By Steve Corbo
I will always remember this fight because I was there, at ringside, close enough to reach out and touch Cleveland Denny. In the late 1970’s my friend Johnny Lira was the USBA Lightweight Champion and one of world’s top rated lightweights. In ’79 he lost in his bid to capture the WBA World Lightweight Title.
A year later, Ring Magazine had him rated #5 in the world , he was looking to get back into the mix and get another shot at the title. Johnny was going to fight Gaeten Hart on the undercard of Sugar Ray Leonard vs Roberto Duran, up in Montreal. The bout was scheduled for June 20,1980. But they weren’t able to make the fight and Cleveland Denny wound up in the ring facing Hart, instead of Lira. Johnny, myself and Mauro DiFiore decided to go up to Montreal anyway and see the show. What a show it was, taking place at the Olympic Stadium and in the same city where just four years earlier Sugar Ray Leonard won a Gold Medal in the 1976 Olympics. Johnny was on top of his game so we were with Angelo Dundee, Wildredo Benitez, media guys like the dean of all boxing historians Hank Kaplan, etc. We were surrounded by boxing royalty. We had no tickets, but somebody hooked us up and we got in on some TV/Radio Press Passes! We had no assigned seats! I ended up sitting in Leonard’s corner, on a folding chair I picked up from someplace, next to Joe Frazier. We talked about his son Marvis, who was an amateur at the time, and had just won the National’s.
Anyway, before Leonard and Duran got into the ring and before most of the crowd had filed in, was the Hart – Denny fight. The three of us just walked down to the ring, sat down and watched this fight. We (especially Lira) wanted to get an extra close look at the fight and check out Hart, because Lira thought he’d be fighting him down the road. Possibly in his next fight. I had also seen Denny fight in person, the year before, on a card at the Olympic Auditorium, in Los Angeles. So I had in interest in seeing both guys.
As we know, Denny died from injuries he received in that bout. He clung to life for 16 days, never regaining consciousness, before he passed away. We knew he was in a rough one and when the end came in the 10th and final round he was stopped cold. We, as well as anybody else watching that fight, knew right then and there, he was hurt bad. But we didn’t know the true extent of his injuries. Sometimes guys get knocked out cold and they fully recover. He left the ring unconscious, on a stretcher and that was the last we saw of him.
The main event was yet to come. Leonard vs Duran, 15 rounds, for all the marbles. There were more than 46,000 people in that Olympic Stadium, to see one of the most anticipated fights in years. Most of those people had no idea what had happened in the preliminary bouts and for those who did, I am sure they just put the Hart – Denny fight on hold, at least for the time being. I know I did… We knew he was in a tough fight,”got his butt knocked out” and it was one heck of a bad knockout…. But we didn’t know until later just how bad it really was. I will always remember that fight and all these years later, every once in a while, I say a prayer for Denny. He was 24 years old at the time of his death.