios has to fight intelligently,” Duran said. “I think it will be a hard fight, but I don’t think Pacquiao is done. He is a smart fighter, and Rios has to be careful.”

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter @stevecarprj.