There are very few happy endings in boxing. Hardly anyone leaves
when he should, hardly anyone can keep his legacy intact, hardly
anyone can preserve his dignity. It almost always ends badly.
But for Sugar Ray Leonard, whose arrogance has outlasted his
legs by a decade, it ends badly over and over.
True, nobody really banked on his many retirements. This was a
guy who found a reluctant style early in life; the 1976 Olympic
golden boy retired from boxing at the age of 20, before his
first pro fight, if you remember.
But doesn't he learn? What could have been more final than that
night in Madison Square Garden six years ago when the unknown
Terry Norris dismantled Leonard, embarrassing him to the point
that he announced his fourth retirement as a pro, while still
inside the ring? Could last Saturday's bout have possibly been
any more final: Popgun artist Hector (Macho) Camacho suddenly
looking like Joe Louis, flooring Leonard, battering him against
the ropes in the Atlantic City Convention Center until the fight
was stopped in the fifth round, to the absolute relief of
Sadly, the end of the line for Leonard came all too late. For
many, the five-time champ will now be fixed in history as the
man who couldn't quite defend himself against a boxer whose
principal creation has always seemed to be a high-grade
irritation. No matter that Leonard was 40 when he tried yet
another comeback; the allowance for age will be forgotten as
time goes by. For many, this was Willie Mays stumbling after a
fly ball, then trying to explain it all away in a cheesy setting
just off Atlantic City's boardwalk.
March 10, 1997
Leonard's final exit couldn't have been much worse, or more
unnecessary. He has earned more than $100 million in the ring,
kept most of it and retained his hold on the public. Even after
the Norris humbling, he continued to enjoy a celebrity wholly
predicated on his ring persona, equal parts charm and bravado.
How many times over the course of his career did his fans watch
in fascination as his smirking, winking visage gave way to that
Nothing, not even the loss to Camacho, will diminish that career
entirely. But last Saturday, Leonard subtracted a little more
from it. In the end, it will be remembered, he had more ego than
heart--or at least sense. The whole promotion, all his talk
about challenges and history, came off as cheap vanity.
Imagining that boxing was this easy, that he could come back
after six years and challenge a skilled professional, demeaned
his profession and himself. It was foolish.
Most unnerving was that Leonard was still not persuaded of this,
even after Camacho, who was himself considered faded,
overwhelmed him. From the start Leonard had difficulty keeping
his feet beneath him, tripping once, almost stumbling to the
canvas a second time. He couldn't move. Afterward he explained
why: He had a torn right calf muscle.
While this was no doubt true, and contributed to his lack of
mobility, it had a disturbing resonance. Leonard had, over time,
come to believe that had he not injured a rib in training, he
would have beaten Norris. Now, here he was, developing another
He was insistent that nobody take it as an excuse. "Do not write
that this was the reason I lost," he said. Yet he had been quick
to bring it up, saying he had received shots of lidocaine 90
minutes before the fight and had not sparred in the two weeks
preceding the fight because of the injury. While praising
Camacho, he left no doubt that the severity of the injury
greatly compromised his performance.
Leonard also revealed that he had lied in denying a rumored
hospital visit on Jan. 31, when he first injured his leg while
training in Chandler, Ariz. At the time Leonard said that his
son, Ray Jr., who was trying out for a local Arena Football
League team, had been the Leonard in question. Mustering his old
smugness, Leonard challenged a reporter to prove that he'd been
to the hospital.
This little cuteness would leave him open to cries of consumer
fraud after the fight. What was he doing allowing people to sign
up for a $35 pay-per-view show if he was damaged goods? He
responded evenly that he gave 100% no matter what. And nobody
really believes that the fight was a take-the-money-and-run
scheme. His $4 million purse, while not incidental, couldn't
have been that important to him. Still, if this whole business
was a matter of runaway ego--if he believed that a Leonard in
any condition is a good value--then he did indeed cheat a lot of
people, and maybe himself.
The amazing thing was that this event, as it approached, assumed
a kind of importance. People took it seriously, making Leonard a
slight favorite to beat Camacho in the days before the fight.
Looking back, that doesn't make sense. In the time Leonard had
been retired, Camacho fought 28 times. And while Camacho never
fulfilled his early promise as a lightweight, squandering his
talent on the nightlife, he remained, at 34 years old and 160
pounds, a durable and active stylist.
Veteran trainer Jesse Reid, a late addition to Camacho's
typically turbulent camp, kept shaking his head over the match.
He couldn't figure out why Leonard would want to involve himself
with someone--a southpaw, at that--who was always busy and had
the ability to embarrass, if not demolish, you.
Camacho, who might have been overlooked if he wasn't so
persistently zany (he stripped buck naked for last Saturday's
weigh-in and threw water on Leonard's trainer at an earlier news
conference), was scratching his head too. "Look how soft he is,"
Camacho kept saying. "He's got no energy." Leonard was, in a
But, as Camacho understood, Leonard was there because "he
believes in his history." And because Camacho was grateful for
his $2 million purse in a last-chance showcase of his own, he
didn't mind that everybody else believed in Leonard too.
But all belief systems went out the window once the fight
started. When Leonard was asked afterward when he first realized
he was in trouble, he said, "First punch." Camacho, ever
cautious, took a while longer before he pronounced it in the
bag. He said he knew his punches were getting to Leonard "by the
fourth round, when he was going back to his corner."
In the fifth round Camacho stepped in with two left uppercuts
that dropped Leonard. He nearly went down again as he struggled
to regain his feet. The 11-punch barrage that followed, and
caused referee Joe Cortez to stop the bout 1:08 into the round,
was anticlimactic. It was the least contested referee's decision
in boxing history.
The prospect of a rematch with Norris or a fight with Oscar De
La Hoya, bandied about beforehand, now seemed to be so much
middle-aged craziness. Leonard had been wrong, and he admitted
it up to a point while announcing another retirement.
"Inactivity in boxing is a sin," he said. Yet he was quick to
add, "I don't feel bad about it. I don't feel embarrassed." That
was an amazing insistence. Everybody else there did feel bad
about it, did feel embarrassed for him. To see him end up this
way? He was too gifted, for too long. Just not quite as long as