LONG READ Sugar Ray Leonard: ‘If I saw blood, I went at you like Dracula’

sugar ray leonard
Sugar Ray Leonard reflects on his career with Thomas Gerbasi

This feature was originally published in Boxing News magazine

MORE than 18 years after his final fight, Sugar Ray Leonard still can’t bring himself to relive the low points of his legendary career. “I’m starting to watch some of my fights,” he told Boxing News. “I just finished watching the ‘No Mas’ fight with [Roberto] Duran, but I have yet to watch the fights that I’ve lost! I’ve not watched Terry Norris, I’ve not watched the full Duran I in years, I haven’t watched [Thomas] Hearns II yet, and the [Hector] Camacho fight. I’ve yet to watch those.”

I remind Leonard that the controversial second Hearns fight in 1989 was a draw. He laughs. “I said, ‘Tommy, you won this one.’”

Four fights. No mention of the storied victories that made him the greatest fighter of his era, and perhaps any era. It’s actually comforting to hear, and it explains a lot that at 59 years old, Leonard still has that competitive fire. That desire to be the best was evident throughout his boxing career, both amateur and pro, and though he had matinee idol looks, a smile that could light up a room, and the marketability of the All-American boy next door, he was all fighter, something that often got lost in the shuffle when discussing his career. You don’t chase after Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Wilfred Benitez and countless others without a warrior’s heart. And when Leonard did step between the ropes, he was a ruthless finisher.

“When I hurt you, it was intuitive and it was instinctive, and especially if I saw a little blood, I went at you like Dracula,” Leonard said. “And it’s so funny because I’m so different than that person I was in the ring. I watch it now, and I say, ‘Who the hell is that guy?!’ But I had that killer instinct.”

As for the origins of it, he has no explanation. “I don’t know,” he said. “Even my older brother Roger, who got me into boxing, when I used to box him, he said, ‘Ray, look at your eyes – who are you?’ I just had that look.”

He also had the skills to back it up. Along with the killer instinct, Leonard could box or bang, and whether he knocked an opponent out or used his speed to outbox them, his adaptability made him dangerous. That ability to do whatever was necessary to win a particular bout wasn’t born from watching his boxing hero Muhammad Ali, but someone he calls an idol, the late martial arts legend Bruce Lee.

“Unfortunately I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but I always looked at him as ‘that could be me,’” Leonard said. “He was not that big, but he was extremely fast and he was thoughtful and strategic and he preyed.”

Yet for all the talented fighters that came before and after Leonard, they only get the title “great” if they display those talents against opposition that wasn’t there to make them look good, but that was equally hungry to win. Leonard had such dance partners in the aforementioned quartet of Duran, Hearns, Hagler and Benitez, and he is the first to admit that without them, his legacy would have been merely ordinary.

“It would be like most careers – satisfactory,” he said. “And as much as those guys needed me, I needed those guys. It’s the same with Ali, [Joe] Frazier and Ken Norton. I needed those guys and those guys brought the best out of me. And they made me the best fighter by me competing against them.”

It’s true, but it’s also a humble statement from a man whose accomplishments don’t exactly promote humility. A 1976 Olympic gold medal while representing the United States, world titles in five weight classes from 147 to 175 pounds, and victories over several fellow Hall of Famers.

But when you ask him about a fight that may have fallen under the radar a bit over the years, his answer may surprise. “Marcos Geraldo,” he said. “Back when I fought him in ‘79, he was a middleweight, and I fought him in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I was kind of beat up a little bit because he was so strong and the ring was too small and the referee didn’t get out of the way. But after that fight I said that if I can hang in that ring as a welterweight against a middleweight, I could beat anybody. And that fight gave me spirit.”

Three wins later, Leonard would challenge the 38-0-1 Benitez for his first world title, the WBC welterweight crown. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Leonard was just 24, and Benitez only 21. And while the fight was a match-up of two masters, what may be most memorable was the pre-fight staredown, one of the most epic in boxing history.

“He won that round,” Leonard recalled. “He won that battle of staring me down. I was new to that game, to that psychological warfare. I remember vividly standing in the ring with him and I nearly chewed my mouthpiece up from gritting my teeth, but he was playing it cool and just looking at me, staring through me.”

Leonard wouldn’t lose many psychological battles after that, with the one notable exception being his first fight with Duran in 1980, which many believed he lost because he fought the fight of “Manos de Piedra” and brawled with him for 15 rounds. Leonard got even five months later when Duran quit in the eighth round of the infamous ‘No Mas’ fight, and then it was off to face more of the best of his era, whether notable names like Hearns and Hagler, or underrated talents like Larry Bonds and Ayub Kalule. And whoever it was, Leonard simply said ‘yes’ to all comers.

“With my career, I thought that was just the norm,” he said. “First, I didn’t care who I fought. My team – Mike Trainer and
Janks Morton, Angelo Dundee – they would say, ‘Well, you’re fighting Larry Bonds, you’re fighting Ayub Kalule, you’re fighting Marcos Geraldo.’ And I didn’t care. All I wanted to do was be champ. So whatever way they went, I said, ‘Okay. Let me know when and I’ll get ready.’”

Sugar Ray did make a request every now and then though, one of them drawing an incredulous response from his long-time adviser Trainer. “Hagler, without question,” Leonard laughed. “I called Mike Trainer and said, ‘Mike, I want to fight Hagler.’ He said, ‘Ray, have you been drinking?’ I was in Las Vegas at the [John] Mugabi fight [in 1986] and I said, ‘Yeah, but that doesn’t make a difference.’ He said, ‘We’ll talk when you get home.’ So that’s how that all started.”

By the time he faced Hagler in 1987, Leonard was coming off a three-year layoff to take on the feared middleweight boss. It was a seemingly impossible task to most observers, but the pride of Palmer Park, Maryland had also become a master of the psychological game Benitez introduced him to, and over the course of 12 rounds, he pulled off all his veteran tricks to take a decision that was controversial, but oh so satisfying. I asked him, more than 28 years later, if there was one fight that he wanted more than any other.

“That fight would have been Marvin Hagler,” he said without hesitation. “To me, Hagler was the epitome of a champion and Marvin beat everybody. He was the man. You hear people say, ‘Well, Ray, you waited until he got old.’ Well, as he got old, I got old too! But that was the one fight.

“I am totally satisfied, totally at peace,” Leonard continued. “During my time, I fought everyone who was out there.”

There was one fight that didn’t happen though. “I read about this sometimes on social media, that I would never fight Aaron Pryor,” he said. “That’s not true. The fight just never came to fruition. I don’t know why. I think at one time my people tried to put it together, but it never happened. And that would have been a great fight. We were good friends and I used to spar with Aaron. He used to come to stay at my parents’ home. We go back that far.”

A Leonard-Pryor fight would have produced fireworks, but maybe it wouldn’t have lasted too long – Sugar Ray was naturally bigger and “The Hawk” was wild. Leonard agreed: “I was too big for him.”

Inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997, Leonard stays active these days with television commentary work and appearances worldwide. One recent appearance at the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame induction ceremony prompted him to tweet a photo with Hagler with the caption: “Many would have never seen this hug coming.” It was good to see the former rivals on good terms, just as Leonard is with another opponent he had plenty of heat with in Duran. It’s a warrior’s code. We may not understand it, but that’s okay.

“They don’t know the intimacy of that,” Leonard said of his bond with his contemporaries. “No one really knows what has transpired. Duran first, I didn’t like that son of a b****! But then we became friends. Time apparently heals. The same with Marvin. When we saw each other, like at the Boxing Hall of Fame or at some other event, we were civil, but there was very little small talk. It was just recently that I actually felt that he’s okay with me and that I was okay with him.”

In a sport with few happy endings, Sugar Ray Leonard has seemed to find one. And nobody is more appreciative of the impact he’s made on his sport and the people who follow it.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “Because I travel so much worldwide, someone always comes up to me and says, ‘I used to watch you when I sat on my grandfather’s lap, and he passed away and he loved you so much.’

“It puts tears in my eyes, and that’s beautiful. I don’t know what else to say. It’s humbling and it’s a wonderful feeling. It’s a warm feeling.”

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