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Sugar Ray Leonard: “My Life Is So Amazing”
Sugar Ray Leonard, 1983
By Paul Upham: While he remains one of the most recognisable boxers on the planet after his starring role in a golden era of boxing, Sugar Ray Leonard doesn’t look like a former fighter. His face is smooth and clear with not a mark as evidence of his forty fight career. The record book says he is 53 years of age, but he doesn’t look a day over forty. As sweet as he looked in the ring during his prime, retirement seems to be agreeable to the 1997 Hall of Famer with the biggest and brightest smile in the room.
“I had an illustrious boxing career that spanned over thirty years,” said Leonard. “I had the opportunity to fight in an era with great fighters like Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Robert Duran, Tommy Hearns and Wilfred Benitez.”
Reflecting back on the many exciting fights he starred in during the late 1970’s and 1980’s, Leonard smiled and added, “I fought those guys and I beat them all.”
Leonard defeated Wilfred Benitez to win the WBC welterweight world title in November 1979. He lost the belt to Roberto Duran in June 1980, only to win it back five months later. He stopped Tommy “Hitman” Hearns in September 1981 in a WBC/WBA unification bout.
After being forced to retire in 1982 and then again in 1984, after a one fight comeback due to an eye injury, Leonard achieved legendary greatness when he returned almost three years later to upset undisputed middleweight world champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
There were five more fights to come, some more retirements and comebacks as well. Leonard won the WBC super middleweight and WBC light heavyweight world titles against Donny Lalonde in November 1988, which gave him six world title belts in four weight classes. After he lost his final two fights to Terry Norris and Hector Camacho Sr, when he was well past his prime, Leonard’s final record was 36 wins, 3 losses, 1 draw and 25 wins by knockout. The many highs of a stellar career far outweighed the lows.
Amazingly, for everything Leonard achieved as a professional, it could so easily never have transpired.
“When I won the Gold medal at the 1976 Olympic Games,” he said, “I had no intention whatsoever to become a professional fighter because I thought that my dream was fulfilled. My only objective was to win a Gold medal and I did that.”
Leonard’s father Cicero became severely ill and was in a coma. The family did not have the money for expensive medical treatment, so one of Leonard’s mentors suggested that he could box professionally to earn the money he needed.
“That was the only reason I turned professional,” he said, “so that I could pay my father’s hospital bills.”
Success and money followed. Leonard paid his father’s hospital bills and regained his good health.
“I said to myself,” continued Leonard, “you know what, this is not a bad job. So I kept going and went on and on and on.”
Leonard explained that his boxing success has given him the opportunity to meet influential and successful individuals around the world.
“Boxing elevated me to another level and I had the chance and pleasure and the honour to meet special people,” he said. “I remember when I was in South Africa a few years ago and I got a phone call from my personal assistant. She told me that Nelson Mandela had called and he wanted to have dinner with me. I said, me and who else? She replied, just you.
“So I had the pleasure of going to Nelson Mandela’s home and having dinner with his family and his grandkids. I knocked on the door and he answered the door. He says, Hello Sugar, how are you doing? He then added, one thing I don’t tolerate, is people being late. I started sweating. It was puzzling, because I was about half and hour early. He then said, my photographer should have been here a long time ago!”
Leonard had the chance to meet American President Bill Clinton and play a round of golf with him at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. Though, being asked to tee off first made him more apprehensive than fighting the most terrifying fighters of his era.
“We shook hands and he said, Sugar Ray, how are you doing? It’s your first,” recalled Leonard. “I hadn’t played golf in almost six months. I don’t really play golf, I just participate. So, I am up on the first tee. Now picture this. There was just President Clinton, me and another guy. I hold that club so tight and I say to myself, God, I don’t call you that often, but just let me make contact on this ball. I then hit a 250 down the middle. We had so much fun. I had President Clinton sign my scorecard and he wrote, Dear Ray, your best round.”
Some random thoughts from Sugar Ray Leonard.
On being forced to retire for the first time with a detached eye retina at the age of 25?
“It was very difficult, but thank God, with medical technology advancement, I was able to resume my career. I am always an optimist. No matter how dreary things seem, I know it is going to turn around. You have to be positive.”
The best boxer you ever saw?
“Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson.”
On coming back after three years to defeat Marvelous Marvin Hagler?
“When I came back to fight Marvin Hagler, the general consensus was that I was crazy. My family thought I was crazy. It got to a point where I thought I was crazy. I trained for almost a year and a half for that fight. But I beat him not from a physical stand point, but more from a psychological stand point. The same way I beat Roberto Duran in the second fight, the No Mas fight. Hagler was without question, an all-time great fighter. I think my hand speed and my style worked too.”
Your toughest opponent?
“That was Tommy Hearns. He was a freak of nature. About 6’1’’ tall with long arms and fast hands. He had some Kamikaze mentally. He didn’t care. He knocked everyone out. That was one of the most defining moments. One of my most defining fights, because back then (1981), there were not too many world titles. There was the WBA and the WBC. He was the WBA champion and I was the WBC champion and we fought for the undisputed title.”
Can you rank the ‘fabulous four’, Leonard, Duran, Hagler, Hearns?
“I can’t do that man, I’m bad at math! Hagler was a legend and he is a legend. He was undisputed champion. Roberto Duran was an amazing talent who moved up from lightweight to middleweight. He didn’t get the credit he deserved as a boxer. He also hit very, very hard. They called him Manos de Piedra, hands of stone. He had hands of stone. Tommy Hearns speaks for himself. He was such a powerful puncher.”
Thoughts on Mike Tyson?
“Mike Tyson is a very good guy. He really is. He is a product of the environment. He is a product of his surroundings. I was fortunate to have people around me who had my best interests at heart. Once you come from nothing, there is no manual to tell you how to do things in moderation. How to keep things in perspective. If you have a foundation of family, you are not going to have yes men, telling you yes, yes, yes. And no one tells you no because you are their pay cheque. I see Mike Tyson and I consider him a friend. I see remorse. He may not say it as much as we want him to. But you know what, he is a decent young man. He really is.”
Women as boxers?
“Personally, I don’t want my wife to be a fighter and end up with a black eye. Laila Ali has proven that you can be beautiful and fight too. As long as they don’t hurt themselves.”
Are elite athletes sporting heroes or role models to children?
“As sporting heroes, we give inspiration to those who are less fortunate. We are role models, whether we like it or not, because we impact on so many kids’ lives. So, we are both.”
What do you do in your down time?
“Down time? Do I have any down time? I do motivational speaking around the world. I have been very fortunate to have done this for over twelve years. I use boxing as a metaphor. I always believe that we are all fighters to some degree. The same principles, the same things that I use to help a world champion, I will pinpoint in life for people who are being bogged down. Because we all get bogged down in relationships, business and anything else. The key is having that personal fortitude to get up. To get back up and go back out there. I have always said you have to be focused. To have that tunnel vision. The man that I am today has always been about positive thinking.”
How do you handle the nerves when you go nose to nose moments before the start of a big fight?
“You just hold your breath! What a lot of people don’t realise is that it is psychological warfare. There is the physical aspect and mental aspect. A lot of the time, fighters lose when they are walking towards the ring. Because once you get to the ring, you have to expect reality. When you are standing there looking at your opponent, nose to nose you are looking at him. You are trying to see if he shows any sign of less confidence. It is one on one. Tommy Hearns is very tall and he would want to look down on you. I didn’t want him to know how short I was, so the whole time the referee is giving his instructions, I was bouncing around. I never gave him eye contact. Hagler wanted me to play an eye contact game with me. An eye blink can sometimes take you out of your game. I never gave those guys that confidence. I never gave away that contact. I looked down or I just looked around or I looked through him. It is very important psychological warfare.”
Working on The Contender television series?
“I jumped at it because it meant working with Sylvester Stallone - Rocky. That show was really special. I truly enjoyed the show for the three years I worked on it.”
Losing to Roberto Duran in the Brawl in Montreal
“The first fight with Roberto Duran was an introduction into psychological warfare. Duran took me out of game by talking me out of my game. He was that experienced. I wanted to beat him up so bad that I fell into his own game. I stood in toe to toe range with him for fifteen rounds. It was brutal, really. The second time, I said if I can box this guy, I can make it easier and be more effective. It was what you saw, I boxed his ears off.”
Promoted by Max Markson’s Markson Sparks, Australia‘s premier publicity, celebrity management and events organisation, Leonard spent four days in Australia during the last week of August as part of a charity fund raising luncheon and dinner tour.
The A Little Bit of Sugar with Sugar Ray Leonard shows raised valuable funds for the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre Appeal and The Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Sydney.
“I have been able to put things in perspective,” said Leonard. “When you are in the moment, it is very difficult to see what is going on. But I am the happiest now I have ever been in my entire life because I am a better father, I am a better husband, I am a better friend and that is one of the reasons I brought my kids here to Australia, I wanted to let them see what papa does. What I am doing is using my celebrity to be of service. The main objective is to continue to raise funds for these important charities.”
During his trip, Leonard visited The Children’s Hospital to see first hand how the money raised would help those most in need.
“I saw their little faces in there and those kids are fighters,” he said. “They fight every single day.”
Happily married to Bernadette Robi with four children and four grandchildren, Leonard is at a very content time in his life. You only have to look at the smile on his face.
“My life is so amazing,” he said. “But my life is even better now, because it is all about helping people.”