Boxing's Greatest Fighters: Sugar Ray Leonard

Originally Published: April 3, 2007
By Bert Randolph Sugar | Boxing Historian

Many old-timers believe that there was only one "Sugar" and that was Sugar Ray Robinson, In fact, Robinson had tried to preserve his ring name in the face of a fistic avalanche of other "Sugars." One time, so the story goes, when Robinson faced another of the so-called pretenders to the "Sugar" name, George Costner, before the fight reputedly told Costner, "Now I'll show you who's the real 'Sugar'," and proceeded to prove his point by laying Costner out endwise in one round. Afterward, Robinson chided the artificial Sugar with, "Now go out and earn yourself the name."

Sugar Ray Leonard
AP PhotoLeonard (left), won gold in the 1976 Olympics.
But another "Sugar", Ray Charles Leonard, would earn himself the name. And with it, a place in history.

Starting back in 1920 with the Summer Games in Antwerp, where Frankie Genaro traded in his Olympic gold for the championship gold of professional boxing, the Olympics have been a shortcut to fistic gold and glory. Throughout the intervening years several gold medalists have converted their Olympic victories into successful professional careers and even championships -- including the likes of Fidel LaBarba, Jackie Fields, Floyd Patterson, Nino Benvenuti, Cassius Clay, Joe Frazier, Chris Finnegan and George Foreman to name but a few.

But no one Summer Olympics gave us more champions who turned in their amateur trinkets for professional treasures than the 1976 Games in Montreal. And no one ever capitalized on his Olympic gold more than the darling of the '76 Olympics: Sugar Ray Leonard.

Sugar Ray Leonard would acquit his Olympic build-up and raise it some. But first he had to serve his apprenticeship in the pro trainer ranks. Under the able leadership of Angelo Dundee, Leonard quickly became a hero as he flashed across the canvas to his own beat, with lightning-quick fists and well-defined moves, winning his first 25 fights, 16 by knockout.

In his twenty-sixth fight Leonard met another all-time-great-to-be, Wilfred Benitez, for the welterweight title. In a battle of future greats where talent was the punch and determination, and the clever footwork, Leonard showed he had more of both -- plus a schoolbook Jab and his by-now patented flurries -- winning by knockout in the closing seconds of the fight.

Then, after defending his newly-minted title once, he faced the legendary Roberto Duran in the same Montreal ring where he had started his meteoric rise to fame just four years before before in the olympics. However, this time round Leonard, foregoing the tactics that had brought him there, went right into the strength of Duran, trying to out-macho the man who invented the word macho, slugging it out with "Hands of Stone" Duran. This time, betrayed by his change in style, he lost the decision and his title to Duran.

Five months later, in the rematch against Duran, Leonard would fight "his" fight, moving in and out, sliding, countering and generally frustrating Duran. Finally, after following Leonard around the ring for seven rounds, his bull-like charges thwarted, his manhood taunted and his game plan blunted, Duran inexplicably threw up his, "Hands of Stone" and capitulated, supposedly saying "No Mas, No Mas."

Sugar Ray Leonard had won back the title he had leased to Duran just five months earlier. With just one more mountain to scale, that of solidifying the welterweight championship of the world -- which had been halved by those two clowns in clowns' clothing, the WBC and the WBA -- Leonard next faced the owner of the other half of the title, Thomas Hearns the WBA champion.

Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns
AP PhotoLeonard, right, beat Thomas Hearns with a 14th-round TKO in this 1981 fight.
In a fight called "The Showdown," Leonard beat the supposedly invincible Hearns in a fight that had enough ebbs and flows to qualify for one of the great Learns of the decade. Entering the ring with a robe emblazoned with the solitary word "Deliverance," Leonard delivered a sterling performance, putting to rest all those naysayers who had belittled his right to be called "great." Playing mongoose to the man introduced as "The Motor City Cobra," Leonard used his speed and his quicker movements to make vincible the man who was thought to be invincible, stopping Hearns in the fourteenth round, becoming, in the process, the undisputed welterweight champion of the world.

Leonard would go on to retire, unretire, retire, unretire again, et cetera, etc., etc., enough times to qualify for a listing in the Guinness Book of Records for "Most Retirements," more times than Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand combined. Arid with "un-retirement," come back to take on a new challenge and a new mountain to scale, coming back to outpoint Marvelous Marvin Hagler for the middleweight crown, Donny Lalonde for the super middle and light heavyweight titles and repeat in rematches against Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran.

Always saying he was coming back because he "needed the challenge," Leonard went to the well twice too often, losing in still more comebacks to Terry Norris and Hector Camacho. And then retiring again, period, end of paragraph and career.

But no matter the outcome of his last two comebacks, the man who had flashed across the boxing skies like a sparkling meteor and lit them up with almost every performance had more than earned the right to carry the name "Sugar."

From "Boxing's Greatest Fighters"
copyright 2006, Lyons Press

Boxing historian Bert Sugar is host of ESPN Classic's "Ringside" and a contributor to ESPN.com.

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