Ray Leonard tossed and turned and dreamed of death. Sweating, he awoke with a feeling of dread in the darkness of his Reno hotel room. He had dreamed that he was standing over a challenger for his undisputed world welterweight championship, whom he'd knocked down, and the opponent wasn't moving.
"For a terrible moment it was awfully real," Leonard says. "But then I realized it had just been a bad dream. I managed to get back to sleep, but it was an uneasy sleep."
The following morning, Feb. 15, after weighing in for his title defense that night with Bruce Finch, Leonard went to his suite at Harrah's for breakfast with his older brother Roger. As they were eating, Ray was uncommonly quiet, and Roger casually commented, "You know, Ray, you hit so hard, someday you're going to kill somebody."
Once more the nightmare came to mind. Shaken, Leonard replied, "Naw, that's never going to happen." The subject was changed; the bad dream retired to a neutral corner of the champion's consciousness.
That night at the Reno Centennial Coliseum, while country singer Mickey Gilley was in the ring rewriting the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner, Leonard warmed up for his first defense of the title he had unified by stopping Thomas Hearns last September. Although Finch was so lightly regarded that no gambler could make a bet on the outcome—unless he wanted to wager on when Finch would be stopped, before or after eight rounds—Leonard had trained diligently, and as he shadowboxed in his dressing room he felt his body was finely tuned.
Trainer Janks Morton checked his watch. It was nearly time for the lightly sweating Leonard to earn his $1.3 million. Finch, 28-3-1 and ranked No. 4 by the WBC only because the world has run out of quality 147-pound fighters, was to be paid $85,000, about $82,000 more than he had ever earned for a bout.
The door to Leonard's dressing room opened and a TV emissary entered. "We're having a technical problem," the man said. "There's going to be a slight delay."
Reno's first championship fight since Jack Johnson knocked out James J. Jeffries in 1910 was being telecast live by Home Box Office. Delayed broadcast rights had been purchased by ABC. In the 10-minute delay Leonard lost his fighting tone.
He had planned for a quick ending. "I won't carry an opponent for anyone," he had said a few days earlier. "If I can take Finch out in the first round, I will. I'm going right after him." Vulnerable to a left hook, Finch, a converted southpaw, had been stopped by Pete Ranzany in five rounds, Larry Bonds in five and Hearns in two. All three had been knocked out by Leonard.
But now, as he entered the ring in search of his 32nd victory in 33 fights, Leonard realized it would take more than three minutes just to get his body retuned.
Morton was furious. "That's why I always resent it when someone is in the room when we are preparing for a fight, because we're working on their timetable," he said later. "As it was, the delay could have cost us the fight. When Ray warmed up the first time his timing was perfect. Then they changed the start and his timing was off. We tried to warm up again, but then they said they were ready and we had to quit."
"I feel cold," Leonard informed his concerned cornermen, Morton and Angelo Dundee. "Run," was the consensus order they gave him. "Run until you feel ready."
With Leonard circling at a quick pace, Finch, who was equally annoyed by the delay, went right after him. When Finch triggers a punch it is more like a stiff push, jarring but not damaging. Midway through the round the challenger caught Leonard in flight with a solid right to the body. The champion's bored expression never changed. "I didn't feel like I was in a fight," Leonard marveled afterward. "The whole atmosphere was real slow, low-key like."
More from habit than intent, Leonard hit Finch with a good overhand right near the end of the round. As he rested between rounds, he was told to step up the pace. Morton and Dundee didn't tell him he was behind on points; Finch had won the first round on all three cards.
After a slow first minute in the second round, Leonard lured Finch into the trenches. He wanted him inside, where his short snapping punches are devastating. He slowed his dance, and Finch, responding to the bait, stepped in and thrust a right to the champion's head. It was a terrible mistake.
"He didn't hurt me," Leonard said, "but he woke me up. I said, 'Wow, this is for real.' It was like the first Duran fight, the same atmosphere. Then Duran hit me, and I said. 'Hey, I better fight. This guy is for real.' "
The right hand drove Leonard into a neutral corner, and there he stayed and fought. Moving in, Finch was met by a volley to the body. Looking ponderous as he took Leonard's lightning strikes, Finch tried to 20 to the head. And Leonard hit him with a vicious hook to the body, almost sawing him in half.
As Finch bent from the blow, Leonard fired two more hooks, the second a blast to the head that sent the challenger reeling. A hard right to the head dropped him on his back.
"Oh, no," Sugar Ray thought. He remembered the dream and the words of his brother. "It was a strange feeling," he said later. Instead of going to a neutral corner, he walked forward, staring down at Finch, who was moving.
Leonard wanted him to stay down. "I played a mind game," Sugar Ray said afterward. "I wanted to give him the incentive not to get up. So I went over to my own corner. It didn't work. He had come to fight."
Mills Lane, the referee, chased Leonard into a neutral corner, then resumed the count. Finch lurched to his feet at nine. Reluctantly, Leonard went after him. "Then he hit me and I forgot all about that dream," Leonard said. A moment later, Finch—either from a Leonard flurry or because he was still dizzy from the first flooring—fell again. He rose at seven and held on until the bell.
The end came at 1:50 of the third round. Finch came out trying to fight, but Leonard assaulted him with straight rights and left uppercuts. A third combination drilled Finch to his knees, where, briefly, he stayed. Somehow he regained his feet at nine, only to reel backward against the ropes. Mills stepped in and wrapped him in protective custody.
Finch accepted the defeat with the grace of a true Reno plunger. "Win some, lose some," he philosophized. At least he didn't shrug.
For Leonard, the major objective now is to pick a credible opponent from the impoverished lists offered by the WBA and the WBC. The top 10 of either group, with the exception of Hearns, who is currently campaigning as a middleweight, is hardly top-shelf.
Leonard's next defense, in late May or early June, will be against Roger Stafford, who once roomed with Sugar Ray during their amateur campaigns. Stafford earned the opportunity with an upset of Pipino Cuevas last November. At the time Cuevas was ranked the No. 1 contender by the WBC.
"We figured Stafford naturally would be moved up to No. 1 and it would be a mandatory fight," says Mike Trainer, Leonard's attorney. Then the WBC issued the latest of its absurd ratings. Cuevas was still No. 1, Stafford No. 4.
"In the welterweights today," intoned José Sulaimàn, president of the WBC, "there is not much difference between No. 1 and No. 10." On that note he approved the Leonard-Stafford fight—providing Stafford defeats David Madrid March 2—and ordered an elimination fight betweeen Cuevas and No. 2-rated Chung-Jae Hwang of Korea, with the winner to fight Leonard, assuming Ray defeats Stafford. Hwang is the WBA's top contender but no one knows why.
Trainer would like one more fight, making four, before year's end. The most attractive opponent would be Alexis Arguello, the WBC lightweight champion, who might be induced to move up a class for a $1 million payday. It would be Arguello's bid for a fourth title; he has also held the world featherweight and WBC junior lightweight titles.
The one fight everyone thought they would see, Leonard against middleweight champion Marvin Hagler, seems to be wishful thinking. Hagler's people want the fight at 160 pounds. Leonard has offered to fight at 154. Neither side is willing to concede an ounce.
"People accuse us of ducking Hagler." says Trainer. "They think it's a matter of a few pounds. Heck, we'll fight Hagler at 160 if he agrees to weigh in at 160 on his way into the ring. But if he weighs in at 160 in the morning, he'll come in at 167 or 168 that night. Ray will weigh 154. All we're trying to do, if they want to fight us, is narrow the gap in weight difference between rounds five and 12 where it really counts."
Meanwhile, there are all those "top-ranked" welterweights around—and not a nightmare among them.