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Sports Articles: Boxing Legends Part 5: Sugar Ray Leonard

Boxing Legends Part 5: Sugar Ray Leonard
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Sugar Ray Leonard 'Sugar'


Ray Charles Leonard was born on the 17th May 1956, in Wilmington, North Carolina. He was the fifth child of seven born to Cicero and Getha Leonard and named after Getha's favourite singer Ray Charles. When he was still just 3 years old, the family moved to Washington DC. A few years later, in 1967, they moved to Seat Pleasant, Maryland, where Ray nearly drowned in a creek during a flood. The following year they moved again, to Palmer Park in Maryland.

The young Ray was a shy child, he mostly stayed at home reading comic books and playing with his dog, which may have been a consequence of his home life. Both parents were heavy drinkers and fought constantly with each other, with money a major problem for them. Ray remembers: "I used to walk to the Washington Monument from North L Street Northwest. And I was so hungry at times, I would stop and look into the trash cans, and if there was half a sandwich, I would take that sandwich and eat it. It was just a matter of survival. I didn't think much of it, but it was just the way things were."

His father, Cicero, was a supermarket night manager, while his mother, Getha, was a nurse, and they remember Ray being a quiet child. Getha said of him: "He never did talk too much. We could never tell what he was thinking. But I never had any problems with him. I never had to go to school once because of him." All a long way from the showman he was to become in his professional career.

Older brother Roger was the one who was into boxing, and he helped start the Palmer Park boxing program by urging the centre's director Ollie Dunlop to start up a team. Former boxer Dave Jacobs and Janks Morton volunteered as coaches and Roger became an integral part of the team, winning a number of trophies. At home, Roger would show off about his trophies and goad Ray until eventually his younger brother went with Roger to try out boxing. Immediately Ray felt at home: "I tried the gloves on, and it just felt so natural. From that moment I became so embedded in boxing. I found a friend in boxing."

"He was a natural. Fast and smart, beautiful to watch." - Janks Morton

Getha was not so keen on this turn of events, she had always wanted her son to be a singer, like the man she had chosen to name him after. "He sang with two of my daughters in church, and people said he sounded like Sam Cooke," Getha remembered. "And like Ray used to tell me, 'Mama, I put the singing in to swinging.'" Ray had found his calling in life though, at least for now, as he had no intention of making a professional career as a boxer. In fact, once his voice dropped at the age of 14, he left the choir to concentrate on boxing.

The family were very surprised at how well he took to boxing as he was not an athletic child before hand. He had short stints trying wrestling and track and field, but never stuck at either. Ray had a natural flair for boxing though and he focused on it totally during his time at Parkdale High School, training with Dave Jacobs in the Palmer Park youth recreation centre. There was little money available, so the ring was just coloured tape marking out a square on the ground. Jacobs was take the boxers for a run at 5am and then work with them after school in the centre.

Ray began his amateur career at the age of 13, boxing in US Amateur Athletic Union bouts and gained 25lbs in weight in his first year of competition. After beating the best at regional level, Ray stepped up to national level in 1971.The following year he won the Golden Gloves lightweight title, but suffered his first defeat in the quarterfinals of the National AAU featherweight tournament, losing to Jerome Artis by decision. He also took part in the Eastern Olympic trials that year, though he had to lie about his age to enter as it was for 17 years and over and he was still just 16 years old.

He reached the semi-finals, where he lost a heavily disputed decision to Greg Whaley. Whaley was given such a battering in the fight that he could no longer continue in the trials and never boxed again. Ray picked up his nickname during that tournament when the assistant coach of the US Olympic team, Sarge Johnson, said to Dave Jacobs: "That kid you got is sweet as sugar." Ray was impressive enough to join the AAU international team.

The following year, 1973, could have been a turning point in his career when Ray got his high school sweetheart Juanita Wilkinson pregnant. They decided to have the baby together and get married after Ray had been to the Olympics in 1976. Ray continued to focus solely on his Olympic dream while Juanita continued to live with her parents to allow him that focus. Ray won the National Golden Gloves Lightweight Championship but lost to Randy Shields in the National AAU Tournament final at the same weight.

Then came a moment that could have changed everything for him, with the imaginatively named Ray Junior on the way, the father-to-be was offered $5,000 to turn pro. Despite the temptation of the 'quick buck', Ray stuck to his plan and 1974 saw him even more successful as he won both National Golden Gloves and National AAU tournament at lightweight. Though he did suffer his final two defeats as an amateur during 1974. The first was a disputed decision against Russian boxer Anatoli Kamnev in Russia. Kamnev clearly felt the decision was wrong as he immediately gave Ray the winner's trophy when it was awarded to him! The second defeat was just as controversial as Ray faced Polish boxer Kazimierz Szczerba in Poland and dominated the first 2 rounds before knocking him down 3 times in the third, only to lose to a decision.

"The sport turned me into a different person, afraid of no one. One day a bully, probably about 6ft 2, threw me against a locker. I was almost knocked out cold. The old me would have searched for any peaceful way to end the mismatch. The new me fired off a succession of left hooks, missing wildly. The bully began to laugh yet each hook kept coming closer till one put his butt on the ground. The guys surrounding us, who expected to see me getting whipped, were speechless. For the rest of the afternoon, I strutted around the school as 'the man'." - Sugar Ray Leonard

Leonard's Olympics preparation stepped up a gear in 1975, at national level he won the National AAU light-welterweight title and then went to the Pan American games in Mexico City to win the light-welterweight gold there as well. There was just one thing left for Ray as an amateur and, unsurprisingly he made the team for the Montreal Olympics as part of what is often called the strongest Olympics boxing team of all time. On the same team as the young Sugar Ray were Leon and Michael Spinks, Charles Mooney, Howard Davis and John Tate.

Unfortunately for Ray, while he was on the verge of Olympic glory, trouble was brewing for him back home, though he knew nothing about it cloistered away in a training camp. Long-time girlfriend Juanita had filed an application for $156 a month support payments from Prince George's County, Maryland and named Leonard as the father. The county state attorney's office filed a civil suit against the boxer to establish paternity and get the support payments from him. Despite going to the Olympics to watch Ray box, Juanita never told him what she had done and he fought throughout the tournament with a picture of her taped to his sock.

Ray waltzed through his first 4 bouts, winning all of them by a 5-0 decision to be given a chance for revenge over Polish boxer Kazimierz Szczerba, the last fighter to get a decision over him. Once again it was a 5-0 win, and he was through to the final to face legendary Cuban KO king Andres Aldama, who had reached the final with five straight knockout victories. To add to his problems, Leonard had badly injured his hands and each punch caused him pain. Despite the pain, Ray dominated his Cuban opponent, knocking him down in the second and then again late in the final round to get a 5-0 decision again and win the gold medal he had been dreaming of.

Now he had achieved his dream Ray announced: "I'm finished..I've fought my last fight. My journey has ended, my dream is fulfilled. Now I want to go to school." The citizens of Glengarden, Maryland gifted him a scholarship to University of Maryland, where he planned to study business admin and communications. The plan came crashing down around his ears as sensationalised news stories about the paternity suit Juanita had filed killed any chance of him getting endorsements. "I wanted to be like Bruce Jenner. But he was white and just weeks after the games I felt like a nigger again." Things were tough for Ray at this time, his father was taken into hospital with meningitis and his mother had a heart attack, neither of them were able to work. It was all spiralling out of control and Ray ended up in an apartment with a group of black men injecting each other with heroin begging for a hit, but one of them stopped him.

"Not long after that scene with the needle I got invited to Ali's third fight against Ken Norton. Norton had won the first, Ali the second. A tough night lay ahead for Ali. But he asked to see me in his dressing room before the fight. It was mindboggling that Ali could think about me turning pro just minutes before the bell. He said: "Make sure no one owns you. Be your own man.'" Leonard was worried that he would end up with nothing, like so many professional boxers did but Janks Morton told him that if he turned pro he could pay his father's hospital bills and that convinced him to take the step.

"I only became a professional fighter because we were broke and had no money. I've been sexually abused, I did drugs, I was an alcoholic. Some of the fans are not privy to this. The safest place for me was boxing. It gave me a sense of control, but my life outside the ring was pretty tough." - Sugar Ray Leonard

Morton introduced him to an attorney called Mike Trainer, who became his business advisor throughout his career. Trainer and Ray convinced 24 of Trainer's friends and clients into underwriting Ray's career with a $21,000 investment which was to be repaid within 4 years at 8% interest. Trainer then set up Sugar Ray Leonard Inc with Ray as the sole stockholder and president of the company with a pension plan, trust fund for his parents and son and a nice salary. On Muhammad Ali's recommendation Angelo Dundee was brought in as trainer and manager. Instead of the standard 33% cut of the purse, Dundee would take 15% but ceded day-to-day control of training to Dave Jacobs and Janks Morton, using training procedures he would set out to them, and he chose Ray's opponents.

With an amateur record of 165 wins and 5 losses, with 75 wins by KO, Sugar Ray Leonard was ready to fill the gap that existed as in Ray's words: "When I turned pro, Muhammad Ali was laying back, and I was able to fill up an area that was empty." Leonard had studied Ali, and his namesake Sugar Ray Robinson, and was ready to display showmanship, to entertain and be a star. He wanted to be the new Ali, the big draw that everyone wanted to see. It was not just Ali and Robinson that influenced him, Leonard was also heavily influenced by another of his idols, Bruce Lee. You can see those three in his footwork, punching and the flashy moves he would bring out. It was his way of making sure he was not just another boxer, who could end up punch drunk and forgotten at the end of his career. From the very start he set out to be the big draw fighter that Ali had been.

"When I first started, I used to fight like Joe Frazier. I would come in low, bob and weave, and I knocked out many guys like that. I straightened out when I saw Muhammad Ali, when I started studying Sugar Ray Robinson." - Sugar Ray Leonard

"I'm gratified he's using my name. It's great when kids think enough of you to use your name." - Sugar Ray Robinson in response to accusations that Leonard was arrogant for using Sugar Ray.

Sugar Ray took his first steps as a professional fighter on 5th February 1977 in the Civic Center, Baltimore. A crowd of 10,270 watched him beat Louis 'The Bull' Vega over 6 rounds by unanimous decision. The purse of $40,044 was immediately used to repaid $21,000 to his investors. A succession of wins followed until, in July the following year, Leonard stepped in to the ring to take on Dick Eklund. The fight was so one-sided and Eklund took such a beating that his mother (who was also his manager) came to ringside to beg the cornermen to throw in the towel with tears in her eyes.

About three weeks later Sugar Ray Leonard fought his first world-ranked opponent, Floyd Mayweather in the days before he became Sr, who was ranked number 17. Like his son, Mayweather was known for his defensive skills but it availed little against Leonard and it was all over in the 10th round as Leonard knocked out Mayweather. His next fight enabled him to get revenge on Randy Shields, who had beaten him in the amateur ranks, and Leonard duly beat him by unanimous decision after 10 rounds.

There were eight more wins before Sugar Ray fought Pete Ranzany for the NABF welterweight title in August 1979. Ranzany only lasted until the 4th round before losing to a TKO and Leonard had his first title as a professional boxer. Six weeks later he defended it with a 1st round KO of Andy Price to earn himself a world title shot against Wilfred Benitez.

Leonard is often accused of ducking the top fighters by his detractors, but no one can say that about his fight with Benitez, though he did manage to get a $1m purse compared to Benitez's $1.2m. This despite Benitez being linear champion, WBC Welterweight World champion, a two division champion and the youngest world champion ever at the age of 17. Oh and he was unbeaten, with a record of 38 wins and 1 draw. Coming into the fight many expected Benitez's defensive mastery to be too much for a fighter that many believed was just hype.

It was the 30th November 1979 and that night Leonard received a phone call from Muhammad Ali with some advice before he stepped into the ring. Ali advised the youngster not to do anything flashy as the judges would resent him 'hot-dogging' against a champion. Leonard took the advice to heart and stuck to the basics throughout the fight, which turned out to be very tactical, as well as highly competitive. Though it initially started out as fairly one-sided.

In fact Leonard later said: "I wasn't aware I was in a championship early because I hit him so easy, but then he adjusted to my style. It was like looking in a mirror." It was the 4th round before Benitez really came into it, after being rocked with a left in the first round and also put on his backside in the third with a left jab. The knockdown was more embarrassing than anything for the champ and he got straight up. Then, in the fourth, the real Benitez came out, slipping punches and finding his range with his right. Leonard later said: "No one, I mean no one, can make me miss punches like that."

A clash of heads in the sixth opened a cut on Benitez's forehead but, though the blood flowed down his forehead and the bridge of his nose, it stayed out of his eyes. Leonard was still landing the harder punches but was unable to finish Benitez off as he kept slipping away from the challenger's attacks. Going into the 15th and final round Leonard was ahead on all the judges' scorecards and Benitez came out to try and rescue the fight. It was toe-to-toe, until Sugar Ray's left dropped Benitez once more. Though the champion got up again, he was taking more punches and the referee stepped in to end it with just 6 seconds left in the fight.

Leonard later called Benitez the best pure boxer he ever fought and the fight impressed enough for both the Boxing Writers' Association of America and The Ring to name Sugar Ray Leonard as their Fighter of the Year for 1979. The new champion's next fight was against British fighter Dave 'Boy' Green, his first defence of the WBC world welter belt. The Brit was hit with a left hook Leonard describes as "the single hardest punch I ever threw" in the 4th round and the fight was all over.

Leonard's next opponent was to be WBA Welterweight champion Jose Isidro Cuevas, in a unification bout. The Mexican was the longest reigning champ, having made 10 defences of his title since 1976, but that was not the fight everyone wanted to see. The man everyone wanted to see Leonard fight was Roberto Duran, previously undisputed World Lightweight Champion for 6 and a half years, with 71 wins on his record, the #1 welterweight contender and was considered to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.

WBC president Jose Sulaiman started applying pressure on his countryman Cuevas to step aside and allow Duran to face Sugar Ray instead. Sulaiman publicly pleaded with Cuevas. When that did not work, the military government of Panama, Duran's home country and where the WBA was based, began to apply pressure. In the end it took a personal visit from Colonel Ruben Parades of the National Guard of Panama's dictator Omar Torrijos to the offices of WBA president Rodrigo Sanchez to get the WBA to agree. Now the 'Brawl In Montreal' was given the green light and the contracts were signed.

Initially Duran went up into the Catskill Mountains to train under Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown. He would bully sparring partners such as Kevin Rooney, who later went on to train Mike Tyson in his early career. In his younger days, Tyson would also often go up into the Catskills to train. On top of the training Duran also waged a campaign to get under Leonard's skin: "He was an animal. He was just so rude to me, to my wife. It bothered me as a man. You don't insult a guy's wife. I couldn't speak Spanish but I could tell from his hand gestures. It's like, 'Wow, this guy was crazy'."

Even at a press conference in New York's Waldorf-Astoria Duran would attempt to intimidate Leonard and also to frighten the press. During his stay in New York, Duran would deliberately eat everything with his hands, ripping his food apart with obvious relish, in order to convince the press he was an animal. You have to wonder how much of this Rooney saw and used later to build the aura of fear around his charge Tyson. Especially what he must have witnessed in the final build up to the fight when both fighters moved to Montreal, their homes just a few metres apart, and Duran really went to work on Leonard. According to Angelo Dundee: "Duran abused Ray and Ray couldn't handle it. Duran would see Ray walking with his wife in Montreal and he'd yell, 'I keel your husband. I keel your husband!'"

Ray said later: "The minute he signed that contract he turned into another person. He cursed me, cursed my wife, gave me the finger, gave my wife the finger. He did things that were from the street, and the only thing I could do was fight him back. I'd trained to box; use my height, my reach, this and that, but that all went out of my mind when I entered the ring. All I wanted to do was beat him up; annihilate him. That switch occurred as soon as the bell rang for Round 1. I did nothing other than stand toe-to-toe with the guy." Angelo Dundee was desperately trying to convince Leonard to box, to move side-to-side and avoid getting caught on the ropes, but Leonard was determined to take Duran on head-on.

The whole fight nearly collapsed just three days before the fight when an ECG revealed Duran had an irregular heartbeat, though Duran's trainer Ray Arcel said: "That can't be true. Duran doesn't have a heart." That was not enough to stop the fight taking place and, on 20 June 1980, 'The Brawl In Montreal' took place in front of 46,317 people. An, in his own words, angry and resentful Leonard tried to face Duran toe-to-toe, only to find Duran smothering him, cutting off the ring, denying him any space. In the second a left hook from Duran rocked Leonard and sent him back into the ropes. Though Ray gave it it his best shot, and began to find space as the fight went on, he was just unable to match Duran in a brawl and Duran had hands like "fricking bricks" according to Leonard.

Leonard was unable to lose the anger, fighting from the heart instead of using his head. By the same token, Duran was unable to switch off from the animal he had pretended to be, even when the fight finished. At the final bell he ignored Leonard's outstretched glove, instead pointing at Ray's brother Roger, pointing at his crotch and calling him a c**t. Roger charged at Duran only to be knocked out cold by one punch according to Ray: "Duran just nailed him. There was so much confusion in the ring that not a lot of people even saw it happen."

After everything had settled down the result was read out, mistakenly being called a majority decision as Angelo Poletti's scorecard had been incorrectly added up as 147-147, when it was actually 148-147, giving Duran a unanimous decision. Ray had come out of the fight with rope burns on his back and had to have his ears bled to avoid cauliflower ears, but he also came out with $9m compared to Duran's $1.5m. Ray was once again showing his business acumen and had negotiated a percentage of the gate money.

After the fight Leonard contemplated retirement and took a holiday to Hawaii to consider his future. The first morning after his arrival he found himself getting up at dawn to go for a run and realised he was not ready to retire. Instead he wanted an immediate rematch, as quickly as possible after the first fight in the hope of catching Duran cold, and still out of shape after the inevitable binge he would go on: "My intention was to fight Duran ASAP because I knew Duran's habits. I knew he would indulge himself, he'd gain 40-50lbs and then sweat it off to make 147. It's not easy. A loss like that will make you a better fighter or it will destroy you. Roberto educated me. He taught me that boxing is not just about punches. It also includes the mind and the brain. He had got under my skin and into my head. I lived that loss for months, agonising over how stupid I was to try and challenge him toe-to-toe."

Not everyone was as keen as Sugar Ray to make an immediate rematch and Dave Jacobs quit over the plan as he believed that Leonard needed a tune up fight first. It was not quite as immediate as you might think, with 5 months between them, there was plenty of time for Duran to party and binge and then get back into shape. Whether Duran chose to use them correctly or not is another matter though, but on 25th November 1980 at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, Duran faced Leonard once more.

Before the fight began, Leonard was surprised as the man he was named after, singer Ray Charles, sang, giving Leonard a lift before the start. This time Leonard did not allow himself to get drawn into a brawl and used his speed and movement to outbox the champion. By round 7 he was so full of confidence that he began taunting Duran, sticking his chin out invitingly. Towards the end of the following round Duran had enough and turned his back on Leonard quitting the fight, later blaming stomach cramps from overeating. It is said that Duran told the referee "No mas", but Leonard never heard him say that amid the noise which greeted the shock of Duran quitting. Roger once more raced into the ring, leading Duran to immediately put his fists up, expecting some form of retaliation, but Roger just wanted to celebrate the win.

"I made him quit. To make a man quit, to make Roberto Duran quit, was better than knocking him out." - Sugar Ray Leonard

Next up for Leonard was southpaw fighter Larry Bonds who, though ranked #6 in the world, was chosen as a tune up fight to prepare him to face Ayub Kalule, the WBA light middleweight champion. Bonds was no match for Sugar Ray, who hunted him down as the challenger looked to dance away from punishment. Leonard dropped Bonds in the 4th, but Bonds managed to continue until the 10th, when Leonard once more sent him to the canvas and then trapping him in the corner after he got up again. The referee stepped in to stop it.

Kalule would be a much tougher assignment, the unbeaten Ugandan had been champion for 2 years with a 36-0 record and had been preparing for Leonard's lateral movement. Sugar Ray decided to change for this fight and, clearly seeing a weakness in Kalule's style, he took the fight to the inside as much as possible. Leonard was clearly ahead when Kalule started to look like he was taking control of the fight in the 9th, but Leonard caught him with a right. Kalule was hurt and Leonard took advantage, hitting him with a flurry of punches which knocked the Ugandan down. Though Kalule got up again, the ref stopped the fight at an official stoppage time of 2:59, though the actual time was 3:06 and the bell should have stepped in to save him.

It was time for "The Showdown" next, as Leonard looked to unify the World Welterweight Championship in a fight against Thomas "Hitman" Hearns. While Leonard is often criticised for avoiding fighters at their peak, which has some amount of truth in it later in his career, at this point he was only interested in the fights that would earn the big bucks. Fighting Hearns, who had been smashing aside opponents and had a 32-0 record, with 30 of those wins by way of knockout, was taking on a world class fighter at the peak of his powers.

The fight took place in September 1981 in Las Vegas and the heat was stifling, so bad in fact that the day before the fight all the bulbs in the overhead lamps were changed as promoters feared the original ones would roast the fighters. As Leonard said later: "What the fans got to understand is: It was hot as hell in that ring. It was hot, and that pace." It was the pace that was most surprising, considering that stifling heat. In the early rounds Hearns was in control, using his reach and powerful jab to keep Leonard where he could control him.

Leonard had taunted Duran in their rematch, winding up his right to throw a left and showboating, while the crowd laughed at Duran. Against Hearns, Leonard would wind up a right and Hearns would mimic him and then laugh at him. By the end of round 5, Hearns had a comfortable lead on the scorecards and Leonard's left eye was swelling. In the 6th Leonard finally began to have some success and hurt Hearns with a left hook to the chin and won the round and the following one. Hearns recovered and he won rounds 9, 10, 11 and 12, leaving Angelo Dundee to tell Leonard in the corner: "You're blowing it, son! You're blowing it!"

A fired up Leonard came out and, despite a now badly swollen left eye, took the fight to Hearns, hurting him again with a right and then a combination. A wobbly Hearns back up and fell through the ropes under pressure, though there was no punch, so no knockdown. Hearns was badly hurt and Leonard scented blood, a flurry of hard punches knocked Hearns down right near the end of the round. In the 14th, Hearns was staggered and then pinned back against the ropes while Leonard unleashed, forcing the referee to step in and end the fight. While some watching claimed it was stopped too early, Hearns' manager and trainer Emmanuel Steward said: "I felt that the referee was justified in stopping the fight....Tommy did not have enough energy to make it through the fight."

Leonard was the winner, winning Ring magazine's Fighter of the Year and the fight was chosen as Fight of the Year. After his retirement Leonard said Hearns was the best boxer he ever faced and named this fight as the peak of his career: "Tommy Hearns seemed like an indestructible machine, so to beat him, I think that was my defining moment, the pinnacle."

Leonard followed that up by a 3rd round TKO win over Bruce Finch, who was ranked number 4 by the WBC, in February before starting preparations to face Roger Stafford in May. It was during training for that fight that Sugar Ray started to see floating dots, so he took a trip to see the doctor, who discovered he had a detached retina. The Stafford fight was cancelled and instead he had successful surgery on his eye to reattach the retina in May.

Towards the end of the year, on the 9th November 1982, Leonard held a big charity event in Baltimore, Maryland, which he invited boxing dignitaries too and was hosted by famous boxing MC Howard Cosell. Legendary fighters, such as Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton gave speeches about Leonard, then Marvellous Marvin Hagler also gave one. Hagler at the time was the most feared fighter in the world, no one wanted to fight him, but Hagler was led to believe Leonard was going to challenge him at the end of the evening, so he ended his speech with the words: "Leonard and Hearns was 'The Showdown'. We've got to be Fight of the Century!"

Sugar Ray got up then and also agreed that a fight between them "would be one of the greatest in the history of boxing". The crowd roared in approval and excitement of the possibility of a clash between the pair, when Leonard then stunned everyone present by saying "unfortunately it will never happen". He then announced his retirement. Leonard's eye had recovered but he no longer wanted to step into the ring. Hagler was furious, he had been left feeling foolish and he was already an angry man due to his treatment in the media, now he was also bitter. The two never did sort out the ill feeling that sprung up between them that night.

It was not long before Sugar Ray missed the limelight and, just over a year later in December 1983, he announced a return to the ring. He put forward a plan which could, at best, be called extremely confident, most would suggest it was more about arrogance. He planned to take on two ten round bouts against first Milton McCrory and then Donald Curry. After that it was Duran (again), Hearns (again) and then, finally, Hagler. Not just did he face a lot of public criticism over the potential risk to his long term health, Leonard admitted he had not told his then-wife Juanita as she hated boxing.

"If I took just the top four offers I have right now, I could make about $100m in 1984. Everybody wants a piece of me. Right now, I'm more important than the title. The guy that beats me would be bigger than boxing, and who wouldn't want to see that on his resume?" - Sugar Ray Leonard when announcing his return to boxing

With Dave Jacobs back on his coaching team, though only in a limited role, his announced plans were put back as his first fight, scheduled for 25th February 1984, was actually against Kevin Howard. That also had to be postponed until May as Leonard needed further minor surgery on a loose retina. That fight did not quite go as expected, with Howard putting him on his back in the 4th round, the first time Sugar Ray had been knocked down as a professional boxer. He did fight back to win by TKO in the 9th, but he announced another retirement in the post-fight press conference. Leonard said that he just did not have it anymore.

Two years later, Leonard was ringside to watch Hagler fight John Mugabi and knock him out in 11 rounds to retain the undisputed World Middleweight Championship for the 12th time, taking his record to 62-2-2. However Sugar Ray saw something in the fight that made him think Hagler was past his best and vulnerable: "I was ringside, I'm watching John 'The Beast' Mugabi out box Hagler. Of all people, John 'The Beast' Mugabi.'" That made him decide to come out of retirement to face Marvelous Marvin Hagler and he called Mike Trainer and said simply, "I can beat Hagler."

"When I told my brothers that I wanted to fight Hagler, they couldn't believe I would even think of it," Leonard said later. "They asked, 'Who would be my tune up?' and I told them, 'Hagler'. I fought Kevin Howard before fighting Hagler and he knocked me down, and people thought Hagler would kill me. Back then, I was on the wrong side of the street, doing cocaine and drinking heavily. I was sad. I was not myself anymore. I wanted to fight, and the only thing that calmed me down was alcohol and drugs, so that was another reason why my friends didn't want me to come back, because they knew the other side of me."

It was not just his family and friends who were not keen on the idea of him facing Hagler, the general public's reaction was, at best, mixed and initially Hagler was not interested in facing Leonard. Eventually a guaranteed purse of $12m convinced Marvelous to take the fight, Sugar Ray was guaranteed $11m, and it was soon being promoted as "The Super Fight" and "The King Of The Ring". Hagler was a clear favourite, initially at 4-1, then dropping to 3-1, though conditions had been negotiated by Leonard to favour himself. The ring was bigger than usual at 22ft by 22ft and the gloves were thicker 10oz, rather than 8oz, to dampen Hagler's power. Even the number of rounds was dropped to 12, from the standard 15, at Leonard's request.

"I know exactly what it takes to beat this man, but people say, 'Well Ray, two years of inactivity, you'll be rusty.' No, no. He will eliminate the rust because he is what I want and I am what he wants. And boxing needs that kind of fight." - Sugar Ray Leonard

Initially Leonard planned to go toe-to-toe with Hagler and try to cut him, but just 5 days before the fight sparring partner Quincy Taylor caught Leonard with a good shot and his legs buckled badly. In fact, according to Sugar Ray himself: "He almost knocked me out". The plan was changed and instead Leonard decided to box him and, to help with that, he decided to play on Hagler's ego and convince the champion to try to out-box him. Hagler was at this time a feared fighter, during Leonard's retirement he had turned himself into a man to be avoided at all costs, so much so that Dr Ferdie Pacheco actually campaigned for the fight to be stopped as he worried so much for Leonard's health.

Hagler was arguably the greatest middleweight of all time, but he felt the media showed a lack of respect for his ability, hence the name change to make Marvelous his legal name. That bitterness Leonard worked on: "The whole fight was based upon me getting into his head. I wanted to beat him mentally, and we had so many press conferences, and I would say to the media, 'It's a shame that you guys don't see him as a good boxer and not just a slugger'." It worked and "Hagler told the press, 'I may surprise you all, I may outbox Ray.'" Leonard had got in his head and now everything was as much in his favour as it was possible to be going into a fight against a fighter as good as Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

This was the fight which launched the pay-per-view era that we now live in. Instead of going out live to TV stations, it was only the 12,379 crowd at Caesar's Palace plus around three million at the closed-circuit locations. There were 1600 of those, they all sold out and that helped Leonard on his way to becoming the first boxer to earn over $100m in purses as he took a percentage of the takings. HBO paid $3.1m for just 5 replays of the fight. It changed the face of the sport for all time.

The fight itself is one of the great fights of all time, with boxing journalists, pundits and, well, pretty much everyone split on who actually won it! It had the oddity of Hagler, a natural southpaw, boxing orthodox for the first two rounds. Which did not go well for him so he returned to fighting southpaw and, though clearly not at the level of previous years (it does seem Leonard's observation of him losing his way were astute) by the 5th Hagler began to get on top. While Sugar Ray believed Hagler was slowing and ageing, he himself was coming into the fight off a long period of inactivity and was also not at his absolute peak. Leonard was also tiring in the 5th and began to get tagged, a right uppercut buckling his knees and leaving him to end the round on the ropes.

The next round, the 6th, Leonard moved less and began to fight more, managing to outpunch Hagler in a number of their exchanges as the reigning champion was unable to take charge the way he did against Hearns. Hagler was not at the level he had been in previous years, but he still rallied and began to land solid jabs in the next two rounds as Leonard's counters lost their pep. In round 9 Hagler hurt Sugar Ray and pinned him in the corner. Leonard managed to fight his way out and get back into the fight, but Hagler looked to be getting on top going into the final few rounds.

The pace was dropping now, unsurprisingly, with Hagler pushing forward while Leonard, who was clearly tiring badly, kept coming back with showy and eye catching counters. Ahead of the 12th and final round, Leonard's trainer, Angelo Dundee, yelled at him, "we got three minutes....new champ....new champ!" But that seemed to inspire Hagler, who chased Leonard and caught him with a big left, backing him into a corner once more. Leonard was not to be denied though and launched a flurry of punches which forced Marvelous Marvin to back off and got the crowd roaring in approval.

The fight went to the judge's scorecard, with a result that still splits opinion to this day. I am still unable to make up my own mind who won, each time I watch it I change my mind, and boxing journalists were split on the winner too. The fact that the judges awarded it to Leonard by split decision should not have been controversial. Leonard had thrown less, 629 punches to Hagler's 792, but also landed more, 306 to 291. Sugar Ray also knew how to win points, he would save his best work until the end of rounds, when he would launch his attacks. However the controversy was because two of the judges saw it as close too, both scoring it 115-133, one to Hagler and one to Leonard, but the third judge, JoJo Guerra had given the fight to Leonard by 10 rounds, 118-110. Not even Angelo Dundee believed Sugar Ray had won 10 rounds!

The fight was deservedly picked as Fight of the Year and Upset of the Year by The Ring magazine, but there was to be no rematch. Leonard dismissing all overtures from the Hagler camp for a rematch, despite the potential earnings to be made. Instead Sugar Ray went back into retirement on 27th May 1987. Suggestions he was avoiding a rematch with Hagler out of fear of defeat only increased when he once again returned to boxing just a month after Hagler retired in June 1988.

His return fight was against Donny Lalonde on 7th November 1988 at Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas. Both Lalonde's WBC light heavyweight belt and the newly created WBC super middleweight title were on the line for the fight, which meant Lalonde had to drop to 168lbs from his natural weight of 175lbs. Leonard once again showed cunning in the negotiations as he got Lalonde's camp to agree to forfeit $1m for every pound over the weight limit he was. While Lalonde said he had no trouble making the weight, it still forced his training camp to focus on his weight.

Lalonde was a surprising choice for a return fight as he was a relative unknown outside of hardcore boxing fans and no one had been calling for Sugar Ray to face him. Despite being a world champion, he was not a big name and was known to be an awkward fighter, but Leonard still managed to get a guaranteed purse of over $10m. In fact Sugar Ray ended up with $15m, the largest purse ever in a light heavyweight fight. Lalonde was deducted a substantial portion of his $6m after refusing to put a Coors beer logo on his shorts because he wanted to display an anti-child abuse message!

Despite the lack of clamour for the fight, it took place on 7th November 1988 at Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas, with Lalonde looking drained, though he made the weight, weighing in on the day at 167lbs. The lightheavyweight champion came into the fight with a 31-2 record and 26 KOs to face a Leonard who was fighting for the first time without Angelo Dundee in his corner. Dundee refused to work with Sugar Ray again after working the Hagler fight without a contract and receiving less than 2% of the purse, much lower than the standard cut for a trainer. For the Lalonde fight Dundee wanted a contract but Leonard refused saying: "I don't have contracts. My word is my bond." Instead Janks Morton and Dave Jacobs trained Leonard to face Lalonde.

Lalonde's size and awkwardness troubled Sugar Ray and in the 4th Leonard was down for just the second time in his career. In the 9th a right to the chin had him in trouble early on, but he showed his heart to hit back and hurt Lalonde with a right of his own and drove him back on to the ropes. Unloading with venom a clearly hurt Lalonde attempted to tie him up but a left hook put him down. Lalonde got back up but was quickly knocked back down again and the fight was stopped. Leonard decided to relinquish the lightheavyweight title he had just won but kept the supermiddle belt.

By this point Leonard having personal differences with his trainer Janks Morton, which led to him being replaced by Pepe Correa ahead of a rematch with the 'Hitman' Hearns. It was a defence of his WBC Supermiddleweight belt, titled 'The War', with Sugar Ray guaranteed a purse of $14m and Hearns was to get $11m. Hearns took the fight to Leonard and put him down in the 3rd round with a right cross, but Leonard recovered enough to get on top in the 5th. Despite his recovery, Sugar Ray was hurt early in the 7th round and the Hitman piled on the pressure, chasing a knockout. Leonard's defensive skills came to the fore and he survived the onslaught, leaving Hearns gassed and Sugar Ray was able to take control of the fight for the next few rounds.

It took Hearns until the 11th round to recover and he came back into it, catching Leonard with three big rights, which floored Sugar Ray once more. Going into the final round Leonard knew he was losing the fight and it was all or nothing in the final round as he threw everything at an attempt to knock Hearns out but failed. Even Leonard was shocked, as was everyone else watching, as the judges scored the bout a tie, with Leonard himself saying afterwards, and many times since, that Hearns won the fight.

At the end of the year, 1989, Sugar Ray once again faced Duran, who was now WBC Middleweight champion, with Leonard guaranteed a purse double that of Duran, around $13m. This time he made some difficult life decisions and cut down his entourage from 21 to just 6, and got Pepe Correa, who was now sole trainer, to push him hard. It was not really needed though as Duran was described as 'listless' and was easily beaten with both fighters getting booed and leaving before the decision was announced. Despite dominating the fight, Leonard still needed 60 stitches afterwards, many as a result of headbutts.

The following month, January 1990, saw the start of a difficult year for Leonard personally. He relinquished the WBC SuperMiddleweight belt and considered retiring once more. When he did decide he wanted to fight on, he tried to tempt Hagler out of retirement, but Marvelous was not interested in a rematch. Hearns was his next old adversary to get an offer, but he could no longer make the weight and moved up to light heavyweight. Then his life was laid bare in divorce proceedings as he faced his most difficult fight so far, his childhood sweetheart Juanita. Sugar Ray admitted that he had been physically abusive while drunk and admitted 'occasional' cocaine use, saying that he started using it after his eye surgery in 1982: "I wanted more. I wanted that arena. I didn't want anyone to tell me my career had to end. I decided to search for a substitute. I resorted to cocaine. I used when I felt bad, I used when I missed competing at that level. It was a crutch, something that enabled me to forget."

It was reported that he had been spending $250,000 a year on cocaine. He would go on binges, including one in Vegas that saw him wake up to find that $35,000 in cash and jewellery had been stolen from his room. Leonard begged hotel staff not to report the crime to police so that Juanita would not find out. Leonard claimed that he stopped using in 1986 when he woke up one morning and "what I saw in the mirror was scary. I can never erase the pain or the scars I have made through my stupidity, my selfishness. All I can do is say I'm sorry, but that is not enough." Unsurprisingly Juanita was granted divorce after it was revealed that Sugar Ray would hit her while she was holding the baby and, in their final fight before she left him for good, even pulled out a gun and threatened to shoot himself.

"I had a drug problem. I'd go to parties, take a leak, and there was cocaine right there. I was 25 when it started, rich, famous and retired." - Ray.

An attempt at a fresh start in the ring was made the following year as he moved down to 154lbs to face WBC Lightmiddleweight champion Terry Norris at Madison Square Garden, with Sugar Ray a heavy favourite to beat Norris. However it was Norris who gave Leonard a heavy beating, knocking him down twice on the way to a clear victory that not even the judges could take from him. Afterwards Leonard could not resist a dig at his rival Hagler, saying: "It took this fight to show me it is no longer my time. Tonight was my last fight. I know how Hagler felt now."

It was over five years before a forty-year-old Leonard announced he would return to the ring once again, this time to fight a 34-year-old Hector Camacho for the IBC Middleweight title. Camacho, though a 3-time world champion with a 62-3-1 record, was also well past his best and known for being light-hitting, an obvious choice for a return. Similar to the Hagler fight, it was after commentating on a Camacho fight that Sugar Ray decided he wanted to fight him, though this time a 45-year-old Duran was the man Camacho had faced which gave him hope. Staving off questions about the Norris defeat with a host of excuses, including blaming his divorce battle, dropping down in weight, lack of motivation and a rib injury, Leonard set to work under new trainer Adrian Davis.

Despite his decision to come out of retirement, in January 1997 he was voted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame due to having been retired for five years. Just under two months later he was fighting Camcho in Atlantic City. This was truly his final fight as Camacho overwhelmed him from the start, by the third he was totally dominant and opened a cut over Leonard's right eye in the 4th round. Despite not being known for his power, he put Sugar Ray onto the canvas in the 5th with a right followed by two uppercuts. Though he got up, Camacho had him up against the ropes and was giving him a beating when the referee stepped in to stop the fight. It was the one and only time Leonard ever lost by knockout.

After the fight he again announced his retirement: "For sure, my career is definitely over for me in the ring." Only to change his mind a few days later when Leonard claimed he lost because of a torn right calf muscle that had required a shot of novocaine to allow him to fight. A number of tune up fights were planned, with a fight against Tony Menefee scheduled but his motivation was gone and he pulled out, never to fight again.

His career saw him fight 40 times, winning 36 of them, 25 by way of KO. He lost 3 and had 1 draw on his record but he was dogged by accusations of being favoured by officials, due to him being the big TV draw, only being interested in money and that Leonard would duck fighters until they were past their best. Irish boxer Steve Collins said that Leonard admitted to him in public that he had avoided a fight against Mike McCallum as he could have lost it and there was no money in it for him.

Retirement saw him kept busy working on various projects, including becoming one of the most sought-after motivational speakers around with a speech entitled POWER (Prepare Overcome and Win Every Round). He has also acted, was the boxing advisor on 'Real Steel', the movie starring Hugh Jackman, created together with Mark Burnett the TV show 'The Contender'. He also hosted and mentored on the show. In 2001 he also started a boxing promotions company, but dissolved it just three years later after a falling out with his business partner in the venture Bjorn Rebney. He is also international chairman of Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation's 'Walk For A Cure' and is actively involved in raising awareness and funds for the cause.

However his big return to the spotlight was a one-two punch of a season of 'Dancing With The Stars' and the release of his autobiography, 'The Big Fight: My Life In And Out Of The Ring' in 2011. The autobiography in particular caused a big wave as he alleged that he had been the victim of sexual abuse as a young boxer from an Olympic trainer and a benefactor. Since then he has campaigned to bring attention to child sex abuse and encourages victims to report abuse.

"Every time I stepped into the ring I had that chip of ice. My brother, Roger, saw it when we were sparring. I moved towards him and he said, 'Stop, Ray! Look at your fucking eyes. You looked like you wanna kill me!' Maybe I used what happened to me outside when I ducked inside the ropes. But it was subconscious. Did I fight so hard because I was distressed by the sexual abuse? Not to my knowledge. Outside, I'm not a confrontational guy. Even if I'm used to talking on TV I'm actually reserved and quiet - almost shy. But I could be a mean guy in that ring because I felt confident." - Ray.

His autobiography also revealed that his battle against alcohol was a much tougher one than he had admitted previously, despite being able to quit cocaine usage prior to his fight with Hagler in 1986. Alcohol became his crutch after retirement following his defeat to Camacho in 1997: "My whole world had changed. And in this new world of mine, I drank as often as I could. I would take four shots before even going out at night. At one point, I switched my drink of choice to vodka because the smell wasn't so easily detected." Even after marrying his second wife, Bernadette Robi, in 1993, he continued to drink. It took Sugar Ray until 2006 to even admit that he had a problem, though he knew his drinking was taking a toll on his wife. Leonard found AA meetings even harder than boxing, taking several months before being able to say out loud that he was an alcoholic.

His substance abuse was so bad that he was distrustful and paranoid, even firing his closest childhood friend. His friend was so devastated that he turned to drugs and hookers, ending up a crack addict and contracted AIDS. Leonard visited him just once as he was dying in hospital.

Leonard was the first boxer to win more than $100m in purses, was named 1980s Boxer of the Decade, won world titles at five different weights, was an Olympic gold medallist, lineal champion in three weight divisions and undisputed welterweight champions. He beat four of the greats in Wilfred Benitez, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Despite the drug problems, the eye injuries and the claims of favouritism from officials that dogged him, plus claims of avoiding fighters, there is no doubt that Sugar Ray Leonard is one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters of all time. Where on that particular list he goes though is very much a debate.

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Written by Tris Burke April 28 2023 15:13:29