Among the celebrity photos lining the walls of Pascal's Manale, the well-known Cajun/Italian restaurant in New Orleans' Garden District, is a section of boxing pictures that serve as a reminder of the Crescent City's history as a fight town. My visit to cover the NCAA Southeast Regional basketball tournament this past week stirred memories of the most infamous bout held here between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran.
The 30th anniversary of that fight was last November, but standing outside the basketball arena next to the Superdome, where the "No Mas" fight took place, my recollections of it are vivid. After losing a June slugfest to Duran in Montreal, Leonard was smart to lure him back into the ring as soon as possible, knowing Duran might be out of shape from his hard-partying lifestyle after the biggest win of his career.
The first sign of that was at the weigh-in the morning of the fight. In those days, championship fights were 15 rounds, and the weigh-in was the day of the bout, leaving little time for fighters to rehydrate and gain 15-20 pounds the way many do now after weighing in the day before a fight. The moment Duran stepped off the scales, his handlers gave him two oranges to start feeding a body that was completely dried out.
As expected in the early rounds, Leonard reverted to his normal style of dancing and using his speed to set up his punches instead of going toe-to-toe with the brawler, as he had done in their first match. What was unexpected was that Duran had no answer. He couldn't catch up to Leonard, couldn't cut off the ring to bully him to the ropes, and he couldn't stop him from showing off.
When Leonard stood in front of Duran and wound his right arm as if to throw a bolo punch and then shot a left jab to Duran's chin, it enraged him. It was Leonard's show, and Duran was being embarrassed. Moments before Duran threw up his hands in the eighth round and told referee Octavio Meyran, "I'm not boxing with this clown," he absorbed a punch in the gut without flinching.
That became significant later when Duran blamed stomach cramps from eating too much between the weigh-in and the fight. After the fight, I went up to Duran's floor at the Hyatt hotel near the Superdome. The Hyatt has been out of commission since Hurricane Katrina and is not expected to be back in business much before next year's Final Four in New Orleans. But it was alive that night with noise echoing from the balconies of rooms ringing the central atrium.
Duran's cornermen Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown stood a few doors down from Duran's room, where he took a call from the president of Panama asking him what happened. Arcel and Brown were beside themselves with anguish and unable to believe their man had quit. They were totally perplexed.
The next morning, a large group of reporters stood outside the ropes separating the coffee shop from the rest of the floor of the atrium and watched as Duran wolfed down a steak and eggs breakfast, looking none the worse for wear and certainly not ill.
Flashing forward to the present, I'd say the fighter who most resembles Duran at his best is Manny Pacquiao, not because of his facial hair and the dark mop on his head, but in the way he bends and dips and hits opponents from unorthodox angles along with his aggressive nature. Most would say Floyd Mayweather Jr. is the closest thing to Leonard with his speed and craftiness, but he lacks Leonard's ability to finish and his willingness to step to a challenge.