Looking like a sculptor putting the last touches on a bust, Bob Jermain stood over Sugar Ray Leonard and gently applied a dab of greasepaint to the fighter's left cheek. "Make me look like new again," Leonard had said. Jermain was obliging.
It was Saturday afternoon, 19 hours after Leonard had won the WBC welterweight championship, and Leonard was in a dressing room backstage on the set of The Merv Griffin Show at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Jermain, the show's makeup man, painted the left cheek, then the right, using a grease intended to cover up the reds and blues of the bruises under Leonard's eyes. "The new Sugar Ray Leonard!" Charlie Brotman, Leonard's P.R. man, called from behind him.
Leonard is admittedly vain about his looks. The first thing he does after most fights is examine his face. After the fight the night before he had peeked only once. He was not badly bruised, but what he saw pained him. "I looked in the mirror and turned off the light," he said. "I couldn't believe it. 'Is that me?' "
He had just beaten Wilfred Benitez for the title, stopping him with six seconds to go in the 15th and final round, and this was one way he was paying for it. That he required extensive makeup to prepare for talk-show television was testimony to what he had been through inside the ring. And, makeup aside, there was no hiding the effect of the mental and physical pressures he had endured in winning the hardest and most important fight of his life from the toughest, most dangerous opponent he had ever met. The night before, he had lain in a bathtub for an hour, unable to attend the party he was throwing at Caesars Palace. "Every bone in my body aches," he said. He had been dehydrated and had slept fitfully, waking up after nightmares with an unquenchable thirst. "I kind of felt like Rocky," he said. "This for me was the ultimate test. There was so much pressure."
December 10, 1979
The heaviest pressure stemmed from knowing the kind of money he could make if he won the title. Leonard would earn $1 million for the Benitez fight, Benitez $1.2 million, and Sugar Ray knew that if he won there would be more down the line—millions more. He passed the test by scoring a stunning TKO off a deft combination. He beat perhaps the best defensive fighter in boxing in a match that seemed at once a chess match and a manhunt, a tactical exercise in which two fighters stalked each other, slipped and feinted, and countered and probed for weaknesses. "From a technical standpoint, there was more done in this fight than I've seen done for a long time," said Angelo Dundee, Leonard's trainer. "You saw two smart, scientific fighters—two champions in the ring at the same time. They brought the best out of each other."
And, to the extent they did so, they answered some questions about themselves. There was Leonard, at 23 the sport's ascendant star, going after the title in his 26th professional fight—fast, versatile, intelligent and a superb finisher. "My ambition is to retire financially independent, unharmed," Leonard says. "My ambition is not to be just a good fighter. I want to be something great, something special." What was not known was how he would respond to the kind of pressure that so superb a craftsman as Benitez would bring to bear on him; how he would deal with a tricky, ambidextrous opponent; how well he could take punches over the course of a fight; and how he could handle a full 15 rounds—he had never gone more than 10.
And there was Puerto Rico's Benitez, at 21 ring-wise beyond his years: the junior welterweight champion at 17, the youngest titleholder of all time; the welterweight champion at 20; a counter-puncher with quick hands. How would he deal with Leonard's jab, and how would it affect him that he had not fought since March? "We'll find out whether Ray Leonard is the consummate professional that he appears to be," said Jimmy Jacobs, Benitez' manager. "Leonard will be hit more than he has ever been hit in his life. I think it will go 15 rounds, and I'm extremely confident that Wilfred will win." The bettors disagreed, making the champ a 3-to-1 underdog.
As the bout began, the fighters met in the center of the ring in a 30-second staring match, their faces menacingly stony, inches apart. The crowd, rising, cheered them with loud whoops and whistles.
Then Leonard began moving and jabbing, and it appeared that he had found his target, that this might be an early evening. In the first round he tagged Benitez with a sweet hook that came off a jab and righthand, rocking the champ backwards. But Benitez got away. In the third Leonaid caught him again, this time with a cleanly delivered left jab. Benitez went down on the seat of his pants. Up quickly, he took a standing eight-count, and at the bell walked to his corner smiling sheepishly.
Benitez found Leonard with two righthand leads in the fourth, and suddenly Leonard was fighting a different man. "I wasn't aware I was in a championship early because I hit him so easy," Leonard said. "But then he adjusted to my style. It was like looking in a mirror." And Leonard was having trouble hitting his man, especially with the overhand right. Benitez slipped one after another, dipping under them.
"Go downstairs!" Dundee exhorted Leonard between rounds. "Go to the body. Stick that left in his face. You can't stand in front of him and hit him with a right hand. Forget the right hand!" Leonard held out his hand, indicating where Benitez' face was. "But he's right there!" said Ray.
"Yeah," said Dundee. "He's right there, but then he ain't there."
Occasionally the two fighters stopped face to face, fiat-footed, feinting with their hands, weaving like wind-up dolls and searching for the openings. Leonard was looking at a mirror. In the sixth round, in fact, they cracked their foreheads together. Fortunately for Leonard, the blow raised only a welt. Unfortunately for Benitez, it opened a gash. Blood flowed down his face. His corner treated the cut, but Benitez knew that Leonard could reopen the wound and that the blood could impair his vision. Benitez was suffering from another problem, too. He had injured his left thumb early in the fight, and by the seventh round he was shaking his left glove at his side.
It was an odd fight, with much parrying and displays of ringcraft, and hard to judge. Neither man dominated. Neither could move the other around. Neither could set the other up. And there was not much banging. Leonard landed the harder blows and had Benitez going more than once late in the fight. In the ninth he delivered a flurry of punches, culminating with a right that put Benitez into the ropes. In the 11th Leonard hit him with a hook that jarred his mouthpiece loose. Benitez rope-a-doped. Leonard, who probably missed more punches in this fight than in all his previous 25 pro bouts combined, could not put him away. "No one, I mean no one, can make me miss punches like that," he said. "I kept thinking, 'Man. this guy's really good.' "
If the two used every feint and maneuver in the first 14 rounds, science deferred to war in the 15th. a round they both thought they needed to win. Actually, through 14 rounds Leonard was in front by at least two points on all three cards. Harry Gibbs, the English judge, had them the closest, 136-134 on the 10-points-must system. "Leonard missed so much." he said. "Boxing is the art of self-defense, and Benitez made Leonard miss."
The fighters swung from all points of the compass in the 15th. For weeks, preparing for this fight, Leonard had studied films of Wilfredo Gomez, the super bantamweight champ, who throws a devastating left uppercut. And now, off a jab, Leonard stepped inside and raised one home, catching Benitez on the chin. Down the champion went, to his knees. Regaining his feet, he stepped gingerly to a corner, kicking his legs to get the feeling back. He was ripe now. Leonard threw two punches more, and referee Carlos Padilla stopped the fight. Benitez had been beaten for the first time in 38 professional fights, and Leonard was the WBC's new welterweight champion.
Perhaps never has a title changed hands with more amicability and sportsmanship. Three times the two men embraced at the postfight press conference. "I have no excuses," said Benitez, with the gash still open and his thumb swelling. "He won easy, you know? He'll win a lot of fights like I do when I was champion, O.K.? He's a great challenger. He became champion beating me. I want to give him a good luck and God bless him."
Benitez' $1.2 million purse did nothing, of course, to inhibit his feelings of good will. Nor did the prospect of a return engagement next year. The two camps have a gentlemen's agreement for a rematch. Leonard's prospects in the marketplace are limitless now. With television behind Leonard, every opponent he chooses is in for a payday the likes of which he never had before. Among those who may thereby profit are the World Boxing Association champ, Pipino Cuevas, and former lightweight champ Roberto Duran.
The next day, Leonard stared at the mirror as Jermain worked on him. Angelo Dundee stood behind him. Leonard said quietly, "I think we should have had this guy in our corner."