'There Is A Burning Desire In Me'

So says Sugar Ray Leonard of his astounding decision—for someone at once rich, renowned and ring-rusty—to challenge Marvelous Marvin Hagler
September 07, 1986

Ray Leonard is the kind of guy who's always looking at the edge of the cliff, fascinated as to how close he can get to it. He hasn't gotten to the edge yet.
—MIKE TRAINER
Leonard's lawyer/manager

Sugar Ray Leonard slipped out of his red and black Ferrari Boxer Berlinetta, strode through the front door of Jameson's restaurant in Bethesda, Md., and made his way to the bar. Leonard always seems to be the handsomest man in the room, especially when someone calls his name and he flashes that dazzling smile, and on this August afternoon he looked as if he had stepped right out of the pages of GQ.

He wore a mauve cardigan, a light mauve shirt with the cuffs folded meticulously over the sweater's cuffs, mauve suspenders—embroidered with figures of Cupid—holding up dark plaid pants, and a gold necklace, gold bracelet and a twin-dial watch as thin as a half-dollar. "I feel great, I really do," Leonard said. "I ran this morning and had a good workout this afternoon at the gym. I went in weighing 162 pounds and came out at 159½. That's my natural weight now." Of course, that makes Sugar Ray Leonard a natural middleweight.

Here is the man who truly has it all, the very embodiment of the American dream. Though raised poor in Palmer Park, Md., the former junior middleweight and welterweight champion made and stashed away so much money in his meteoric boxing career (his record was 33-1) that he is worth, according to Trainer, "in the neighborhood" of $20 million. He has yet to spend a dime of the principal he earned fighting. He can live almost exclusively off the interest he earns from that nest egg, plus the money he gets from HBO as a boxing commentator.

Leonard had done his roadwork that morning in Potomac, Md., one of the posher suburbs of Washington, D.C. He lives there with his wife, Juanita, and their two boys, Ray Jr., 12, and Jarrel, 2, in a seven-bedroom mansion whose stone facade gives it the appearance of a castle. The Leonards own 2½ acres, all enclosed by an iron fence, and right next door is a pasture in which a neighbor's horse grazes. Usually, one or more of the family's four cars are parked in the circular driveway: Juanita's black Mercedes, Ray's Ferrari, a black Rolls-Royce Corniche and a Ford Taurus station wagon. Juanita got the wagon to ferry the kids here and there after getting tired of picking up three-week-old french fries from the floor of the Mercedes.

In these surroundings, Leonard says, he has never been happier. "I'm seeing my kids grow through their formative years," he says. "I'm here a lot more. It used to be Ray Jr. saying, 'Mommy, tell Daddy I'm in the school play.' I did a lot of traveling. I still do, but it's more in and out now. I love this house. It has personality. It's the family, all of us living here together."

Then why, oh, why—in the name of heaven, earth and Muhammad Ali—does this man who has it all wish to climb into a prize ring to try and take the undisputed middleweight championship from Marvelous Marvin Hagler, one of the most savage and resourceful champions in that division's history?

Leonard issued his challenge to Hagler on May 1, and 109 days later Hagler accepted it through spokesmen, allegedly saying he did not want to go down in history as the man who ducked Ray Leonard. Hagler has subsequently made himself unavailable for further comment, and he is reportedly still mulling over his decision at a mountain retreat in New Hampshire. No contract has yet been signed, no site selected, no firm date set, but the very prospect of such a bout has already commanded more attention than the making of Ali-Frazier III.

A lot of questions are being asked of Leonard these days, and he has been as accessible as always. In Jameson's last week, Leonard slid into a chair, ordered a Saratoga mineral water with a slice of lime and said, "I figure it's like something that has to be, before Marvin and me can be content with ourselves. There is a burning desire in me now. At one time the flame had gone down, but the pilot light was always lit. It's in full blaze now. If he wants to write a book some day, this is the final chapter. This is it. This is the way to close it. The challenge. And, dammit, everyone is so high on Hagler. That's why I want to do it. To prove people wrong. I like doing that. This fight's going to happen. It's got to happen."

Leonard began believing that last January when Hagler and his wife, Bertha, flew to Washington to attend the opening of Jameson's, which Trainer co-owns, and from which Leonard, though not an owner, stands to make a substantial sum of money through the lending of his name. It originally was thought that Leonard and Hagler would fight five years ago. That would have been shortly after Leonard had stopped Thomas Hearns in 14 rounds on Sept. 16, 1981, in Las Vegas as he defended his welterweight title. But negotiations fell through and the Hearns fight turned out to be the last major bout of Sugar Ray's career. The following spring, while training, Leonard suffered a detached retina of the left eye; six months later he announced his retirement. Leonard attempted one comeback, beating an obscure journeyman named Kevin Howard on May 11, 1984, but he looked like a slow-motion version of his old self and ended up getting knocked on the seat of his pants before scoring a technical knockout in the ninth round. So he retired again.

Leonard finally was face-to-face with Hagler in January, but over a bottle of champagne. Eventually they began musing out loud about what a great fight they could have had. "We were very outspoken and relaxed," Leonard recalls. "We said what was on our minds. We openly discussed exactly what kind of a fight it would have been. We never declared a winner. We talked about it as the fight of the century."

The wheels were surely turning in Leonard's mind. He had seen the last few of Hagler's fights, and after each of them he had brought home to Potomac an edginess that lasted about a month. After watching Hagler stop John Mugabi in March, an 11-round war that was the most testing of Hagler's bouts as middleweight champion, Leonard's edginess would not go away.

In fact, Juanita knew in early April that her husband wanted to get into the ring with Hagler. She did not want him to fight, but she did not resist him when he brought it up. While he was fascinated by the edge of the cliff, she saw only peril. "I don't want to discuss it," Juanita would tell him. She says now, "I stay neutral. I know it's something he wants."

Leonard's announcement to challenge Hagler was not made at a press conference. Rather, it was a decision of the moment, made when a reporter spotted him at a Washington fund-raiser and asked him if he would ever come back to the ring. Leonard said he would, yes, but only to fight Hagler. "Every time I see Marvin, I get the itch," Leonard said. "If he wants to fight, I'll do it."

Word spread like a brush fire. "All hell broke loose," says Trainer. "We were deluged by the media." Pat Petronelli, Hagler's manager, called Trainer to tell him that Hagler was sure to take the fight; however, the 32-year-old champion was on a Caribbean cruise, and there was no way to reach him at that moment. But after Hagler returned to his home in Brockton, Mass., he said nothing and virtually disappeared from public view. Days turned into weeks and still there was no word from him. Unlike Juanita Leonard, who offered little resistance to her man's wishes, Bertha Hagler was actively urging her husband to quit the ring.

At one point, when Petronelli called Trainer with another "no news from Marvin" bulletin, Trainer told him, "Pat, it doesn't matter if this thing happens today, this year, next year. It's only going to work if both guys want to fight. So let's do it this way. Leave Marvin alone. If he makes up his mind and wants to fight, call me. Then we'll go from there. You and I will sit down and see if we can satisfy both principals."

Petronelli replied, "Fine. I'll call you if I ever get any word from Marvin."

Finally, on July 2, two months after Leonard issued his challenge, an obviously emotional Hagler appeared at a press conference in Brockton to say that he was thinking of retiring from the ring. But Hagler would not allow himself to be pinned down to entirely ruling out a fight with Leonard. With that, Hagler went incommunicado for six more weeks. At last, on Aug. 18, Hagler made the announcement through intermediaries that he would fight Leonard next March, for a $10 million guarantee, and that Top Rank would promote the fight. Hagler then vanished again and has remained almost invisible ever since.

What troubled Trainer was that the announcement did not come directly from Hagler but rather through Rich Rose, who was acting as a spokesman for Top Rank. What troubled Trainer even more was that Petronelli had gone off on his own and had apparently made a deal with Top Rank, a firm that has promoted all of Hagler's fights since 1979. To make matters even worse, Trainer and Bob Arum, the head of Top Rank, do not like one another.

"If they're trying to kill this fight before it gets off the ground, they're doing a hell of a job," says Trainer. "For them to be talking about who's going to promote a fight that hasn't even been made doesn't make any sense to me. Ray's an integral part of the equation, and they never consulted with us at all."

Petronelli confesses that he did not handle the matter well. "I probably should have sat Mike down before I talked to anybody else," he says. "But it all happened so suddenly."

In any case, Arum claims he has a legally binding agreement with Hagler that would give the champion the announced $10 million guarantee. And if the fight grosses more than $20 million, Arum says, Hagler would earn at least 50% of the gross over that amount. Thus, if the fight grossed a record $30 million, Hagler would receive $10 million plus half of the additional $10 million—or $1 million a round for a 15-round fight. And what does that leave Leonard?

"That's negotiable," says Arum. But the promoter figures he could give Leonard an $8 million guarantee and perhaps 30% of the gross over $20 million. Top Rank would receive about $2.5 million, after expenses, according to Arum.

What exasperates Trainer—and obviously imperils the fight's prospects—is that the Hagler-Arum agreement limits his flexibility in negotiating for Leonard, since Hagler's half of the deal is apparently set. In any event, Trainer plans to meet with Petronelli within two weeks to present his own proposals. At a meeting he had with Petronelli on the day following the announcement by Top Rank, Trainer told him, "I hope you haven't done anything that truly prevents this event from happening."

That remains to be seen. Leonard, meanwhile, continues to go about his business, doing roadwork in the morning and hitting the bags and skipping rope at the Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing Center in Palmer Park every afternoon. Since he made his seemingly rash challenge, his very sanity has been questioned. Didn't he see Hagler beat Tommy Hearns senseless on April 15 of last year, walking through the Hitman's punches like a bull through high grass? "You can't do what Hearns did, try to stand toe-to-toe," Leonard says. "You've got to break his rhythm, not let him get off. Hagler's a very sensitive man, and if things aren't going his way, I can see signs of frustration. The key is to nullify his offense. I know I can outpoint this man, and possibly knock him out. I'll beat him. If I were a betting man, I'd bet on Hagler. If I were a smart man, I'd bet on Ray."

Without even a tune-up? If the fight does come off in March, Leonard will have fought only one bout in 61 months, and that against the lightly regarded Howard. "I wasn't mentally ready to fight Howard," Leonard says. "He was obscure, not the guy to get you to the gym every day. No, no tune-ups for Hagler. I do tune-ups in the gym. If you think about the fight taking place in March, that's a year of Hagler being inactive. That's ring rust, too. And he's older than I am. I'm only 30. If I were 35, I'd be worried about me, too."

Leonard knows what his critics are saying, but he brushes it off with a shrug. "They can't relate to me," he said in Jameson's. "They didn't have what I had. They didn't feel what I felt. I reached a pinnacle that few men can claim—psychologically, emotionally, spiritually. I want to pick it up where I left it off. I've got to do what I've got to do."

PHOTORONALD C. MODRATraining for Hagler, Leonard hits the bags at the Maryland boxing center named for him. TWO PHOTOSMANNY MILLANIn his last fight, in March, Hagler won a war with Mugabi (above). In '84, Leonard had to come off the canvas to stop Howard. PHOTORONALD C. MODRALeonard drops in at Trainer's restaurant, Jameson's, which provides a part of his income.
PHOTORONALD C. MODRAA sumptuous dwelling place and a Rolls in the driveway bespeak Leonard's way of life. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAGiven the choice, Juanita would like Ray to stay poolside with Ray Jr. (left) and Jarrel. PHOTORONALD C. MODRADave Jacobs, Leonard's trainer, is in charge of getting the former welterweight and junior middleweight champion in shape for the big bout. PHOTORONALD C. MODRATrainer says he has some dealing to do.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)