Golden era when the ring rocked

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The Independent Online

Twenty one years ago Don King, who this week ended a self-imposed two-week ban on personal publicity which must have been excruciating, called a press conference on the eve of his promotion of the Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran "no mas, no mas" fight in New Orleans.

In those pre-mobile phone days, not everybody made it to the hastily called gathering, some scribes having marooned themselves in the French Quarter, but those who did groaned when the promoter announced his "vitally important news".

King said that in the "interests of humanity" he had commissioned a special consignment of magically healing water which at that very moment was winging its way to Las Vegas, where that weekend there had been great loss of life and terrible injuries when a fire enveloped the tower block of the MGM casino hotel.

An act of compassion or a shameless bid for the extra publicity that might just sell off the last tickets for the Superdome fight? One observer had no doubt, shouting from the back of the room: "Humanity might have been rather better served if you'd tied yourself to one of the airplane wheels."

King, briefly, wore a martyr's expression but of course he was undaunted. As he remains today. Certainly memories of that bizarre episode were easily re-kindled this week by King's announcement that he was donating a fire engine to the city of New York in the wake of another tragedy. It just happened that King was again hyping a potentially superb fight, tomorrow night's collision between Felix Trinidad and Bernard Hopkins for the undisputed world middleweight title at Madison Square Garden.

But then, if there will always be question marks against King's motivation and style, there can be no argument about his primacy as the greatest boxing promoter the world has ever known.

Enforcing this long-held belief is the fact that, even at a time when the imperatives of big-time sport can rarely have been less urgent, and when so much of professional boxing has become a competitive wasteland, King has again produced, out of his imagination and his sheer industry, a fight of genuinely sharp interest. The author of the "Rumble in the Jungle" and so many other contests which demand high ranking in any history of the game, has made another significant boxing occasion. Its weight and prospective resonance is contained in one simple fact. The winner tomorrow night will be the first undisputed middleweight champion since the reign of Marvin Hagler ended on a tumultuous night in Las Vegas 14 years ago.

Already King has had great mileage from his launching of the middleweight "super champion" tournament which, after a great skein of negotiations with rival television companies, delivers its climax in a city perhaps just grateful for the hint of continuity in its life implied by a big fight at The Garden. For King, Trinidad-Hopkins is certainly a re-statement of the promotional vision that created one of the truly golden periods of boxing, the epoch which opened with the first Leonard-Duran fight in Montreal's Olympic Stadium in 1980 and closed when Hagler surrendered his title to Leonard on that fierce night seven years later at Caesar's Palace.

More quickly than anyone, King saw that the ebbing of Muhammad Ali – confirmed beyond all lingering doubt when he was pounded mercilessly by Larry Holmes in what at this distance can be so clearly seen as a forlorn punctuation mark between the first and second Leonard-Duran fights – was about to create a huge hole in the market.

So King brilliantly hyped the fight which had Duran, the legendary "Manos de Piedra" – hands of stone – lightweight champion move up to meet the former Olympic champion Leonard at welterweight. Duran waged scalding psychological warfare, screaming at Leonard, crudely questioning his manhood. It was pressure which consumed the fight plan of Leonard, inciting him to wage macho war rather than stiletto stealth – and the result was 15 rounds of unforgettably locked wills. Duran's proved the stronger in Montreal: he won the decision – after being so incensed by the raised arms of his opponent at the end he aimed a kick at his retreating figure – and we had moved into an era of great boxing theatre.

It produced four of the greatest fights boxing will ever know, and those of us privileged to see them at ringside, to feel the extraordinary force of Leonard, Duran, Tommy Hearns and Hagler, will surely be always captives of the idea that at its best the ring is unsurpassed in its capacity to produce the most compelling of sporting action.

My own pecking order for those fights, which seem as vivid today as they were on the nights they were fought, would have the first Leonard-Hearns collision in 1981 in No 1 place, followed by Hagler-Hearns in 1985, Leonard-Duran in 1980, and Hagler-Leonard in 1987.

There were also two marvellous "curiosities," Duran's losing fights with Leonard in New Orleans and Hagler in Las Vegas. Some attributed cowardice to Duran's notorious waving of his hands and his "no mas" statement, but it was a hopeless misunderstanding of male Latino pride. As Duran said later, he would have cheerfully chosen a firing squad before the prospect of sustained humiliation at the hands of his tormentor. When the fight was going away from him, perhaps inevitably in view of his careless preparation and Leonard's insistence that on this occasion he would fight on his own terms, he gestured for Leonard to come to him – not, you have to believe, in any serious belief that he could turn the fight around, but in his desire for a quick, clean finish.

Only a powerful finish by Hagler denied Duran a shocking victory in their Las Vegas fight. For most of it, Duran, his eyes like coals, exerted a strange hold on his stronger opponent. Hagler's handlers yelled desperately for him to be more assertive, which he finally was, but with the barest margin of safety.

The first Leonard-Hearns fight produced sights – and sounds – which would never be forgotten. There was the sight of Hearns helped from the ring, his feet trailing in the dust, after Leonard had finally, in the 14th round, broken his taller opponent's unexpected tactical hold on the fight. Before Leonard's decisive show of physical authority in the previous round, his guru cornerman Angelo Dundee, had screamed: "You're blowing it, kid." There was the sound of Leonard's wife, Juanita, crying into the night: "No more, baby, no more."

But of course there would be a lot more stretching all the way to a cruel beating by Terry Norris in Madison Square Garden 10 years later and then, the saddest of postcripts, defeat by the almost equally faded Hector Camacho in 1997.

Some say that Leonard's greatest performance came six years after the Hearns epic, when he returned despite medical advice to take away Hagler's crown. Others still strenuously claim that Hagler was robbed of the decision, but if this was so it was sublime larceny by Leonard. He boxed in electrifying bursts which punctuated the searing pressure applied by Haggler.

Hagler-Hearns was not so much a fight as a shooting star burning its way across the sky. Bud – On the Waterfront – Schulberg trembled as he passed my seat at ringside. He said: "I never thought I would ever see anything so intense, in or out of the ring." It lasted three rounds; two really, because Hearns, his long legs made rubbery, was plainly broken in the third, but before he sighed and subsided he made Hagler catch more than a little of hell.

Before the fight, as they played the national anthem, Hagler beat his gloves against his head so fiercely someone observed: "They better hurry up or Hagler is going to knock himself out before the first bell."

Instead he consumed Hearns, who years later would say: "Man, that was a night. I had worked so hard for the fight. When I got into the ring my legs felt so tired I just didn't believe I could go 12 rounds with a fighter as strong as Hagler. I felt I had to get him out of there. Manny [his trainer Emanuel Steward] tried to rein me in but he couldn't, There was always going to be a strategy, and I had fought it a thousand times in my head. But then you get in the ring and it's reality." Boxing had rarely known one so ferocious.

When Leonard got the decision over Hagler, something snapped inside the beaten man. His family life, which had buoyed him down all the years of his career, dissolved and he went off to Italy to make films. But he must have known that nothing on celluloid would ever match the splendour that he and Hearns, Leonard and Duran, had made in the ring. A little of it in Madison Square Garden tomorrow night would do no harm to the spirit of a great but battered city. That's the view of Don King, at least, and on this occasion it is hard to disagree.

* Lennox Lewis' heavyweight rematch with Hasim Rahman in Las Vegas on 18 November will not be screened by the BBC. The corporation has decided the asking price does not represent "value for money" for licence payers.