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IF you had to describe the ultimate fighter, Sugar Ray Leonard wouldn’t be far off the mark. Perfectly proportioned, with cat-like grace, intensely competitive, magically quick, chillingly ruthless and dashingly handsome, it was hardly a surprise the son of a nurse and supermarket manager became a boxing hero.
Leonard was such a supreme talent that he only started boxing at 15 and the following year, when under-age, almost sneaked in to the 1972 Olympic team.
However, had it not been for his parents’ ill-health and an unplanned child to his then-girlfriend, Leonard might not have even turned professional after striking Olympic gold, in spite of bad hands, in 1976.
Sugar Ray’s intention was always to return to college to earn a degree rather than ever compete for money. But with Muhammad Ali’s career more or less at the end, a vacancy existed for a bright new attraction and Leonard had all the necessary qualifications.
As interest in the heavyweights quickly dwindled in the void left by Ali, the attention was turned to the lighter, faster men and for nearly two decades Leonard ensured boxing remained firmly in the public spectrum.
In spite of his all-American smile and pretty looks, Leonard was shrewd, calculating and unforgiving.
He hired himself a smart lawyer, took on Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee as coach and manager and then formed Sugar Ray Leonard Inc – enticing 24 businessmen to invest $21,000 each to be repaid over four years at eight per cent interest.
Leonard made himself president, secured himself a pension plan, a trust fund for his parents and son and then lived off a fat salary each year.
He master-minded the key fights of his career brilliantly and amassed a huge fortune.
We can argue endlessly over whether he was better than Ali or how he compared with champions who proceeded or followed him, but beyond dispute is the fact Leonard never shirked a challenge, though whether you admire or deplore the way he tried to arrange fights always on his terms is another matter.
During the 1980s there was an outstanding contingent of ring marvels: Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler and Wilfred Benitez. Aside from Hagler-Benitez, they all fought each other and ONLY Leonard prevailed against all-comers.
Who would have believed that Sugar Ray would ever outpunch Hearns or that, following nearly three years on the sidelines, he would come out of retirement to defeat Hagler at middleweight?
That remains one of the most contentious results in history. For me, Leonard won clearly.
Almost everyone thought Sugar Ray had made a mistake picking a fight with a champion who hadn’t lost in 11 years. But Leonard knew Hagler was in decline. In the gym behind closed doors, Sugar Ray staged simulated contests wearing 10oz gloves against big, tough men to ensure he was ready and it paid off. Against Hagler he was breathtaking.
The argument has always been that Leonard’s punches against Hagler were just fancy – designed only to catch the eye. But that’s nonsense. Hagler was so tough he often made hard punchers seem ineffective.
Anyhow, I believe Hagler’s corner knew he’d been outfoxed despite Marvin’s protests. Before the final round trainer Goody Petronelli urged Hagler, “We need it bad,” whereas Dundee thought the fight was as good as won – and it was.
Beating Hagler was the most outstanding of Sugar Ray’s many comebacks. The courage he showed that night – getting through the final three rounds when clearly exhausted – and in the rematch with Hearns, who knocked him down twice, proved Leonard had substance to match his showmanship.
Leonard was tough and so spirited. He proved it countless times – in victory and defeat.
Sugar Ray was a master strategist and ring psychologist, too, and this, with his skills and heart, made him formidable.
“I’m not cocky, I’m confident,” he would say. He was entitled to be. Sugar Ray would glide as he moved. He was a fantastic combination puncher and cruel finisher. Few fighters could switch their attacks to head and body with such a merciless instinct and Leonard’s eye for precision.
Obviously, these talents suffered during the lengthy breaks and he wasn’t the first champion to allow his ego to consume his sense. The lure of the bright lights, public affection and thrill of combat was always too powerful to refuse.
Not even the threat of blindness and humiliation could restrain him. Back in 1982, whilst pondering his future after surgery to repair a detached retina, Leonard said: “Every day I am away from boxing the chances are much slimmer I will come back. The love is diminishing. I can walk away.”
Yet nearly 15 years later he had his final fight, a pathetic defeat by Hector Camacho six years after Leonard’s previous contest – the one-sided but courageous points loss to Terry Norris.
Thankfully, most of us remember that Leonard’s prime was in another age, when he outboxed and outfought the masterful Benitez for his first title and turned puncher to halt a fearsome and undefeated Hearns at welter.
Who knows how much more Sugar Ray might have achieved had he not lost four full years between 1982 and 1990?
It’s almost impossible to answer, but that he is still considered one of the greats perhaps offers a profound indication.