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1988 Scoop: Duran Threw The Rematch To Leonard

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By Scoop Malinowski

One of the first big boxing shows I ever attended was the February 5, 1988 Atlantic City tripleheader of Marlon Starling defending his WBA Welterweight title vs Fujio Ozaki, Mark Breland vs Juan Alonso Villa and a ten rounder featuring Roberto Duran vs Ricky Stackhouse.

As Duran was my all time favorite fighter, it was nothing short of a dream night to see the man live and in the flesh for the very first time. Somehow I wangled a press credential via my Kean College newspaper the Independent. I loved Duran since the late 1970s. Something about the way he fought and the emotional adrenaline and passion he displayed in the ring hooked me. Re-watching Duran’s performances against Ray Leonard in Montreal and Davey Moore at Madison Square Garden still give me chills and inspiration to this very day.  And they always will.

Once inside the Convention Center in Atlantic City on fight night I naturally gravitated to the Duran camp. When Duran came out by the stage to enter the ring I started a conversation with one of Roberto’s Panamanian entourage guys wearing the team’s white jackets. I got straight to the points, we talked about Duran’s career for a few moments and he surely realized I was not your typical boxing and Duran fan. I knew the career details and expressed the deepest reverence. He told me about his association with Duran and how many years they were friends – since the early 70s. Thrilled to be in contact with such a Duran insider, I remarked my instinctive sense that something was very strange and bizarre about ‘No Mas.’

He picked up on my cue and desire to know more. I remember the following conversation as if it happened an hour ago. He looked at me and judged me to be worthy of knowing the truth. So he told me this about the infamous fight eight years earlier in New Orleans…

The powers that be needed Leonard to win the rematch so they made Duran an offer he could not refuse. Duran had over-celebrated and grown heavy that summer and was in no condition for an immediate rematch. But the PTB couldn’t wait for Duran to take a warm-up fight or two, or use his leverage to make Leonard wait. Leonard was the golden boy of that time, he was the central figure of a series of major money fights. Leonard was the A side marquee attraction with the biggest upside. So it was imperative to manipulate Duran to lose the rematch to Leonard. The big, long term money was in Leonard not Duran. Leonard was 24 then, Duran 30.

Duran was allegedly paid about $1,000,000 for the first Leonard fight but an astounding $8,000,000 for the rematch.  It makes perfect sense that Duran was handsomely rewarded to do what TPB wanted.

Here’s the most interesting part of the story: He said Duran agreed to take the dive vs Leonard. But when Leonard began doing all the taunting and windmill punches, Duran became enraged  and broke the agreement. Instead of taking the dive, Duran just quit the fight.

Now, like most level-headed people, I am a fairly decent judge of sizing up a person’s character and their sincerity in a couple of minutes. Even a total stranger. You can tell a lot about a person in their voice tones and eye contact and I am fairly certain this man’s story is absolutely legit. There really was no motive to lie to an American college kid who he had deemed worthy of knowing the truth, just minutes before the first bell of Duran vs Stackhouse.  There just was no reason to waste time with me with a fairy tale story. The man’s revelations make total, complete sense.

If you watch the first and second fights, Duran’s intensity and passion levels are completely different in Montreal and New Orleans.

And remember, Duran had beaten Leonard, so he held all the leverage on the rematch. He could have stalled for one or two tune-up fights and wisely squeezed Leonard to wait and accept HIS TERMS. But no, the out of shape Duran jumps straight into the immediate rematch, out of shape and against his own business interests.

It makes absolutely perfect sense that Duran was forced to throw the rematch for the overall interests of the sport, which at the time was centrally operated out of America and particularly New York City. Leonard was the golden boy, the FACE of Boxing, with loads of endorsements and popularity on par with Muhammad Ali. If you didn’t live through the career of Sugar Ray Leonard you have no idea just how hugely popular he was in the 1980s.

I have an open mind. I try to see it from the other side, that maybe Duran just got bested by a more prepared, a wiser Leonard. Maybe Duran really did eat too much steak the day of the fight, a mistake he never ever made before any of his other fights.  Maybe the guy I was talking to was a crackpot. But he wasn’t. When I meet a crack pot, I high tail it in a few seconds. This man was legit. None of the anti-conspiracy theory bullet points of Leonard vs Duran II make much sense to me.

It makes total, perfect, absolute sense that Roberto Duran was forced to throw the rematch to Ray Leonard. The motive was there, the heavy push to redeem Leonard of his first loss. And set up Leonard vs Hearns and ultimately Hagler.

Watch No Mas  again. Look at Duran’s face before the fight. Look at his passionless performance. Look at how different his body looks. Look at the size of that ring. Why would Duran ever agree to such a gigantic ring? And look at the cocky sureness of Leonard when he’s in the ring. He knew. Duran knew. This was an inside job, as obvious as any the sport has ever staged.

And on this wintry night of February 5, 1988, I learned the inside, secret truth from a source who knew.

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About Scoop Malinowski

Author of six books including "Muhammad Ali: Portrait of a Champion" and "Heavyweight Armageddon: The Lewis versus Tyson Championship Battle" available at amazon