Sugar Ray was ring artist

Updated: July 11, 2006, 7:02 PM ET
By Larry Schwartz | Special to ESPN.com

"He had to change his whole life to be Sugar Ray Leonard. And still today, down inside, it's Ray Leonard. But Sugar Ray Leonard won't let him out," says his former wife, Juanita Wilkinson, on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

There are two sides to Sugar Ray Leonard, almost like a Jekyll and Hyde. Outside the ring, there was his charismatic personality and heavenly smile, which did wonders for his Q-rating. Inside it, there was his animal instinct, looking for bruises or scar tissue on opponents, something that he could brutally take advantage of.

Sugar Ray Leonard
Sugar Ray Leonard (right) won two of his three fights with Roberto Duran.
"In the ring," he said, "I can feel that halo over my head turn into those two little horns."

Bedeviling his foes with a cunning grace, Leonard won championships in five weight classes and was the first fighter to earn more than $100 million in purses. He was hailed as the most celebrated fighter since Muhammad Ali. "Ray's got the same charm, the same excitement about him," said Angelo Dundee, who trained both.

In the 1980s, Leonard's fights against Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvelous Marvin Hagler were classics. The dangerous Leonard wasn't a slugger, but an artist in a sport of precision. Sugar Ray brought back thoughts of the "sweet science." He was fast and flashy, both with his hands and feet. This enabled him to land left hooks and jabs, right uppercuts and crosses -- or swift and accurate combinations of these punches -- with devastating effectiveness.

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

He entered the nation's psyche when he won Olympic gold in 1976, with a picture of his girlfriend taped to his shoe. After turning pro, he won 35 of his first 36 fights, with 25 knockouts, until age caught up with him and dimmed his final record (36-3-1).

Some thought he was arrogant when he usurped the nickname Sugar Ray, after the man many consider boxing's best fighter, pound-for-pound. But not the one person who counted.

"I'm gratified he's using my name," Sugar Ray Robinson said. "It's great when kids think enough of you to use your name."

While he took the name of a great fighter, he was named after a great singer. On May 17, 1956, he was born Ray Charles Leonard in Wilmington, N.C., the fifth of Getha and Cicero's seven children. His mother wanted Ray to become a singer.

"He sang with two of my daughters in church, and people said he sounded like Sam Cooke," Getha said. Early in his teens, his older brother Roger turned him to boxing. "And like Ray used to tell me, 'Mama, I put the singing into swinging,'" Getha said.

Leonard grew up in Wilmington, Washington, D.C., and Palmer, Md., a racially mixed lower-middle class suburb of Baltimore. Two volunteer boxing coaches in Palmer, Dave Jacobs and Janks Morton, took the quiet young Leonard under their wings.

"He was a natural," Morton said. "Fast and smart, beautiful to watch." The gym where he trained was filled with maxims like, "Don't forget the bridge you cross. You may have to cross it again."

Leonard was a quick learner. Before he was 20, he won three National Golden Gloves titles, two AAU championships and the 1975 Pan-American Games crown. At the Montreal Olympics, Leonard capped his amateur career by winning the light-welterweight (139 pounds) title. In the final, before a national television audience, Leonard ignored intense pain in his two badly injured hands to win a unanimous decision over Cuba's Andres Aldama.

"This is my last fight," Leonard said. "My decision is final. My journey is ended, my dream fulfilled."

But the journey wasn't ended. This was to be only the first of some half-dozen "retirements" by Leonard, who said no to boxing as often as Liz Taylor said yes to men who wanted to marry her.

Leonard had hoped his Olympic star would enable him to cash in on commercial endorsements, providing him with enough money to attend college and take care of his ailing parents. But it didn't come to pass, partly because of sensationalized news stories about Juanita Wilkinson, the mother of his son (and whom he would marry in 1980), filing a paternity suit against him in an effort to get food stamps.

"It killed every commercial he could have gotten after the Olympics," Morton said. "The American public didn't seem to believe that a black athlete could eat Wheaties too."

So Leonard turned pro. He hired attorney Mike Trainer as his business manager and Dundee as his boxing manager. Leonard became a celebrity, winning his fights regularly on television, and lived up to the prediction of his Olympic coach, who said, "Ray will go through the pros like a dose of salt."

On the night before Leonard fought WBC welterweight champ Wilfred Benitez in November 1979, Ali telephoned and advised him not to do anything flashy because the judges would resent him hot-dogging against a champion. Leonard fought a basic fight, and it was good enough for him to register a TKO with six seconds left in the 15th round.

Leonard held the title for less than seven months. His ego cost him his first fight with Duran. Rankled by an exchange of pre-fight insults with Duran, Leonard decided to prove he was as macho as Duran; he went blow to blow instead of boxing. The result: He dropped a close (but unanimous) 15-round decision. "The fight in Montreal was not a boxing match," Leonard said. "It was a street brawl. I didn't utilize my skills there. I was determined to stand my ground and fight Duran his way. I don't like Duran's way. He walks around like he owns the world."

On Nov. 25, 1980, in New Orleans, Leonard conquered his stubbornness and boxed Duran, who had a 72-1 record, into submission. His taunting got under the skin of the fighter known for his "Fists of Stone." The worst humiliation came in the seventh round when Leonard wound up his right hand, as if to throw a bolo punch, and then surprised Duran by slapping a left hand in his face. Late in the eighth round, Duran said, "No mas," and Leonard had regained his title.

On June 25, 1981, Leonard won his second title when he knocked out WBA junior middleweight champ Ayub Kalule in the ninth round. In his next fight three months later, Leonard won a war with Hearns, the WBC welterweight champ. The "Hit Man" took over in the middle rounds and practically closed Leonard's left eye. But Leonard, behind on all three scorecards, registered a knockdown in the 13th round and ended the brutal war in the 14th, winning on a TKO.

In May 1982, Leonard underwent an operation for a detached retina and six months later announced his retirement. He came back in May 1984 after not fighting in 27 months. Although he scored a ninth-round TKO over unheralded Kevin Howard, he said he was retiring again.

Until 1987, that is, when he earned about $12 million and won the WBC middleweight title by defeating Hagler on a split decision. The Ring called it the Fight of the Year and the Upset of the Year. Then Leonard retired once more.

During his retirements in the 1980s, Leonard turned to cocaine and alcohol for adrenaline substitutes, to provide him with the rush that boxing had. While he would drop the habits, it wasn't enough to prevent a divorce from Juanita in 1990. In November 1988, he came out of retirement to fight again. At 167 pounds, he registered a ninth-round TKO over Don Lalonde to gain the WBC super-middleweight and light-heavyweight titles.

In November 1988, he came out of retirement to fight again. At 167 pounds, he registered a ninth-round TKO over Don Lalonde to gain the WBC super-middleweight and lightweight titles.

A year later, Leonard fought a controversial draw with Hearns, in which "Hit Man" scored two knockdowns, and he took a decision from Duran in their rubber match. Leonard trimmed down to 154 pounds in 1991 to fight for the WBC super welterweight title, but Terry Norris dominated and took a one-sided decision. Immediately after the beating, Leonard told the crowd he was retiring again.

This one should have been for good, but six years later, Leonard, at 40, returned to the ring. Hector "Macho" Camacho embarrassed him and registered a fifth-round TKO.

Despite his staying in the ring too long, Leonard is recognized by many as the best non-heavyweight since that other Sugar Ray.

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