Olympic Boxing Champ Fights Personal Abuses Sugar Ray Leonard was feared in the boxing ring and adored outside of it. He captured the world's attention when winning gold at the 1976 Olympics, and is credited with keeping boxing relevant to a new generation. But a complex personal tale lies behind that bright personality. Host Michel Martin speaks with Sugar Ray Leonard about his new autobiography The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring.

Olympic Boxing Champ Fights Personal Abuses

Olympic Boxing Champ Fights Personal Abuses

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Sugar Ray Leonard is a 1976 Olympic gold medalist. Deborah Wald hide caption

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Deborah Wald

When it comes to boxing, few can claim to have been both feared in the ring and loved outside of it, like Sugar Ray Leonard. He won a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics. In two decades as a professional boxer, he became a champion in five different weight divisions. He's also credited with keeping boxing relevant to a new generation of fans.

But behind that bankable personality and magical smile was a far more complicated personal story, which comes out in Sugar Ray Leonard's new autobiography The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring.

Becoming A Fighter

The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring
By Sugar Ray Leonard
Hardcover, 320 pages
Viking Adult
List Price: $26.95
Read An Excerpt

Leonard says he first got involved with boxing at age 14, when his brother Roger encouraged him to go to the gym. Leonard recalls being quiet and introverted, but suddenly felt empowered with the gloves on. "It was like magic. And I continued to be disciplined, be motivated, to run and train hard every single day. And all of a sudden, I became a better boxer," Leonard says.

But he never intended to become a professional boxer. He had hoped to use boxing as a means to earn a college scholarship. He was going to the University of Maryland and wanted to major in business.

"Professional boxing was the least thing on my mind because I've heard and seen some horrible scenarios about boxers who may come out with money...but when it was all over with, they were homeless, looked down upon. I didn't want the same to happen to me," he says. But Rand ended up going pro to help his father, who fell into a coma at the time.

Leonard says what distinguishes a great fighter from a fighter is the will to win. "It's that individual who's able to reach down into that hidden reservoir of strength that we all have but rarely activate," he states.

He also sharply recalls the physical pain he bore inside the rink: "It's like someone sticking an ice pick in your hands. You either quit or you continue. Then all of a sudden, it's something you live with. It's excruciating, paralyzing pain, but in the end, you get through the day."


Leonard says he also always brought his hands together in prayer before matches. But he didn't pray for a personal victory, but for everyone's safety.

One memorable fight occurred in 1981, when Sugar Ray Leonard seemed to be losing to his opponent Tommy Hearns. At the time, Leonard's eye was damaged. He recalls that as Hearns continued hitting him, his eye was almost swollen shut. Leonard describes being exhausted after the 12th or so round, and yet, "I hit Tommy, and I hurt Tommy, and I became like a Tasmanian devil. I never let up."

Overcoming Sexual Abuse And Alcoholism

When Leonard was a young man, he experienced two incidents of sexual abuse – once by an Olympic coach and also by a boxing fan who frequented the gym. He says he publicly opened up about it because it allowed him to get rid of the pain that haunted him for about three decades. Leonard states, "It was kind of a paradox. If you think about me as a fighter, I could knock those guys out. But I didn't. Why? One — because I was getting cash and training for the Olympics. And I trusted this guy to get close to the Olympics."

Leonard also struggled with alcohol, which had grave repercussions: "I didn't know how to be a father, be a husband." He says. He ultimately went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every day, and comments, "I know if I had not taken this step to go to AA, to surrender and drop my guard, and take the pain of releasing this toxin in my stomach and my chest, I would be dead."

Excerpt: The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring

Sugar Ray Leonard's new autobiography Penguin Books hide caption

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Penguin Books

Sugar Ray Leonard's new autobiography

Penguin Books
The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring
By Sugar Ray Leonard
Hardcover, 240 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.

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