They held the Who-Is-Going-To-Fight-Sugar Ray Leonard-In-The-Big-One auction last week in Syracuse, N.Y., and except for the intrusion of a fistfight, it went rather smoothly. Steven Wainwright was there representing the financial interests of undisputed middleweight champion Marvin Hagler. And Emanuel Steward, the manager of Thomas Hearns, the WBA welterweight champion—Leonard, of course, holds the WBC title—dropped in for two hours of secret talks at the airport. The case for Pipino Cuevas, second-ranked among WBC welters, was made by Manager Rafael Mendoza. Cuevas was a long shot, but Mike Trainer, the mastermind of Leonard's financial empire, likes to keep alternatives in reserve.
They all agreed on one thing: the big payday for one of them will be in the fall. Leonard is already committed to pursuing Ayub Kalule's WBA junior middleweight title in late June. In Syracuse they were jostling to see who would next prosper from Leonard's multimillion-dollar drawing power after he fights Kalule. The talk was about a pot of $60 million or so, and the winner would be whoever figured to help build it to that level and conceded the lion's share to Sugar Ray.
To relieve the tedium of the negotiating table, Larry Bonds, a lefthanded garbage man, was imported from Denver and paid $100,000 to go a few rounds with Leonard in the new Carrier Dome on the Syracuse University campus. Bonds had not had a fight since April of last year and had fought less than 10 rounds in the last 18 months. Still he was somehow rated No. 6 by the WBC, and so nobody complained when the bout was billed as a title fight. Bonds certainly didn't care what they called it; his biggest purse before last Saturday night had been about $1,500.
When Bonds' credentials as a title contender were questioned, Trainer told critics to look elsewhere to find the blameworthy. "All we are doing is following the rules," he said. "We wanted to fight Clint Jackson, which would be a better fight, but he isn't ranked. And the WBC says a champion has to fight every four months against a rated fighter."
April 6, 1981
WBC ratings in hand, Trainer began making calls in "February. Wilfred Benitez, whom Leonard first beat for the title, said no thank you, and fourth-ranked Randy Shields took himself out of contention by asking for $450,000. The manager of Argentinian Alfredo Lucero said he thought his kid needed a few more fights first. Trainer already was saving Cuevas as a fall alternative. Fifth-ranked Jorgen Hansen is 38 years old, and that would be an embarrassment. Finally, a call was made to Bobby Lewis, one of Bonds' co-managers.
Says Bonds, who was thinking of retirement: "My manager called me March 2. I was at home shooting eight-ball pool with my wife, Gloria. I didn't get too excited...although I did lose the game to her."
When Bonds was packing to go east, his three children came into the room with a request. Would he please bring them back Leonard's autograph? Sure, he told them. Shortly after arriving in Syracuse early last week, Bonds asked Leonard for three signed photographs and dutifully mailed them to his family.
"But my kids still want me to win," said Bonds with a small grin. "I told them that if I won, I'd take them to Disneyland. And I told them that if Ray won, he wouldn't do that."
For a 29-year-old who had spent most of his pro career in small clubs in Nevada, Bonds seemed unaffected by the pressure of a title fight. "You call this pressure?" he asked. "Hey, I spend eight hours a day in the alleys with people watching me all the time to see if I throw their garbage cans. Now that's pressure. Besides, people don't think I'm here to win, people just think I'm here. I don't even know why Leonard is training."
Bonds has always had trouble getting fights. He's a southpaw, which makes him undesirable enough, but worse, he's a southpaw who fights with a lot of movement. Nobody looks good against a jitterbugging lefthander. "I've been rejected by some of the best fighters in the world," Bonds said unhappily.
But then, every dark cloud has its $100,000 lining. It was Bonds' left-handedness that made him so attractive to Leonard. He was a natural stepping-stone to Kalule, a southpaw, who is a natural progression to Hagler, another lefthander.
Syracuse as the fight site was another natural. The upstate New York town hasn't had much in the way of a professional sports attraction since welterweight and middleweight champ Carmen Basilio retired in 1961, and the old Nats took their NBA franchise to Philadelphia 18 years ago. More than 18,000 seats had been sold three days before the bout.
"They aren't coming to see Ray win a fight," said Trainer. "They are coming to see Ray as an attraction. And while we are only making about $750,000 for this fight, we'll use it on down the road. In future fight negotiations we'll just say, 'Hey, Ray put 20,000 people in the seats in Syracuse. How many do you think your guy would draw?' "
While most experts refused to take Bonds seriously, Leonard did train hard for several weeks. "I think a lot of people are doing an injustice to Bonds," he said. "If it isn't a Hagler or a Hearns or a Cuevas, they call it a mismatch. But I feel I always bring out the very best in people." Then, in contradiction, he added, "But look, he hasn't fought in a long time. There's nothing I can say that can give him credibility. I don't think he'll be a problem. Not that he's not good, but because he's human. He'll see all those people out there, see all those flashbulbs snapping, and it will do something to him. If you aren't used to it you get tight. You lose your perspective."
In the end, it was Leonard who would prove to be human, who would lose his perspective. For too long he had listened to those who said Bonds wouldn't be much. It wasn't a disaster, just an embarrassment.
Bonds isn't a heavy hitter; he had knocked out only nine opponents in a 29-3 career. But he's an elusive target, and he has a jab that is stinging enough to be upsetting. It was a style that converted Leonard from a dazzling boxer into an almost plodding flat-footed bully. "I saw early there wasn't any use dancing with him," Leonard said after the bout. "Then we'd both be dancing and nobody would be punching much. To stop him I had to be a bully."
With Leonard reduced to the role of sluggish slugger, his usually accurate combinations were reduced to one-punch misses. Angrily he stalked his nimble prey, looking for the one big hit that would end his frustrations.
It looked as if it had come near the end of the fourth round when Leonard staggered Bonds with a right to the head. Quickly the champion was on his wobbly challenger, firing three punches within the space of a single breath. Bonds fell, but was up at seven. The bell stopped Referee Arthur Mercante's count.
Bonds wasn't through yet. Back on his bicycle, he did enough pedaling to win the next round in the eyes of Judge Carol Castellano. The other officials, Vincent Rainone and Harold Lederman, scored it even.
Leonard chased Bonds for four more rounds, his annoyance growing. He was angry with himself. Then midway through the 10th he slowed Bonds with a right to the head. Leonard swarmed in behind a rain of punches. A hook seemed to break Bonds in half, a follow-up right hand dropped him. Bonds was up at the count of six. Once more Leonard was on him, but quickly Mercante moved in to stop the onslaught. Bonds' courage had taken him as far as it would. Many in the crowd beneath the dome booed.
Later, Leonard, still angry over his performance, lashed out at those who had taken Bonds lightly. "People said I was a garbage collector," snapped the champion. "They said I had no business fighting this guy, and then when I didn't stop him, they booed. I think that was an injustice to me and to Larry Bonds. But I learned one thing: to be myself. And I learned not to believe the press when they say the other guy is a pushover."
The other winner over the weekend appeared to be Hearns. Before the fight people had descended on Syracuse, he had been offered $4 million to fight Leonard but had turned it down. However, in their meeting at the Syracuse airport, Trainer and Steward neared agreement on a new proposal which would give Hearns a percentage of the gate.
And no one would ever suggest to Sugar Ray Leonard that Thomas Hearns is a pushover.