10/28/11 - the leonard-duran pre-fight press conference

In today's excerpt - in 1980, Sugar Ray Leonard—the All-American Golden Boy, the Olympic Gold Medalist—had his first fight against Panamanian Roberto Duran, the most feared fighter of his generation. It was the biggest sporting event of its day, and American hearts were broken when Leonard lost. As he confesses in his autobiography, in some respects the fight was lost at the first promotional pre-fight press conference when Leonard found himself caught offguard. When Duran taunted him, instead of opting for either enlightened disregard or an energized counterattack, he found himself trapped in the uncertain and unprepared in-between:

"The first occasion where Duran and I spent any real time together was at the April press conference to officially announce our fight. It was staged at the glamorous Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Manhattan. The top boxing writers were in attendance, geared up to begin promoting what promised to be the biggest fight since [Muhammad] Ali vs. [Joe] Frazier III five years earlier.

"I looked forward to these gatherings. They gave me a chance to min­gle with reporters I respected and show off my superior communication skills. I also saw an opportunity, as Ali did, to get inside my opponent's head, to win the fight before the fight. I won every time.

"Well, not every time.

"Early in the proceedings, Duran jabbed me softly with an oversized glove that's commonly used for promotional purposes. The photographers ate it up. For a while, I went along with the unrehearsed bit, anything for the show. Except Duran didn't know when to stop fooling around. Or he kept going just to irritate me. Either way, the playful taps got harder and harder. I gave him an angry glance. It did no good and was probably the dumbest thing I could have done. He saw that he was getting under my skin and now he would never shut up.

"He called me a 'motherf****r' and a 'son of a b***h' and a 'marica' (Spanish for 'homosexual') and told me to kiss his b***s. No one had ever spoken to me like that, not even in the hood. For the longest time I stood there like a statue, though it ran counter to every impulse in my body. I should have insulted him back and put my head squarely in his face. It was not as if I didn't know the language of the gutter as thoroughly as he did. But with Mike Trainer's mantra—'always smile for the cameras'—echoing in my ears, I was the perfect gentleman, until I could take the abuse no longer.

"I told the press I would 'kill' Duran in ]une. The words were out of my mouth before I realized what I was saying. I was never so cocky before a fight, and because it wasn't my natural behavior, I didn't hit the proper notes. I came across more frightened than fearless.

"The trick to Ali's prefight bragging, besides the fact that he usually backed it up, was how he injected humor into each situation with his silly playacting and clever rhyming. He could make the most outrageous pre­dictions and say the most demeaning things about the proud warriors he fought and somehow seem endearing.

"There was nothing endearing about me on that day at the Waldorf. Round one went to Duran."


Sugar Ray Leonard


The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring


Viking published by the Penguin Group


Copyright 2011 by Ray Leonard


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