The Brawl in Montreal is forever tied to my coming of age — and my first encounter with racial hatred

This First Person article is the experience of Duke Eatmon, the music columnist on CBC Montreal’s afternoon radio show, Let’s Go. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ

I was a 10-year-old Black kid living in Montreal’s west end when The Brawl In Montreal — arguably the second-biggest sporting event ever in the city — was announced.

Sugar Ray Leonard, the young new champion with lightning fast hands, awesome power and good looks was the heir apparent of boxing royalty.

Growing up in poverty in a Maryland district close to D.C., he was one of seven siblings and was determined to make a name for himself.

Leonard chose Montreal, the city where he won his Olympic gold four years earlier, as the backdrop for his second title defence.

My father had introduced me to Sugar Ray during the Olympics in ’76. I became his biggest fan from then on.

Listen to Duke’s conversation with Sugar Ray Leonard below:

Let’s Go18:18Sugar Ray Leonard

Our Duke Eatmon talks to his long-time hero, Sugar Ray Leonard, about a historical Montreal boxing event that he remembers vividly. 18:18

For my dad, Sugar Ray represented something that he could not be: a young Black man who could realize all his dreams in the squared circle.

My father had been one of the best amateur fighters in Quebec in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Wendell Murray Eatmon had fought at the Montreal Forum in the days when the Golden Gloves winner made the local newspapers. He had fought in the Canadian National Championships.

But my dad had two things going against him. He was a southpaw and he was Black.

A few months before The Brawl In Montreal, I was rummaging through some of my dad’s things when I found a fight poster from when he headlined a card at the old Paul Sauvé Arena. From behind me, my father snatched it out of my hands.

He said that I had no business going through his things. But my mother said, “You might as well let him see it now.”

On the poster, my father was young, trim and muscular. His photo was on the left and his opponent, a white French Canadian, was on the right. Under his challenger’s name, it said “Québécois” in brackets.

Under my father’s name, it said “n—-r.”

I was excited to see my dad in his athletic heyday, but confused as to why he was being so disrespected.

Wilfred “Pit” Decain, my father’s best man and one of his cornermen, later explained to me that my dad left the game because promoters would push him to throw fights for white opponents, which would greatly enhance their reputations.

My father was indirectly told that as a Black fighter, he would only go so far in Quebec.

Duke’s father, Wendell Murray Eatmon, was an amateur fighter in Quebec in the 1950s and ’60s. (Submitted by Duke Eatmon)

Now I understood. Sugar Ray was the one who managed to make it as someone young, gifted and Black, as Nina Simone would say. My father realized his dreams through Sugar Ray, and cheered him on.

For me, Sugar Ray was the Black kid who made it out da’ hood. Maybe I could make it out one day and buy my parents a home, too.

So when it was announced that Sugar Ray would defend his title against Panama’s Roberto Duran at the Olympic Stadium on Friday, June 20, 1980, I jumped up and down on my bed for half an hour before breaking one of its legs.

No problem. Sugar would stop him late in the fight, I thought.

Fight night was epic. It was my first time seeing live boxing, and we had the cheapest seats at $20 a pop — way up in the rafters. But as the night progressed, we snuck down to better seats, where you didn’t need to use binoculars.

My cousins had come down from the East Coast. Most Black people at the Big O that night represented the same demographic I came from: lower-income folk who scrimped and saved to come see our hero, Sugar Ray.

The first fight of the night left me a little shaken as Cleveland Denny, a fighter who lived in our neighbourhood of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, got knocked out by Gaétan Hart of Buckingham, Que., and fell into a coma. I remember the paramedics carrying him out of the ring on a stretcher. He died days later.

But something else had been slowly eating at me. It wasn’t the rainy night that gave it the evening a dank atmosphere. It was the N-word I heard quite a few times leading up to the main event, and the skirmishes between Black fans and the white French Canadians who made up the majority of the crowd. They were no fans of Leonard.

It was clear that even though he was holding this fight in the city that gave him his gold medal, Leonard was now stepping into a hostile environment that seemed envious and hateful of his success as a young Black man.

As Duran was shown warming up on the stadium’s big screen, there were roars of approval as if he were a lion in the Roman Colosseum.

When Ray was on the screen, tons of boos could be heard, followed by “n—-r” and “maudit n—e.

Ray was booed as he entered the ring. Duran was given such a welcome that you would swear he was from Chicoutimi.

Leonard and Duran fought the fiercest battle in welterweight history, fuelled by Duran’s utter hatred for the pretty boy with lots of money and Ray’s refusal to back down.

The decision was read after 15 brutal and exciting rounds. Duran was declared the new champion by a close unanimous decision. I began to cry as the crowd roared their approval.

I cried because my hero lost his belt. I cried because he lost his first fight as a professional. I cried because they called him names. I cried because I felt real racial hatred and discrimination for the first time.

My father told me to stop crying. But I knew he wasn’t angry with me for being a wuss. He was hurt that I had experienced what he had with that old fight poster — being seen as less than human.

Duke and his father visiting Atlantic City, N.J., in the 1970s. (Submitted by Duke Eatmon)

I followed Leonard throughout his career, through his numerous retirements and comebacks. But that legacy was always tied to what I saw and heard that night in the Olympic Stadium, my dad, racism and my coming of age.

Forty-one years after The Brawl in Montreal, we finally were able to speak about what that night meant for both of us.

“It just went inside of me…. I’m like, they don’t like me anymore all of a sudden?” Leonard said of the slurs and boos he heard as he left his dressing room.

“It made me almost, like, vanish because I wasn’t important [to the Montreal crowd] … I was psychologically hurt.”

My dad had a massive stroke last October, which he never fully recovered from. He also caught COVID-19 and has been in and out of the hospital.

He no longer talks or moves much, eats very little and is paralyzed in his right arm. But he’s still here for us.

I asked Leonard if he could give a shout-out to my dad. Ray said, “I’ll do you one even better.”

Music columnist Duke Eatmon interviewed the boxing great 41 years after the Brawl in Montreal. Leonard wanted to send a message to Duke’s father, Wendell. 0:21

When my father saw the video, he smiled like crazy. He couldn’t say much, but he smiled.

Maybe Pops stayed around a bit longer just to see Sugar Ray.

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For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.