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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/137342482/137342461" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Boxing and boxing champions have always loomed large in American life, even for people who don't actually love the sport: Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson. All of them were celebrated for their exploits inside the ring and often respected outside of it. But 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. And he is 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. And now he's telling that story in a new autobiography "The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring." Sugar Ray Leonard is with us now. Welcome. I should say welcome home, because you're from this area. You're from Palmer Park, Maryland. Yeah.

SUGAR RAY LEONARD: No question. This is - Michel, this is my home. Yes. And it's so great to be back, and thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So how did you start boxing, and how did you get the name Sugar Ray? You certainly have a sweet face. Is that it?

LEONARD: Not really. My brother, Roger, got me involved with boxing. When I was 14, he encouraged me to go to the gym and participate. I was a very quiet, introverted kid. Got to the gym, I put the gloves on, and all of a sudden, there was this feeling of empowerment. It was like magic. And I continued to be disciplined, to be motivated, to learn, to train hard every single day. And all of a sudden, I became a better boxer, more confident outside the ring. It was indeed a special thing for me.

MARTIN: One of the revelations in the book - to me, anyway - was that you never intended to go pro and that you said you actually had hoped to use boxing to get a college scholarship, which is something that people always say. It isn't ever true, but in your case, it actually is true. Can you tell me, so why did you go pro?

LEONARD: Well, you know, I was a boxer, amateur boxer for a number of years. And I accomplished the ultimate - which is the Olympics - for any amateur athlete. So dealing with hands that were fragile and in pain - I got cortisone shots in my knuckles to minimize the pain. So when I won the gold medal, I went home and I said to myself, you know what? This is it. I've conquered my goal, and I need to move on.

So I was going to the University of Maryland. I was given a scholarship, and I wanted to major in business. Boxing was the least thing on my mind - professional boxing, because I've heard, not seen some very horrible scenarios and stories about boxers who made a lot of money, but when it was all over with, they were homeless, looked down upon. I didn't want the same to happen to me. So I wanted to get better, be smarter by going to school.

MARTIN: So, why didn't you?

LEONARD: My dad, who at the time during the Olympics, was very sick, very ill. We got home and celebration and what have you - and it was like a couple weeks later, he fell into a coma. So I was losing my dad, and I was trying to find a way to make some money. I turned pro to help my dad.

MARTIN: You said before that people often misunderstand boxing. They view it as some brutes beating the daylights out of each other. What is your definition of boxing? And what does it take to be great?

LEONARD: Well, I mean, first of all, you must have the courage to get into those four squares, get into that ring. But to be a fighter is one thing, but to be a great fighter, it's a commitment. It's a full-time job. It's overtime work. It's that intestinal fortitude when you're knocked down or cut, or what have you. It's that individual who's able to reach down to that hidden reservoir of strength that we all have, but rarely activate. It's the will to win, and I have that.

MARTIN: Talk to me, if you would, just a minute, though, about something you mentioned earlier: the pain in your hands. That was one of the powerful moments in the book for me, was when you talked about how much your hands hurt. Can you just describe what that's like?

LEONARD: It's like someone sticking an ice pick in your hand, in your knuckles. And you either quit or you continue. And then, all of a sudden, it becomes something that you live with. You know, it's excruciating pain, paralyzing pain. But you know what? You get through the day.

MARTIN: You know, one aspect of the sport that you talk about in the book is the psychological warfare. And I think that's something that a lot of those of us who just watch the sport have come to understand, like when you see the pre-fight weigh-ins and people are doing the stare down, so people are starting to get that. You were seen as a master of that. Can you just talk a little bit about how you figure out how to get inside somebody's head?

LEONARD: Well, I got it from one of the best guys out there, Mohammad Ali. He would out talk, out charisma his opponents. And I learned that boxers far more - it's not just the physical element, it's the psychological and mental and spiritual aspect. And I would not be, I mean a couple of times I was, but I wouldn't be too derogatory, but I would kind of say something that try to spark a guy's inability to respond without anger.

MARTIN: There was one where you forgot, I'm blanking on the name now, who liked to occupy the center of the ring.

LEONARD: Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

MARTIN: Marvelous Marvin Hagler. And you noticed that he always liked to start the fight in the center of the ring. And did you think that was a superstition with him? Or was it strategic?


MARTIN: Like he needed a...

LEONARD: Some have - some people are superstitious. Some people just have a ritual. Some people just do it. But I sent my friend, J. D. Brown, to Marvin Hagler's training camp and what he did observe was that Marvin, during sparring sessions, would always be in the center of the ring first. Because somehow, someway, Marvin believed that the first person to the center of the ring was ready to react. He was the first one to start it. So he believed that. So when we finally fought, I made sure I was in the middle of the ring before he got there.

MARTIN: But you sent a spy to his training camp. What's up with that?

LEONARD: Yeah. Well, it wasn't really a spy per se.

MARTIN: What would you call it?

LEONARD: A friend that...


MARTIN: That was spying?

LEONARD: ...that was spying.


LEONARD: A friend that was spying. Yes. Yeah, he was spying.

MARTIN: I want to talk a little bit about what's going on in your head during a fight. And I want to talk about the 1981 fight against Tommy Hearns. Tough fight. It looked as though you were going to lose. You were losing on points. Your detached retina was bothering you, and some fans recall that you looked bewildered. And then in the 13th round - let me just - I'll just play a little bit.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A left hand scored by Leonard, and a right behind it. Hearns, battered around the ring, won't go down. What a flurry by Sugar Ray Leonard. And again, Hearns trying to hold on but he can't get a grip on him. A right hand by Leonard, and a left. Hits him with a right as Hearns sprawls through the ropes.

MARTIN: I wish people could see what you're doing right now. You're kind of...

LEONARD: Ducking. Bobbing and weaving.

MARTIN: Ducking. You're bobbing and weaving.


MARTIN: So what was, do you - I know it's a long time ago. But do you remember what was going through your head? And I was wondering, where you holding back so that you could surprise him with that flurry or was that a sudden burst of energy?

LEONARD: No. That was myself. Trust me.

MARTIN: What happened?

LEONARD: I remember vividly majority of my fights. They were that important to me. And that fight, in fact, I didn't suffer detached retina then because that was 1981, September. But, my eye was damaged in sparring session. So when Tommy continued to hit me with his jab, it was almost nearly swollen shut. And after about maybe the 10th, 11th, 12th round, that's when Angelo Dundee stated in my corner, you're blowing it, son. You're blowing it, which made me realize that there was a sense of urgency. I mean I was exhausted. It was over 100 degrees in the ring, and I hit Tommy and I hurt Tommy and I just became like a Tasmanian devil. I never let up.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking with boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard. We're talking about his life and the newly released autobiography "The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring." We want to talk out of the ring in a minute, but one more boxing question, about Roberto Duran.

I mean you say in the book you had a fight with him where he got the better of you. And then you asked for a rematch quickly again using the psychological warfare because you realized that he would put on weight really quickly after a fight. And so you said I'm going to get back in there really quickly so that he doesn't really have a chance to kind of catch back up. You see, I did read the book, right? I told you I read the book. I told you I read that book, right?

LEONARD: I'm so - listen. Listen. Let me tell you something, I'm so...

MARTIN: I probably remember it better than you do, right?


LEONARD: I'm sitting here, I'm saying, this is a woman talking to me about boxing and you, your facts is so on.

MARTIN: What kind of sexist is that?

LEONARD: No. I didn't try to I don't want to be come across as being a sexist. But then again, boxing is kind of a dude sport in a sense and I've been interviewed by boxing aficionados. You rank first.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. Well, reading is fundamental.

LEONARD: I can see that.

MARTIN: I'll just put it that way. I just read the book.


LEONARD: You did read the book. Yes you did.

MARTIN: But then in the second fight when you asked for a rematch, you got into his head. You got into Roberto Duran's head. There's one thing that you mentioned that that fight was famous because Roberto Duran was known as such a warrior, and he just gave up. What happened?

LEONARD: You got to understand something, Roberto Duran was like a, was like a bully. And his bravado, his intimidation, his speed, his talent, all those things combined made Duran a legendary fighter. Duran got under my skin. He made me feel that I could beat him at his own game, fight him as a stationary target, which he took home the decision. So the second fight I boxed him. I used my hand speed. I used all my physical attributes. He was frustrated. All of a sudden now people were laughing at him during the fight. He felt humiliated, frustrated. I think he threw his hands up without realizing the repercussions that that act would have on his legacy.

MARTIN: Now I want to talk about another kind of courage, which is the courage to reveal some of the things that you talked about in this book. And I know this isn't your favorite topic because it was obviously painful. But you reveal in the book two incidents in which you were sexually abused as a young man. One was by an Olympic coach. The other was a boxing fan who hung around the gym. The way you write about this in the book, I get the sense that you really did not intend to talk about it. But when you saw the child actor Todd Bridges talk about this on "Oprah," you then decided, you know, it is time to let this out. Why do you feel it's time to let it out?

LEONARD: I just felt that the pain that I've dealt with for 30-something years, that I would never come to grips with what happened, how it happened and why it happened. It was kind of a paradox. If you think about me as a fighter, you know, I could beat those guys or hurt those guys, knock those guys out, but yet I didn't. Why? Well, one, because of financial reasons. Because I was getting cash and I was training for the Olympics.

The other one was the fact that I trusted this guy to get closer to the Olympics, to make the Olympics and then, you know, I know some people challenge me. Say that it didn't happen, that I said this for the book. I mean are those people stupid? I mean why would I say that? I mean of all the things, why would I say that? But anyway, I mean I...

MARTIN: How do you feel now that you've gotten it out there?

LEONARD: I feel a little less heavy. I feel a little less bothered by that incident. I mean, I mentioned it to my first wife, Juanita, but I mentioned it to her when I had a few well, quite a few drinks because I didn't have the courage to say it sober. And we kind of, you know, threw it under the rug. Because what do you say? I mean what did she say to me? What could she say to me?

MARTIN: I'm sorry that happened to you?

LEONARD: No. That's not going to do it. That won't do it. I mean I told my second wife some many, many years later, some 10, 15 years later, and we just paused and we got quiet and we dropped it. So what has happened, how this thing has evolved for me to be open to public about what happened, was because I've been in a program AA program. I go to meetings every day and I learn to surrender. I learn to be Ray better. Now that was tough. It was tough. I walked into that room and I was Sugar Ray Leonard, and it was tough because Sugar Ray Leonard is not an alcoholic. Sugar Ray Leonard does not have character defects. It took me almost six, seven, eight months, maybe longer, to finally say, my name is Ray and I'm an alcoholic. So it's been buried inside of me. It's been hidden inside of me and I kind of put a Band-Aid on it with excessive, you know, alcohol and drugs because it did for a second, for a while it stopped.

MARTIN: I did want ask well, you think you're out because you talked about that in the book too, alcohol, the alcohol, the drug use. Do you think that was part of it, your self-medicating or maybe it was just the whole celebrity lifestyle?

LEONARD: It's all those things. It's all those things. All of a sudden I was Sugar Ray Leonard. And again, I mean I love Sugar Ray Leonard. He pays the rent. But I love being Ray Leonard. And I'm not going to blame how I treated Juanita, buy these drugs and alcohol. You know, I was just a lousy dad. I didn't know how to be a father, didn't know how to be a husband. Once that opportunity of fame, fortune, crossed my path and went into my pockets and then went into my chest and my shoulders and went into my head, I was entitled to do that.

I don't know. I just kept going out there. Going out there. Searching for more. They said - what do they say, the grass is always greener on the other side? That's not necessarily true. But then again, my life so surreal. It was so la la. It was la la land.

MARTIN: Well, what would you like people to draw from this book, and what do you want people to get from it?

LEONARD: It was more of a book for me. I know, Michel, that if I had not taken this step and not just write a book, but taking the step to go to AA, to surrender, to drop my guards and take the pain of releasing this toxin in my stomach and my chest, I would be dead. You know, and if I go back, I'm going to die. I - that's a fact. But, you know, I'm a blessed man without question.

MARTIN: Before we let you go I do have to, I got to put you on the spot: "Dancing With the Stars."


MARTIN: What happened with that?

LEONARD: That...

MARTIN: I'm sorry. The footwork, we expected more.

LEONARD: Well, thank you. But they say there's a correlation between boxing and ballroom dancing.


LEONARD: It's a total opposite.


MARTIN: Well, that's true. You're not expected to beat your partner up.

LEONARD: Yeah. But you chin and your posture. But it was the most challenging and wonderful experience. And if I missed anything, I missed the camaraderie with my dance partner, Anna Trebunskaya, the people that were there, the cast. I go through the airport, people say hey, man, you look great dancing, especially those red tights.


MARTIN: How can you let Heinz Ward beat you? I mean, how does that...

LEONARD: Oh, I'm glad you said it. Hold, let, let me finish. Let me finish.

MARTIN: Okay. All right. All right.

LEONARD: When I first saw Heinz as one of the contestants, I said I've got this guy beat. He's heavy. He's a football player. Two left feet. I got him beat. And when I saw him on the dance floor I said, what the heck? He was fantastic, you know? Hey, I did it. It's on my resume. I'm happy.

MARTIN: You going to have to tell me a secret because I you're my third "Dancing with the Stars" contestant, and I need to know a secret. Kristi Yamaguchi told me about the spray tanning. Margaret Cho told me about her outfit that well, she actually didn't design it. Her partner designed it, her rainbow outfit. So do you have a secret? We need to know it? What's the secret? Tell me a secret? Did they spray tan you.

LEONARD: No. I didn't need that.

MARTIN: No. Well.

LEONARD: But I kept mints always in my socks.

MARTIN: Mints?

LEONARD: Yeah. I...

MARTIN: What kind of mints?

LEONARD: Tic Tacs and any kind. Any kind of mint because I always got to make sure when I talk my breath smells good.


MARTIN: Okay. Now was that was that a courtesy you extended to your boxing opponents?

LEONARD: My sparring partners.

MARTIN: Your sparring partners. Oh, okay.


LEONARD: True story.

MARTIN: Point taken.


LEONARD: Sugar Ray Leonard is an Olympic champion, a "Dancing With the Stars" contestant. As a professional boxer, he won championships in five weight divisions. His new autobiography is called "The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring." It was co-written with Michael Arkush. Champ, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mr. Leonard, Ray, thank you so much for joining us.

I'm still impressed with you. You're the best. Thank you.


MARTIN: This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Let's talk more tomorrow.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.