Sugar Ray Leonard retired from the ring last Friday night, for the second time, but without the fanfare that had accompanied the former world welterweight champion's glitzy departure 18 months earlier in Baltimore. This time the setting was Worcester, Mass., and there was only a tired young man, his handsome face strained and lumped, a bit sad perhaps, but at peace with himself.
Although he had stopped lightly regarded Kevin Howard on a TKO in the ninth round of his heralded comeback bout, in the Centrum arena, he knew in his heart that he had won not because he's still the best, but merely because he was the better fighter this night. He was an actor playing himself, but, just as George C. Scott can never be George S. Patton, the Ray Charles Leonard of 1984 could never hope to be the Sugar Ray Leonard of three years ago.
No one had expected it to end like this, of course, with Leonard fighting timidly for three rounds, getting knocked down for the first time in his 34-fight pro career—in which he has lost once—in the fourth and then having to call on his heart to save him from defeat.
Howard is a Philadelphia fighter—tough, if that's not redundant—but he had lost two of his last four bouts and hadn't gotten a call in any of the major ratings. "Do not judge us by this opponent," Mike Trainer, Leonard's lawyer, said before the fight. If all had gone as expected, the next opponent would have been Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the undisputed world middleweight champion. Hagler, in whose backyard—Worcester being just 70 miles from Hagler's home in Hanover—the fight was held, was the magnet that pulled Leonard back into the ring.
"Give me some kind of a sign after the fight," Trainer told Leonard in the dressing room beforehand. "People are going to be coming at me from every angle wanting to know what's next. Give me a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down." Holding aloft his thumbless gloves, Leonard, who at that moment was on a psychological high, said he would try.
"It was a strange, strange night," Leonard would say later. "I felt great warming up." The only thing that bothered him was his weight. That morning he had tipped the scales at 149. But after his usual light dinner, he weighed 156 in the dressing room, four pounds more than normal. He shrugged the mysterious weight gain off.
"But then I got inside the ring and I started to come down mentally," Leonard said. "I knew something was wrong; the old electric feeling wasn't there.
"I just didn't have the killer instinct. I was apprehensive, afraid of being hit. I had heard it for so long, in the papers, on TV, every day from little kids to adults. My eyes had become famous. I guess it stuck to me. The question was: What will his reaction be? Heck, I wanted to know, too. Then the first time I got hit I multiplied it into a lot more than it really was. I said, 'Hot damn, that hurts.' "
Leonard fought the first three rounds like a man trying to tiptoe through a minefield. He was ducking his head when he threw his right; he was pulling back his head, falling back, as he threw a hook. Then in the fourth round, just as he seemed to be finding himself, he pushed out a lazy jab. A fine counterpuncher, Howard fired a right hand and caught Leonard flush on his famous face, drilling him to the floor.
Later that night, in Leonard's suite, Howard would say, "I couldn't believe I knocked you down. I was surprised."
Laughing, Leonard countered, "You were surprised. How do you think I felt?"
More startled than hurt, Leonard sprang up quickly. "I had always wondered how I would feel if I got knocked down." he said. "But I saw it later on the HBO replay, and at least I went down gracefully."
But, at the same moment, he was certain that his comeback would end that night. "It wasn't just the knockdown. That told me something," he said. "I'd been hit by Roberto Duran, by Thomas Hearns, by Marcos Geraldo. All big hitters, and none had put me down. But I knew even before the knockdown it was over for me. In the first round I tried to establish a rhythm; I tried moving. But when it didn't come, I said, 'Damn, I'm in trouble.' I kept trying to get my hands to work, but they never did. He'd throw a jab, I'd see it coming—and it would hit me. And my right hand was stuttering. It wasn't my right hand."
In his corner after the fourth round, half listening to trainer Angelo Dundee, Leonard decided it was time to fight. "I released what wild animal was inside of me. And I said to myself, 'Damn it, I am going to finish this fight in style.' I said, I've got to win.' A loss would have destroyed me."
As he stood before the start of the fifth, he turned and waved to his wife, Juanita, who is eight months pregnant with their second child. Then he smiled at Getha, his mother. He wanted them to know he wasn't hurt.
Leonard hadn't been in a hard fight since he stopped Hearns on Sept. 16, 1981 in the welterweight title unification match. For that one he'd made $12 million. For this one, he would earn approximately $3.5 million (to Howard's $105,000).
Now Leonard went back into the trenches; he ignored his fear. For two rounds he stayed on his toes, moving and jabbing; then he went flat-footed, and his hooks began to cave in Howard's body.
The arsenal was still there: the jabs, the hooks, the quick right hand, the uppercuts. But they weren't working when he tried to put them together. Forgetting the combinations, he fired single shots. By the ninth round, a savage body attack had brought down Howard's hands.
With less than a minute remaining in the ninth round, Leonard snapped Howard's head back with a left hook. His legs jellied, Howard grabbed and wrestled Leonard across the ring. In an effort to break free, Leonard had to put his left glove under Howard's chin and push him away. Then he slammed two hard rights to the head.
A moment later, after five missed punches ("I forgot everything," Leonard would say. "I got desperate"), referee Richard Flaherty jumped in and yelled, "Stop! Stop! Stop! That's it!" Flaherty was either 15 seconds too late or 32 seconds—the time remaining in the round—too early.
Afterward, Trainer took Leonard to the back of his dressing room. "O.K., pal, what is it? Thumbs up or down?" Trainer asked. "Down," Leonard said emphatically. Then he turned to his wife and his 10-year-old son, Ray Jr., and said, "Don't worry, that's it."
Immediately after the fight, Leonard had decided he would go home for a few days and then announce his retirement. "Where do you want to announce it?" Trainer asked. "Let's not jerk around; let's get it over with."
A few moments later Leonard faced the press. There was a lump on his forehead from a butt, a mouse under his right eye where he'd been laced. His right wrist was sprained, and a Howard punch early in the fight had given him a painful hip-pointer.
He made no excuses. "As of this moment I am retired," he told his startled audience. "There's no sense in fooling myself or anyone else. It's just not there. I just can't go on and humiliate myself. I fought with apprehension. I had fear for my eyes. I had fear for my whole body. But now I am content. I did try."
With tears in her eyes, Juanita said, "I just want to say that it takes a hell of a man to stand up and admit that. I don't care what anybody says or writes. He's a hell of a man."
That will serve until someone finds a way to say it better.