Leonard's memories the stuff of legends
Editor's note: This column was originally published on MaxBoxing.com on Dec. 12.
Welterweight champion and pound-for-pound standout Floyd Mayweather Jr. once confronted Sugar Ray Leonard at an awards dinner in Las Vegas and loudly exclaimed that if Leonard were fighting today, he wouldn't even be ranked in the Top 10.
Yet while you can easily seethe and shake your head at such a classless remark, one comes to realize that the best way to make Mayweather realize the error of his ways is to simply tell the story of the man he insulted, Sugar Ray Leonard, one of the greatest champions the sport of boxing has ever known.
Ray Charles Leonard was born in Wilmington, N.C., on May 17, 1956, and was introduced to boxing by his brother at the age of 14.
"I was a very quiet kid," Leonard explained. "I was very introverted and very shy. I was not at all confrontational, and I was not athletically inclined. My brothers, they did basketball, football, they did everything. They enjoyed the physical contact.
"My brother Roger was the one who kind of pushed me toward boxing. He would carry gloves around his shoulders, walk around the neighborhood and box people."
Just box people?
"Yep, just box people," Leonard said.
"One day," he recalled, "Roger went down to the recreation center and convinced the director, who was Ollie Dunlap at the time, to start a boxing team."
"They found a coach," Leonard said, "and I went there one day, and I saw boxing. I felt boxing, and I loved boxing, because it was just me. I was not a team sport guy.
"So I tried it. But we had no gym; we just had a basketball court, and I had a coach showing me, up and down the basketball court. Up and down the court, up and down, throwing jabs, for like a half-hour. I loved it so much that I went back, and went back, and I kept going back. By the time I was 15, I could compete with anybody."
But not as the masterful boxer the world knows today.
Leonard laughed as he revealed a little known fact.
"I used to fight like Joe Frazier," he said. "Hooks were my bread and butter. Then, I saw Ali fight Joe, and after the fight, when I saw Joe's face, and I saw Ali's face ... I started boxing."
Still laughing, Leonard said, "That's a true story, that's how it started."
Leonard worked hard and established a reputation in the amateurs, and before long he came up against the reigning king of the hill, a young man firmly established as the local hero, Bobby McGruder.
Leonard vividly remembers that fight.
"Bobby McGruder was the guy in the golden gloves," Leonard said. "And when we fought, the place was packed, absolutely packed. And I beat him."
"Afterwards," Leonard said, "Bobby, who is now a dear friend of mine, said to me, 'You know the '72 Olympic Trials are comin' up pretty soon, and I think you can make it.'"
Until then, Leonard hadn't really considered the Olympics, but McGruder's words ignited the spark.
"I was only 16," Leonard confessed, "but I told them I was 17, because you had to be 17 to compete."
Leonard did compete in the Olympic trials that year, but he was eliminated in the quarterfinals.
"I lost to Greg Whaley. He was a local guy from Cincinnati, and he was a pretty damn good boxer."
"But," Leonard said, "I beat the crap out of that guy. I think I broke his jaw. They gave him the decision, but he couldn't fight the next day. So I said to them, 'Hell, if he can't fight, I can fight.' But it doesn't work that way.
"Then, when I was in the dressing room and it dawned on me how close I came to making the Olympic team, I started cryin'. And Sergeant Thomas Johnson, who became the assistant boxing coach for the '76 team, came up to me and said, 'Sugar man, don't you worry about it, you'll be OK.'
"Sergeant Johnson was a very spiritual man, with a very deep voice, and when he said that, it was like God talkin' to me, and I felt a little better. I was still devastated, but I felt a little better."
Leonard turned his devastation into sheer determination. He kept fighting, and he kept winning. Four years later, when the Olympic trials were held again, Leonard, then 20, was chosen as one of the boxers to represent the United States of America at the 1976 Olympic Games, held in Montreal.
Asked what it was like to be a participating athlete in the Olympics, Leonard replied, "Oh man, words can't describe that feeling. It was amazing.
"They put us up in these dormitories, behind these majestic gates, huge majestic gates, and we had these credentials that we wore around our necks. And wherever you went, you'd meet athletes from other countries, like Cuba or Russia. It was like the United Nations. And there are thousands of athletes from around the world, and you're just so proud to be there, representing your country. It's like, wow, this is special. I loved it."
It was on that world stage, in 1976 that Ray Leonard's star first appeared on the horizon when he won the gold medal.
It was the greatest moment of his life, and yet, as Leonard explained, it was a moment that was also bittersweet.
"I didn't know whether to cry or scream. Because I knew that I was going to retire. I knew that was it. And I thought, 'Damn, this is it, man, this is it.'"
What many people do not know is that from the time he started boxing, and throughout his entire career, Leonard suffered chronic, excruciating pain in his hands, and he had promised himself he would retire after the Olympics and go to the University of Maryland, where he had been awarded a full athletic scholarship.
But Ray Leonard would never attend the University of Maryland, because tragedy struck his family as soon as he got home.
Leonard's father, Cicero, whom he lovingly refers to as Pop, was stricken simultaneously by two deadly diseases, meningitis and tuberculosis, and he slipped into a coma.
As he watched his father fight for his life, Leonard made a vow.
If Pop survived, which he did, he would never struggle another day in his life.
And, regardless of the pain, there was only one way Leonard could make that happen.
With his fists.
Sugar Ray Leonard made his highly anticipated pro debut on Feb. 5, 1977, scoring a unanimous decision against a fighter named Luis Vega.
Leonard fought often over the next two years, and on Aug. 12, 1979, Leonard, who was then 23-0, stopped Pete Ranzany to claim the NABF welterweight crown.
The win over Ranzany shot Leonard into contention for a world title in the welterweight division, a division that was rich in talent, and to complete his quest for a world title, Leonard would have to face some of the greatest fighters in the world.
The first would be Wilfred Benitez, the WBC welterweight champion.
Benitez was a tough champion out of Puerto Rico. He was 38-0, and he had no intention of letting some Olympic darling come along and take his title.
He didn't get a choice.
Beginning with one of the greatest staredowns ever, Leonard and Benitez met face-to-face in the ring on Nov. 30, 1979, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. It was a tough fight, and even though Leonard was clearly ahead, he was leaving nothing to chance.
Leonard kept coming, and he stopped Benitez with six seconds left in the 15th and final round.
Though he ended up in the hospital for dehydration, Leonard had won the WBC welterweight title.
But a fierce lion loomed ahead.
Roberto Duran was a battle hardened veteran with 71 victories to his name. He got his nickname, "Hands of Stone," in part by allegedly knocking out a horse with one punch. Duran was a brawler who could take you out with either hand, and he gave Leonard all he could handle in a brutal 15-round war on June 20, 1980.
It was an extremely close decision, but ultimately, the judges saw it unanimously for Duran, who never stopped pressing and mauling Leonard, handing him his first pro defeat. Ironically, it happened at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, the same arena where Leonard had won Olympic gold.
Meanwhile, Duran, the pride of Panama, was greeted by countrywide celebrations when he returned home.
Leonard was mockingly invited.
"I told them, 'No, I can't make it,' Leonard said, "'but make sure you come see me in New Orleans come November.'"
Asked why he thought he would fare any better in a rematch with Duran, Leonard replied, "You have to understand, I fought Duran one way the first time, but I also had a plan B, C, and D. I was much more versatile."
And the rematch, which took place on Nov. 25, 1980, at the Superdome in New Orleans, was not at all like the first fight.
Whatever plan Leonard chose worked, and using his superior boxing skills, Leonard was able to frustrate and dominate Duran throughout the entire fight.
It is a fight that will always be remembered for two things, Leonard's brilliant performance, and the bizarre way it ended, when suddenly, in the eighth round, with Leonard clearly ahead, Duran threw up his hands in disgust, turned his back on Leonard, and uttered the words that his stunned countrymen would spray paint across Panama by the following morning.
Asked what he thought was happening, Leonard replied, "I thought it was a trick. I thought he was trying to lure me in, to get me closer. I didn't speak much Spanish, so I didn't understand what he was saying."
But it wasn't a trick, and at 2:44 of the eighth round, referee Octavio Meyran waved his arms and declared Leonard the winner by TKO.
Duran had quit.
Why he quit has remained open to speculation ever since.
"It's funny," Leonard remarked. "People always talk about why Duran quit. Well, how about Ray made him quit?"
Having reclaimed the WBC welterweight title, Leonard would successfully defend it against Larry Bonds and then claim Ayub Kalule's WBA junior middleweight crown.
That set up an inevitable unification bout against the undefeated WBA welterweight champion, Tommy "The Hitman" Hearns. Appropriately named "The Showdown," it was pretty simple. Everything on the line, winner takes all.
Hearns was a tall, lanky fighter out of Detroit's Kronk Gym, with knockout power in both hands, good boxing skills, and a 4-inch reach advantage over Leonard.
Most people did not give Leonard much of a chance against Hearns, and Leonard knew exactly why.
"I was scouting Tommy," Leonard revealed. "And I went to see him fight Pipino Cuevas. Now, Cuevas was breaking guys' jaws, breakin' guys' ribs, and Tommy was just like, boom! He demolished Cuevas. And I said, 'Holy ----!'"
"After that fight, everybody said, 'You want Tommy Hearns now?' And I said, 'Yeah, I'll fight him.'"
The highly anticipated "Showdown" took place at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Sept. 16, 1981. The excitement inside the arena was electric, and like most of Leonard's fights, a virtual who's who of "A" list celebrities were sitting at ringside.
And Leonard and Hearns did not disappoint. They pounced on each other from the opening bell. As the smaller man, Leonard would need to get inside and negate Hearns' height and reach advantage to be effective, but Hearns was able to keep Leonard at bay with a stinging, solid jab.
Leonard took a lot of punishment over the first five rounds, and Hearns was clearly ahead in the fight. Then in the sixth round, Leonard landed a right uppercut on the inside that rocked Hearns. Knowing he had Hearns hurt, Leonard tried to capitalize on it, but Tommy recovered well and continued to use his jab to keep Leonard on the outside.
But Leonard had learned a very important thing: if he could get to Hearns, he could hurt him, but doing that meant absorbing a tremendous amount of punishment.
By the end of the 13th round, Leonard returned to his corner totally spent. His trainer, Angelo Dundee, beside himself, tried to motivate Leonard. "You're blowing it son, you're blowing it," Dundee pleaded.
Leonard would need to dig deeper then he ever had before. He was a long way from his days as a boy, when he and his friends would look through the trash at the memorials in Washington DC, for half-eaten hamburgers that the tourists had discarded. He had come a long way from the basketball court, where he learned to throw jabs, or the Olympics, where he had won gold.
Every road that Leonard traveled, had led here, to this one moment in time.
He had to find a way.
As Leonard rose from his stool to face an equally exhausted Hearns for the 14th round, he had decided there would be no further need of judges. Whatever he had left, he was leaving in the ring, right then and right there.
Leonard met Hearns in the center of the ring, immediately unleashed a barrage of punches, and Hearns responded in kind. The crowd rose to its feet as the two warriors battled toe to toe, each one refusing to yield.
Suddenly, Leonard caught Hearns again, buckling his knees. Only this time, Hearns did not recover well, and he stumbled into the ropes.
Leonard had him, if he could just find the strength to finish him.
Leonard jumped on Hearns, throwing punch after punch after punch like a machine. Hearns, desperately trying to defend himself, sank lower and lower into the ropes.
But Tommy's efforts proved futile, and at 1:45 of the 14th round, referee Davey Pearl jumped between the two combatants, stopping the onslaught.
Leonard had found the way. He was the undisputed welterweight champion of the world.
Subsequently, The Ring magazine named Leonard-Hearns the 1981 fight of the year, and Sugar Ray Leonard the magazine's fighter of the year.
Leonard described those final seconds of the 14th round.
"I was fighting on pure heart. It was just pure heart. My legs and arms were burning, and my lungs felt like they were actually on fire."
When Ray returned to his suite later that night, he was completely drained mentally and physically.
"I remember," Leonard said. "Richard Pryor and Burt Reynolds came up to the room to say hi and to see how I was doin', but I couldn't see anyone. I was too exhausted. I just couldn't move."
On Feb. 15, 1982, amidst rumors that Ray would be moving up in weight to challenge the undisputed middleweight champion, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Leonard successfully defended his undisputed title against Bruce Finch, stopping him in the third round.
But, after the Finch fight, it was discovered that Leonard had suffered a detached retina in his left eye. Eye surgery in 1982 was not what it is today and Leonard's career was in serious jeopardy.
Leonard sought out the expertise of the doctors and surgeons at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, and they were able to surgically repair his eye.
With the surgery on his eye deemed a success, the world waited to hear whether Leonard would meet Hagler in the ring, or retire.
With much fanfare, Leonard invited Hagler, and the press, to a charity event in Baltimore for his announcement. Standing in the center of a boxing ring, with Hagler watching him from ringside, Leonard spoke about what a great fight he and Hagler would be. He then stunned everyone when he finally looked at Hagler and said, "Unfortunately, it will never happen."
And just like that, Sugar Ray Leonard was retired, leaving Marvin Hagler less than amused.
Leonard returned to his duties as a color commentator for HBO, but Hagler haunted Leonard, like the peak of a mountain left unclimbed.
In December 1983, Leonard announced that he was coming out of retirement to fight Kevin Howard. Originally scheduled for sometime in February, the Howard fight had to be postponed because Leonard now needed corrective surgery on his right eye as well, causing many people, including some boxing scribes, to openly fear that Leonard could end up blind if he continued to box.
But Leonard ignored those fears and his fight with Howard eventually happened on May 11, 1984. Leonard won by a stoppage in the ninth round, but had also tasted canvas for the first time in his career when Howard dropped him in the fourth round.
Disgusted by his performance, Leonard again retired from the ring. But then, in March of 1986, unable to get Hagler out of his system, he once again announced that he was coming out of retirement to challenge for the middleweight title.
Close to five years after the Finch fight, while fighting only once in a disappointing outing against Howard, most people thought Leonard was out of his mind to want to climb in the ring with one of the most feared champions of all time.
Marvin Hagler was no joke. From the day Hagler took the middleweight title, he defended it with ferocity. He had destroyed Hearns, the man who had given Leonard his hardest fight, inside three rounds.
To mounting, almost universal, criticism, Leonard's response was always the same, "I see something."
And after all these years, Leonard revealed what it was.
"I was at ringside," Leonard said, "sitting with Michael J. Fox. We were sitting there having a few beers, and I'm watching John "The Beast" Mugabi outbox Hagler. Of all people, John "The Beast" Mugabi. Now, I had had a few beers, and I said, 'Michael, Michael, I can beat Hagler.' And he said, 'Ray, do you want another beer?' I said, 'Yes I do, but I can beat Hagler.'"
"Then I called Mike Trainer." (Trainer is Leonard's long time attorney and advisor.) "I said, "'Mike, I can beat Hagler.' He said, 'Ray, how many beers have you had?' I said, 'I had quite a few, but I can beat him.' He said, 'Son, listen. Just get home and we'll talk about it.'"
But Leonard could not be dissuaded. Even though no one, including those closest to him, believed he stood a chance against Hagler.
And then something happened in Leonard's training camp that struck terror into the hearts of "Team Leonard."
"No one thought I could even go three or four rounds with Hagler. Even my own team didn't think I had a chance, and I knew that."
"About five days before the fight we were at the gym in Vegas, and I got hit by Quincy Taylor, and he almost knocked me out. He buckled me really bad, and the gym got real quiet. And then in the van, on the way back home, everybody in the car was dead silent."
And in that van, five days before the fight, Leonard changed his entire fight plan.
"The original plan," Leonard said, "was to fight Hagler standing toe to toe, to try and cut him."
But after the punch from Taylor, Leonard realized that wasn't going to work, and he decided to box Hagler.
"I called Mike Trainer," Leonard recalled, "and I said, 'Mike, they don't think I'm gonna win, but you know what? He won't touch me."
"I played Hagler to a tee," Leonard said. " I never [ticked] him off, because if you [ticked] Hagler off, he would train harder. So I always said nice things about him. It got to a point where the press tour was almost a comedy tour."
But at one of those press conferences, right before the fight, Hagler announced that he was going to outbox Leonard.
Leonard remembers looking at Hagler and thinking, "I got him."
Everyone's questions would be answered on April 6, 1987, in front of a packed house at Caesars Palace, and millions of fans watching at home.
Hagler, a southpaw, came out fighting from a traditional stance, trying to confuse Leonard.
But Leonard wasn't confused at all.
"It made it easier for me," Leonard stated.
And Leonard had a couple of tricks of his own.
"I told my guy Ollie Dunlap, I said, 'Ollie, listen. Thirty seconds before the bell rings, yell 'thirty seconds!'"
When Leonard, would hear Dunlap, he would immediately unleash a flurry of punches at Hagler, stealing quite a few rounds in the process.
"I remember," Leonard said, "in the last round, I kept looking for Ollie to yell 'thirty seconds,' because I was so damn tired."
And Leonard did other, very subtle things to Hagler during that fight as well, things that for the most part, went unnoticed.
"If you go back and watch the tape," Leonard revealed, "you'll see. This is what I was doing to him. When we were in a clinch, before the referee would break us, I would throw a little slight uppercut. Nothing hard, just hit him in the eye, or hit him in the nose. Just, you know, here, take this with you."
Leonard won the fight by a split decision that seems destined to be debated for all time.
A disgusted Hagler, believing he had been cheated, would never fight again.
Leonard again announced his retirement after the Hagler fight, but would return a year and a half later to face Donny Lalonde at Caesars Palace in Vegas on Nov. 7, 1988.
Lalonde's WBC light heavyweight title was on the line along with the newly created WBC super middleweight title.
Leonard won both belts by stopping Lalonde in the ninth round.
But what was most notable about the Lalonde fight is that it was Ray's biggest payday, because he co-promoted the event with Vince McMahon.
Then, on June 12, 1989, Leonard gave Tommy Hearns the one thing he'd been asking Santa for ever since their first fight.
Again the fight was held at Caesars Palace, and again it was action packed. And even though Hearns dropped Leonard in both the third and the 11th rounds, the bout was declared a draw.
While speaking about it, Leonard began to laugh.
"I'll tell you a funny story," he said.
"Tommy and I were at Eddie Murphy's house a few weeks ago. Now Eddie has a huge library of films, and while we were sitting in the kitchen, Eddie put on a film that showed various fights chronologically. And they showed my first fight with Tommy. And as we were watching, Tommy looked at me and said, 'Ray, stop running, would you just stop running.'"
"Of course," Leonard chuckled, "If I stopped running, he'd catch me with that big left hook."
"And then," Leonard said, still laughing, "they showed our second fight. And after we watched it, I said to Tommy, 'You know Tommy, you won that fight.' And Tommy looked at me and said, 'Yeah, but you ain't gonna say that on TV!' I told him, 'Don't push it baby, don't push it.'"
At 50 years old, Leonard still has that million-dollar smile and that mischievous look in his eye like a teenager at Thanksgiving dinner who knows that his fat aunt is about to sit on a whoopee cushion.
After the rematch with Hearns, Leonard went on to fight three lackluster fights. He defeated Roberto Duran in their rubber match, and then after losing to both Terry Norris and Hector Camacho, Sugar Ray Leonard called it a career.
Today, Ray Leonard still enjoys the same popularity he always did. Like Muhammad Ali, Leonard has become an ambassador for boxing, epitomizing all that is good about the sport.
The mere fact that Leonard is associated with the TV show "The Contender" is enough to get more than a million households to tune in every week, and fighters like Sergio Mora and Peter Manfredo Jr., due to their participation on the show, have moved into big-money fights and championship contention.
But the main reason that Leonard is held in such high regard is because his popularity is based on respect. He never ducked anybody, he fought the best and he beat the best.
Plus, Leonard would never insult a champion who came before him or after him.
What Floyd Mayweather Jr. has yet to realize is that sitting on a late-night talk show and telling everybody you're the greatest fighter ever doesn't make it true (as he did earlier this year on ESPN2's "Quite Frankly").
Greatness in boxing is earned in the ring.
Just ask Sugar Ray Leonard.
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