The boxing gym feels like a speakeasy, no name and no sign, owned by a celebrity who cannot be identified beneath a building that cannot be described on a street corner that cannot be disclosed. "I love L.A.," says Sugar Ray Leonard, toeing the leopard-print carpet at the underground gym where he occasionally repairs to work the heavy bag while surrounded by photographs of old fighters—Sugar Ray Robinson on the cover of LIFE, Muhammad Ali with the Beatles.
At 55, Leonard still looks as slender as a welterweight in his slim navy suit, an oversized silver belt buckle befitting the first man to win world titles in five weight classes. His glittery grin was a match for Hollywood, even before he retired. Leonard has hosted the boxing series The Contender on NBC and ESPN, played himself in the Oscar-nominated movie The Fighter and recently taught Hugh Jackman how to box for the blockbuster Real Steel.
Away from the camera, Leonard lives in Pacific Palisades with his wife, Bernadette, and their two children, 14-year-old Camille and 11-year-old Daniel, driving the carpool to school, giving motivational speeches to corporations and serving as international chairman of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Walk for a Cure. Last summer he released The Big Fight, an unflinching memoir that recounts his experience with sexual abuse and battles against drugs, alcohol and depression. "I have regrets," Leonard says, "but those mistakes are why I am who I am. They're why I was able to turn it around."
On fear: "It takes a little insanity to step in that ring. The first time I did it, I was eight years old, scared as hell. It's different than a fight in the streets, because in the streets you can run. In those four squares there's nowhere to go, and that's frightening. I was a quiet, shy kid. You'd never have thought I'd be a boxer. But that ring brings out the best and worst in people. I was a different person in there. I became alive."
December 12, 2011
On boxing today: "People watched the Golden Gloves and the Olympics on network television. I was Sugar Ray before I turned pro. Now where do they go to watch boxing? The Contender was great because people would say, 'I love when that fighter was talking about the tough times he had been through.' That fighter became human. It was sad when the show ended because our sport needs more faces."
On promoters: "I had a guy named Mike Trainer, my attorney and friend, who orchestrated my career. I borrowed $1,000 from 25--30 people, paid them back after my first pro fight and became incorporated. I didn't have Don King or Bob Arum. I promoted myself and made my own decisions. If I were Manny Pacquiao, I would just say, 'I want to fight that guy and I want to fight him now.' I mean, come on, he's going to make $40 million just for signing the contract. "
On his competition: "Everybody always says their era was the best, but we had Hagler, Hearns, Duran and me. Whoever Pacquiao and [Floyd] Mayweather fight, you know who's going to win. You just don't know how. When we fought, maybe you bet on Hagler or Hearns or Duran or me. But you didn't bet your house on it."
On speaking up about sexual abuse: "I kept it to myself for 30 years. As a fighter you think you should be able to protect yourself at all times. But you trust your coach, like I trusted that Olympic coach. Maybe we should do a better job screening these coaches, but in most cases there is no history because no one speaks up. What went on at Penn State makes me sick to my stomach. For those kids it's a lifetime of damage until they come out and address it."
On boxers and retirement: "Ninety-nine percent of fighters come back because they need the money. For me, thank God, that wasn't the case. I was going through a divorce. I had problems. I wasn't happy. I kept coming back because the ring was my safe haven. It was the one place where I could control what happened. It was like going to see my therapist."
On ultimate fighting: "I talked to Dana White, the UFC president, and he said, 'I saw you fight and Ali fight, and I took what you guys had. Then I added music and sex.' UFC is creating superstars, even if their superstars only last one or two weeks. People say it's not art, but it is. Next, we're going to have women's boxing in the Olympics. I actually like watching some of the women more than the men. Hey, when it's a good fight, it's a good fight."