DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross.
My guest today is boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard. Over a 20-year professional career, he won championships in five different weight divisions. In a world of heavy-hitting bruisers, Leonard was a nimble five-foot-nine, defeating opponents with quick hands and great footwork and winning fans and media approval with his good looks and personal charm.
Leonard will tell us about taking on tough opponents like Roberto Duran and Marvin Hagler and about the world of boxing. How he learned to take a punch and psych out adversaries and how he managed and mismanaged his personal life after he became rich and famous.
Sugar Ray Leonard has a new memoir called "The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring." I spoke to him last week. Leonard grew up with his parents and five brothers and sisters in a working-class community in Maryland. He went to a neighborhood gym and fell in love with boxing at age 14. After a six-year amateur career, he won a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. I asked him if he expected to turn pro at the time.
Mr. SUGAR RAY LEONARD (Professional Boxer): I had no intentions of turning professional. In fact, because my hands - both of my hands were very fragile and I would soak them in ice and ice water and they would pain me so much. I mean, each fight was - the pain that my hands would receive was so much worse than the punches in the head. And I saw myself as, you know, just trying to accomplish the ultimate as an amateur competitor. And that was the Olympics. I wanted to win the gold medal and then go home and then pursue my education or further my education in college.
I had no intentions whatsoever to become a professional fighter because I've heard horror stories about former boxers, former champions who made money, but in the end ended up with nothing. And I didn't want to be one of those guys.
DAVIES: So, what changed your mind?
Mr. LEONARD: What changed my mind was reality. My dad, who was sick during the Olympics, he never told anyone. My dad is a very proud man. He's a country boy. And, you know, he was taught to never show weakness, so my dad was suffering from spinal meningitis and tuberculosis, but he never said anything. He couldn't urinate for weeks at a time. And when he got home, he went into a coma.
And the family was just devastated. We had no money. My mom was, you know, she was dealing with her own health issues because she had kind of a heart ailment. So we needed money right away. And the only way I felt I could make money - and this was from James Martin, who eventually became my trainer and my mentor - he said, you turn pro and you make money. You pay your father's hospital bills. And I did that. I turned professional for that reason.
DAVIES: I want to talk about boxing, about getting ready for it, about what the experience is like. First of all, when you're training for a fight, you're sparring a lot. And I always find this interesting because I'm trying to imagine how you get anything like the experience of being in the ring when you're with a sparring partner.
And I think of, like, baseball players. I mean, they take batting practice every day and they can work on their hitting mechanics, but that's nothing like seeing a Randy Johnson fastball. How do you try and replicate the experience of a real fight in sparring rounds?
Mr. LEONARD: Well, you simulate that by having an opponent or a sparring partner that is very, very similar to the guy you're about to face with height, with reach advantage, with speed, with power. And you work on - well, I work on certain moves that will be a factor in the contest. Whether I have to bob and weave or constantly being mobile, don't be a stationary target. All those things - because I choreograph my fights in my head and in the ring before I face the opponent.
And it's always come to fruition. I means, it happens. It always happens, except a few times when people try to ad lib. But for the most part, my choreography has benefited me tremendously.
DAVIES: So if you're going to fight somebody who is big and likes to head butt, then you get a sparring partner who's big and likes to head butt.
Mr. LEONARD: Yes. I mean, I fought Roberto Duran the first time and he won. He beat - he won that fight. So the next fight, I had a guy, Dale Staley, who was just, first of all, he was - he idolized Roberto Duran, he fought like Roberto Duran. He used his head. And he was - dirty tactics and what have you. So I had him in my training camp and he tried to - he tried to do those things to me. And it made me more aware from a defensive standpoint so that when I faced Duran, I was prepared for that.
DAVIES: He was the guy who called himself the American Assassin.
Mr. LEONARD: That's the same guy. Yes.
DAVIES: The right guy for the moment when you're fighting Duran.
Now, the other thing that was interesting about the book was that you say that people send spies to their opponent's training camps to watch them train. You did this on one occasion, right?
Mr. LEONARD: Yes. I did that. Actually, I did that with Duran. No, I did it with Marvin Hagler, Marvelous Marvin Hagler. I sent a few spies, if you will, to see exactly what Hagler was doing or to see what exactly what Roberto Duran was doing in training camp and that's very valuable.
DAVIES: And do you remember anything that you picked up, say, from Hagler?
Mr. LEONARD: The thing with Hagler, J.D. Brown, my guy, you know, who's been with me for many years, he went to Hagler's training camp. I believe it was in Palm Springs. And what he noticed was that Marvin Hagler, for so many years has always believed that the first fighter to the center of the ring, when the bell rings, would win the fight. That's one of those idiosyncrasies. It's one of those things he would always do.
DAVIES: The bell at the beginning of the round, you mean, right?
Mr. LEONARD: Yeah.
Mr. LEONARD: Once the bell rings, he has to be in the middle of the ring - or the center of the ring to start the contest and he believed in that. It's one of those things. And I broke that because I would be in the middle of the ring before he got there.
DAVIES: One of the other interesting things about preparing for a fight, I mean, those of us who are ordinary people watch a boxing match and see you guys take punches that would lay me out for a week. How do you prepare yourself to withstand that kind of punishment?
Mr. LEONARD: I'm glad you asked me this question because of all the things I miss in boxing, I miss training camp. I miss the preparation of a bout. I miss choreographing the tactics and moves and things like that. I miss all my guys, my entourage being around me and working out with me, getting in better shape than they were three, four months ago.
The beauty of smelling a gym. The first week, you know, you're really getting yourself - you're getting pounded by your sparring partners because you're not in great shape yet. But it's a gradual progression of getting better. And as the weeks go by, you look into the mirror and you see a different person. You see a different animal. You see a fighter. It evolves. You know, one minute you look kind of soft, then all of a sudden, within six to eight weeks, your have muscles. The definition, all those things appear because a mirror doesn't lie. It tells you exactly what you are.
DAVIES: Let's talk about being in the fight itself. There's, you know, you get one minute between three-minute rounds. And we see guys come back to their corner after a round and, you know, somebody squirts, you know, empties a sponge over your head to cool you off. You might get, you know, grease on your cheeks to let punches slip. They might tend a couple of cuts. And then your corner man is talking to you.
And I always picture, I mean, I can imagine your lungs are burning. You're in pain. You're exhausted. And I hear the guys in the corner saying things that you probably already know. You know, get in close. Move away from the ropes. What makes a good corner man? Are you even hearing what's going on then?
Mr. LEONARD: There are different stages of that. When you are losing, you really don't hear, or you don't want to hear what your trainer has to say. And he might be telling you the right thing, but you are so exhausted and you are so pounded up, you're so beat up, that your lungs are burning, your legs are tired. I mean, everything. And you've given up because 89 percent or maybe 90 percent of guys go back to the corner in a tough fight, they're about to give up. But there's the few that has 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 off that stool and go at that guy, but not 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, the perfect soundbite. Like when I fought Hearns and he said, you're blowing it, son, you're blowing it. And I was so exhausted in that fight back in '81, 'cause it was over 100 degrees in that ring. And Tommy had pounded my left eye to - it was almost closed. And Angelo said just the right thing at the right time that got me up out of that stool to win that fight.
DAVIES: And why was hearing, you're blowing it, son, from Angelo Dundee the right thing at that moment?
Mr. LEONARD: Because he didn't freak out. He didn't sound desperate. Although there was a sense of urgency I heard in his voice, but not desperate. Those are two different words.
DAVIES: Now, when you're in a fight and you really get tagged, either knocked down or just hit square and it hurts, how do you recover and stay on your feet when the round's still going? Are there techniques you have for that?
Mr. LEONARD: There are pointers that you are given because 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 what happens, your equilibrium is still off. And if you step up too fast, you're going to stumble. You're going to fall back. The key is to hopefully be near a rope where you can use as a brace to help you up. But, also, while you're doing that, getting up, eye contact with the referee to let him know or give him a sense of, I'm OK.
It's just little pointers just like golf, you know, make those little adjustments. The same thing occurs in boxing. You make adjustments that keeps you in the game.
DAVIES: And what does it feel like when you really connect?
Mr. LEONARD: There is no sweeter feeling than when you throw the right, the perfect punch, the perfect right hand or left hand or left hook, whatever punch you threw or executed, because 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'll know. You know right away that guy's gone.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Sugar Ray Leonard, former boxing great. He's written a new memoir called "The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring." We'll talk some more after a short break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard. He has a new memoir called "The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring."
Now, you write that in the weeks leading up to a bout that the key to winning was understanding the essence of your opponent. How do you get that? Can you give us an example of somebody that you felt you got that on?
Mr. LEONARD: Well, Tommy Hearns is a perfect example of what all this means because Tommy's 6'2" and just, when he fought his opponents, he just annihilated guys. I mean, he had some of the most dramatic knockouts. And we knew he could punch and I knew he could punch, but I tried to focus in on what I knew he didn't have and that was that calmness. 'Cause he was always uptight.
So I tried to play on that because in the first fight, if you go back and watch it on tape, you see the first round, he could not really land a solid punch. And I'd tap him on the forehead or I tap him on the side of the head, and I said, I gotcha, sucker. And he hit me back because he was upset that he could not land a solid punch.
DAVIES: Just to clarify, this was actually after the bell had rung and the round had ended, right? You just - you reached for him and gave him a love tap on the head.
Mr. LEONARD: Yes. That was it, a little love tap on the head. And I saw his reaction because, you know, it's just a bravado. It's like he's the man, he's the hit man. And he responded just as I predicted with, I'll get you back. He was upset. He was mad.
DAVIES: So then he fought out of control and you boxed.
Mr. LEONARD: Eventually. Eventually.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: He could throw a punch, couldn't he?
Mr. LEONARD: Tommy Hearns hit, I mean, Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran were two of the hardest punchers I've ever faced. I mean, he - because Tommy's height and reach advantage gave him such incredible leverage with his punches that if you were there and he hit you, nine times out of ten you were gone. You were out.
DAVIES: Well, this maybe is a moment to mention one of the other remarkable things about your career. You said Tommy Hearns was six foot two, right?
Mr. LEONARD: Yes.
DAVIES: And your height is?
Mr. LEONARD: Well, I'm a shy 5'9", but I always say - I always round it off and say 5'10".
DAVIES: OK. So, many, many times you really - you played, I mean, you boxed out of your weight class, moved up like that. I just can't imagine how you could stand in a ring against, you know, a bruiser like Hearns and give five inches of height.
Mr. LEONARD: Well, my speed nullifies all that - all those other factors. Because if you're not a stationary target and if you have great footwork and if you, you know, play your cards right and really just not be the stationary target, you can win that fight. There's ways.
DAVIES: We got to talk about you and Roberto Duran. I mean, your rivalry, if we call it that with this man, is really one of the great stories in boxing. He was from Panama. Tell us about him, his style, his image as a fighter as you guys approached.
Mr. LEONARD: Well, I knew of Roberto Duran when I was an amateur boxer. I knew of Roberto Duran when I came from the Olympics in 1976 and I went to see him fight in Las Vegas. And I was sitting, God, at ringside and I saw one of my favorite actors, Jackie Gleason, who was a big boxing fan. And I said, I'm going to fight that guy one day, just pointing to Duran. And Jackie looked at me, he said, son, don't you ever say that, you know, he will kill you.
And when he said that, I was, like, what? 'Cause I was so, you know, I won the gold medal so I figured I was, like, the guy that could beat a little guy like Duran 'cause back then he was, like, 135, a lightweight. But I watched Roberto Duran for years and he to me was one of the greatest fighters that stepped into a boxing ring. He didn't get credit for it because he was always so tenacious and aggressive and physical, but he was a great boxer, too. He was very illusive. He was a boxer that understood sweet signs of boxing.
DAVIES: Yeah, and of course the image was quite the opposite. I mean, he was regarded as this aggressive brute whereas you were the guy with, you know, great footwork, quick hands and an engaging personality. In a way, I mean, you and Duran were a great story when you finally paired off in 1980. And there was this interesting encounter when you had the news conference announcing the bout at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. What happened?
Mr. LEONARD: Well, I'm there at this incredible hotel in New York City. And what is probably one of the - back then one of the biggest non-heavyweight fights in quite some time and I was eating all that up. I loved all the excitement and all the accolades and the cheering and the receptions and what have you.
And then Duran, who came on stage and we took some pictures together and he had these huge boxing gloves on, these really, you know, exaggerated boxing gloves. And we took a few pictures together. Then at some point, he started punching me. And it was cute, but he kept punching me harder and harder and harder. And it got to a point, I was, like, hey, hey, buddy, you know, ease up now. But then he started cursing me out. You know, he called me every name in the book.
And I said, this guy is crazy. And I was always taught to smile when the camera's on and I did that. So while he's punching me and now it's starting to irk me and starting to hurt a little bit more, and I'm smiling and he took that as a sign of weakness. So he continued on. And by the end of the press conference, I was just - didn't want to be near him because he was like a bully.
DAVIES: So, you who had made a habit of getting inside the head of your opponents now had a guy who was getting inside your head, right?
Mr. LEONARD: Because he was smarter. He was more experienced. He knew exactly what buttons to push and he pushed them time and time again to a point that now we're about to fight and I change my whole fight plan because I was discombobulated. I was, like, he blew a fuse in my head, if that's - hopefully that makes sense. That the fight plan or strategy went totally out of the window.
DAVIES: Right. So, instead of using your footwork and staying and moving, you decided you would go toe to toe and hammer it out with him, right?
Mr. LEONARD: I tried to hit him like he hit me. I stood toe to toe.
DAVIES: So you lost a 15-round decision. It was your first professional loss, right?
Mr. LEONARD: That loss to me, and in fact, in about the 14th round, 13th, 14th, I knew the fight was his. And when they announced the decision, I felt I gave 100 percent, I just fought the wrong fight, but the devastation, the emotional devastation that went across the board to my family and friends was unbelievable. My wife fainted. My brothers, my brother Roger was, like, he was so distraught. My friends, I saw them crying, I mean, everyone was crying but me.
DAVIES: Sugar Ray Leonard's new memoir is called "The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring." He'll be back to tell us about his rematch with Roberto Duran in the second half of the show.
I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
This is FRESH AIR. Im Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
We're speaking with boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard. He won world titles in five different weight divisions and he has a new memoir called The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring.
When we left off, Leonard was talking about his devastating loss in 1980 to Panamanian bruiser Roberto Duran. It was Leonard's first professional loss and he gave up his world welterweight title. Leonard said he'd trained and planned poorly for the fight giving Duran a mental and physical edge.
You asked for immediate rematch and you met him again a few months later in New Orleans and you tried to correct some of these mistakes, right? I mean you, one of the things, you decided that you would make fun of him in some way?
Mr. LEONARD: Well, I when I decided to fight him because I knew Duran's history. I mean I studied Duran, you know, even as a commentator and I knew he put on weight very fast after each fight, and so I wanted to get him back to the ring, so I asked for a rematch, which I got. And because Duran would go up from 147, which is welterweight, to 200 pounds, and he did that. So making, weight for him was, especially those months leading to the fight was very difficult for him and I played on that.
DAVIES: So the second fight, the rematch comes and by this point you have a much more disciplined game plan. You'd streamline your training routine. So let's listen to this. This is one of the most memorable moments in professional boxing. This is your second fight with Duran. It's a competitive fight. And then hear in the eighth round, let's listen to the ringside announcers.
(Soundbite of 1982 fight rematch, Leonard vs. Duran)
(Soundbite of shouting fans)
Mr. LARRY HOLMES: Give him a right hand by Duran that time.
Mr. BARRY TOMPKINS: Nice. Sugar Ray on the ropes. He gets away immediately. And whats happening? Duran says no. I think he's quitting. What is he saying, Larry?
Mr. HOLMES: Says no. I dont understand it.
Mr. TOMPKINS: Hes saying no, no he quits.
Mr. HOLMES: I dont understand it.
Mr. TOMPKINS: I think Duran quit.
Mr. HOLMES: I dont understand it. I dont understand what happened.
Mr. TOMPKINS: Ladies and gentlemen, Roberto Duran...
Mr. HOLMES: This is not like Duran.
Mr. TOMPKINS: ...threw his hand up and said I quit.
Mr. HOLMES: I dont understand this.
Mr. TOMPKINS: And he almost got in a fight with Leonards brother. The police are in the ring and we have a very, very unpleasant situation in there.
Mr. HOLMES: I dont understand it. I dont understand what I'm...
DAVIES: Wow, what a moment. The second. The second fight...
Mr. LEONARD: Wow. Wow.
DAVIES: ...second fight between our guest Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran. Yeah, what memories does that bring back?
Mr. LEONARD: Oh, god, I mean vivid memories, because I remember when the referee indicated to me that that was it. Because I thought Duran was trying to lure me in, it was a trick. And my brother, Roger, because he claimed that Duran punched him in the first fight after the fight was over with and this time my brother was going to the ring to punch him.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LEONARD: You know, it was crazy. Wow.
DAVIES: So the ring dissolves into bedlam. And the legend is that, in fact, the memorable two words from this fight are no mas - which is what its alleged that Duran said. You know, meaning no more. I've had enough. Did you hear him say it?
Mr. LEONARD: I never heard Duran say no mas. In fact, if you said that I didn't know what it meant anyway. But when the referee indicated that it was over, because Duran - if you look at the tape, he waves away. He waves his hand in like no more. No more. But I never honestly heard him say no mas.
DAVIES: You believe you were ahead in the fight at this point, right? I mean you were getting the better of him. But he wasn't like he was defenseless and beaten. How do you explain this? Its sort of, it's one of the mysteries of the sport, isn't it?
Mr. LEONARD: You know, my brother Roger, he was the one who came up with the bolo punch and pushing Duran's head down and dancing and making him look silly. It was his thought that if I made fun of Duran, not that Duran would quit but Duran would be really, really mad. And that came to fruition because it did happen. Because when you laugh at a guy like Duran, you know, he couldn't take that. And I looked at him as being humiliated and threw his hands up without realizing the repercussions it would have on his legacy because, you know, the no mas thing is really, really, - its true but it shouldn't be his legacy, if you will.
DAVIES: Because the one thing a fighter doesn't do is quit.
Mr. LEONARD: Fighters dont quit.
DAVIES: Now, you came from a large family. Certainly weren't well off. And then, you know, once you started winning professional fights you were suddenly rich. How did that affect your relationships with your siblings and your parents and other relatives?
Mr. LEONARD: It hard because. man, now that I'm making money and the fame comes with that, I felt a little awkward having and they didn't have. So I shared the wealth. And I tried to give them a home. In fact, I bought homes for pretty much most of my family members. And I bought cars. I know the first car that I bought, I bought about six cars, eight cars, 10 cars, they were Pintos.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LEONARD: But they were free. And I just tried to help them because they're my brothers and sisters. And, you know, things just got out of control. Things became too frequent. You know, asking. Because 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.
DAVIES: Right. Ray, can I have $500? Ray, can I have $1,000?
Mr. LEONARD: Yeah, $500, $1,000 here, a $1,000 and the thing about it though, even with my friends too, because they asked for $1,000 and they say just $1,000 but $1,000 20, 30, 40 times, that's a lot of money. They didn't understand that. And my people told me, or my attorneys or my accountants said Ray, you can't continue to do this. And I felt I could because, you know, I fight Duran for whether its $8 or $10 million, to me that should last a lifetime. But if you're not putting back what youre taking out it won't last a lifetime.
DAVIES: So what did you do? You did not return calls? Did you tell people no
Mr. LEONARD: No. I resorted to drinking. And then when I retired, it was even worse because then all of a sudden that's when another friend - supposedly friend, cocaine, came into the atmosphere and that was like a cushion to not let me feel as bad as I would if I had not given it to them.
DAVIES: You write in this book about two incidents when you were young, once as a teenager, where an Olympic boxing coach attempted to involve you in sexual acts and your description in the book is pretty cryptic. It's not clear exactly how far this went. But how do you think these two incidents affected your psyche?
Mr. LEONARD: I dont know because I always suppressed them. I didn't tell people what happened. I told no one. I didn't tell my parents. I didn't tell my wife, my brothers. I told no one, my friends because I was, you know, it's like a paradox, it's like contradiction. I'm a fighter but yet am so fearful I don't fight back or I don't tell anyone. I don't confront it. So I lived with that, those periods for 30-some years. But I remember too that when I drank heavily, when my emotions were not as stable as they normally would be when I'm not drinking, depending upon who I was with, I would, well, it didn't matter who I was with, I would cry and sob and just the pain. And it felt good. I felt embarrassed but I felt good because I released some of that, those memories of that poison that was in my stomach. Because everything manifests itself to my stomach because when I feel bad or I'm hurt it always goes to my stomach for some reason.
I know some people ask why I say it now, why did I reveal that? I also, I saw an episode of Oprah and Todd Bridges, you know, he finally came forth and said that he was sexually abused. And I hear people always say that when you surrender and admit these things, it's a sense of freedom too.
DAVIES: You'd always said you wanted to be a fighter who knew when to quit, that didn't hang on too long. And, in fact, what you did, I guess you retired and un-retired, is it four times?
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: Last time in the ring was in 97 against Hector Camacho, right?
Mr. LEONARD: Yes.
DAVIES: I don't know. Why do you think you took that course?
Mr. LEONARD: You know, again, I was in limbo. I was still searching for something. There was a void in my life. Although I had an incredible wife, Bernadette, four beautiful kids, I wasn't free. Something was wrong, something and I kept and fighting to me was that pacifier. It was something that kept me alive, if you will. You've got to be a fighter to understand where I'm coming from. Was it smart? No. Would I do it again? You know what? I am who I am because of what I've done. I'm who I am now because of what I've been through. So, what I do it again? Yes. Because that's, I'm stubborn. I'm hardheaded. And I've always said I'm going to be different than the other guys and I know when to retire, I know when to quit. I've always said when the other guy gets me more times than I hit him that's when it's time to retire. And that happened that last fight and it's over.
DAVIES: And, you know, since you mentioned the difficulties with cocaine and alcohol, I mean you write in the end of the book you finally did go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Have you stayed sober?
Mr. LEONARD: Yes. It'll be five years in July.
DAVIES: And how is your life different without alcohol?
Mr. LEONARD: I see things that were always in front of me. I see my wife. I see my kids. I see and hear my friends. I see, I am present. I never understood that. My wife always say you're not present. Youre not present. And I'm saying I'm physically there but I was never present just to listen. Just listen to her saying hello or good morning. I was never present until five years ago.
DAVIES: Do you ever get into the gym anymore? Do you ever hit the bag?
Mr. LEONARD: I have a punching bag in my house and I do still go to the gym. I workout every day. I just do enough just to satisfy my day. And it feels good. It feels great.
DAVIES: And you're not going to get back in the ring, right?
Mr. LEONARD: I will get into the ring just to pose for a picture. That's the only way I will get into a ring.
DAVIES: Well, Sugar Ray Leonard, it's been great. Thanks so much for joining us.
Mr. LEONARD: Thank you, man.
DAVIES: Sugar Ray Leonards new memoir is called The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring.
Coming, we listen to our 2007 concert with the indie rock band Los Straitjackets. The band's co-founder and guitarist Danny Amis is battling bone cancer and there are benefit concerts this summer.
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