Leonard, Sugar Ray (1956—)
Leonard, Sugar Ray (1956—)
Sugar Ray Leonard was the first boxer, and certainly the first non-heavyweight, to cash in on the new era of exploding sports salaries ushered in by Muhammad Ali. A Baby Boomer coming of age in the early 1980s, Leonard seemed to personify his generation: apolitical and corporate, with style superseding but not necessarily precluding substance. An Olympic gold medal winner in the Junior welterweight class, Ray Charles Leonard took the name "Sugar Ray" as an amateur. Any fighter adopting this nickname has an almost impossible act to follow, because the man most boxing experts agree was the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in the history of the sport was Sugar Ray Robinson. Yet by the end of Leonard's career, the name Sugar Ray would conjure an image of Leonard just as soon as one of Robinson, and in the consciousness of many Baby Boomers and most Generation Xers, the new Sugar Ray even usurped the original.
Leonard first burst into the American consciousness during the 1976 Olympic Summer Games when famed announcer Howard Cosell publicized the fact that Leonard fought with a picture of his girlfriend taped to his socks. Following his Olympic victory Leonard embarked on his professional boxing career, winning the welter-weight title in 1979 and remaining undefeated until 1980, when he lost a 15 round decision to Panamanian legend Roberto Duran. Leonard won back his title in a rematch with Duran later in the same year when Duran, frustrated, disgusted, and behind on points, quit in the middle of the eighth round, turning his back on Leonard and uttering the infamous phrase "no mas," which means "no more" in Spanish. This extraordinary ending sent shock waves through the sporting world. Leonard had forced the unbeatable Duran—the one athlete who seemed incapable of losing, let alone giving up—to quit.
Outside the ring, Leonard became well known for raising public awareness regarding eye-related injury. During his epic welterweight unification bout with Thomas "The Hitman" Hearns in 1981, Leonard suffered a detached retina. The following year he retired from boxing, even though a mega-fight awaited him and the seemingly invincible Marvelous Marvin Hagler. During this retirement, Leonard parlayed his boxing celebrity and infectious smile into a career as a television boxing announcer for the premium cable channel HBO. The specter of the fight-that-could-have-been against Hagler loomed in Leonard's mind, however, and despite the risk to his vision and having fought only once in a five year span, Leonard came out of retirement to fight Hagler. After 12 rounds of boxing, Leonard pulled off one of the unlikeliest upsets in modern sports history. He was awarded Hagler's middleweight title with a split decision victory. The fight was also significant because it was the first major bout in which thumbless gloves were used (a stipulation Leonard insisted on during negotiations for the fight in order to protect his surgically repaired eye).
With his boyish good looks and personable, articulate interview style, Leonard was a media hit from the beginning. Initially, he was best known to the American non-boxing public for the 1980 television advertisement for the soft drink Sprite in which he starred with his seven-year-old son. By the end of his career, Leonard became better known for his accomplishments inside the ring, including epic battles with lightweight legend Roberto Duran, welterweight greats Wilfred Benitez and Thomas Hearns, and middleweight extraordinaire Marvin Hagler (all of whom Leonard beat at least once, and only one of whom—Duran—ever beat him). Always willing to take on the most dangerous opposition for the largest purse available, Leonard proved he was more than the front-runner many initially believed him to be. He was the greatest fighter of his time, and one of the greatest of all time as well.
Summerall, Pat. Sports in America. New York, Harper Collins, 1996.
Toperoff, Sam. Sugar Ray Leonard and Other Noble Warriors. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1987.