LAS VEGAS — When the final bell rang, he had blood dripping from his mouth and eyes. It was a good thing. Otherwise, we might never have known that Ray Leonard had been in a fight.

No mas, please. What was billed as the final chapter in a trilogy of great fighters turned out to be little more than a slug chasing a phantom. Here was Leonard dancing, poking his head forward, taunting Roberto Duran the way he had taunted him nine years ago in the famous No Mas bout in New Orleans. And here was Duran, now fleshy and old, unable to do anything about it. Wasn’t this supposed to be the revenge match? Wasn’t this supposed to be the retribution for Duran, the payback for years of embarrassment, shame, regret?

Somebody forgot to tell Duran, 38, who at times looked as slow as a crane, turning in the direction of Leonard but never hitting him. He punched air. He punched sweat. He rarely connected with flesh — and that, after all, was his only hope.

“Speed was my game plan,” said Leonard, 33, after beating Duran easily in a 12-round decision to retain his World Boxing Council super middleweight title. He stuck by it beautifully. But it was not the speed of his youth, not the speed that carried him to glorious victory 10 years ago. For all the hype that tried to gloss it away, this proved to be a fight between two aged boxers who should get out of the game now — before nobody can remember how good they once were.

Age. That was the theme of this brawl. It showed on both men — not only in the midsection, but in the pace of the bout. Perhaps the worst thing the promoters could have done was allow footage of the first two fights (from 1980) to be shown before this bout. Like old snapshots from summer camp, it only served to remind us how much time has passed.

“FIGHT HIM! THROW SOME PUNCHES! YOU ARE LOSING!” Duran’s corner exhorted him in the later rounds. But lack of strength, lack of stamina or both had robbed the once great Panamanian star of his secret weapon: ferocity. He was as mild as a black-haired pussy cat.

And thus, the rounds moved by with little confrontation. Few punches connected, few powerful exchanges. If you like to boogie, or rhumba, maybe you enjoyed it. There was Leonard with a few old tricks, the bolo punch, the shuffle step, the gawk. But geez. You don’t have to come to Las Vegas to watch two men dance, do you?

It was sad, really. By the end, the crowd was booing. They have only themselves to blame. Once upon a time, people wouldn’t have paid to see two men fight each other after nine years apart. But we bought into it, we wanted to believe — perhaps because no one had ever quite solved the mystery of that night in New Orleans. You could sense that fans wanted Duran to be the animal of old, but from the start, with his 158-pound frame no longer taut or imposing, his once jet-black hair now peppered with gray, it was clear the old magic was nowhere to be found.

“What went wrong?” reporters asked Duran after the fight.

“I knew Leonard would come and try to clown around. He didn’t beat me. To try and fight him like this in the United States . . . it is impossible.”

About the only thing that makes sense in that statement is the last three words. Impossible. The opening round seemed to show that, when Leonard moved and danced and left Duran frozen, trying to beat him with his nasty eyes. “I never saw eyes that punched,” Leonard once said of Duran.

Good point.

And so it went all fight long: Duran unable to land more than an occasional blow. His best punch, one might argue, was an accidental head butt in the fourth that drew blood from Leonard’s lips. You can’t hit what you can’t catch. And unlike Thomas Hearns, whose long arms were able to tag Leonard in their last confrontation, Duran found his reach just a few inches shy of its goal. Your arms to short to box with God.

No mas, please.

Sad, because there was more than just revenge on the line in this desert Thursday night. There was history. Duran and Leonard began the decade in a 20-foot-by-20-foot boxing ring in Montreal. And now they had come to end it.

You can make a case that, in many ways, Leonard defined boxing in the 80’s. He was its star attraction, a smiling, baby-faced tactician who seemed, to our joy, never to find boxing all that critical. He suffered his only defeat at the hands of Duran when he abandoned his pop-pop-pop style to play macho slug against the Panamanian shark. That defeat was erased three months later in New Orleans, when Duran walked away in the middle of the fight. No mas. But there was plenty mas for Sugar. He fought a glorious war with Thomas Hearns in 1981 and won, on sheer guts and fumes, then retired for two years, came back, beat a nobody, retired again for three years, came back, outsmarted

the reigning king of the ring, Marvin Hagler in 1987, fought Hearns again earlier this year to a controversial draw, and now, finally, he came back to Duran, just before the curtain fell on the decade.Give Leonard credit for surviving all these ring wars, for coming into these bouts with a solid game plan and sticking with it. And give Duran credit for dropping his weight — even if that was what cost him this bout — enough to at least look a little bit like his old self.

But that’s about as far as you can take it. This was an overhyped affair that probably, in retrospect, shouldn’t have gotten us as excited as it did. Boxing will do that. It will fool you. But there was no fooling anybody when this thing ended Thursday. That blood on Leonard’s face should serve as a reminder — that even against aging, sagging opponents, boxing can be dangerous. It is better left to younger men. No mas.

Please. PUNCH BREAKDOWN

Duran Leonard Total punches 588 438 Connected 84 227 Pct. connected 14 52 Jabs 393 211 Connected 33 118 Pct. connected 8 56 Power punches 195 227 Connected 51 109 Pct. connected 26 48 Knockdowns 0 0

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