When Sugar Ray Leonard left montreal that summer day in 1976, clutching a gold medal hard won in the Olympics, the 21-year-old champion announced the first of what would turn out to be four retirements with an utterance as deft as his moves in the ring. "My journey has ended," Leonard said. "My dream is fulfilled." He was off to college.
The world has long since learned that no fighter under 40 can be trusted on such occasions, and if Leonard, at the time, believed what he was saying, no one paying attention really did. Five U.S. boxers had won gold medals at those games, and on a team suddenly feted as America's darlings, Leonard was the most attractive of all. He had fought with a picture of his three-year-old son, Ray Jr., taped to his sneaker and had a smile that fizzed like 7-Up. It was Ray who had the happy feet, the taste for malice, the fire served with a side of ice.
At this most pivotal moment of his life, as his impulse toward higher education was being overcome by the gravity of lower gymnasia, Leonard became the world's luckiest young man. He met Mike Trainer, a gnomic Maryland attorney who turned out to be as savvy and unyielding a negotiator as Leonard was a fighter. If the object of boxing is to make money and history, Leonard was no doubt the most sagely handled fighter of all time. From Ray's first pro fight, in 1977, when he earned $40,000 for beating Luis (the Bull) Vega, Trainer played his career like a violin, calculating what Leonard's appeal meant to an event and then insisting on that number: no Sugar Ray, no big money. For himself, Trainer never took a third of Leonard's purses, the usual cut for a manager. Instead, for nearly the first three years, he charged $65 an hour, less than his standard legal fee. It was not until 1979 that Trainer began accepting what Leonard offered from the ever larger pies.
By his retirement—his last one—in February 1991, Leonard had become the first fighter to win titles in five divisions (every weight class from welter on up to light heavy) as well as the first fighter to earn $100 million in purses. Has any other fighter ever departed so rich, so fulfilled, and in all ways so unscarred? His career is the paradigm for the sport.
Forget for now the pretty stuff, the intimations of a miniature Ali, the razzle unto dazzle, the choirboy smile. Forget all that and remember this: In the three most defining moments of his ring career, Leonard was among the toughest, most resilient and most implacable warriors ever to pull on gloves. Confronted by the maniacal intensity of Roberto Duran's beastly, two-fisted attack in their first fight, on June 20, 1980, most men would have buckled and broke. Leonard found the skill to survive and the will to turn the fight his way in the last few rounds. He lost the decision, but it was there, for the first time, that Leonard revealed the weight of his fortitude. Thomas Hearns began collapsing under it in the 13th round of their fight on Sept. 16, 1981, when Leonard, behind on all cards and his left eye swollen shut, crashed a right to Hearns's temple and then, in an exultant burst of fury, struck him with 25 straight punches. In the 14th round the demonic Leonard was clubbing Hearns with blow upon blow when the referee finally waved him away.
In his April 6, 1987, fight against middleweight champion Marvin Hagler, Leonard summoned his every skill to pull off one of the greatest upsets in ring history. He had no business being there in the first place. Aside from one forgettable bout against an unknown fighter in 1984, Leonard had not fought in five years and 50 days, and here he was essaying to take the middleweight title from one of the fiercest punchers in the division's history, a man who had not lost in 11 years. However you may have scored it that night—and many thought that Hagler won—Leonard's was a remarkable performance, an exercise in guile, nerve, endurance and superior athleticism. In the final round, under desperate pressure, Leonard twice appeared doomed on the ropes and twice flurried out of trouble, to the roars of what had begun as a Hagler crowd, and when it was over, he fell exhausted to his knees—where Hagler could not put him—and had to be carried back to his corner.
Almost four years later, on Feb. 9, 1991, Terry Norris clubbed Leonard into retirement. His lips cut raw, his eyes puffy, Sugar Ray said, "I am not of the '90s." Indeed, he was not. Leonard was for all time.