hide captionWelterweight boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, pictured above in August 1979, laughs as he tapes his hands before a workout in the boxing ring at the community center in Capitol Heights, Md.
Welterweight boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, pictured above in August 1979, laughs as he tapes his hands before a workout in the boxing ring at the community center in Capitol Heights, Md.
Sugar Ray Leonard is considered to be one of the best boxers of all time. The first boxer to win more than $100 million in purses, Leonard won world titles in five weight divisions, received a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics and went on to become a successful motivational speaker, actor and commercial endorser.
But the road to the ring wasn't always easy for Leonard. In a new autobiography, The Big Fight, he details his own struggles with rage, addiction, sexual abuse and depression. Leonard talks with Fresh Air's Dave Davies about how he battled these obstacles and went from a shy kid growing up around Washington, D.C., to a hugely successful boxer.
The Making Of A Champ
It was Leonard's shyness as a child, he says, that prompted his brother Roger to first take him to a boxing gym as a young teenager.
"For some reason, I was drawn towards boxing," he says. "Or maybe boxing drew me towards it — because once I put those gloves on, after about six months, boxing was my life."
Yet he was also hiding something: He was the victim of sexual abuse.
"It's like a paradox," said Leonard. "I'm a fighter but yet, I'm so fearful. I don't fight back and I don't tell anyone. I don't confront it. So I lived with those periods for 30-some years but I remember too, that when I drank heavily, when my emotions were not as stable, I would cry, sob and the pain — it felt good. I felt embarrassed but it felt good because I released some of those memories or that poison that was in my stomach."
The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring By Sugar Ray Leonard and Michael Arkush Hardcover, 320 pages Viking Adult List Price: $26.95
He started competing in amateur matches, eventually winning the 1973 National Golden Gloves Lightweight Championship. The following year, he won the Golden Gloves title again, along with the National AAU Lightweight Championship. Those early victories, he says, helped him break out of his shell.
"I didn't excel too highly in school but I felt that I was moving ahead — and not just in boxing — but in life," he says. "I watched Muhammad Ali, how when he would speak, how it was such a thing of beauty. It sounded so wonderful. And I wanted to be like him."
Leonard advanced through the amateurs, making the Olympic team in 1976. He beat Cuban champ Andres Aldama in a 5-0 decision that earned him the gold medal. At the time, he says, he had no intention of going professional.
"I wanted to win the goal medal and then go home and further my education in college," he says. "I had no intentions whatsoever to become a professional fighter because I had heard horror stories about former boxers who made money but, in the end, ended up with nothing. I didn't want to be one of those guys."
But Leonard soon changed his mind. When he got back to D.C.'s Maryland suburbs, where his family lived, he realized that his father was extremely sick. His mother had her own health issues and the family needed money — right away. "Janks Morton, who eventually became my trainer and mentor, told me: 'You turn pro, you make money. You can pay your father's hospital bills.' ... I turned professional for that reason."
Leonard's Professional Career
After deciding to go pro, Leonard enlisted Morton to bring others onto his team. Morton asked several men, including lawyer Mike Trainer and Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali's trainer, to work with Leonard. Dundee, Morton and Trainer were responsible for managing Leonard's fights and for selecting sparring partners who were similar in height, speed and power to the opponents Leonard was about to face. These sparring partners worked with Leonard for weeks to prepare him for a match.
"I worked on certain moves that would be a factor in the contest — whether I had to bob and weave or constantly be mobile, all those things," he says. "I choreographed my fights in my head before I faced the opponent."
In 1980, Leonard faced Roberto "Hands of Stone" Duran in Montreal. Duran, the former world lightweight champion, indisputably won the match. It was Leonard's first professional loss.
"By the 14th round, I knew the fight was his," he says. "When they announced the decision, I felt like I had given 100 percent, just for the wrong fight. But the devastation — the emotional devastation that went across the board to my family and friends — was unbelievable. I saw them crying. Everyone was crying but me."
Four months later, the two men organized a rematch in Louisiana. To prepare, Leonard chose a sparring partner who idolized Duran.
"He fought like Roberto Duran — he used his head and dirty tactics and what-have-you," he says. "And it made me more aware, from a defensive standpoint, so when I faced Duran, I was prepared."
Leonard won the rematch, which famously ended when Duran went to the referee in the eight round and allegedly said, "No mas" — no more. A short time later, Duran retired from boxing.
But Leonard stayed, besting Thomas "Hitman" Hearns in "The Showdown" in 1981 and winning a split decision against "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler in 1986. He repeatedly retired and returned to the ring, before hanging up his gloves for the last time in 1997.
"Of all the things I miss in boxing, I miss the preparation of a bout, I miss choreographing tactics and moves and things like that," he says. "I miss all of my guys, my entourage being around me and working out with me, getting in better shape. ... It's a gradual progression of getting better and, as weeks go by, you look into the mirror and you see a different person. It evolves. One minute, you look kind of soft and then, within 6-8 weeks, your muscle and all that definition appears. The mirror doesn't lie. It tells you exactly what you are."
On a good corner man
"When you're losing, you really don't want to hear what your trainer has to say. He may tell you the right thing, but you're so exhausted, you're so beat up, that your lungs are burning, your legs are tired. And you've given up. Because 90 percent of guys who go back to the corner in a tough fight, they're about to give up. But there are a few, that have that intestinal fortitude, and they want to win at any cost. That's the guy who's listening to whatever his corner has to say. The key is having someone who's composed, someone who has experience. Someone who wants you to get out there and go at the guy but who doesn't sound so desperate or frustrated. And Angelo Dundee was that guy, who was in my corner, who said the right things at the right time."
On recovering from a hit during a fight
"When you get knocked down, the first thing you do is try to compose yourself and not rush up. Don't jump up because of embarrassment because your equilibrium is still off. And if you jump up too fast, you're going to stumble. You're going to fall back. The key is to hopefully be near a rope which you can use as a brace to help you up. While you're doing that, make eye contact with the referee to give him [the] sense that you're OK. It's just little pointers. It's like golf — making those little adjustments. The same thing occurs in boxing. You make adjustments."
On connecting with a punch
"There is no sweeter feeling than when you throw the perfect punch. You get a signal — you get this little tingling sensation that shoots up and down your arm to let you know that you've hit the jackpot. And you know. You know right away that guy's gone."
On the hardships of making money
"I shared the wealth. And I tried to give [my family] a home. I bought homes for most of my family members. And I bought cars. I bought 10 cars, they were Pintos. They were free [for them.] I just tried to help them because they're my brothers and sisters. But things just got out of control. Things became too frequent. There's no book to tell you how to deal with instant success and all of a sudden, you have this fame. It's powerful. It's crazy. ... My accountants said, 'Ray, you can't continue to do this.'"
On recently coming out about being sexually abused as a teenager
"Some people ask why did I reveal that? I saw an episode of Oprah and [former child TV star] Todd Bridges finally came forth and said that he was sexually abused. I hear people always say that when you surrender and admit these things, it's a sense of freedom too."
Excerpt: 'The Big Fight'
by Sugar Ray Leonard and Michael Arkush
The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring By Sugar Ray Leonard and Michael Arkush Hardcover, 320 pages Viking Adult List Price: $26.95
My eyes never lie.
They were open wide, staring back at me in the mirror of the dressing room at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Those eyes would reveal which of the two dueling personalities would enter the ring as I took on the most intimidating opponent of my career, Marvin Hagler. It was nearly seven o'clock on the night of April 6, 1987, the opening bell only about an hour away.
Would it be Sugar Ray Leonard, the star of numerous conquests in the past, an American hero since capturing the gold medal in Montreal more than a decade earlier, the anointed heir to the throne vacated by Muhammad Ali? Sugar Ray was resilient, fearless, unwilling to accept failure. The smile and innocence of a child, which made him a hit on TV, would be gone, replaced in the ring by a man filled with rage he did not understand, determined to cause great harm to another.
Or would it be Ray Leonard, the part-time boxer at the age of thirty, whose best was well behind him, his days and nights wasted on fights that never made the headlines, fights he lost over and over, to alcohol and cocaine and depression? This was a man full of self-pity, blaming everyone but the person most responsible for his fate — himself.
In the room, with no one around, I kept my eyes glued on the eyes in the mirror. They were alive, probing, big, like flashlights. I looked at the muscles in my shoulders, my arms. They were cut, defined, powerful.
I began to slowly shadowbox, watching my legs, then my eyes, back to my legs, then my eyes again. Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! I threw a left, a right, another left, another right. Sweat dripped down my forehead, my breathing heavier.
There was a knock at the door to let me know it was time. I didn't say a word. I took one last look at my eyes. I recognized them. They were Sugar Ray's.
I walked out. Surrounded by my trainer, Angelo Dundee, bodyguard James Anderson, brothers Roger and Kenny, and about a dozen others, I started the familiar procession down the aisle, a strange and special ritual unlike any other in sports, cheered on by the hungry masses out for blood, marching toward glory or shame or, worse, death. During the several minutes it took to reach the ropes, I remained unscathed, as did Hagler, our bodies honed from months of sparring and running to be ready for this one momentous night. Soon we would be unscathed no more, both forced to pay the dues for the brutal profession we had chosen, or, as many of us in the Sweet Science prefer to believe, had chosen us.
I proceeded as slowly as possible, savoring the feelings I had not experienced in almost three years, since I defeated Kevin Howard and retired again, this time, I assumed, for good. Howard, nowhere near the fighter I was, knocked me to the canvas in the fourth round. I got up right away, more humiliated than hurt, and summoned enough will to prevail in the ninth. But my heart was not in the fight game anymore, and if one is not committed, disaster is certain to strike. Lacking the motivation wasn't a problem against Hagler. From the moment I decided in the spring of 1986 to take him on, I was sure of one thing: I wanted to tear the man apart.
The odds were heavily against me, and why wouldn't they be? Boxing was filled with proud warriors who came out of retirement only to discover that they should have stayed away forever, their skills never the same after the long layoff, the saddest example being the legendary Joe Louis, the hero to my father and millions of African Americans, beaten eventually by a much younger Rocky Marciano in 1951. I knew I would be assuming the same risk as the others before me, and not only to my body. At stake at Caesars was something just as important — my reputation. When I first retired as a pro in 1982, I prided myself on being the rare exception in my sport, the fighter wise enough to get out before it became too late. If I was whipped by Hagler, a very real possibility — he hadn't lost in eleven years — I would join the long list of disgraced ex-champions, leaving one lasting, pathetic image for the public I worked endlessly to impress.
Over the previous five years, I spent less than twenty-seven minutes in the ring while Hagler took on eight opponents (fifty-seven rounds) during the same period. While I trained more vigorously for Hagler than for any prior opponent — I sparred for well over two hundred rounds — no amount of effort on the speed bag, the heavy bag, jumping rope, and running could compare to an actual fight against a man coming from the opposite corner whose prime objective is to inflict as much damage as is humanly possible. My sparring partners never let up. They had careers they were hoping to build.
In training camp at Hilton Head, South Carolina, I felt in control of myself and my surroundings. There was a plan I stuck to every day. On fight night in Las Vegas, I felt in control again, but didn't know if the plan would work. A fighter never know till the bell rings.
Excerpted from The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring by Sugar Ray Leonard. Copyright 2011 by Sugar Ray Leonard. Excerpted by permission of Viking Adult. All rights reserved.