Ray Leonard wanted to go home, and for the moment that was all on earth he knew. He had not felt so lost, despondent and confused since those dreadful days in Moscow four years before, when he was 17 and fighting overseas for the very first time. He was subsisting on ice cream because he could not abide the food and was feeling particularly shy and self-conscious because he sensed the Russians were staring at him because he was black. He had been in Europe for a month, and there were moments when he felt so lonely that he thought he was going crazy. One day he even asked his roommate to kneel down and pray for him. Leonard prayed, too.
Things weren't that bad now, but almost. It was the night of July 31, 1976, and Leonard had just won a gold medal in the Montreal Olympics. He hadn't been home to Maryland for almost two months. He'd been holed up for a month in Burlington, Vt., where the U.S. boxers had trained, and almost another month in the Olympic Village in Montreal. Fences rimmed the complex, athletes needed identification tags to get in and out, and there were armed soldiers guarding the gates and patrolling the grounds. A sensitive and introspective young man, Leonard had begun to feel like a prisoner. He had just fought six times in 13 days. His knuckles hurt him terribly. He was dehydrated from trying to make weight and exhausted from the pressure of fighting his way to the championship. Stepping down from the victory stand, he felt absolutely nothing. That was the crudest irony.
Leonard had just experienced the greatest moment of his life, one for which he had driven himself the past four years, through scores of matches in countless cities and distant gyms, over hundreds of miles of running in morning darkness before school, during hundreds of hours of sparring and skipping rope and working on the bags. He had decisioned Cuba's Andres Aldama, beating him easily, to win the gold in the 139-pound class. Now, in an instant, it was all over. "I was numb," Leonard says. "I think I was in shock. Everything was spinning around. I just wanted to go home."
With the medal hanging from his neck, dressed in his sweat suit and still wearing the trunks and shoes he'd fought in, Leonard wandered out of the boxing arena and into the night. Dave Jacobs, Leonard's trainer since his earliest amateur days in Palmer Park, Md., last saw Leonard at the medal-presentation ceremony. Jacobs and Leonard's parents, Cicero and Gertha, searched for him but could not find him. No one could. "Where's Ray?" Gertha kept asking. Jacobs ran into Leon and Michael Spinks, both gold-medal winners, but they hadn't seen Leonard. Neither had Cuban heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson, who was sitting in the dressing room.
November 26, 1979
Finally, Jacobs remembered something that Leonard had asked him before the fight. He and Ray's parents had traveled from Maryland to Montreal in a camper, and Leonard had said, "Where's the camper parked?" Remembering that, Jacobs said, "I think I know where Ray is."
And there he was, sitting in the camper, still wearing his boxing gear and gold medal. Leonard smiled. "Let's go," he said.
"O.K.," Jacobs said. "First we've got to go back to the Village to pick up your things." Leonard had left a small amount of money, some civilian clothes, pairs of trunks, shoes, robes and the flag of Prince Georges County, Md., in which his hometown of Palmer Park is located.
"Leave everything at the Village there," Leonard said. "Let's go. I want to go home. Now."
"Don't you want to pick up some of your belongings?" Jacobs asked.
"I got everything I need," said Leonard. "I got my shoes, my trunks, my jacket and my medal. I don't need anything there."
"What about the Prince Georges County flag?"
"Jake, leave everything there," Leonard said. "Point this van toward home. I want to be there by tomorrow."
Jacobs reminded Leonard that it was a 14-hour drive from Montreal to Palmer Park, that Leonard had a plane ticket, that he could get a night's sleep, pack his belongings and take the plane in the morning and still beat the camper home. Leonard shook his head.
"I don't care," he said. "I want to go home now."
Something happened at the border that night that in retrospect seems a harbinger. The U.S. boxing team had performed splendidly at the Games, and television had helped to make youthful heroes of several of the fighters. The broadcasts had demonstrated that a man did not have to be a heavyweight to cut an entertaining figure in the ring. If the popular conception of boxing conjured up visions of seamy fight managers, grimy gyms and cigar-smoking underworld figures, this U.S. team gave form to a new image—one of unsullied youth and charm. The most charming of the performers, of course, was Leonard—handsome, with a great big Pepsodent smile, fresh-faced, articulate and such a nice young man. At the St. Lawrence Seaway, the border guard asked, "Is this really Sugar Ray Leonard's camper?" Leonard leaned out the door and flashed the gold medal. "Can I touch the gold?" the guard asked. Introduced to Gertha, he blurted, "All I want to do is kiss his mother." He kissed her on the cheek and, without searching so much as a bag, waved them on.
So they came back to America. Leonard and Jacobs talked about how Ray could go to college now and do all the things he wanted to do—because Leonard was saying he would never box again, that was for sure. When he won the medal Leonard had said, "The journey has ended, my dream is fulfilled." It seemed at the time about the nicest thing a gold-medal winner could say, as simple and poetic as any combination that he'd ever thrown inside a ring. Actually, the journey had just begun.
"Come on, Sugar! Get that right hand up there! Roll with it!"
Jacobs' voice sounded somewhere between a rock singer's and a tent preacher's. He held the top strand of rope in the ring of the Oakcrest Recreation Center in Capitol Heights, Md., just east of Washington, D.C., as he watched Leonard spar against his cousin, Odell Leonard. It was a Wednesday afternoon in mid-October, and Leonard was in the first week of training for his title bout with Wilfredo Benitez, the World Boxing Council's welterweight champion. The two fighters are scheduled to meet on Nov. 30 in Las Vegas. More than three years have passed since Leonard won the gold medal in Montreal, and in that time he has evolved from a sinewy, moderately effective amateur puncher, quick and flashy but rough at the edges, into a consummate professional fighter. He has filled out, most visibly in the arms. His biceps are abnormally large, especially his left, which is bigger than his right because of his constantly drilling the jab and throwing the hook.
"Ride with him on the ropes, Sugar! Way to go. Rough it up now!" Jacobs shouted.
Ray dipped, slipping a punch, and then rose to stand facing Odell. Ray jabbed twice, snapping Odell's head back. He hit him with a sudden right, slipped another punch, dipped and turned, came up again, snapped Odell back with two hard jabs and then threw a stinging hook off the jab. It was exquisite.
"Whoooooo there!" Jacobs cried. "Good move. Good move! Way to go, Sugar."
"Put a little more shoulder in it!" yelled Janks Morton, Ray's other trainer and closest adviser.
Facing Odell head-on, he drove a hook to his side and Odell froze. Out of that hook grew another, then a right and left-right-left-right, all body blows. Odell winced.
"All right! All right!" shouted Jacobs.
Ray was into it now. There seemed nothing he could not do. "It's like a record player," he says. "It's the rhythm—just steady goin', steady goin'. When I got into professional boxing, I began to realize that fighting was music. When I'm working right, it's keeping the same pace, same rhythm—pace, rhythm, pace, rhythm. The majority of guys can't keep up that tempo. It's a pleasure. It's a pleasure to know I'm doing something that another guy can't understand. I can look at a guy and tell if he's frustrated. When I see the signs, I know I'm in control."
Now he was in control. He threw hooks in multiples of three and four, fast and hard, and finally he drove a left uppercut into Odell's chin.
"Good shot!" Jacobs yelled. "That's it! Come on, keep working till we get it down right. That's right! Beautiful move, beautiful shot!"
Jacobs looked around wildly, his eyes flashing. "Wilfredo Benitez?" he said. "Benitez who?"
"I never heard of him!" Janks Morton said.
Leonard stood with his forearms resting on the top strand of the ropes. Jacobs swabbed his face with Vaseline. He was breathing heavily, apple-butter brown with sweat on his face. Jacobs exhorted him to "keep workin' on that move till you get it down pat. Beautiful move, beautiful shot!"
Most of what Leonard does in the ring has an esthetic quality about it. It has become increasingly that way as time has put distance between him and the Olympics, when he was a young, free swinger with no ambitions beyond getting back home and going to school. In the 37 months since the Games, he has not only emerged as one of the most skilled craftsmen in boxing—a thinking man's fighter with the fastest, most exciting hands around and an unrelenting instinct for the kill—but he has also become its most popular and colorful practitioner. He is a phenomenon like no other in the sport today, unique in the success he has attained, and in the money and position he has come to command in so short a time. He is very much a creature of his time and place, his success as inextricably bound to the Nielsen ratings as it is to those incredible hands and the manifest skills he brings to the ring.
Because of Ray Leonard's presence, he and Benitez will become the first fighters outside the heavyweight division to earn at least $1 million each for a bout. As the champion, Benitez will get $1.2 million; Leonard will get $1 million. The Leonard-Benitez fight also will mark the first time in the era of big-money sports events that a non-heavyweight fight will be carried as the main event on prime-time television. At age 23, with only 25 professional bouts behind him, the undefeated Leonard has already earned close to $3 million. And he has done it without fighting for the title. When his match with Benitez is over, he will have earned almost $4 million in the ring. And if he wins, as most observers expect him to do, and if the bout gets the kind of Nielsens ABC anticipates—a 30% to 35% share of the audience—his appeal, and earning potential, will be incalculable.
"It's amazing, it really is," Leonard says. "The more I think about it, the more I see what has taken place, what has materialized. Looking back to where I started and all the hard work I had to put in to get where I am today, it has all been worth it. This is the culmination, the top. I made it to the finals, do or die, in the Olympics.... Now I'm here again."
Ray Charles Leonard was born in Wilmington, N.C., on May 17, 1956, the fifth of Gertha and Cicero's seven children. Gertha named him after singer Ray Charles, whom she admired. When Ray was three, the family moved north to Washington, D.C., to an apartment on L Street, and when he was 10 they settled permanently in the Maryland suburbs east of Washington, first in Seat Pleasant and a year later in Palmer Park, a low-income, predominantly black community of one-story homes built in the late 1950s. Cicero worked as night manager in a supermarket. Gertha was a nurse. Ray was shy as a boy, and aside from the time he almost drowned in a creek during a flood in Seat Pleasant—his brother Roger can still see him grasping for the branches along the shore as the torrent swept him away—his childhood was uneventful. "I felt out of place," he says. "I was always aware that my mother and father were trying hard, but I never had anything. I wore my brothers' clothes." He stayed at home a lot, reading comic books and playing with his German shepherd. "He wasn't moody, unless you are talking about when he wouldn't talk to anybody," Gertha says. "He never did talk too much. We never could tell what he was thinking. But I never had any problems with him. I never had to go to school once because of him."
Ray didn't excel at team sports and was no more than a casual athlete until 1969, when he first walked into the recreation center at Palmer Park and put on a pair of gloves. Roger, who is a year older than Ray and had already won boxing trophies, had waved them in his face and goaded him into coming. "He was sitting at home reading comic books all day," Roger says. Roger had helped start the boxing program at the center, urging Ollie Dunlap, the center's director and a former pro football player, to form a team. Dunlap bought two pairs of boxing gloves for $45, and the program was launched.
"Palmer Park is not a ghetto, but on a scale of one to 10, it's a two," says Dunlap. "We were trying to bring self-pride to the community. It was a dog-eat-dog atmosphere. It was just after the 1968 riots, and there was still hostility in the air. A white guy would have to be out of here at 5:30 in the afternoon. You can go into Palmer Park and buy anything from a nickel bag to an automobile. Ray was in this environment 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. He went to high school with kids who died through violence. One kid who hung around the gym is serving life for murder. Another was killed in a getaway car after a liquor-store robbery. But Ray was strong enough to slide through it. He knew where he wanted to go and what it would take to get there."
Leonard took his first steps toward his goal at the center, where he met Morton, an insurance broker who eventually would become his closest friend and adviser, and Jacobs, a delivery-truck driver for a pharmacy in Annandale, Va. Every day at 4 p.m., Jacobs, who had boxed as a youth but had never fulfilled his ambition to become an accomplished fighter, left the pharmacy, drove home to Palmer Park and worked with the boys. "Ray was the type of kid who came into the gym and never said nothing but did everything you told him to do," Jacobs says. "A lovely kid, very shy, but he worked hard, very hard. When we had a tournament coming up, the kids would run at five in the morning on a ball field across from Ray's house. Ray was always there, regardless of how tired he was."
"For some reason I wanted it so bad," Leonard says. "I felt it was in me, and I had to keep going."
He was naturally deft, quick with his hands and feet, and he learned easily, absorbing the lessons that Morton and Jacobs gave him. His rise was steady. In 1973 Leonard won the National Golden Gloves championship in the 132-pound division, his first major title. In '74 he was a national AAU champion. In '75 he was a Pan American champ. And he climbed despite the sometimes exasperating conditions. "We didn't even have a ring until 1976," Dunlap says. "From 1971 to 1976 Ray trained without a ring, in the middle of a gym." When Leonard was getting ready to go to the Pan Am Games, Dunlap recalls, a summer basketball program was being held in the gym. There were days when Leonard would be training under Jacobs' supervision, and after only 45 minutes Dunlap reluctantly would have to ask him to leave the floor.
"Hey, Jake, your time's up," Dunlap would say.
"I just got here!" Jacobs would complain.
Leonard was by then a celebrity in Palmer Park. If he needed money to travel to a tournament, residents often offered small donations, $2 or less, to help him meet his expenses. Or there would be bake sales to support his important excursions to other cities. Jacobs' wife would buy a gross of ham hocks, 30 pounds of collard greens and a case each of chicken and ribs. "She'd spend Wednesday, Thursday and Friday cooking and Saturday and Sunday selling," Dunlap says.
Leonard had always shown a penchant for throwing himself into things with unrestrained and single-minded passion, and he approached the Olympic Games with particular intensity. "I was determined to get there," he says. "I went through a lot. My hands were pretty bad. One guy, not Dave, wrapped my hands all wrong, and I hit an opponent in the head. I used all sorts of remedies. Epsom salts, rubbing alcohol, some Ben-Gay. I couldn't work out like I wanted to. But I fought every chance I got. I loved to fight." And in Montreal, in the 150th and final amateur fight of his career, his 145th victory against five losses, he won the Olympic gold.
A police escort picked up the Leonard camper in Land-over, Md., and led it home to nearby Palmer Park, where the people turned out in numbers for a celebration. Ray was touched. "I still have the love of home," he says. "As much as I've traveled—the places I've seen and the places I've been, and I've been all over the world—there's nothing like this I could call home."
The transition from fighter to celebrity was not an easy one for Leonard. For four years he had devoted himself to boxing, and he was determined not to fight again. And now back home he was unwinding like an old clock. He lived with his parents on Barlowe Road and visited schools and made personal appearances gratis. He also spent a lot of time with his longtime fiancèe, Juanita Wilkinson, and their son, Ray Jr., who's now six. He had hired Maryland attorney Mike Trainer, a friend of Morton's, to handle legal work, and Charles Brotman, a PR man, to help screen requests for his time and to find him a job.
"I don't plan on boxing again," Leonard told Brotman.
"O.K.," said Brotman. "What do you want to do?"
"I want to go to the University of Maryland, and I want to work with kids," said Leonard. He gave Brotman pieces of torn napkins and matchbook covers on which he had jotted down job offers and appointments. There were 50 or 60 of these, and Brotman sat down one day to look over the commitments Leonard had made. He found chaos. Several times Leonard had committed himself to being in three places at once.
"I understand that you indicated an interest in working with Ray," Brotman told a man whose name Leonard had jotted down.
"Oh, no," said the man. "I just asked him to come to a party."
Being a celebrity was diverting for a while, a way for Leonard to come back to earth, and he was happy bouncing here and there and playing Sugar Ray. "I recall coming back home, and for a month there was glory and the works," he says. "September passed and October came and I was back to being Ray Leonard from Sugar Ray—back in my own little world again. I had to rebuild and it took time."
And then it caught up with him. "I was just trapped in a web of nothing," Leonard says. "I'd stabilized. But I couldn't move. I didn't know where to go. I was confused and I was out of it." And he felt a twinge of bitterness, too, because there had been no big endorsement offers of the kind he had expected. "I felt I had done some things for the country," he says. "So it bothered me for a while. It was brief stardom."
Janks Morton, to whom Leonard had grown extremely close, sensed his drift and his depression. "After Ray won the medal, I think he had the definite impression that it was going to be worth a great deal of money to him," Morton says. "Just that medal. But he wasn't Bruce Jenner. If Ray had had a different complexion, I'm quite sure he would never have had to put on another glove and still would have been a rich man. You didn't see any Sugar Ray Leonard selling Wheaties. And I didn't want to see him selling roach sprays, either. That's the end of the line. You degrade yourself with that."
With no money coming in, Leonard, still adrift, was finally forced to make a decision about his future when it was discovered in late summer that his father, ill at the Olympics, was suffering from meningitis. About the same time, Gertha suffered two mild heart attacks. They were both hospitalized. Since the Olympics Morton had been telling Leonard that he had to choose among fighting, going to school and doing something else, that the public following he'd won in July would be irretrievably lost if he waited too long. "I told Ray how quick people forget," Morton says. "I said to him, 'Your fame will be gone before you know it. If you want to take advantage of it, do it now. Later it may be too late.' I didn't think he believed me when I first told him."
Morton soon dispelled the doubt. He took Leonard to Washington and introduced him to some of his friends and insurance clients. A few barely recalled him; others remembered him not at all.
"You know who this is?" Morton would ask. "The little guy in the Olympics, Sugar Ray Leonard."
Morton also took him to a busy intersection in Washington, where they waited for Leonard to be recognized. "I was expecting people to say, 'Sugar Ray. Hey, Sugar Ray!' " Leonard says. He heard no such salutations. People simply looked and went on about their business, and this was in Leonard's backyard. He was amazed. "I never thought of myself as a celebrity," he says, "so it didn't bother me. But it made me think a lot. A month after the Olympics, boom! Nothing."
Unable to decide what to do, and with his parents ill, Leonard left Palmer Park in early fall for Burlington, Vt., where he had trained for the Olympics and had become friends with some students at the University of Vermont. "That's the only place I knew," he says. He had been up there a week, relaxing and thinking and playing basketball, when he finally decided what to do. If he was encouraged to turn pro because his hands no longer hurt him, it was the illness of his parents, neither of whom could now work, that forced his decision. "I don't know why else I got in it but for my mother and father," he says. "There was nothing else I could do that would've given me fast money, the kind of money I needed to support a family. It was like I'd received a message: Do it, and do it now." So he did it. Leonard had already been getting advice on what to do and what not to do if he chose to go back to the ring. With Brotman, for instance, he had attended the heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton in Yankee Stadium. They visited the champ in the dressing room before the fight.
"Are you going to turn pro?" Ali asked.
"I don't know," Leonard said.
"If you decide to turn pro, don't sell yourself," Ali told him. "Hold on to everything you got. Don't be like me."
Naturally, he turned at once to Morton. With Trainer's help, they decided to test the water, to find out what promoters and managers had to offer. Before Leonard had even decided to make the move they listened to a proposal from promoter Don King. But they didn't like his offer—a multiyear contract that King could renew if, during the last year of the agreement, Leonard were ranked in the Top Ten. "It locked Ray in tight," Trainer says. "The dollars were not significant, and I didn't like the renewal clause." Then came discussions with Abe Pollin, the owner of the Washington Bullets and Capitals, to see what he could do. Pollin's group initially offered Leonard a $25,000 loan. Later, Pollin made a second offer, sweetened this time with a $200,000 bonus. "In either case, they would've owned a part of Ray," Trainer says.
At the time, Trainer knew nothing at all about boxing. Morton had brought Leonard to Trainer after the Olympics simply because he trusted him. The two had met playing Softball. Trainer has a general practice that he runs out of an unassuming second-story office in Silver Spring, Md., a wealthy Washington suburb. With no ties to the fight game, he was precisely the sort of man Morton was looking for to act as Leonard's counsel. At the start Trainer had no idea what Leonard might be worth as a fighter. He suggested $20,000 a year.
"A hundred thousand," said Morton.
Trainer blinked. "Are you kidding?"
"No, I'm not."
"Can the kid fight?"
"Before his career is over, he'll be the biggest thing in boxing," Morton said.
Trainer incorporated Leonard and made him the sole stockholder in the company, its president, chairman of the board and gofer, whose only job was to gofer money. Trainer then contacted a number of friends and clients and persuaded them to lend $1,000 each to the company. The loan, repayable in four years at 8% interest, gave the lenders no piece of the fighter. "It was a terrible investment." Trainer says. "If Ray made $5 million, they were only going to get their $1,000 apiece back, plus interest. They weren't in it to get anything." It was just a nice thing for someone to do to get a young man started. Trainer, himself, has no big contract with Leonard; he says he is paid by the hour.
So Ray Leonard became Sugar Ray again. He hired Jacobs as his trainer and Angelo Dundee, Ali's trainer, to manage his career and pick opponents with a view not only toward keeping him unbeaten, but also toward matching him with fighters strong enough and stylistically varied enough to challenge him each time he stepped into the ring.
"I saw that the only way this thing could be derailed was if we got snookered, if somebody set us up," Trainer says. "So I said I thought we should have an outside influence in here to have some say about what would go on, someone who could tell us what to do—to be our sounding board as a matchmaker." Leonard's advisers talked to two other trainers, Eddie Futch and Gil Clancy, but in the end he chose Dundee. He liked Dundee and sensed a compatibility with the man. Besides, says Leonard, "Angelo's wife Helen reminds me of my mother so much, so much—I mean, to hairstyles, to expressions, the smile, the laugh, the personality."
Dundee was on. And in December of 1976, Leonard was back in training—this time not with an Olympic gold medal in mind, but with designs on the welterweight championship of the world. His management in and out of the ring has been purposeful and measured at nearly every turn. He has taken advantage of every course available to him to enhance his fame and wealth. He arrived where he is today, on the brink of a title fight, with both his image and his record unblemished. Leonard won his first professional fight on Feb. 5, 1977, when he decisioned Luis (The Bull) Vega at the Baltimore Civic Center, not far from Leonard's hometown. CBS televised the fight, a crowd of 10,170 cheered him on, and Leonard took home $40,000-$30,000 'from the gate and $10,000 more from CBS.
The first thing he did, being thankful and responsible and all, was to pay back the loan, which amounted to $21,000. "This is going to sound absurd now, but I had budgeted that $21,000 to carry him 18 months." Trainer says. "I even considered getting him a part-time job. I'm a very conservative guy. I said to Ray, 'Look, it might take a year to 18 months to build you up, to get you a money fight.' As it turned out, it was a big-money fight the first time out of the box. We never spent a nickel of the $21,000."
Leonard was on his way. The Vega fight launched him, and both ABC and CBS tried to sign him to a multiyear contract. But Trainer did not want to be locked into any network for too long. Before Leonard's second fight, in which he decisioned Willie Rodriguez in Baltimore. Trainer negotiated a six-fight contract with ABC for almost $400,000. "I didn't sign a four-year contract with the network, which was a gamble if Ray went out and got beat that first year," Trainer says. "I turned down all kinds of money. I could have signed for as many years as I wanted." Instead, he chose to pass up the sure money and take a chance on Leonard's future, hoping that he would remain undefeated.
And while Leonard was fighting for television money. Trainer was making separate deals with arena operators. So Leonard had live gate and television revenues flowing from each fight, without promoters taking a share. Trainer dealt directly with the arenas. Networks did not care in which arenas Leonard fought as long as they were not located in major markets. A blackout in New York or Chicago would be too expensive. So the fights were held in places like New Haven, Conn. and Portland, Me. and Springfield, Mass. In Springfield, on Dec. 9, 1978, he defeated Armando Muniz on a TKO in the sixth round. That was his last fight on the ABC contract. His ratings had been extremely high on Wide World of Sports, and so the network came back with a second, more lucrative, offer. Leonard again signed with ABC in early 1979, this time for a five-fight package worth more than $1 million. The contract ended on Aug. 12, 1979, when Leonard battered Pete Ranzany, scoring a TKO in the fourth round in Las Vegas.
"TV money has never been a problem," Trainer says. "I've never shopped it. I've never taken an offer across the street. Sitting here, I'm going to tell you what I want. If I don't get it, I'm going across the street. If I get it there, I'm not coming back. For some reason I've always gotten what I wanted. Either I'm asking very reasonable numbers or they're afraid that no matter how unreasonable I'm being, someone else is going to pay it."
Trainer has, by design, dealt with all the networks. He has had Leonard play all three as well as Home Box Office and has thereby gotten to know each of his benefactors while spreading his fighter around. Leonard is a free agent now, able to make his own deals with whomever he wants, and his appeal is such that Trainer is inclined to think that Leonard has signed his last multi-fight contract. He no longer needs them. Having used television, especially ABC, to enhance Leonard's appeal, Trainer finds himself in the position of needing no one network to support and showcase his fighter.
And through all this, Leonard has learned how to fight like a professional. In three years, as his opponents have grown tougher, he has become ever more dominant in the ring. He has fought lefties and righthanders—as if to prepare himself for the ambidextrous Benitez—counterpunchers and bulls, tall fighters and short fighters, and dancers and sluggers. He has worked studiously on his combinations, adding punches to meet anticipated needs. For Benitez, a shrewd tactician with a tricky style, Leonard has been teaching himself the left uppercut, studying it in films of Wilfredo Gomez, a master at the punch, and practicing it on Odell Leonard's chin.
"Sugar Ray has shown tremendous improvement in every fight he has fought," says Ray Arcel, one of the most respected trainers in the business and a cornerman of welterweight contender Roberto Duran. "He's one of the keenest students of boxing I've seen in recent years. In that respect he reminds me of another Leonard, the greatest of them all: Benny Leonard. He was the perfect fighter. He was the one guy who could make you do things you didn't want to do. If you were an aggressive fighter, he'd back you up. If you didn't want to lead, if you were a counterpuncher, he made you lead. And he was one of the fastest thinkers in boxing. He was the master of the feint. Ray Leonard is the nearest thing to Benny that I've ever seen."
Leonard is superb at putting together combinations, Arcel says, throwing a variety of punches with speed and strength. "He jabs and hooks and follows through with a right and then hooks again, maybe doubles up on the hook," Arcel says. "He's got the guy bewildered. This is an unusual variety, the mark of real championship timber. Ray's able to execute it. He does it as sort of an element of surprise, and he reaches out when you least expect it. And once he hurts you he can finish you. I think he's a pretty good puncher. He may not be what you call a great puncher, but he's a damaging puncher. And with his speed he's able to follow through from one punch to another. There's no telling how great he can become. It's up to him. My personal opinion is that sooner or later he is destined to be champion of the world: it may come a lot sooner than we expect."
Leonard's lessons have taken different forms, and not all of them came the easy way. There are more things a boxer must learn than artful combinations and how to slip a punch. On May 20, 1979, Leonard won a 10-round decision against Marcos Geraldo, but it called for an act of survival. He took a punch that knocked him so silly that he saw more than one fighter in the ring with him. It was as if he had walked in a dream into a haunted house, with ghostlike figures stalking him. "He hit me and I saw, like, a shadow," Leonard says. "I saw three of him. I thought. 'Oh, shoot!' " Leonard tried to clear his head, moving continuously, endeavoring to get the images to come together. He still saw three. He backed off, giving himself time. "I couldn't distinguish who was who. Then pow! he hit me again. Then I knew the one in the middle was him. Now that I think about it, it's amazing—that punch cleared up my head."
The experience taught him something that he did not know and could never have picked up in a gym. "I learned survival in that fight," Leonard says. "I found out how to reach down, back deep down, and bring everything up. I had to use every trick and tactic I knew, and some I didn't know, to get away from him." In his last three fights Leonard confounded Tony Chiaverini, a lefty out of Kansas City, and stopped him in the fourth round. After shelling Ranzany, the North American Boxing Federation champion, he took on Andy Price, a tough customer out of California who was supposed to give Leonard trouble. He never had the chance. Taking the fight to Price in the first round, Leonard mugged him in the middle of the ring, punched him into the ropes and toppled him there with eight seconds left in the round.
"When a fighter is busy I move, looking for what's opening," Leonard says. "It's sort of like surveying the land, looking for the area that's not protected. I'm waiting for a spot to open. If he gets careless, I move. I'm expressing the gift I have. I think I'm blessed with a gift. I know I'm blessed. I'm capable of doing whatever I want to do in a ring."
For that, and for the distinctive flair he brings to the ring, Leonard is making history in boxing. Nothing more clearly illustrated his place in the game—as well as some of the chicanery that goes on behind the scenes—than the making of his fight with Benitez. Though undefeated and twice a champion—he was the junior welterweight champ before he won the welterweight title—Benitez has never earned more than $150,000 for a fight. Last spring Trainer called Jimmy Jacobs, Benitez' manager, and asked for a meeting to talk about a title fight. Jacobs was delighted. Trainer flew to New York. They huddled in Jacobs' apartment for four hours. If Trainer knew nothing about this business three years ago, he had since become a Ph.D. in money and maneuvering in the boxing world. He told Jacobs that the fight was worth $2.2 million. The question they had to settle was how to divide it.
Both managers sought the lion's share of the pot. Trainer argued that they would not be getting near this kind of money if Leonard were not enough of a draw to get the fight into prime time. Jacobs countered that his fighter was the champion, and traditionally champions don't split down the middle with challengers.
"Wilfredo is not an opponent," Jacobs told Trainer. "He is the world champion who has never been beaten, and he has to be paid more than the challenger."
"Ray is providing nearly eight times the money that Wilfredo ever made on a fight," said Trainer.
It was point, counterpoint for hours. The final compromise stemmed from discussions on the question of a site. Jacobs had said he would agree to a split if the fight were held either in New York or Puerto Rico, both of which would give Benitez a home-crowd advantage. Trainer would not accept either place. Naturally he wanted the bout to be held in Washington. They tugged back and forth. Trainer acknowledged that champions normally do not split a purse and understood that Jacobs had to sell the deal to his champion. So Trainer offered an extra $100,000 to Benitez if the fight were held at a neutral site, and Jacobs agreed. They took the package to promoter Bob Arum.
"I looked at them like they were crazy," Arum said.
In a charade designed to extract the most money possible from ABC, Arum negotiated with that network while making it appear that he also was trying to do business with NBC and CBS. "I knew that NBC and CBS were not going to come up with what I needed," Arum says. "They were hot for the fight, but not at this money. ABC didn't want to lose this fight; it had built up Leonard." Arum wanted to avoid any substantive discussions with NBC and CBS for fear they would drop out. "I had to give the impression there was fierce competition," he says.
The charade had gone on for two months when Arum finally accepted ABC's offer: $1.9 million. He then sold the fight to Caesars Palace for $500,000. And he got $150,000 for the foreign rights. That made $2.55 million in revenues, against $2.2 million in purses. After expenses, Arum stands to make between $250,000 and $300,000.
So Ollie Dunlap bought two pairs of boxing gloves for $45 and started a boxing team in Palmer Park. And Dave Jacobs decided to pitch in. And Ray Leonard wandered into the center one day and started to train. And he won the gold medal in the Olympics. And he turned pro and climbed for three more years. And on Nov. 30 he faces Wilfredo Benitez in Las Vegas. If he wins, of course, another journey will have begun.