No slam dunks allowed says the sign on the far wall of the gym, past where some boys are going three-on-three, over near the speed bags, which, Ollie Dunlap relates, are those upon which Sugar Ray Leonard learned to punch. Because gyms tend to look the same—institutional beige with too many colored lines on the floor—it's easy to envision the cute little boy reaching up and rattling the bags, a-pockety, pockety, pockety....
He was too small for basketball and interested mostly in wrestling and gymnastics when he first came to the gym at the Palmer Park (Md.) Recreation Center in his old neighborhood. There were boxers in the Leonard family—Ray's grandfather, Bidge, was even something of a legend back in Carolina for hard punching and hard drinking—but the kid certainly wasn't a roughneck. It wasn't in his blood, or even in his eyes then. "Ray only had one street fight, which is odd—no, rare—for this community," Dunlap says.
Dunlap manages the Center, which is almost surely the sort of thing Ray would be doing today, at age 25, if he hadn't become Sugar Ray, the undisputed welterweight champion of the world. He would be working with kids. Growing up, that's what he had in mind. But, nice as he was, doll that he looked, he could punch and move; he was quick every way except to quail.
And so it is that he isn't working with kids in Palmer Park; instead, across the street from where he learned his trade, an old drugstore is being gutted to become the Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing Center; Leonard will equip the place himself. It was only five years ago that his girl friend, Juanita Wilkinson, applied for welfare to support their son. Now Sugar Ray boasts he is the biggest taxpayer in Maryland. Many overwhelming things have happened very fast.
December 28, 1981
They've happened so fast that people still think of Leonard as being cute. But he's not, not anymore. Oh, as ever, he's cut fine and dandy; he's a charmer and always will be. And no man has yet left a mark on Leonard's handsome countenance—just the little slash over his left eyebrow, from running into a door in elementary school. There are the tiny ears that even Juanita—who is his wife now—kids him about, and the glowing smile and the saucer eyes, but his hairline has receded to the point that he now mumbles about a transplant. Upon his lustrous visage there are the first indications of adulthood—nothing so conspicuous as lines upon his smooth skin, but there is the first cast, the drift, of the grown-up. A little cynicism here, a little distance there; memories around the eyes.
One notices it most when he winks. What a wink this man has. Top of the line. World class. All famous people need something quick to get by on in public; Leonard, for example, calls everybody "Pal," and that works well enough. But when really pressed, he winks, at once fondly and conspiratorially—we're in this together, Pal, it says—and the winkee melts. But the difference is this: Once upon a time, when Sugar Ray winked it was as if it were part of his smile. But now, when he is through winking, the grin must be reset. This is what happens when a baby face grows up.
Or, in Leonard's case, catches up. The rest of him has always been so far ahead. This is what has deceived so many opponents. Even as Leonard tagged the other guy on the button and his seat hit the canvas, the guy was still telling himself: This pretty little chipmunk can't be for real. Only the people who have known him well have understood how rugged and resolute he truly is. "One time Ray came to see me, and he didn't have a car, and he was very upset about that," Juanita says. It happens that Leonard is driving his Mercedes as his wife recounts this episode, and he listens very intently as Juanita goes on: "And he told me, 'Sometime we're not going to have to depend on anybody, for transportation or anything. They're going to depend on us.' Remember that, Ray?"
He raps his fingers against the steering wheel and smiles. "There's an old saying," Dunlap is saying in the gym, and he recites it. It's wonderfully apt, too; strange that it isn't well known. "Probably only comes from this side of the street," Dunlap says, laughing. "Probably just this side. It goes: 'When do you become a man? When a man's needed.' " He shakes his head. "You see, Ray's been a man a long time. The kid's shoulders became this wide when they had to."
When he was 16—lying, he said he was the requisite 17—Leonard nearly qualified for the '72 Olympics. The boxer who beat him—the boxer who was awarded the decision—in the Trials was never the same again. Once, in Moscow in '74, during a tour by the U.S. national team, the judges gave the home boy the decision and a trophy. Then, without ado, the Russian marched across the ring and handed the award to Leonard. And you wonder why Duran quit.
Last September Thomas Hearns nailed Leonard in the third round of their welterweight title fight and stood for an instant, expecting him to crumble as all other men had. Instead, Leonard came right back with a left and drove Hearns against the ropes. "Where Ray really destroys a lot of guys first is mentally," says Janks Morton, Leonard's closest adviser. "He gave Hearns something, sure, but, you see, he had already taken something away from him, too." Jimmy Jacobs, Wilfred Benitez's manager, says, "Leonard is like a beautiful woman. You never know what he's concealing."
It was Benitez whom Leonard defeated to become the WBC welterweight champion. That was on Nov. 30, 1979, barely two years ago. In 22 months Leonard fought Benitez, Roberto Duran twice, Ayub Kalule, Hearns, champions all, a combined 177-1-1 record going in against him. Hearns and Kalule had never been knocked down. Leonard knocked them down. Hearns, the WBA welterweight champion, and Kalule, the WBA junior middleweight champ, were unbeaten. Leonard knocked out Kalule in the ninth round in Houston on June 25, 1981 and stopped Hearns in the 14th round in Las Vegas on Sept. 16, 1981. Did any boxer ever have five fights against such diverse and accomplished opponents in such a short period? Damn few.
And, in the end, this 22-month test comes down to the 13th round against Hearns. Leonard has to knock him out to win. Angelo Dundee, Leonard's trainer, is leaning into his ear, nearly shouting, but Leonard is looking, as if transfixed, at Hearns. "I heard every word Angelo said, but—watch the tapes—you won't see me respond," Leonard says, "because I already knew myself what I had to do."
So he stares. And the bell rings, and he storms out after Hearns, and here is Leonard, at the height of his powers. For all his glamour, all his achievement, there was always a certain hand-me-down quality to Leonard: christened for a singer, Ray Charles, with an old champion's surname, Benny Leonard. Nicknamed for another boxer. (Pound for pound...) The poor man's Bruce Jenner. A pocket-sized Ali. Even as champion he was still so insecure that he fought Duran's fight the first time. But now in one of the most ballyhooed bouts of all time, needing to knock out a man never knocked out, needing to penetrate the defenses of a good man, a taller man, who has only to stick out a long left and keep away, now it must be Ray Leonard himself. And there can be no measure of cuteness, in any of its forms.
He catches Hearns. He knocks him through the ropes. But Hearns holds on. So when the bell rings for the 14th, Leonard springs toward Hearns, and there's no way this giant can escape this terrier in the tasseled shoes. When the big right crashes home, there is an inevitability to it, not only to what has taken place in the neon desert this hot night, but to all that has come before, dating back to the speed bags in Palmer Park and even before.
"History," Leonard says. "That's what drives me now. I don't want to be just another champion. The Hearns fight put me in Guinness—greatest purse. But I want to be there for my talent, for class."
As soon as Leonard pastes Hearns up against the ropes, even as his head rolls to keep up with his eyes, Leonard raises his arms, extends them in the victory salute. He has slugged enough men to know when it is over. Even before he brings his arms back down he is calling to the referee through his mouthpiece, "Come on, Davey, come on." End it, TKO. But the referee, Davey Pearl, hesitates, and Leonard must go on. Still, even as he measures Hearns, there's his right hand moving out to the side, not cocking for a punch, but gesticulating, like a man signaling for a waiter, beckoning the third man to come in, please, now, and stop him from doing what he must otherwise do. What's the point of fighting any more? The point is to win, not to damage. It irritates Leonard when outsiders suggest that Duran robbed him of true victory by quitting in their second fight. What greater victory could there be than to turn the dauntless Duran into a Scaramouch, to make the unquittable quit? And now he has the unbeatable Hearns out on his feet, and what will it serve to continue the pounding?
"I love my sport. I want to do it only from the heart," Leonard says. "I want to make it as much of an art as I can. And the challenge! Everything in my life led up to Hearns. I knew what I could do. For me, it was a show. Now I had reached my prime. My strength, intelligence, maturity and experience. Hearns was like the last chapter in a book." Before we close that volume, then, there upon the endpaper is a good place to inscribe: RAY LEONARD, SPORTSMAN OF THE YEAR, 1981. "Now I can start another book of my life."
GREATEST AMERICAN PEOPLE
"Sugar ray Leonard One of Americas Greatest People Becaues he is a good Boxer and he is a good Father and a good Husband But most of All he is my best Friend. I love him Becaues he is good and kind to People. But mostly to kids he is a great American person in my book."
Ray Leonard Jr. wrote this encomium for his father a few weeks ago. He was eight last month, and now he, too, is a celebrity in his own right. When Ray and Little Ray—nobody who knows Sugar Ray ever calls him Sugar and nobody ever calls Ray Jr. anything but Little Ray—were in Los Angeles recently, filming a commercial for The Champ, a new Keds' children's shoe, a first-grade field trip came strolling along.
The Leonards; were filming out by a reservoir in Franklin Canyon, and the kids, all black, had been brought there to see squirrels and birds, big trees, maybe a deer; what have you in the nature line. And here they were, walking through the wildlife, certified flora and fauna, and there before them, big as day, sitting by the side of the road, was Sugar Ray Leonard, star of 7-Up commercials.
"Hey, I seen your picture," said one little boy.
"Now you can see him live," a teacher explained, helpfully. That's what field trips are for.
"Will you take me home with you?" a pretty girl asked.
"Where's your little boy?" another kid piped up. So, to greet his fans, Little Ray was summoned from the VIP trailer.
Little Ray isn't merely an adorable little boy. He has symbolic qualities that Leonard and his advisers are not unaware of. The image of the typical black family as a matriarchy is dented every time that Ray and Little Ray appear together, especially because, like the majority of black children in America, Little Ray was born out of wedlock. Juanita and Ray were 16 and 17 then, and their relationship was very much like a struggling young marriage, especially as he had to devote so much time to training. "She'd bring the check home and give me half," he says. "I'd go to a party, and she'd be so tired she'd have to stay home and go to bed." He's laughing now, teasing her, and closes out with a wink. "God, I wish it could still be that way."
But Juanita can hold her own. She's very much a part of what her husband has accomplished. "At first, I hated it all," she says, "but it wasn't ever hard for me to support him because I loved him and knew how much boxing meant to him." Ray promised Juanita, as he did his mother, that the Olympic ring in Montreal would be the last one he would ever enter, and when he climbed into it, he carried Juanita's picture in his shoe.
Leonard was no better than the second most famous American athlete to come out of Montreal. Jenner had a pretty woman, his wife, Chrystie, who had helped support him while he was training, too, and he was every bit as handsome and smooth as Leonard. And he was white, of course. Jenner won the Sullivan Award for being the nation's top amateur athlete that year. Blacks haven't won the Sullivan in 20 years—they're not thought of as amateurs. And Jenner retired and got all the endorsements.
Leonard assumed he also could trade on his Olympic fame. His plan was to sign a few commercial contracts and pick up enough change to get through the University of Maryland; he would be the first college man in his family. But right after the Olympics, to qualify for welfare, Juanita had to formally identify Little Ray's father, and even though Ray had, all along, proudly told the world of his son and lover back in Maryland, there was a big stink. All of a sudden, he was just another black kid with a "paternity suit." There were no endorsements.
Not long ago, Mike Trainer, Leonard's attorney, who's white, got a call from an agent, asking if Leonard would film a commercial for a product that Jenner also represented. "Sure," Trainer said. "For what Jenner gets."
"We couldn't give you that much."
"Well, you know...."
"Listen," Trainer said, "I'm giving you a break. This is nothing against Jenner, but what's he done since the Olympics but eat cereal? My guy has become champion of the world. Now, why?"
And Trainer concluded the conversation because he did know why.
Understanding this, it's easier to appreciate why Leonard, a black boxer—the most cruelly stereotyped athlete of all—so concerns himself with image and all that folderol that raises mere world champions to a truly exalted place, to the spot on the sofa next to Johnny Carson.
Unquestionably, Leonard is now the strongest of modern alloys, this blend of hero and celebrity. In a recent poll of eighth-graders taken by The World Almanac, asking them whom they admire most, Leonard was, at No. 9, the top-rated athlete. (Magic Johnson was next, a distant 22nd.) The young voters chose no world leaders, clergymen, educators, artists or businessmen, only entertainers—Burt Reynolds first; Brooke Shields top female. Leonard ranked between George Burns and Steve Martin. Whatever this says about eighth-graders, Sugar Ray surely arrived.
Jealousy may, in fact, now be the most serious problem he must contend with. There is, for example, an element in the black population that disapproves of Leonard. Juanita mimics these people: "He forgot where he came from, he forgot his people." This is hardly an original charge; black athletes who abandon their modest—or worse—childhood environs are often similarly accused. The deeper into the ghettos one went, it was said, the more sentiment there was for Hearns.
Not long ago Leonard was honored in Palmer Park, a six-block-square development just over the line from the District of Columbia. The Leonards had moved to Washington from Wilmington, N.C., where Ray was born in 1956, and then went out to Palmer Park when he was 10. Palmer Park was still mostly white at that time, but it is now virtually all black.
The place is so small that just about everybody knew Ray Leonard; just about everybody knew everybody. And when Leonard was honored there, Dunlap told the crowd, "Now, you've got to remember, Ray doesn't belong to us anymore. He belongs to the world now."
Some of the ghetto suspicion of Leonard is fueled because he is so popular among whites. "Listen, if I knew why whites accepted me," he says, "I'd bottle it." Obviously, much of the reason for his popularity among whites and, for that matter, most blacks is simply that he's attractive and genial, with good looks and a warm demeanor that help him transcend his singularly savage sport. Much of Leonard's following comes from constituencies that otherwise have nothing to do with boxing.
"Remember that old lady on the plane the other day?" Leonard said recently, shaking his head in wonder. "Why, she said my breath was like baby's milk." Your breath? "Yeah, my breath."
However, while acknowledging Leonard's inherent appeal, Trainer also takes the devil's view. "Ray is so appealing," he says, "that even people with the deepest racist tendencies like him: See, I'm not a racist. I like one."
Such theories notwithstanding, Leonard has gained a nearly unanimous affection that not even Ali could claim. For many years it was said that Ali was the best-known human being in the world, a degree of recognition Leonard may never attain. But in parts of the world—and, most particularly, right at home—Ali wasn't as popular as he was a subject of contention. By contrast, Leonard's detractors are mostly being picayune. That he has arrived on this pedestal as anything less than a heavyweight (A welterweight! What the hell is a welterweight?) is all the more tribute to him.
It certainly has helped that even if he's not really a "media creature"—it was, after all, a gold medal he won in Montreal, not an Emmy—he's so very much at home on television. Leonard earned money as a TV boxing color commentator before he did as a boxer. He feeds off the spectacle of sport, uses it to his advantage precisely as that other superb young individual-sport athlete of 1981, John McEnroe, is undone by it.
"When I fight," Leonard says, "my eyes are twice as big. And I'm aware of everything around me. I notice the crowd. I watch the press watching me, the photographers clicking their cameras. I can see my friends in the seats. It's all part of the fight." It's all part of the show biz. "You see, I don't consider myself a fighter," he says. "I'm a personality." Leonard has just ordered $1,200 worth of monogrammed—SRL—hand towels that he plans to give out as mementos to training camp visitors when he trains for his next fight, against Bruce Finch on Feb. 15. Leonard got this inspiration from Elvis Presley, who gave out handkerchiefs to hysterical admirers. Also: "It's tax deductible," Leonard explains.
Of course, the Fight Mob comprehends little of this. The Fight Mob of the Fight Game: last of the mobs; everything else today is lobbies and pressure groups. But the Fight Mob hangs on, a squadron of buttonhole salesmen, peddling bruised flesh. Because Leonard has always been independent of the Mob, he has managed to irritate it when he didn't actually, as Trainer says, "threaten it."
Under the guidance of Morton—"a teacher of life," Leonard calls him—Leonard's training regimen is unorthodox. He spars less, watches film in the Talmudic manner of some assistant football coach—100 hours of Hearns—and generally diverges from accepted prefight routines. Meanwhile, Trainer, a side-street suburban lawyer, chain-smoking and elfin-faced—he's really the cute one in the bunch—has effectively rewritten the liturgy of boxing promotion.
From the day Leonard opened as a pro in February of 1977—President Carter was extended a personal invitation; the city of Baltimore promoted the event—he has done things his way. "He's always been treated as a superstar by those of us around him," Trainer says. "Oh sure, now there may be stretch limos instead of cabs, but he was never a lead-in or a walk-out fight. Ray Leonard was never underneath. We turned down commercials for products we didn't like and interviews in girlie magazines. And at a time when we couldn't really afford to."
They did humor the Mob as best they could. It's gospel in those grubby precincts that one is supposed to bring a prospect along slowly, and so even though Morton didn't believe that Leonard needed a succession of palookas, they made what Leonard calls "a campaign" of it, picking opponents to fill out a graduate curriculum—a southpaw here, a counterpuncher there—while playing network matinees and working the house. Leonard did exhibitions at schools, addressed father-son breakfasts, ran in community road races, kissed old ladies. I don't consider myself a fighter. I'm a personality.
The Mob's wishful thinking that Leonard wasn't hardscrabble enough derived not so much from anything he did in the ring—after all, he knocked out two-thirds of his opponents—but from the way he moved outside it. It was inscribed in stone that any genuine prospect had to start out scuffling for lunch money, working four rounds on the undercard in Wilkes-Barre. There's now a new hypothesis that Leonard has too much money and too many distractions to keep his title. But in one way, he has been freed by the many millions he has salted away. Consider how it was. When he fought in the Olympics he was penniless, and for reasons no one was ever able to diagnose, his knuckles were regularly so sore then that sometimes he punched and cried simultaneously. But to fight now, not only free of the pain but also without any concern about money, this must surely be the most favored way to enter the ring.
"Ray's made all the money he'd need for three or four lifetimes," Morton says. "We just say a prayer in the locker room before every fight that both of these men come out O.K. Remember, life is on the line any time anyone goes in the ring. What is the money when Ray wants to go down as the greatest fighter in the whole history of boxing? Now, he doesn't talk like that, but I've seen him looking at the records. I understand his feelings. And he's almost there now. Three or four more years, Ray Leonard will be there. He'll achieve that. Greatest ever."
Boxing itself presents the major conflict within Leonard: Should he go on? What price glory? He never planned to make the ring his lifework. When he won the gold medal he said, "This is my last fight. My journey has ended. My dream has been fulfilled." But need—serious illness to both his parents—and a sign—the battered knuckles healed almost magically—made him decide to fight professionally. Still, as recently as last year, he declared cynically, "I'm in this to make as much money as I can, and get out."
Ah yes, but now as he warms his hands by the spotlight, as money becomes no object, as the broken promises to his wife and mother fade from his mind, he speaks more affectionately of his sport, of his place, of his quest. And it's true, after all, that it is unnatural for any athlete to want to abdicate at the age of 25. Leonard protests that boxing is no more brutal than football or hockey, but when, if ever, has Tony Dorsett or Wayne Gretzky been asked about quitting? Or, for that matter, Larry Bird or Mike Schmidt or Sebastian Coe, or any great athlete in his prime?
Yet the subject dogs Leonard. Even Little Ray, after the Hearns fight, urged his father to find a more civilized line of work. Juanita, who passed out at one of her husband's fights, is perhaps most dismayed that he keeps on fighting. Largely to satisfy her, Leonard undergoes a battery of medical tests after every fight.
Possibly, in her heart of hearts, Juanita wishes with each fight that just a little something could be wrong, so Ray could conclude his career. For they have it all now, love and the material things. They have been together most of the last decade, but they still wrestle around like kids, hugging and teasing and carrying on. Ray can sound stilted when he's with others. But when he's with Juanita, it's all spontaneous and warm.
For example, driving along, Leonard's father is mentioned in passing. For no apparent reason, Ray declares, "My father is just a good man, one good man."
And Juanita, every bit as heartfelt, adds, "Yes, he is a good man, and a lot of that goodness has rubbed off on you."
They are driving back to their new house, a straight shot past Palmer Park, but far into the rolling Maryland countryside, almost half the way from Washington to the Chesapeake Bay. They are country gentry, and on their property, behind the automatic hydraulic wrought-iron gate with the letter L woven into the grille, there are a pool and pool house and two full courts, basketball and tennis. According to Leonard's friends, one of the two things he cannot do particularly well, despite himself, is play tennis. (The other is singing.) So Leonard has taken up golf, and now often wallops drives on the long back lawn that extends down to where his TV dish antenna is.
The house is beautifully appointed. Among other things, it has magnificent floors. This is unusual. The typical young athlete who has come into a lot of money buys a big house and goes heavy on the wall-to-wall carpeting. The leading feature of Athletic Provincial is wall-to-wall. But the Leonard house is full of tasteful risks, the only thing out of place being The Joy of Sex (Deluxe Edition), standing cheek by jowl on the shelf next to the Holy Bible. The nicest touch is that the focus in the living room isn't on any of Ray's trophies but on Juanita's diploma from Parkdale High School.
And now, here, the subject of his quitting comes up again. "Sometimes I feel myself not having the same motivation," he admits. "I don't like to say it, but probably just one more year."
Juanita has heard all this before; she makes a sarcastic yeah-sure noise. Ray turns on her and snaps, "You just say that because I said that after Duran...."
"No!" Juanita stops him sharply. And then so softly: "I say that because I know how much you love it, Ray, and it's hard to give up something you love."
She has hit too close to home; for once he is tongue-tied. "Yeah, but...."
"Yeah, but, so all right, prove me wrong," Juanita says.
"Yeah, what do I get?" he coos now. "Come on, if I quit, what're you going to give me? I don't mean buy me anything. What're you going to give me?" And he laughs and hugs away whatever argument might be left in her.
This was several weeks after the Hearns fight, and for a boxer that is the worst time. It's easy to think about quitting just before a fight, during the dreary grind of training; maybe easier still after one, all sliced up and hurting. But win or lose, the greater loss comes later. No athlete experiences the peaks and valleys that a championship fighter does. In a team sport, even for a star, the attention is dispersed over a season. In other individual sports, the pattern is never so extreme as in boxing; if McEnroe wins Wimbledon or Watson the Masters, they are back in formal competition a week or so later. And when they do play, they aren't unique; they're members of a whole field of competitors. But for a boxer, starting weeks before a big match, it is only he and his opponent.
"Everything's focused on that," Leonard says. "It builds up, and then in 45 minutes, an hour, it's over. It's so draining. You have to work your way out."
And the easiest way out, of course, is back in. Leonard's many so-called distractions may, in fact, really work to propel him back to the bright sanctuary of the ring. "I'll tell you," he says, "a lot of time, out of training, I don't even know where I am. Training gives me sanity. That's the one time in my life when I know what I'm doing."
Now, a few days later, Leonard was in Las Vegas, "doing" one of those WBX junior-supermachoweight world championship fights for TV; he was dressed in his obligatory network-colored blazer. The afternoon's title fight was over, and the fans had descended on him for autographs: "Hey, Sugar!" "Hey, Champ!" His friends kept the crowd at bay.
An old boxing hand was talking about Leonard with a visiting fireman. "Give it up?" he snorted. "Give it up? Name me the great ones who walked away."
The visiting fireman searched his brain. "Well, uh, Tunney."
"Judas Priest! Tunney! That's better'n 50 years ago. Is that the best you can do? Yeah, probably it is, because there aren't any walk away."
On his cue, Leonard's people eased him through the crowd, so he could sign the cast of a boy in a wheelchair. Under his name, Leonard carefully lettered OUCH!—perfect, just the right touch, as ever. Then he went back to the paper and pens fluttering in his face. "Hey, Sugar!" "Hey, Champ!"
"Marciano!" the visiting fireman suggested.
"Marciano?" grumbled the Fight Mobster. "The Rock was 32 or 33 when he quit. You mean you're going to say Ray has walked away if he goes another seven years in the ring? No—none of 'em ever leave that on their own."
Leonard signed his name some more. His friends told him the limo should be out back by now, but he kept on signing. "This is when you get tired of hearing your own name," he said, laughing. And he winked at someone who couldn't get near him for the crush.
But after the first Duran fight, after Leonard lost the WBC welterweight title, he realized he had lost more than a fight. Boxing is really the only place where there is a champ. Oh sure, occasionally the generic word champion is squeezed down into headlines in other sports. But champ belongs to the ring. Only in boxing do people actually call themselves Champ and answer to it. But, all of a sudden, after Duran, the title was gone and no one addressed Sugar Ray that way. "I didn't like that," he says, simply enough. "Not even my wife would call me Champ then."
So there is obviously still some hunger, still a bit more for him to accomplish. Then we shall see if he can turn around and walk away, throwing one last wink back at where he has been the very best. Whatever, anyway, Ray Leonard will never work an undercard.