By Thomas Gerbasi
November 26, 1980 was a good day. It was the morning after my hero, Sugar Ray Leonard, defeated my father’s favorite fighter, Roberto Duran. Better yet, Leonard didn’t just win the fight; he got the victory due to the Panamanian’s surrender in the eighth round with the infamous words “no mas.”
As key a phrase in boxing history as “Down goes Frazier,” “I am the greatest,” “Everybody has a plan until they get hit,” or “They can run but they can’t hide,” “No mas” may be the most mysterious of them all, with filmmaker Eric Drath (“Assault in the Ring”) attempting to get to the bottom of the mystery in the latest installment of ESPN’s always compelling 30 for 30 series, which airs Tuesday at 8pm ET.
In terms of finding out why Duran quit in New Orleans that fall night, there is really no new news in No Mas, as “Manos di Piedra” continues to insist that cramps caused him to wave off the fight. And who knows, maybe that is the answer. But given his history, his demeanor, and the reaction of his longtime trainer Ray Arcel, it’s always been something hard for anyone to fathom, and that’s where this film’s strong points shine through.
More than just a recap of Leonard-Duran II and its aftermath, the documentary tells the story of one of the sport’s great rivalries and how it stopped the sports world for those first two fights (the pair’s 1989 rubber match is given little coverage, and that’s probably a good thing) in 1980. This was a meeting of two of boxing’s all-time greats at arguably the height of their powers, and the difference between the two outside the ring couldn’t be more evident.
Back then, Duran was the streetfighter and Leonard the pretty boy. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe that Leonard was perceived as a media creation, especially considering that by the time the first Duran fight took place on June 20, 1980, he had already defeated tough contenders Randy Shields, Armando Muniz, Adolfo Viruet, Pete Ranzany, Andy Price, and Dave Green, while beating another all-time great in Wilfred Benitez. Of course, his resume at the time couldn’t compare to that of the former lightweight champion, who ruled the division with an iron fist before moving up to 147 pounds in 1978 to begin chasing Leonard.
And after a heated lead-up to the fight, Leonard threw his usual style out the window in order to stand, trade, and attempt to take his pound of flesh from Duran. What resulted was a 15 round epic in which a number of things happened: Duran won the decision, Leonard won his respect, and the 1976 US Olympic Gold medalist also considered retirement after a bout that pushed him beyond his limits.
“If every fight was like that, I couldn’t last,” said Leonard.
As for the respect part, former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, who is visited often during No Mas, recalled seeing Leonard in a new light after the first Duran bout, describing him as “a pitbull with a pretty face.”
Duran didn’t feel the same way toward his foe, and when the idea of a rematch just five months later was floated, he took it, despite being woefully out of shape due to his post-Montreal partying. The rest is history, history that is covered completely and from all angles during the course of the film. For the diehards, this is familiar, though welcome, territory, as it revisits what is seen by many as the sport’s last true Golden Age. For younger or newer fans, it gives a glimpse into one of boxing’s most infamous moments while also showing the impact boxing had on the general public back then.
What is revealing is the fact that Leonard never felt closure from the second Duran bout due to its ending, feeling that more attention was paid to the way it ended than to what Leonard did to perhaps push his opponent to the brink and quit. What results is a trip to Panama and a meeting with Duran, and while squaring them off in a boxing ring could have turned into something gimmicky, Drath makes it work, as the interaction between the two legends is telling, especially considering their past.
And that’s the selling point of No Mas as far as I’m concerned, seeing Leonard and Duran, both then and now, make for compelling television. Simply put, when they’re on screen, you can’t look away.