If I were to say “Thrilla in Manilla”, I imagine most boxing fans would immediately know what I was talking about. If I were to say “the Rumble in the Jungle” the same thing would happen. If I were to mention “the Fight of the Century” there may be a brief moment of confusion while a fan pondered whether I was discussing Jack Johnson vs James Jeffries, Joe Louis vs Max Schmelling or Joe Frazier vs Muhammed Ali but once it was clear which of the bouts I was referring to, I imagine most boxing fans… and many casual fans… would know the bout. Boxing is a sport built on iconic moments in iconic bouts between iconic fighters.
And arguably none of them are quite as iconic as “No Mas”.
I don’t intend to focus heavily on the Roberto Duran vs Ray Leonard bout itself. There is a staggering amount of excellent journalism and writing on the topic for any fan wishing to enlighten themselves (I’m a particular fan of Sports Illustrated’s articles on the subject). ESPN recently made it the subject of one of their (generally excellent) 30 for 30 documentaries. And you can go onto virtually any boxing forum, blog or website and see it discussed somewhere (often at considerable length).
To give the very basics; five months after Duran had defeated Leonard in their narrow first bout (where Leonard stood his ground and brawled with Duran) the pair had a rematch. This time Leonard moved extensively, repeatedly landing sharp punches on Duran who struggled to keep up or catch him. By the seventh round Leonard was openly playing to the crowd and as the eighth round came to a close Duran turned his back on Leonard and supposedly said to the referee Octavio Meyran “No mas” (No more)… although I note there has been some controversy about whether those words were actually said by Duran.
There have been many theories and suggestions put forward about why Duran, a man up to that point known for his machismo and unwavering will to win, decided to call it a night. Perhaps the most common is that he was suffering from severe stomach cramps, a result of him ballooning up in the size between the first and second bouts with Leonard and having to lose a vast amount of weight in a very short period. Others have suggested a shoulder injury. Some of the more unkind commentators have suggested that Duran was simply frustrated that he couldn’t track down, trap or hit Leonard and he quit in little more than a fit of pique. They’re not the theories I want to look at.
The argument I want to concentrate on for this piece however relates to one which in turn has an impact on all the others. Over recent years support seems to have grown for the idea that Duran believed he would get an instant rematch if he lost the second bout (much like Leonard had after losing the first). The theory suggests that with that in mind, Duran wasn’t as concerned about quitting in this bout as he otherwise would have been because he knew he could avenge himself in the proposed rubber match. As such he quit when he really could have struggled on. The theory then suggests that Leonard refused to have an immediate third match, that he knew he’d got “lucky”, that he’d caught Duran on a bad night for Hand’s of Stone and that he was never going to risk another loss to Panama’s favourite son. The theory goes that Leonard essentially tricked Duran: he arranged the rematch so shortly after the first bout because he knew Duran would eat, drink and be merry, put on a lot of weight, struggle to get rid of it and come into the bout in poor shape. The theory follows up that Leonard refused an immediate rubber match as he knew he wouldn’t get so lucky again. That Leonard deliberately waited nearly a decade, till Duran was old, tired, overweight and seemingly shot, before he agreed to face him a third time.
It is a nice theory and I can see why people subscribe to it. Ray Leonard was in some ways his generation’s Floyd Mayweather Jr… an exceptionally talented, brash, cocky boxer who rubbed many opponents… and some fans… the wrong way. People can look at the way he treated Marvin Hagler… notably inviting Hagler to a gala dinner where Hagler assumed a bout between the two was to be announced only to discover Leonard was instead retiring… and see a certain similarity or theme. It’s understandable why people would like to argue that Leonard “pulled a fast one” on Duran.
But they’re wrong.
I don’t intend to spend much time looking at the circumstances around the No Mas bout itself, but it does deserve a few words. People are likely correct in saying Duran wasn’t in peak fighting shape for the bout; he was a man known for his voracious appetite and who often had a lackadaisical attitude to training. But at the same time, I do not think we can blame Leonard for this. The rematch was no surprise to Duran. You can listen to members of his camp talk about a rematch immediately after the first bout and both boxers say they wanted a rematch in an interview with Howard Cossell shortly after. I also can’t see five months as being an exceptionally quick turn around… going into the bout with Leonard, Duran was generally boxing every three or four months; five months between bouts was arguably more time than he was used to. Ricky Hatton, a boxer not exactly known for his strict diet when not in training, had five months between his bout against Kostya Tszyu and his unification bout with Carlos Maussa… and he managed to come into both of those contests in shape. Leonard cannot be blamed for the fact that Duran seemingly didn’t train to the level required; a boxer has to take responsibility for their own physical condition.
What I would like to concentrate on is the idea that Duran expected an immediate rematch and that Leonard was at fault for not giving him one.
This first point should kill that argument stone dead. Roberto Duran announced he was retiring immediately after the bout. If Duran expected a third bout, then why did he retire? And with him retired (albeit temporarily), why would Leonard be the blame for a third bout not happening?
It’s also worth considering the situation Duran found himself in. His trainer, the legendary Ray Arcel, quit in the wake of the bout, unfavourably comparing Duran to Ezzard Charles and Barney Ross, boxers he saw as never even considering quitting, and actually retired from boxing entirely for a while he was so disgusted with Duran, only returning briefly to help Larry Holmes. Duran’s manager, the millionaire Carlos Elta, urged him to stay retired… and when Duran did keep returning he kept telling him to retire. His promoter, Don King, abandoned him.
So what Leonard found in the wake of no mas was a retired boxer without a trainer, without a promoter and with a manager who wanted him to stay retired. In such circumstances, is it surprising that a third bout didn’t happen right away?
Of course, Duran’s retirement lasted about as long as most “retirements” in boxing and despite the lack of Arcel, promotional support or even a manager who wanted him to keep boxing, Duran was soon calling for a third bout. But I think we have to take a look back and see how Duran was viewed at that time to understand why an immediate third bout would have been near impossible to make.
It’s perhaps hard today to explain how Duran was viewed by the boxing audience both immediately before and immediately after No mas. There are few, if any, modern boxers who have anything like the aura he did. The unbreakable heart of Gatti? The raw machismo of Mayorga? The one-man bloodbath that was Michael Katsidis? The laughing axeman that was (pre-Mosley) Margarito? Combine them together and you might get something that at least approached the way people saw Duran. He was the man who at 14 had knocked out a horse with one punch to win a bet for two bottles of whisky. He was a beast, an animal, a man who never took a backwards step, a man who embodied what it meant to be a “man”, a rampaging monster who would barely take a step back in a bout, a man who’s only thought was to hunt down and destroy his opponent. He was death on legs, the fifth horseman of the apocalypse, terror given form (and two boxing gloves). Beat him if you could, survive if he let you. It was utterly inconceivable that he would quit.
And then he did.
Boxing and boxing fans generally expects its boxers to be supermen and looks coldly upon those who fail to live up to such high standards. David Haye was widely mocked for his performance against Wladimir Klitshcko and his excuses about his toe. Vitali Klitschko is often slurred with the “Quitali” tag for the way he stayed on his stool against Chris Byrd, despite the serious injury he had sustained. Victor Ortiz has always had a cloud hang over him, ever since the ending of his bout against Marcos Maidana. Boxing expects… and hates those who don’t deliver. And Duran didn’t deliver. But Duran had no obvious injuries. He hadn’t been knocked down as Ortiz had, hadn’t seemingly been hurt, wasn’t taking a beating… while Leonard was ahead on the judges cards, Duran was still in the bout. And then he quit. No-one saw it coming. No-one predicted it. No-one expected it.
Duran’s reputation was in tatters, both in Panama and the US. Newspapers openly called the bout a fix, Duran had his purse suspended and was eventually fined £7,500 and adverts featuring him were pulled off the air. He was persona non-grata in boxing, the black sheep. Fans began to suspect they had been duped, that Leonard’s narrow loss in the first bout had been arranged to set up this lucrative rematch and that a third bout would have simply an extension of that, a pure money-spinning exercise. I can’t think of a situation in recent boxing… and that includes Margarito and his gloves… where a boxer has been viewed so badly by the public. The way Duran was viewed was close to the Lance Armstrong or Marion Jones of boxing. There was simply no way that a bout could have been made. It would have been considered a farce. Duran was not seen as the man he was… or as the man we remember today.
And let’s not forget, a certain Tommy Hearns was lurking and the calls for Leonard to face him were growing to a fever pitch. If Leonard had “ducked” Hearns to have a third bout with Duran then his own reputation would have been as tarnished as Duran’s was. It wasn’t a matter of whether it was fair or unfair, it didn’t matter what Duran had previously accomplished. “No mas” trumped everything that had come before when it came to Duran at that point. To the boxing world everything else was meaningless, everything else could be discarded.
The question wasn’t “how do we judge Duran historically as an all time great?”
The question was “do we ever want to see Duran box again, especially in a third bout with Leonard?”
And the answer was no mas.
Of course, Duran’s reputation did improve… but not enough that a bout with Leonard could occur in the short term. And that is why, despite being disappointing, it was only really 10 years on from that infamous night that the pair would meet again. Duran regained the respect of the boxing audience in his bout with Wilfred Benitez… but he still lost and people expected him to retire. Then he was upset by Kirkland Laing and people were certain it was over. It was only in mid 1983 and with a victory over Davey Moore to win the WBA 154lbs belt that people really started to think of Duran as being anything close to what he was… and by that time Leonard had retired with a detached retina. When Leonard made his first comeback against Kevin Howard, Duran had just lost to Hagler and was about to lose to Hearns. And it was only in 1989 that Duran returned to the world level with his victory over Iran Barkley… and Leonard faced him later that year.
The sad and simple truth is that there was no way an immediate third bout in the wake of No mas could have happened. No mas was too raw, too controversial, too etched in memory. And circumstances simply didn’t allow the two to meet again until virtually a decade had past… one was either retired, injured or coming off a loss.
We may never exactly know why Duran said (or didn’t say) “no mas” that night. Duran’s own story has changed from cramps to injury to frustration. But we do know that the belief that it wouldn’t matter and that he’d get an immediate rematch was unlikely to be one of them (or he wouldn’t have retired). And we also know that it wasn’t Leonard’s fault that bout couldn’t be made at that time. It is simply a sad twist of fate.