Contrary to what you may have read over the past few weeks—and I have to admit I read much of it with amusement—I am officially and forever retiring from boxing. By the time you read this, I will have made my announcement official and I hope it ends forever all speculation that I will come back to fight Marvin Hagler or anyone else.
While the injury to my left eye—a detached retina—naturally was a factor in my decision, it wasn't the major factor. I simply don't want to fight anymore. Three weeks ago, at my last meeting with Dr. Ronald Michels, who operated on me last May 9 at Johns Hopkins Hospital, he told me: "Although it takes six months to see if the retina has been fully reattached, you're almost perfectly healed. I don't see any reason why you can't fight."
So, you see, he gave me the green light, but I switched on the red light myself. And it will stay on red. I'm glad that it ended this way, that I was able to make the final determination and not have it made for me. But no matter what the doctor said, I've known for a long, long time that I'd never fight again.
I think I first realized that it was time to get out right after the Tommy Hearns fight on Sept. 16, 1981, almost seven months before my eye injury. After beating Hearns and unifying the welterweight title, I had a hard time convincing the public and the press and, most important, myself that the other guys I'd be fighting were legitimate contenders. And I can tell you now that the Bruce Finch fight, my first after the bout with Hearns, was the major factor in my decision to retire. Yes, I knew it as far back as Feb. 15, the night Finch hurt me worse than anyone I had ever fought.
November 15, 1982
Now a guy like Finch isn't supposed to touch me. You know it; I know it; he knows it. But in the second round he caught me with a combination that hurt me worse than Hearns ever did; worse than Roberto Duran; worse than Wilfred Benitez. I was dazed and I was in trouble, and it wasn't because I wasn't in top shape physically. It was because mentally I just wasn't into fighting a Bruce Finch. I was really shaken, and I backed into a corner knowing full well he'd follow me. I hid that I was hurt, and I knew that with my hand speed and my power, especially to the body, I could get him out of there. I knew I had to get him in close, and I knew I had to knock him out quickly because I couldn't reach him in the middle of the ring. I didn't have the snap in my jab that I expected to have.
I KO'd Finch in the next round and I was grateful that the fight was over. Then came the trip back to the hotel. Normally on the ride back we—my father, Cicero; my trainer, Janks Morton; my manager, Angelo Dundee; my attorney, Mike Trainer, and I—rap about the fight. Usually one of them would say, "Hey, Ray, you hit that guy with a good left hook." Another of them would tell me, "You hit that guy with a good right hand; he couldn't touch you." We always talked about the fight. But not this time. No one said a word. So I said, "Gee." Then I tried to start a conversation: "Hey, I hit this guy with a great hook, didn't I?" I think somebody nodded, and somebody else said, "Yeah." That was it. And once we got to the hotel nobody would sit down and talk with me.
When I got home I talked things over with my wife, Juanita, who wanted me to retire after I beat Benitez for the WBC welterweight championship three years ago. I guess that was because the Benitez fight was the first one since I beat Marcos Geraldo in May 1979 that left me looking like I'd been in a war. I told her that thoughts of quitting had been bothering me for a long time. But I don't think she believed me until the eye injury, and except for Juanita, I kept my ideas about retiring all to myself. But before I had time to evaluate the Finch fight and my career, I was training for Roger Stafford, another Finch.
Now, we were trying to sell that fight. And he was saying things about me that I thought would pump me up. But it didn't help. Nothing helped. Training was awkward. I tried like heck to get back in gear. But I just couldn't. I was in neutral for a long time. Now, training in Buffalo helped some, because the people there appreciated my presence. But most of the time I was a grouch. I was really tough to deal with. I knew it and I didn't like it, but I couldn't help it. I just didn't want to be bothered with anyone. I just didn't have the love for the sport anymore. I'd fulfill my obligations and then confine myself to my room and just sit there alone. That was totally unnatural for me. I love to have the guys around me.
I had a room next to my bedroom which was full of video games. And, except when I had to run or train or eat, I'd stay in the video room alone, or I'd be by myself in the other room just watching movies and sitting around.
Ollie Dunlap, my administrative assistant, would come to my room and say, "Champ, it's time to go downstairs and train." I trained at noon, and he'd come about an hour before. Now, during training for other fights, I'd have been all set to go. I'd have been dressed half on hour before Ollie came. Not this time. I wouldn't start getting dressed until 15 minutes before it was time to go. I saw myself slowing down, not caring.
And then I began to see the spots. I thought, "Gee, one thing leads to another." I complained about the eye, but no one took it seriously. They'd say, "Hey, we all got those spots." And mornings when I ran I would run as fast as I could just to get it over with. Then I'd head straight back to my room. Usually after a run I'd shadowbox some just to loosen up. Now I didn't even do that.
Finally a couple of weeks before the fight I'd had it. I told Janks I was going home for the weekend. And I did. That Sunday I took Juanita and my mother, Getha, to dinner at an Italian restaurant. I ate all the pasta and drank some wine. Now, I never break training, not like that. And the one day I did run when I was home I quit in the middle. I was running with Irving Millard and Craig Jones, my two security guards, and at about the mile-and-a-half or two-mile mark I just started walking. The guys were surprised and thought something was wrong. Something was. I told them, "Man, I'm tired of this. I just don't want it anymore. After this fight I'm going to quit."
When I got back to Buffalo, my eye still wasn't right, so I decided to see a doctor. You've all read about how the first doctor I saw prescribed eye drops because she didn't think my injury was serious. But I knew it was, and I went to another doctor in the Buffalo area. He was right to the point: "Ray, you have a detached retina." I wasn't shocked. The mental state I was in, I would've shown more concern if he'd told me I had dandruff. I flew to Baltimore the next day, and the following morning Dr. Michels operated on the eye.
I think I would have retired after the Stafford fight anyway. But no one really knows himself or what he'll do in the future. I might have said, this is it, and then two months later made a comeback. And I think that if, after Stafford, they had come to me and said, "Ray, here's $20 million to fight Hagler, just sign your name," I'd have gone for it.
But the injury made the decision to retire all that easier. I had beat up all the big names, and there wasn't a welterweight who could deal with me. I think it was meant for me to get out because I would have taken those little-known guys lightly, just as I'd taken Finch lightly, and it would have been a disaster.
I've always been very aware of how I perform, and I knew I couldn't perform as well as I should because I'd be thinking about the eye, and that would take away from my abilities. Knowing that, it would be foolish to say that I'm coming back. With all of that against me, I might as well go in the ring handcuffed.
Although I'd made up my mind that I'd retire after the Stafford fight, we had already signed to fight Aaron Pryor, and I wanted to go ahead with that because I just had to close his big mouth. He had been saying a lot of bad things about me, and I wanted him in the ring. I mean, I wanted him bad. Pryor was telling people that I owed him. Owed him for what? He said we'd been friends once, that I should have helped him. I asked him, "Aaron, who helped me?" He said we had been friends. That's the reason friends don't work for me—they're always expecting you to do them favors. It's difficult to have family and friends working for you.
I listened to Pryor's mouth and I was dying to put a fist into it. Even so, while training for Stafford, I told Trainer, who was negotiating for fights overseas as well as ones with Pryor and Alexis Arguello, that after Stafford I needed some time to think. Now, Mike had worked hard to line up those fights. He was always thinking a year ahead of everybody else. But I told him to cancel everything. I think I shocked him, but he said, "If that's what you want, that's what you get."
I say I had run out of challenges, but I have to admit again that Hagler was always in the back of my mind. Now here was one more mountain to climb, and if I hadn't had the eye injury, I might have gone for it. It would have been a fight on the same level as Benitez and Hearns and Duran II. I would have had no problem getting up for Hagler. And I would have fought him at 160 pounds. All that stuff about wanting him to fight at 154 was nonsense. We were just pumping up the fight. He'd have been foolish to fight me at 154. I know he wouldn't have done it, because I wouldn't have done it if I'd been the middleweight. I know Hagler as a man and as a champion, and I always believed if we fought it would be at 160.
But then came the injury, and I knew I wasn't going to fight Hagler or anyone else again. And once I made up my mind there were never any second thoughts. Not one. Juanita knew I meant it and she was happy. My father, Pops, I don't know. I think he thought I'd fight again. My mother, well, it's hard to read my mother. All my friends thought I would fight. My brother, Kenny, also had the feeling I'd fight. Ollie said he still had the door open. I think I finally convinced Janks, but it took a while. Angelo knows my decision is final. And Mike always was sure I'd never fight again.
If you had asked Little Ray before the official announcement if I was going to fight, he'd have told you no. But if you had then given him a piece of candy and asked him again, he'd have said, "Yeah." He's a born politician. But he knew I wasn't going to fight because I had time to take him to football practice and see him play in a game. He sees I'm beginning to become his father full time. Watching him brings tears to my eyes because I'm seeing someone who is me.
After the operation I had a lot of fun. I had made my decision, but I was given six months, the time Dr. Michels said it would take before we'd know about the eye, to announce it. And so I had a chance to tease the press. I never thought I'd say this but I'm going to miss those guys. Boxing writers are a special breed, and I was just getting to a point where I really enjoyed talking with them. I'd talk to them for about 30 minutes about nothing and they'd take notes, and then when it was all over they'd walk away and say, "What the hell did he say?" And then the next day I'd read 40 different interpretations of what I'd said.
Over the last few months I did road-work in public so people could see me working out. I sparred in Detroit purposely to make people believe I'd fight again. I did it because I didn't want my announcement to be anticlimactic. I didn't want anyone to know what I was going to say. I would say something like, "One more fight with Hagler." And I looked in shape. I was in shape.
And then during the summer I went on a cruise aboard the QE2 to make a documentary film for a Canadian company. And I sparred on the ship. It was dumb. I sparred with this big kid—a member of the ship's crew—who had fought as an amateur and as a pro. He weighed about 185 pounds and was about 6'1". I mean big. I had eight-ounce gloves and he had 12s. It was crazy. I still don't know why I did it.
It was supposed to be just body shots, but with all the people on the ship watching it got to be like a major fight. It got a little physical. With my experience I know I can tap your nose without really hurting you. But him being so heavy-handed, he'd tap me and knock me halfway across the ring. The next thing you know we were in a great exchange, and all of a sudden I got the old instinct and I wanted to go for him. I did, and I dropped him with a kidney shot.
I went back to my corner, and James Anderson, one of my security men who was acting as my trainer, said, "Champ, what are you doing?"
I said, "I got to have it. I just got to have it."
But when it was over I said to myself, "Damn, I just sparred and I just got out of the hospital. I got to be out of my mind." I can only thank God nothing happened. But it also awoke interest. Now everyone was saying, "He's going to fight again for sure." And people kept on me: How's the eye? What are you going to do? It got so bad I'd rehearse what I was going to say because I knew I'd be confronted at least once the next day. So I'd think, I'll say this, or I'll say that.
Finally I just couldn't stand it any longer. I found myself becoming more and more offended when people would ask about the eye. I went from saying, "It's 30-20 and improving," to, "It's the same way. Ditto." I felt like telling them to take my eye home with them and then to call me the next day to let me know if it had shown any improvement. Finally I went to Mike Trainer and said, "Hey, let's end this. I got to end it. I'm tired of answering those damn questions."
I want everyone to know that I fully understood the public's concern, and I was very grateful for it. And I understood the press's need to know. But six months of acting drained me. You'll never believe how much I looked forward to making my announcement. I just couldn't wait.
I know no one will believe that I can leave the ring at the age of 26, in my prime, and not come back. I've looked at Ali, and I've looked at all the other great champions, like Joe Louis, who made comebacks, and they all ended in disaster. You know, people have a certain love for you and respect for your intelligence both inside and outside of the ring. And I believe that if you tarnish that, they'll hold it against you. I don't want that. Not for any price.
It's such a delight now to go to bed when I want, to get up when I want and to eat what I want. But, heck, I'm working more now than when I was fighting. I'm home maybe two weeks out of each month. The rest of the time I'm working as a sports commentator with HBO and CBS, doing promotional tours for Franklin Sporting Goods, making personal appearances and speeches. That keeps me on the go. Now I'm a businessman. I'm not physical anymore. And I don't want to be physical anymore. I want to get on the tennis court, on the golf course and enjoy life. I want to spend time with my family. Life now has more meaning; it's more fun.
I believe I have always been able to pick up vibrations from people, and now the vibrations are even stronger. Older people, and race or creed isn't a factor, come up to me and say, "Ray, I love you." It takes a lot for a person to say that. It takes a lot for a man to say that to another man. And it takes a lot for a woman who comes from a different ethnic background to say that. But I hear it, and it touches me deeply. It's difficult for me to describe the feelings I get when I hear it. I look at them and there's always eye contact because they're sincere and I know sometimes they feel uncomfortable saying it, but they want me to know. It's a special and warm feeling.
And so, my boxing career is over. Now I can look forward to becoming more professional as a boxing color commentator. Up until now I've been just a celebrity doing sportscasts. Now I want to be a pure sportscaster. A funny thing happened at the Great Gorge Americana Hotel in McAfee, N.J. recently. I was there working a fight and I had on my CBS jacket. I was waiting for an elevator. A woman walked past and then did a double take. She said, "You're a sportscaster. I know your face is familiar. You're a sportscaster, right?"
I said, "That's right." I thought that was neat. Instead of her saying, hey, you're the fighter who talks on television, she called me a sportscaster. But I'm not certain if sportscasting is the end-all. I have two movies lined up. I want to go to Hollywood and try. I'll see whether or not that's me. The only way I'll know is if I try. And there are other things.
Well, that's it. The final chapter of Sugar Ray Leonard the fighter has been written. The book has been closed. But for Ray Charles Leonard the person, there's another chapter just starting. And there will be many, many more. I'm leaving the ring, but I'm not leaving the world. So watch out.