CARLOS DE LEON suffered a heart attack and died at the age of just 60 in the early hours of New Year’s Day at his home in Buffalo, New York.
The Puerto Rican is rightly regarded as one of the best cruiserweights in history by those who know the sport. A master boxer at his best, the crafty and adaptable “Sugar” De Leon began the first of four reigns as WBC champion when the then-190lbs division was in its infancy.
De Leon commanded great respect from his peers though his finest stories rarely grabbed the attention of the headline writers. He outpointed Marvin Camel in 1980 to begin his first reign on the undercard of Roberto Duran’s infamous surrender to Sugar Ray Leonard in their New Orleans rematch. By the end of the 15-round bout Camel looked like he had been shaving with a potato peeler.
De Leon’s failure to win over the boxing media is partly due to the cruiserweight class in which he competed – it was initially regarded as a needless steppingstone between light-heavyweight and heavyweight and struggled for relevancy. But DeLeon must also share some of the blame; his sublime counter-punching ability made him lazy, too content to pot-shot and spoil, particularly in the final years of his career.
But De Leon – who could befuddle with a double jab and a sidestep – played a huge part in establishing the cruiserweight division that we know today.
He would overpower Camel in a rematch before a shocking two-round loss to ST Gordon (which saw the WBC raise the divisional limit to 195lbs) was avenged in 1983. That lopsided 12-round points win marked the start of his second reign though a tight loss to Alfonzo Ratliff two years later would end it.
Often used by promoter Don King as chief-support to his gang of heavyweights, De Leon regained the belt again in 1986 with victory over Bernard Benton on the undercard of Pinklon Thomas’ upset loss to Trevor Berbick. Thomas would later withdraw from a projected heavyweight non-title bout with De Leon on the Mike Tyson-Larry Holmes bill in January 1988, resulting in the unmotivated Puerto Rican producing the kind of performance that blighted his reputation: A painfully dull 12-round points win against the overmatched replacement, Jose Maria Flores Burton.
Nevertheless, DeLeon was one-half of the cruiserweights’ first true marquee contest in 1988 as he collided with the young and unbeaten Evander Holyfield, who held the IBF and WBA titles and was already plotting a jump to heavyweight and a challenge to Tyson. De Leon, fighting off the ropes, had some success with his counters but was largely outfought before being stopped in the eighth. The reports that followed were cruel to both combatants as they dismissed Holyfield’s chances against Tyson due to him being extended as far as eight by De Leon.
“De Leon was a true champion,” Holyfield protested in the aftermath. “He was brave and he fought with dignity. He wasn’t going to lose on one or two punches.”
By now past his best, Carlos recaptured the WBC title for the third and final time in 1989 when he outclassed and stopped the plucky Londoner Sammy Reeson atop a Frank Warren-promoted card in Millwall.
He would return to the UK for his first defence in a bout that achieved infamy for both him and his challenger. The tedious 12-round draw with Johnny Nelson in Sheffield, where barely a punch was thrown, remains the unsurpassed benchmark for boring world title fights staged in Britain. De Leon slipped further out of favour in his next bout when he was disqualified against Massimiliano Duran in Italy in 1990.
After a two-year lay-off, De Leon – going through the motions of a fighter in decline – reeled off a series of wins against poor heavyweights only to be stopped by Corrie Sanders and Brian Neilson in his final bouts. He retired in 1995 with a record of 53-8-1 (33).
His record in world title fights is also worthy of attention: 11-5-1 (5) highlighted his excellence at cruiserweight, where he also scored wins over fighters like Leon Spinks in 1983 and anyone who remembers his blistering stoppage of Yaqui Lopez in the same year will tell you what a talent he was. Also revealing was his respectable 5-5-1 tally against future, former or current world titlists.
De Leon’s legacy must also include his work in retirement. Alongside his brothers Juan and Angel, Carlos was integral in the development of Team De Leon in the greater Buffalo area. Heavyweight Joe Mesi, Orlando Cruz (who challenged for major feather and lightweight belts), light-flyweight Angel Acosta and Carlos’ son, super-middleweight Carlos De Leon Jnr, all achieved success under the guidance of the family.