Sugar Ray Leonard was working the speed bag, his feet planted
firmly on the ground and his trim and supple figure bobbing and
swaying under the bag. He had already sparred a few rounds with
quicker and much younger men, at times looking tentative and
awkward as he tried to avoid being hit, and he had spent a brief
purgatory with the heavy bag, slamming hard lefts and rights
into its rock-solid midsection. By now, underneath a white tent
filtering an early-afternoon Arizona sun, beads of sweat were
coursing down his face and off the point of his chin. Eyes wide
and afire, he was grimacing as trainer Adrian Davis exhorted him
to lash the speed bag with a two-fisted attack.
"One more minute, champ!" Davis yelled. "Now throw the
combination. Jab, right hand, hook!"
Leonard snapped off a left jab and slammed home a right. Pop!
Thump! He unleashed a ferocious right hook. Whomp! "That's it,"
shouted Davis. "You're lookin' good, champ! Throw the hook!"
Leonard threw another and then another, his muscular shoulders
rolling left and right as he fired, his fists snapping hard at
the leather as Davis sang to him: "Good! Good! You're talking
now, champ! Finish with that hook! Like the one you hit Kevin
Howard with. Like the one you knocked out Dave (Boy) Green with!"
March 3, 1997
Leonard dropped his arms and turned toward Davis. The fighter's
chiseled face glistened with Vaseline, and he smiled as he
raised his left hand and made a fist. "I'm finding my hook," he
shouted. "The feel is coming back. The timing. The instinct....
I'm finding my hook!"
That Ray Charles Leonard has reason to look for any of his
boxing skills again--after a six-year absence from the ring--is
the source these days of his radiant energy and contentment. On
March 1, at the Atlantic City Convention Center, he is scheduled
to challenge Hector (Macho) Camacho for something called the IBC
world middleweight championship, and because Leonard was no
ordinary fighter, this will be no ordinary comeback.
Of course, no boxing stereotype is hoarier than that of the old
pug returning for one last stand--the spent, desperate has-been,
chased from the shadows by the IRS--but there is no evidence of
that here. As always, like a poet looking for the mot juste,
Leonard offers intimations of the artist in search of art, of
the boxer still gleefully looking for the perfect hook. Ever a
tireless worker in the gym, he thrives in its highly structured
world, one in which he feels focused and in control. Today, at
40, he is in command again.
During the past three months Leonard has been rummaging through
his memory for the tools that once made him among the toughest,
most charismatic fighters of the modern era. Between February
1977, when he turned pro, and February 1991, when he lost badly
to Terry Norris and retired for the fourth time, Leonard went
36-2-1, winning five world championships in weight classes from
welter to light heavy. There is no way of knowing, until the
dancing begins, how much is left of the Leonard of old. The
strength of this fight's appeal, though, lies in the hope,
however quixotic, that he can move with occasional traces of the
old grace and make it a show with his once magic hands.
The show Leonard put on was, more nights than not,
unforgettable, starting when he won gold at the '76 Games, in
Montreal, with a picture of his three-year-old son, Ray Jr.,
taped to his shoe. Leonard's choirboy smile lit up the place,
but it was a smile that belied his taste for blood and public
executions. It was that remorseless Leonard who, in November
1979, trapped the artful Wilfred Benitez, then welterweight
champion, in a corner with piston-quick hands in the 15th round
and, throwing blows from all points of the compass, knocked him
out on his feet to win that first belt. This was the Leonard
who, in June 1980, not only survived Roberto Duran's beastly,
maniacal attack but actually turned the fight his way the last
few rounds. He lost the decision and the welterweight title that
night in Montreal, but his effort to fend off Duran's
onslaught--one that would have buckled and broken most men and
that caused Leonard's then wife, Juanita, to faint dead away in
her seat--first revealed the depth of his fortitude and will.
Those qualities were never more apparent than in his two most
dramatic victories. On Sept. 16, 1981, in the 13th round,
against Thomas Hearns, Leonard, his left eye swollen shut, was
losing on all three judges' cards when he struck a right to
Hearns's temple. Then, in what seemed an endless flurry, Leonard
raked Hearns with 25 straight punches. The bout was stopped in
the 14th as Leonard, pressing the attack, again unloaded on
Hearns at will.
On April 6, 1987, against middleweight champ Marvin Hagler,
Leonard came out of a three-year retirement and gave what was
surely the most remarkable performance of his career. Hagler was
one of the hardest punchers in the division's history and had
not been defeated in 37 bouts over 11 years. Few people thought
Leonard could win against the bigger and stronger champion. Yet
Leonard stunned the boxing world that night with his superior
athleticism, skill, nerve and endurance. In the frantic final
round, with the fight close, he twice looked doomed as Hagler
pinned him to the ropes, but both times Leonard escaped with a
flurry of punches. In the end the crowd came roaring to its feet
when the judges awarded Leonard a split decision and his third
Friends and family urged him to quit then, at the most
transcendent moment of his career. He did retire briefly but
then fought four more times over the next three years, including
the ill-fated bout with Norris. Leonard was being beaten so
badly in that one that by the end of the 10th round, his father,
Cicero, was pleading in vain with Ray's cornermen: "Stop the
fight! Please, stop the fight!"
Leonard lost by decision and murmured to himself, "I don't need
this." So he rode off into that longest and most troubling of
all sunsets, the one that blinds every athlete who cannot face
leaving the world that gives meaning to his life and laces his
blood with passion.
Yet here it is, six years later, and Leonard is back again--not
only ready for another adrenaline fix, but also eager to take
advantage of the sport's increasingly moribund state. "There's
nothing really out there," Leonard says.
Except large pots of money for a marquee name. Leonard is a
"crossover icon"--a term copromoter Bernie Dillon uses to
describe Leonard's broad appeal in and out of boxing--and will
receive the lion's share of the guaranteed purse, $4 million to
Camacho's $2 million. Each fighter will also get a percentage of
the pay-per-view money. For Leonard, it is a hefty payday for
taking minimum risk. A light puncher, Camacho is himself 34, not
to mention 158 pounds, making him 10 years and nearly 24 pounds
past the days when he was a whippet-quick lightweight out of New
Leonard was the first fighter in history to win $100 million in
purses, and he claims that he is an eight-digit millionaire with
no financial needs. "I don't need the money, but $4 million is a
lot and this is a business too," he says. "It's all relative. I
would not fight for $100,000."
At the core of why he is fighting again is the fact that he
never found his niche in life beyond boxing. Oh, he endorsed
some products here and there, such as Callaway golf clubs, and
has been a fight commentator. He even took acting lessons and
played the role of a grave digger on Tales from the Crypt, but
that's about as deep as he dug. Like most athletes of enormous
talent and skill, Leonard found himself sparring with that most
melancholy of fates--that of the young adult confronting a
lifetime in which he would never be as good at anything again as
he was when he was young and inside the ropes. Whatever he
tried, nothing ever came remotely close to engaging him as fully
and passionately as playing the living role of warrior-king.
That is what he missed most of all.
"It is wonderful," Leonard says of boxing. "It truly is. It is
the only thing that is real! It's you against me. It's
challenging another guy's manhood. With gloves. Words cannot
describe that feeling--of being a man, of being a gladiator, of
being a warrior. It is irreplaceable."
Leonard has acknowledged that he dealt with the "dark moments"
of his first retirement (brought on by a detached retina in
1982) by drinking heavily and occasionally using cocaine, a
practice he says he ended on his own in early 1986, the year
before he fought Hagler. By the time he climbed into the ring
against Norris in '91, Leonard had other troubles. Separated
from Juanita in 1987, he was in the midst of an emotional
divorce. Not nearly as painful, but just as troublesome, was the
fractured rib he was secretly nursing throughout his training. A
doctor shot him up with painkillers an hour before the fight.
"It was all shadows, the worst period in my life," Leonard says.
"I didn't have the resilience to rebound."
When the marriage and the career were over, Leonard picked up
the pieces of his life and moved to Los Angeles, looking to put
it all back together. The healing began one night in April 1989,
at a Luther Vandross concert at The Great Western Forum, in L.A.
Contemporary jazz musician Kenny G introduced Leonard to
Bernadette Robi, the daughter of Paul Robi, one of the Platters,
and the ex-wife of Lynn Swann, the former Pittsburgh Steelers
wide receiver. Leonard and Robi were married four years later.
"I haven't looked back since," Leonard says. And not to
celebrity gossip, but Juanita eventually married Otis Nixon, an
outfielder with the Atlanta Braves at the time who's now with
the Toronto Blue Jays. They live in Alpharetta, Ga., with her
and Ray's two children, 12-year-old Jarrel and 23-year-old Ray
Jr., along with Ray Jr.'s wife, Danielle, and the couple's
two-year-old daughter, Arielle.
"Isn't she gorgeous?" cried Grandpa Ray, flashing a picture of
Arielle one day in January. "She looks like me!"
If Leonard never found a second career to engage him, he kept
himself trim and fit--and busy--with constant athletic activity.
He worked out daily, played countless rounds of golf and ran
three to five miles every morning. On the side, he set up the
Sugar Ray Leonard Youth Foundation to address drug abuse and
other issues that affect the lives of the young. "I can
appreciate how debilitating and damaging drugs can be," Leonard
says. "I tell kids, 'Don't look at what I've done. Look at where
I am now.'"
Where he is right now is precisely where he wants to be,
training for another title shot. The fight began to take shape
last June 22, after Camacho had won a controversial decision
over Duran in Atlantic City. Camacho leaned over the ropes and
yelled at Leonard, who was doing TV commentary, "Hey, Ray, quit
playin' golf! Put those clubs down and let's fight!"
Squinting up at Camacho, thinking Duran should have won the
bout, Leonard dead-panned, "You were lucky today. You were given
By then, however, Leonard had turned 40, and he was itching for
a fight. The only question was, with whom? At one point Leonard
thought he had a deal to challenge Pernell Whitaker, but that
came apart when the money fell short. On Sept. 29, at a reunion
of boxers gathered to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Caesars
Palace, Leonard found himself standing next to Hagler and Hearns
in the wings of the stage at Circus Maximus. "Say, Marvin,"
Leonard said, "there's been a lot of speculation about you and
me fighting. Is this something you would consider?"
Hagler laughed. "You waited until I got old to fight me again,"
"As you get old, I get old too," said Leonard.
At which point Hearns, listening in, blurted, "No, Ray! I want
to fight Marvin!"
Last seen, Hagler was still laughing back in Milan, Italy, where
A few weeks later, setting down his golf clubs, Leonard signed
to fight Camacho. On Dec. 8 the rusty old-timer and his troop of
young sparring partners--all southpaws, like Camacho--descended
on the Sheraton San Marcos Golf Resort and Conference Center in
Chandler, Ariz., outside Phoenix, and began the business of
honing their man to face Hector the Self-protector. After all
those years of running and working out, of doing sit-ups and
lifting weights and strolling fairways in the sun, Leonard
looked magnificent--sleek and buff and fit. He weighed 164
pounds, just four pounds above his fighting weight, eight weeks
before the bout. Chasing those pups around the ring at the San
Marcos, he was an easy target for peppery jabs, but now and
again he would cut off the ring and hammer the bodies and heads
in a fleeting reminiscence of his youth. Performer that he is,
he looked sharper on the days when the tent was open to the
public and he could hear the oohs and ahhs of the crowd.
A few of his oldest friends did not join him in Chandler.
Manager Mike Trainer read and approved the contract, as he has
with every contract since Leonard turned pro, but he has not
been around. And two of Leonard's once closest aides,
administrative assistant Ollie Dunlap and trainer Janks Morton,
are nowhere to be seen. "After Terry Norris, I never wanted to
see Ray fight again," Dunlap says. "I want him to shine, I want
him to win, but he knows I don't want him to fight. The only
thing I'm concerned about is that Camacho can stink a place up.
He hunts and pecks and runs. He can make you look bad. I don't
want Ray to be embarrassed."
Neither does Ray. "I never thought about making a fool out of
myself," he says. "I have too much pride. I'm not going out
there with a young kid and give him a chance to knock me off and
build a reputation on me. My plan is to do my thing and have
fun. To do this for maybe one fight. I know what I can do. I
know how to prepare myself. I know where my mind is. I never
enjoyed anything more than this. And why can't I pursue a love
that I have?"
Fair enough. One afternoon in January, at a place in Chandler
called LA Fitness Sports Club, Leonard had just finished a set
of bench presses when his camp coordinator, J.D. Brown,
approached him to announce that Leonard had been elected to the
International Boxing Hall of Fame. "Fantastic!" the fighter said.
Perfect. Leonard was out for so long that he became eligible for
the Hall. He not only has that occasion to celebrate, but also
the honor of the Hall to uphold. And one last chance, if he can,
to write a new kicker for his story. But just one.