By Rory Carroll
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - American boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard says that while the sport may not be the national obsession it was during his prime, it is still healthy, an assertion disputed by longtime rival-turned-friend Roberto Duran.
In a joint interview to promote a new film on the Panamanian's career, entitled "I Am Duran", the former enemies traded barbs - and laughs - about the state of the sport as well as the nature of their historic battles which captivated the sporting world in the 1980s.
"Boxing is not dead like some say it is," said Leonard, who lost his WBC Welterweight title to Duran in the "Brawl in Montreal" in 1980 before winning it back in an infamous rematch later that same year.
"But the sport itself has to fix itself. Don't just say you're the best - show the people or the fans that you are the best by fighting the best and let them be the judge," he told Reuters.
Duran, 67, made it clear he did not think much of the current crop of fighters.
"No respect," he said through an interpreter when asked about the personalities who populate the ring today, such as heavyweight world champion Anthony Joshua and WBC heavyweight titleholder Deontay Wilder.
"We were born in the time period of the real fighters," he said.
"If you compare today's boxers to the boxers like us from back in those days, these guys would have never won."
Duran, who fought his way out of poverty to become an icon in his native Panama, said he did, however, like Mexican Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, who currently holds three of the four middleweight titles.
"I admire the Mexican kid who obviously is doing very well. I always think that Americans are the ones making the big bucks here in this sport," he said.
"However, we have Canelo now. He's not only a Mexican but he's also a Latino who's doing really well and making a lot of money."
'WHO HIT THE HARDEST?'
Leonard said Duran, whose relentless, aggressive fighting style and punishing punches earned him an astounding 103-16 career record, is among the best he ever faced.
"People ask me that all the time, who hit you the hardest?" Leonard said.
"And a lot of times I say Roberto Duran because Duran hit me so hard -- and so many times in so many illegal places -- that it felt like a few people in the ring," he said, flashing his trademark smile.
"He was so quick and so elusive. Just an amazing, amazing champion."
Leonard, who won 36 and drew one of his 40 fights, said he lost the first meeting with Duran, a 15-round unanimous decision, in part because he chose to stand toe to toe with Duran instead of relying on his superior speed.
Leonard has said he wanted to hurt Duran after he made disparaging remarks about Leonard's wife in the lead up to the fight, the only fight Leonard said he ever went into angry.
The two would face off in a rematch later that year in a fight dubbed "No Mas" after Duran shocked the world by quitting midway through the eighth round.
Leonard successfully changed his tactics in the rematch, moving constantly and taunting Duran in ways that unnerved the champion.
Duran said he was forced to stop fighting due to overwhelming muscle pain that he said was connected to the rapid weight loss he went through to make the weight for the rematch.
Duran, who is known for his acerbic wit and love of a good time, had packed on the pounds while celebrating his win over Leonard.
But time heals all wounds and Leonard says he is happy to call him a friend, even if it took some getting used to.
"It seems so surreal when I see him because the first thing I want to do is do this," said Leonard, putting up his fists.
"But in all sincerity, I love this guy. This guy made me the fighter I am today."
(Reporting by Rory Carroll; editing by Tony Lawrence)