"FIGHTING IS WHAT I DO BEST. IT'S WHY I WAS BORN"
Cynics will say it was inevitable, and they're probably right: The boxers who make the biggest deal of retirement are the ones likeliest to unretire. And Sugar Ray Leonard had made a big deal of it, announcing on Nov. 9, 1982, after an operation six months earlier for a partly detached retina of the left eye, that he was quitting because "I simply don't want to fight anymore." So what was the former world welterweight champion doing last Saturday night fighting two three-round exhibitions at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C. and declaring afterward, with a MacArthuresque flourish, "I am back"?
Denying that he was returning to the ring because of a craving for money or adulation, Leonard said, "I'm coming back because fighting is what I do best. It's why I was born. It's as simple as that." Although Leonard has been repeatedly assured by doctors that his eye is healed, he admitted that the development of the thumbless glove figured prominently in his decision. He will probably insist on the use of thumbless gloves in fights and will certainly wear them in sparring.
"I studied my old training films," Leonard said. "I realized I wasn't being hurt during fights; I was being hurt during training. I'm convinced it was during a sparring session that I got the detached retina. Sparring partners are always figuring out new ways of defense. Some are scared and do things like sticking their thumbs in your eyes."
There's no question that Leonard was bored after spending 13 months on the wrong side of the ropes. He made TV commercials and did commentary for HBO and CBS, but he never got out of shape. At first he was content to run mornings, but a few months ago—he won't say exactly when—he began to work out. To judge by his sharpness in the exhibitions at Andrews, the 27-year-old Leonard has done more than a little sparring in recent weeks. Weighing 151 pounds and wearing thumbless gloves, he dropped light heavyweight Herman Epps with a right cross in the third round and then showboated his way through three rounds with middleweight Odell Leonard, who is no relation.
Leonard can contemplate fighting in any of three divisions. He plans to launch his comeback in February, against either a ranked welterweight or junior middleweight, then go after one of the welterweight champs, either the WBA's Donald Curry or, more likely, the WBC's Milton McCrory ("I haven't forgotten what he said when I retired; that...if I hadn't retired, he would have gone for the eye"). If Leonard wins one of those titles, he might defend against Colin Jones, the tough young Welshman. After that he could fight Aaron Pryor, who would be asked to move up from junior welterweight; either of the two junior middleweight champions, Thomas Hearns or Roberto Duran; and finally the middleweight champ, Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Some observers assumed that Leonard was returning because of the prospect of a showdown with Hagler, but Sugar Ray insisted that the impulses that drew him back into the ring—against the wishes, incidentally, of his wife, Juanita—weren't so narrow. As he put it, "I have just come back to fight, and I don't care who it is."
HE'S GOT MOVES EVEN ON THE PHONE
Six days before his team's 21-7 victory on Sunday over the Los Angeles Rams, New England Patriots Coach Ron Meyer, who coached the Rams' Eric Dickerson at SMU, took a call on his Boston radio talk show from a man with an exaggerated Southern accent. "Is this Coach Meyer?" the caller asked.
"Yes, it is."
"Yeah, this is John Dawson from Waco, Texas, and I want to know, how do you plan to shut down that Mr. Dickerson?"
Meyer spoke at length on how hard it is to stop a gifted runner like Dickerson. The caller then asked him to compare Dickerson to other great backs in NFL history, but just as Meyer was about to oblige, the man interrupted. This time his accent was more familiar.
"Hey, Coach, it's me, Eric...."
A FROSTY PEACE
The NBA's regular referees, who have been locked out by the league since Sept. 1, will return to work this week, thanks to a new collective-bargaining agreement signed last week. But the signing ceremony was almost as nasty as the labor dispute it was mercifully bringing to an end. Richie Phillips, general counsel for the NBA referees association, showed up 35 minutes late, after which he and NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien engaged in recriminations and exchanged stiff handshakes and frosty smiles for the cameras. "How much longer do we have to keep this up, Larry?" Phillips asked at one point during the ordeal.
"I can assure you, longer now than any time in the future," said O'Brien, who is retiring on Feb. 1.
Despite the incivilities and three pens that wouldn't write, the league and the refs signed a three-year contract that increases the refs' pay from a starting salary of $18,146 and top salary of $65,000 to $28,000 and $90,000, respectively, by the third year of the agreement. The refs will also receive from $3,000 to $27,000, depending on rating and length of service, in playoff revenue. In return, the union dropped its demand for a decrease in the authority of Vice-President of Operations Scotty Stirling in the league's ref rating system.
After their long layoff, some returning referees will no doubt be slow getting back into the swing of things on the court. "I think it's fair to say that it's going to take a few games," Stirling said. "But I don't think the process is going to impact negatively on the game." While they are getting reacclimated, the regular refs can scarcely do worse than their substitutes, who often lost control of games and, with a few exceptions, failed to win the respect of players and coaches.
SORRY, WRONG NUMBERS
Women's college basketball has its own version of the Pine Tar Affair, a rules controversy that affected the outcome of a game and could hang over much of the current season. The dispute involves the numbers on new uniforms that players for Avila College of Kansas City were issued just before a game last week against Missouri Valley College. When Avila Coach Henry Newell entered his lineup in the official scorebook, he listed team members as having the same numbers they'd worn in previous games. What Newell hadn't noticed was that for nine of his players the uniform numbers had been changed.
No sooner did the game begin than Missouri Valley Coach Marlene Joy protested that some of the Avila players weren't wearing the numbers listed in the scorebook. Referee Debbie Brown promptly assessed nine technical fouls against Avila, one for each of the players involved in the mix-up, and Missouri Valley's Joy Swadley sank eight of the nine resulting free throws. Newell objected in vain that Avila should only have been charged T's for the five players on the court at the time. Missouri Valley won the game 46-44.
The next day Brown called Newell and told him he was right; having gone over the rules, she agreed that technicals should have been assessed only for Avila players then on the floor. What's more, one of the Avila starters had been wearing the number entered in the scorebook for her. In other words, Brown should have assessed only four T's.
Should four of Missouri Valley's eight free throws be disallowed and Avila declared the winner 44-42? Or, since Swadley had made only three of her first four free throws, should five of them be disallowed, making Avila the winner 44-41? Or should the game be replayed? Who should decide? The initial thinking was that officials of the NAIA, the organization to which both schools belong, ought to decide but that they shouldn't bother unless the issue ends up having a bearing on selections to the postseason tournament. If that should happen next March or thereabouts, the Wrong Number Affair will have dragged on considerably longer than the 25 days it took to resolve the Pine Tar Affair.
A RANGER TAKES AN ISLANDER BRIDE
The wedding ceremony took place on the bride's native Long Island, the very heart of New York Islander Country. And indeed, when supermodel and SI cover girl (of the 1982 swimsuit issue) Carol Alt walked down the aisle of St. Aidan's Church in the community of Williston Park three days before Thanksgiving to marry Ron Greschner, a defenseman for the despised New York Rangers, quite a few Islander fans were in attendance. Some of them were friends and relatives of Alt's who had been invited to the ceremony, but there also were an astonishing 1,500 wedding crashers on hand, including several kids who had the temerity to wear Islander jerseys. The newlyweds forgave them their trespasses. "We didn't want them there, but once they were, they were so nice and respectful in the church, it was really wonderful," said Carol. "They could have yelled out 'Rangers stink!' or 'Islanders forever!' or something like that, but they didn't."
THEY SAID IT
•Larry Shenk, Phillies public relations man, on the team's purge of veteran players: "Without Rose, Perez and Morgan, I save 10 pages in my press guide."
•Bum Phillips, New Orleans Saints coach: "Two kinds of football players ain't worth a damn. One that never does what he's told and the other that does nothing except what he's told."
•The New Jersey Nets' Darryl Dawkins, being greeted by a swarm of reporters at his locker after scoring a career-high 36 points against the Cleveland Cavaliers: "That's why I hate to play good."