Leonard, Sugar Ray 1956–
Sugar Ray Leonard 1956–
Professional boxer, businessman
Championships Intermingle with Retirements
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By his last retirement in 1991, boxer Sugar Ray Leonard had become the first fighter to win titles in five divisions-every weight class from welteweight to light heavyweight. He also had the distinction of being the first boxer ever to earn $100 million in purses. Handsome and glib outside the ring-and unusually crafty within it-Leonard beat a number of formidable opponents on his way to wealth and fame.Sports Illustrated correspondent William Nack called Leonard “the very embodiment of the American dream,” and claimed that the engaging boxer’s career “is the paradigm for the sport.”
Melodrama played no small role in Sugar Ray Leonard’s professional life. He “retired” as early as 1976 and claimed to be through with boxing no fewer than four times; even at the age of 41, in 1997, Leonard insisted that he was still a competitive fighter, looking for a match. His numerous comebacks were celebrated with a great deal of hoopla, attesting to Leonard’s healthy ego, but they also proved that the fighter possessed unusual degrees of stamina and determination. Fighting through injuries that might have robbed him of his eyesight, overcoming drug abuse, and beating opponents who were expected to pulverize him became Ray Leonard’s signal achievements. As Nack put it, Leonard’s “was a remarkable performance, an exercise in guile, nerve, endurance and superior athleticism.”
Ray Charles Leonard was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, on May 17,1956. He is named not after a boxer but after jazz great Ray Charles, because his mother wanted him to be a singer. The fifth of seven children, Leonard grew up in Palmer Park, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Palmer Park is hardly a ghetto, but it is not a wealthy community by any means.Sports Illustrated correspondent Rick Reilly called the area “a poor, mixed neighborhood with more than enough trouble to go around.”
Somehow the shy Ray Leonard was able to avoid the trouble. He sang with his sisters in a church choir and behaved himself in school. In a Washington Post interview, Leonard’s father called the fighter “a funny sort of kid” who “always hung back.” He continued: “It
At a Glance…
Born May 17, 1956, in Wilmington, NC; son ofCiceroand Getha Leonard; married Juanita Wilkinson January 19, 1980 (divorced, 1991); married Bernadette Robi (a model), August 20, 1993; children: (first marriage) Ray Jr., Jarre!. £Education: Graduated from high school in Palmer Park, MD.
Amateurboxer, 1969-76; professional boxer, 1976-91. Became World Boxing Council (WBQ welterweight champion, 1979; won juniormiddleweight championship, 1981 ; became undisputed welterweight champion, 1981 ; in retirement, 1982-84; retired again after one fight, 1984-86; became middleweightchampion, 1987; became WBC super middleweight champion and light heavyweight champion, 1988; retired in 1991. Boxingcommentator and analystfortelevision broadcasts; star of exercisevideo Boxout, 1993. professional boxer, onefight with HectorCamacho, March 1, 1997, retired again.
Selected awards: Gold medals at Pan American games, 1975,andSummerOlympicGames, 1976; inducted into the boxing Hall of Fame, June 15,1997.
Addresses: Agent— International Creative Management, 8899 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA.
used to worry me. All my other boys were always into something, but Ray ...not until boxing.”
An Olympic Gold Medal
Leonard discovered boxing when he was 14, and he threw all his energy into it. He was tutored by two volunteer boxing coaches, Dave Jacobs and Janks Morton, both of whom worked out of the Oakcrest Community Center in Palmer Park. Jacobs and Morton knew they had a potential contender in Leonard, so they demanded good discipline outside the ring as well as in it. Sure enough, Leonard compiled a 145-5 record as an amateur and won gold medals at the 1975 Pan American games and the 1976 Summer Olympics. The handsome light-welterweight gained a degree of instant celebrity as an American medalist. His post-fight interviews, Reilly wrote, “delighted the nation.”
When Leonard won the gold in Montreal, he stunned viewers by announcing his retirement from boxing. “This is my last fight,” he said after his difficult decision win over Andres Aldama of Cuba. “My decision is final. My journey is ended, my dream fulfilled.” Leonard planned to return home to study at the University of Maryland, but he was also counting on some lucrative product endorsements that never materialized. The press revealed that he had fathered a son out of wedlock (he eventually married the child’s mother, Juanita Wilkinson), and advertisers balked at the negative publicity. At the same time, both of Leonard’s parents fell seriously ill. Feeling that he had to help out with the family burdens, Leonard decided to become a professional boxer.
Rather than turn his career over to a boxing promoter, however, Leonard placed his affairs in the hands of attorney Mike Trainer who, with the help of several investors, incorporated Leonard and signed all the shares in the enterprise over to the fighter himself. Trainer also signed Leonard to nonexclusive television contracts and brought in Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali’s former trainer, to work with the young boxer. Every move Trainer made was designed to promote Leonard’s best interests, and while boxing’s regular promoters snarled, Leonard used his post-Olympics fame to great advantage. Calling himself “Sugar Ray” after the great Sugar Ray Robinson, Leonard began to compile a record of wins, mostly by technical knockout, over carefully chosen opponents who could challenge but not overmatch him.
Championships Intermingle with Retirements
Leonard’s ascent through the ranks hardly smooth sailing, despite the advance publicity he could count on. He often suffered severe pain in his hands for days after a fight, and Dundee’s training regimen was fierce and unrelenting. By 1979-just two years after turning pro--Leonard challenged Wilfredo Benitez for the World Boxing Council’s welterweight championship. It was the first welterweight fight in history to pay its participants more than a million dollars apiece, Leonard won, earning a technical knockout over Benitez in the fifteenth round. Leonard began to defend his crown. His second title defense brought him into the ring with Roberto Duran, a Panamanian brawler with far more stamina than finesse. Leonard lost his first match with Duran, suffering a brutal beating in a toe-to-toe pun-chout that perfectly suited Duran’s style of fighting.
Leonard’s rematch with Duran, held in New Orleans on November 26, 1980, is still known as the “no mas” fight. The match revealed a more canny Leonard, one who could weave, feint, and clearly outbox Duran. Realizing he was being humiliated in the ring, Duran quit fighting in the eighth round, gasping “no mas, no mas ”(no more) and claiming he had stomach pains. The outing mended Leonard’s reputation and added to his reputation for intelligent boxing. He went on to win a 14th round TKO victory over then-undefeated Thomas Hearns to unify the welterweight title. After that, Ray Leonard’s troubles began.
During a training bout in 1982, Leonard felt a sharp pain in his left eye. He had suffered a detached retina, a serious and potentially blinding injury. Surgery repaired the damage, but the doctors warned Leonard that fighting could aggravate the condition. Leonard decided to retire. “There isn’t enough money in the world for me to risk my eyesight,” he told Sports Illustrated at the time. “You can’t put a price tag on that.” Leonard remained in the limelight by serving as a color commentator at major boxing matches on the Home Box Office cable network, and he finally got the product endorsements he had sought years before. Inevitably his popularity eroded, though, and against the wishes of his wife he decided to make a comeback.
Leonard was haunted by one overriding ambitionto meet Marvin Hagler in the ring. Hagler, a boxer several years Leonard’s senior, had been considered almost invincible since he won the middleweight hampionship in 1980. He served as a silent indictment of Leonard’s premature retirement, or so Ray Leonard thought. In 1984 Leonard met unranked Kevin Howard after six weeks of lackluster training, hoping the match would warm him up for Hagler. Howard surprised everyone-especially his opponent-by knocking Leonard to the canvas in the fourth round. Leonard eventually won the fight in the ninth on a TKO, but the match revealed his many deficiencies. He quickly re-retired that same night. This time the retirement lasted just over two years.
Only in the early 1990s was it revealed that Leonard had been abusing alcohol and cocaine during this period. Depressed over the premature end to his career, he turned to drugs and drink for solace. “I didn’t want anyone to tell me my career had to end,” he said at a press conference in 1991, as printed in the Long Beach Press Telegram.”I used [drugs and alcohol] when I felt bad, I used it when I missed not competing at that level. It was a crutch, something that enabled me to forget.” Leonard denied ever being addicted to cocaine and claimed that he quit using it when he began to contemplate yet another comeback. He did not take part in any anti-drug campaigns until he had been free of the substance for several years.
Another Thrilling Comeback
In the autumn of 1986, Leonard returned to serious training, challenged Marvin Hagler to a match, and began boasting that he could defeat one of the most savage and resourceful champions in middleweight history. Leonard and Hagler squared off in the spring of 1987. “By all logic,” Nack wrote, “in the face of all history, Leonard should never have been in that ring in the first place. Except for one sad, brief encounter with an unknown fighter in May 1984, he had not fought in five years and 50 days. And yet here he was, facing one of the most remorseless, murderous punchers in the ...middleweight division, without a single tune-up to hone his boxing skills. What he was trying to do was unprecedented in the history of this consuming sport.”
Amazingly, Leonard won the 12-round fight, deftly avoiding the punches of an aging Hagler. Nack declared that Leonard, the underdog, scored an “upset of upsets,” fought “magnificently, “and displayed “great courage and resolve.” After the Hagler match, Leonard decided to improve his physique even further. He added bulk and muscle, worked on his stamina, and strengthened his hands by punching the big bag. On November 7, 1988 he added two more WBC titles to his list by defeating then-super middleweight and light heavyweight champion Donny Lalonde, for the fourth and fifth championship titles he would earn in his career. Then, to the delight of promoters and boxing fans, he signed for a rematch with Thomas Hearns.
The Leonard-Hearns fight in June of 1989 was preceded by all the usual publicity, with each boxer predicting his own victory. At one press conference, Hearns suggested that Leonard had used steroids to enhance his musculature. Leonard took the jibe in stride at the press conference, but afterwards he vehemently denied the suggestion, offering the counter opinion that Hearns had the proverbial “glass jaw.” Leonard told the Washington Post: ”I’m still ascending, still gaining altitude. I still have the desire, the self-discipline, the self-motivation.” Determined though he may have been, Leonard was only able to fight Hearns to a draw-and Hearns knocked him down twice. The match remains one of the most controversial of either fighter’s careers.
Leonard took a year off after his meeting with Hearns to contemplate his future. With a 36-1-1 record, including 25 knockouts-and a fortune estimated at nearly $100 million-the specter of retirement began to loom again. Instead Leonard decided to fight the WBC junior middleweight champion Terry Norris, a man 11 years his junior. “I knew I had to fight again, “Leonard told Sports Illustrated.”I have to know that I’ve taken my talent as far as it can go. I want to be the guy who says, ’Leonard, it’s time to quit.’ I don’t want anybody else telling me that. It’s my life, my career, my decision.”
A Farewell to Boxing
Norris defeated Leonard soundly in a 12-round fight on February 9, 1991. Immediately following the match Leonard announced his retirement for the third time. “I had a great career,” he told Sports Illustrated.”It took this fight to show me it is no longer my time. I am not of the ’90s. I feel very good. I enjoyed my career tremendously. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Leonard indeed turned a page in 1991 and has since embarked on other enterprises. In 1993 he signed with International Creative Management, a Los Angeles-based talent agency, with the hopes of having an acting career. He also released an exercise video, Boxout, that incorporated some of his training techniques from his boxing days. His first marriage having ended in divorce, Leonard married model Bernadette Robi in August of 1993. The newlyweds bought a house in the exclusive Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles-the residence boasts six bedrooms, a solarium, a game room, and exercise room, a sauna, a wine cellar, a tennis court, a swimming pool with a bath house, a fountain and an orchid greenhouse.
Despite fabulous wealth and instant recognition, the legacies of Leonard’s boxing career, in 1993 he told Ebony: ”I will always miss the ring. I truly, truly love boxing. I love beating the odds. There is nothing that compares to that feeling you get from winning. It takes the body, the mind, the heart, the inner spirit. And I was able to overcome some incredible odds. “He concluded: “Some people look down on boxing as barbaric, but it’s a wonderful sport. It has enabled me to have an incredible life, not just materialistically, but because I’ve been exposed to so much and I’ve been able to give back. The gratitude I get back from helping people, kids in particular, is worth more than everything I’ve done. I’m truly happy.”
But not happy enough, evidently, to resist the siren song of a comeback once again. On March 1, 1997, Leonard fought Hector “Macho” Camacho in Atlantic City, losing in the fifth round, the first knockout of his career. Despite the loss, he still managed to earn $4 million, a feat that prompted the Newark Star-Ledger to call Leonard’s performance a “con job,” bluntly stating that “Leonard could not fight...Camacho had a hollow shell in front of him.”
True to form, Sugar Ray “retired” while still in the ring: “I’m sure my career is definitely over ...,” quoted CBS Sportsline USA,” ...I’m through.” Just as predictable, he threw his hat back into the ring weeks later, telling ESPN’s “Up Close” that “Yes, I would fight again. I want to, I’m going to__[W]ill I go back and try to fight a champion right away? No, I’m gonna take it easy and go through a series of tuneups to get myself back where I was two months ago.” Leonard was inducted into the boxing Hall of Fame on June 15, 1997.
Ebony, November 1993, p. 26-30.
Long Beach Press-Telegram, March 31, 1991, p. 1C.
People, September 6, 1993, p. 88-89.
Sports Illustrated, September 8, 1986; March 30, 1987; April 13, 1987; April 20, 1987; November 21,1988; December 4, 1989, p. 80-86; December 18, 1989, p 24-25; February 18, 1991, p. 22-25; September 19, 1994, p. 128-29.
Star-Ledger, March 3, 1997.
Washington Post, August 26, 1977; May 28, 1989; May 29, 1989; June 11, 1989.
Associated Press. “Leonard, King to Enter in Boxing Hall of Fame.” Caller-Times Interactive: Sports, January 15, 1997.
CBS SportsLine USA, Inc. online service, “Sugar Ray Leonard Unretires Again, accessed 1997.
—Mark Kram and Amy Loerch Strumolo
Leonard, Sugar Ray
Sugar Ray Leonard
Olympic gold medallist Sugar Ray Leonard generated broad interest in the sport of boxing during the 1970s and into the 1980s. In 1981 he beat Thomas Hearns for the unification of the WBC and WBA world welterweight titles, winning a prize purse of more than $10 million. It was an unprecedented sum for a welter-weight bout, in a sport where the spoils of fame rested traditionally with heavyweight fighters, to the exclusion of most others.
Sugar Ray Leonard was born Ray Charles Leonard in Wilmington, North Carolina, on May 17, 1956. The fifth of seven children of Cicero and Getha Leonard, he was named for singer Ray Charles. In Wilmington, Leonard's father worked in a soda pop plant, and his mother was a nursing assistant. When Leonard was four the family
moved to Washington, D.C., where they rented an apartment on Avenue L. Seven years later they moved to Seat Pleasant, Maryland, and in 1968 Leonard's parents purchased a home on Barlowe Road in nearby Palmer Park. Ray, the youngest of the five Leonard boys, was also the least aggressive. He seemed shy by nature, a fact that was perhaps aggravated by the family's frequent moves during his formative years.
When in 1970 the community of Palmer Park built a youth recreation center, Leonard frequented the new facility after school. There, under the guidance of a volunteer coach, David Jacobs, Leonard and other neighborhood boys learned the fine points of pugilism (boxing). Although the program lacked funding, Jacobs marked off an imaginary boxing ring with colored tape in the middle of the gymnasium at the recreation center. He assembled his would-be amateur boxing squad at five a.m. daily for a conditioning run, and worked with the boys in the imaginary boxing ring after school.
Leonard overall had little interest in athletics or in any other pursuit prior to joining Jacobs's boxing group. Aside from a brief foray with the wrestling squad at his junior high school, he had participated minimally in cross-country and in track and field. By the time his voice dropped at age fourteen, Leonard had abandoned even his participation in the church choir. To the surprise of many who knew the shy boy, he had a natural flair for boxing. After becoming involved with Jacobs, Leonard focused squarely on boxing to the exclusion of all else during his four years at Parkdale High School in Palmer Park.
With guidance from Jacobs, Leonard participated in amateur boxing matches sponsored by the U.S. Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). He gained twenty-five pounds during his first year of competition. After winning a bout against the top amateur boxer in his region, Leonard entered competition at the national level, winning the Golden Gloves lightweight title at age sixteen in 1972. He appeared in the AAU national quarterfinals that year, and competed internationally with that group.
|1956||Born May 17 in Wilmington, North Carolina|
|1960||Moves with family to District of Columbia|
|1967||Moves with family to Seat Pleasant, Maryland|
|1968||Moves with family to Palmer Park, Maryland|
|1970||Begins boxing after school at Palmer Park Recreation Center|
|1971||Enters national competition with AAU|
|1972||Wins Golden Gloves lightweight championship; joins AAU International team|
|1973||Turns down $5,000 to fight professionally; fathers a son, Ray Jr., on November 22|
|1977||Makes professional boxing debut against Luis "the Bull" Vega on February 5|
|1979||Takes WBC welterweight title from Wifredo Benitez on November 30, by TKO in the fifteenth round|
|1980||Marries Juanita Wilkinson on January 19; loses WBC welterweight title to Roberto Duran on June 20; regains WBC welterweight title in a rematch on November 25, when Duran cedes the fight in the eighth round|
|1981||Takes WBA junior middleweight title from Ajub Kalube on June 21 by TKO in the ninth round; unifies the welterweight belts by defeating Thomas Hearns on September 16 by TKO in the fourteenth round|
|1982||Retires after suffering a detached retina|
|1987||Takes the middleweight title from Marvin Hagler by TKO in the ninth round|
|1988||Takes the WBC super middleweight and light heavyweight titles from Donny Lalonde in November|
|1989||Rematch with Hearns ends in a draw|
|1991||Loses to Terry Norris in a title bout for the junior middleweight championship on February 9; retires with record of 36-2-1 and 25 KOs|
|1993||Marries Bernadette Robi on August 20|
|1997||Loses to Hector "Macho" Camacho by TKO in the fifth round; is inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame on June 15|
|2001||Establishes his own promotions firm, Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing, Inc.|
In 1973 a boxing promoter noticed Leonard's natural talent and offered him $5,000 to fight in a commercial bout. Leonard dismissed the offer because he wanted to qualify for the 1976 Olympics—and qualify he did. Leonard earned a spot on the 1976 U.S. team, which included future heavyweight champions Michael Spinks and his brother Leon.
After spring training in Burlington, Vermont, the team headed for the Olympic Village in Montreal, Quebec, where Leonard performed superbly in the three-round Olympic bouts. He won his first match against Ulf Carlson of Sweden and a second match against left-hander Valery Limasov of the former Soviet Union. After taking England's Clinton McKenzie in the third match, Leonard entered the quarterfinals where he beat Ulrich Beyer of Germany.
Leonard up to that point in his amateur career had lost only five fights, among them a contested bout in 1974 against Kazimier Szczerba of Poland. In a subtle irony, Leonard faced Szczerba in the Olympic semifinals and defeated the Pole with a resounding knockout.
It was a fine day for Leonard and the United States when in the Olympic finals Leonard brought the Cuban fighter Andres Aldama to his knees with a left hook to the chin. Twice during the final bout, the referee had required Aldama to take a standing eight-count to prove that he was able to continue the fight. Although Aldama persisted in the match, Leonard emerged the victor and won the gold medal for the United States. It was Leonard's one hundred and forty-fifth victory as an amateur boxer.
Even as he basked in the glory of the moment, Leonard was quick to assure interviewers that he would never turn to boxing as a profession. He returned home to the United States, bent on majoring in communications in college. With his handsome features and photogenic smile, it was Leonard's intention to become a television sports journalist. Upon his return to the United States, however, financial concerns soon took precedence over his educational plans, causing him to rethink his decision about professional boxing. Both of his parents had became seriously ill around the time of the Olympics. What was more, his high school sweetheart, Juanita Wilkinson, filed a paternity suit against him, for money to support their child, Ray Jr., born on November 22, 1973.
With assistance from a group of supporters, Leonard secured front money totaling approximately $24,000 in loans and used the funds to assemble a professional boxing team. To lead the entourage he hired Muhammad Ali 's popular cornerman, Angelo Dundee, as a trainer and ringside coach. Leonard's long-time coach and friend, David Jacobs remained with Leonard and his team, to serve as head coach for the young champion.
Leonard's professional debut, against Luis "the Bull" Vega of Pennsylvania, was a six-round bout at the Baltimore Civic Center in February of 1977. A victory for Leonard, the bout netted him enough money to repay his start-up loans. Following his next match in April—also a victory—against Willie Rodriguez, Leonard signed a lucrative contract giving ABC Sports the rights to televise future fights. There followed a technical knockout (TKO) of Vinnie De Barros on June 19 in Hartford, Connecticut, and a series of bouts in such small East Coast venues as Springfield, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine. Within a year of his debut, Leonard was regularly scheduled for ten-round bouts with his opponents. He went on to defeat Javier Muniz on March 19, 1978, by a knockout (KO), just two minutes and forty-five seconds into the fight. The next month in Landover, Maryland, on April 13 he knocked out Bobby Haymon in three. One month later in Utica, New York, he toppled Randy Milton in eight.
Awards and Accomplishments
|Leonard retired in 1991 with a career record of 36-2-1.|
|1975||Gold medal at the Pan American Games|
|1976||Gold medal at the Montreal Olympics|
|1979||Defeated Wifredo Benitez for the World Boxing Council welterweight championship; named fighter of the year by Ring magazine|
|1980||Reclaimed World Boxing Council welterweight title|
|1981||Defeated Ajub Kalube for the WBA junior middleweight title; unified the welterweight belts by defeating WBA champion Thomas Hearns; named sportsman of the year by Sports Illustrated; named fighter of the year by Ring magazine; named Athlete of the Year by ABC's Wide World of Sports; hailed for the fight of the year by Ring magazine|
|1987||Defeated Marvin Hagler for the middleweight championship; hailed for the fight of the year by Ring magazine|
|1988||Defeated Donny Lalonde for the WBC super middleweight and light heavyweight championships|
'Everything I Did Worked'
"I went against history, and now they'll have to rewrite the books. …Someone said before the fight, 'Two things will not happen this year: Oliver North will not be back in the White House, and Sugar Ray Leonard will not beat Marvin Hagler.' I think they better check the White House." —Sugar Ray Leonard
… Leonard had beaten Marvelous Marvin Hagler to pull off the most extraordinary comeback in recent sports history….
What Leonard had passed through was so physically and emotionally draining that it left him groping to fathom what he had done. What he had done … was emerge out of a virtual five-year retirement and lift the title from Hagler, a man who had held it for nearly seven years, since Sept. 27, 1980, and through 12 defenses.
Source: Nack, William. Sports Illustrated, (April 20, 1987): 50.
Despite the limited audience for welterweight boxing, Leonard's appeal grew. ABC renewed his contract, and the fighter did not disappoint. In March 1979 he defeated Daniel Gonzalez with a KO after two minutes and three seconds. In April in Las Vegas, Leonard won a decision against Adolfo Viruet. In another decision on May 20 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Leonard beat Marcos Geraldo. Leonard finished off Pete Ranzany and Tony Chiaverini with TKOs and in September downed Andy Price in the first round of their bout.
When Leonard went against world welterweight champion Wilfredo Benitez on November 30, 1979, the purse—which guaranteed each fighter more than $1 million—was the first seven-figure purse in welterweight history. The fight went only six seconds shy of the full 15 rounds before the referee stopped the fight. In the end Leonard, at age twenty-three, won the World Boxing Council (WBC) welterweight championship. Both fighters earned their pay that day, and spectators got their money's worth on the cost of admission.
Amid the lingering glow of Leonard's championship win, he and Wilkinson were married on January 19, 1980, in Landover, Maryland. It was a marriage that was long overdue—their courtship had lasted since high school, and their son, Ray Jr., was by then seven years old and served as a ring bearer for his parents.
Because of the existence of two prominent worldwide boxing organizations, a subsequent bout between Leonard and another world welterweight champion, Pipino Cuevo, was anticipated. Cuevo at that time was the sanctioned champion of the World Boxing Association (WBA), and representatives for the two fighters went into negotiations almost immediately. As talks convened to schedule a two-way championship fight, WBA officials inexplicably refused to sanction the bout what-soever—even the notion of a non-title bout between the two title holders was diffused, for reasons never stated.
When negotiations for the Cuevo fight stalled, an interim bout was scheduled, pitting Leonard against Davey "Boy" Green of Britain. The fight nearly ended in tragedy when Leonard in the fourth round dealt a KO punch that dropped Green onto the mat where he remained motionless for many seconds. Green regained consciousness after some minutes and left the ring with assistance.
As an alternative to the Cuevo fight, a contest was set for June 20, 1980, in Montreal, between Leonard and a prominent Panamanian fighter, Roberto Duran. Duran's reputation as a vicious street fighter was well founded. He had boxed in amateur matches since the age of ten and had entered professional competition at age seventeen. Originally classified as a lightweight, Duran lacked the self-discipline to maintain the weight requirement and was forced to fight against men much larger than him in stature. Duran was notorious for his wild, aggressive, and animal-like boxing style by which he cornered his opponents into serious jeopardy, forcing them against the ropes with no chance for escape.
In preparation for the bout with Duran, Leonard went into training at his personal facility in New Carrolton, Maryland. Bookmakers set odds at 9-5 in favor of Leonard, but fate was to side with the underdog. Duran pummeled Leonard, winning the fight by a unanimous decision and taking the world welterweight title in the process. The loss was the first of Leonard's professional career.
The Leonard camp pressed Duran representatives for a rematch, and a second meeting was set for the New Orleans Superdome on November 25. Bookmakers were more cautious for the second encounter, laying odds at 3-2, albeit still in Leonard's favor.
Leonard appeared for the rematch dressed in black trunks and shoes, in a stark and pointed contrast from the signature white outfits that he habitually wore. As the match got underway, Leonard assumed a menacing posture. It was a rare attitude for Leonard—he mimicked Duran's own aggressive boxing style and used it against him, besting Duran at his own game. In a surprise conclusion, Duran threw in the towel. Ceding the fight in the eighth round, he begged, "No more," and Leonard was proclaimed welterweight champion for the second time.
Duran returned to his native Panama in disgrace, with no explanation for his apparent cowardice. The fight was Duran's final appearance in the ring. He was ordered by the WBC to pay a $7,500 fine for failing to perform in compliance with council standards. No further explanation was ever given for the curious fight.
Where Is He Now?
Leonard's later attempts to recapture the titles were vainglorious but served as a testament to his love of the sport and to his indefatigable spirit. In 1989, a rematch with Hearns ended in a draw. Two years later, in February 1991 at age thirty-five, Leonard challenged WBC junior middleweight champion Terry Norris to a title bout. After losing to Norris, Leonard announced his retirement for the third time.
In Atlantic City on March 1, 1997, lured by the agony of defeat, Leonard endured a final, ill-fated comeback. In a title challenge bout, against Hector "Macho" Camacho for the middleweight championship of the International Boxing Council (IBC, formerly WBC), Leonard was bested by TKO in the fifth round of the contest.
Leonard was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame on June 15, 1997. In 2001 he embarked on a venture as a television-based impresario, with the establishment of Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing, Incorporated.
Leonard's personal life upended in 1990 when his marriage to Wilkinson ended in divorce after ten years and two children. At that time he moved to a house in Pacific Palisades. On August 20, 1993, he married model Bernadette Robi.
Growing and Gaining
Still growing taller, at age twenty-five Leonard considered a move into the junior middleweight class, where the weight limits ranged over 147 pounds. After a bout with Harry Bonds of Denver in Syracuse, New York, in March 1981 Leonard went against Ajub Kalube, who at 154 pounds was the WBA junior middleweight champion. On June 21 Kalube lost his title to Leonard by a TKO in the ninth round at the Houston Astrodome.
Leonard's next fight was a two-way title bout against Thomas Hearns. The contenders—Leonard and Hearns—were long-time rivals, with Hearns holding claim to the WBA welterweight title and Leonard wearing the WBC belt. Leonard was rated the favorite, with 8-5 odds when the contract was signed. At age twenty-two, however, Hearns was three inches taller and three years younger than the 5-foot-10-inch Leonard. By fight night, Hearns went into the arena as a 7-5 favorite.
Before a capacity crowd of 25,000 at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, on September 16, 1981, the two boxers battled through thirteen full rounds. Leonard went into the fight with one sore eye, only to have it throttled by Hearns until it was swollen shut. Miraculously, Leonard summoned an untapped reserve in the final rounds. Fourteen seconds into the fourteenth round, he wore down Hearns and won the fight in a TKO. In accomplishing the defeat, Leonard successfully unified the welterweight championship belts and earned a prize purse of more than $10 million. Indeed, the loser's share alone topped more than $5 million, which combined with Leonard's take totaled the richest purse in prize-fight history at that time.
Retirement and Return
In 1982 Leonard was diagnosed with a detached retina and underwent surgery to repair the injury. He announced his retirement from boxing at that time, turning his attention to broadcast journalism. After some years as a commentator for the Home Box Office cable network, he returned to the ring with aspirations of fighting Marvin Hagler for the middleweight championship.
A much-publicized contest came about in 1987, when Leonard issued a challenge to Hagler, whose hold on the middleweight title was by then entering its seventh year—since September 27, 1980. Twelve times Hagler had fought in defense of his title, and twelve times he had won. With the challenge accepted, Leonard returned to the ring in April 1987 at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, to fight what would be the fight of the year, according to Ring magazine.
Leonard took the middleweight title from the aging Hagler by TKO in the ninth round and used the surge of momentum to issue another challenge. He returned to training and defeated double-title holder Donny Lalonde, for the WBC super middleweight and light heavyweight championships in November 1988. After the victory Leonard retired holding both world titles.
Address: c/o IMG New York, 825 7th Avenue, New York, NY 10019. Fax: (310) 471-1410. Phone: (310) 471-3100. Email: [email protected] Online: sugar-rayleonard.com.
Goldstein, Alan. Fistful of Sugar: The Sugar Ray Leonard Story. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1981.
Haskins, James. Sugar Ray Leonard. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1982.
Markoe, Arnold, and Kenneth T. Jackson. Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives: Sports Figures. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2002.
Sports Illustrated (April 20, 1987): 50.
Sketch by G. Cooksey
Leonard, Sugar Ray
Sugar Ray Leonard
American boxer Sugar Ray Leonard (born 1956) earned an unprecedented six world championship titles in five weight classes during a twenty-year professional career. An Olympic gold medalist while an amateur, Leonard fought in some of the most memorable professional matches in boxing history.
From Singing to Boxing
The future boxing champ was born Ray Charles Leonard on May 17, 1956, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. His parents, Getha and Cicero Leonard, had seven children. Leonard grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Palmer, Maryland.
His mother named him after the famous singer Ray Charles because she wanted him to become a singer. And he did have vocal talent: he sang in church with his two sisters, and congregants told Getha Leonard that her son sounded like rhythm-and-blues artist Sam Cooke.
By the time Leonard reached his early teens, his interests turned to boxing. During this period, Leonard, a quiet youngster, was living in Palmer, a racially mixed, lower-middle-class suburb of Baltimore. Two local volunteer boxing coaches recognized his natural talents and began training him. As a fighter, Leonard immediately demonstrated skill and finesse in the ring. Later, his smooth approach would contrast with that of the brawlers and sluggers he battled and surpass that of the other stylists he faced. Eventually, he would adopt the same "Sugar" nickname used by legendary boxer Ray Robinson, who is regarded by many as the most skillful technical fighter of all time.
Won Olympic Gold Medal
Only fourteen years old, Leonard entered the amateur boxing ranks and put together an outstanding record, winning 145 of 150 fights. In six years, he won two National Golden Glove championships (1973, 1974), two Amateur Athletic Union championships (1974, 1975), and a gold medal at the 1975 Pan American Games.
Leonard crowned the amateur phase of his career by winning a gold medal in the light welterweight class in the 1976 Olympic games in Montreal. It was a star-making turn. Leonard came into the final match as an underdog facing Cuban knockout specialist Andres Aldama. Even before the match began, Leonard won the hearts of the live crowd and a national television audience by displaying a picture of his son on the side of his boot. During the fight, Leonard, in dramatic fashion, overcame intense pain in both his hands to score a unanimous 5-0 decision.
After winning the gold medal, Leonard announced his intentions to retire from boxing, claiming he had fulfilled his dream. However, it turned out to be the first of several premature retirements. Initially, Leonard wanted to make money from commercial endorsements and then attend Harvard to become a lawyer. But the plan collapsed when it was revealed that Juanita Wilkinson, the mother of his illegitimate son, had filed a paternity suit in an effort to get food stamps. It was a public relations disaster that killed any hopes for endorsement contracts. In addition, family bills were mounting due to his father's illness, so the 20-year-old Leonard, lured by a $500,000 offer from boxing promoters, decided to turn professional. Immediately aligning himself with the best people, he hired Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali's former trainer, to be his boxing manager and attorney Mike Trainer to be his business manager.
In his first fight, televised live on February 5, 1977, Leonard defeated Luis Vega, a tough Puerto Rican boxer, in a six-round decision. It was the first of 25 straight victories for Leonard, who would go on to win a record-breaking six world titles in five weight classes in a career that featured some of the best fights in the history of sports: memorable matches against Wilfred Benetiz, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, and Marvin Hagler.
Throughout his career, Leonard continually confounded doubters who did not think he could beat the likes of Duran, Hearns, or Hagler. He possessed speed, power, and skill, and he was also smart. He knew how to analyze opponents and then develop a strategy to defeat them. Though not a slugger, he was a dangerous boxing artist with fast hands. His quickness enabled him to deliver left hooks, jabs, uppercuts, and crosses with deadly accuracy. His skills coupled with his vibrant personality made him a bright star at a time when the sport needed a new one. The era of Muhammad Ali was coming to an end.
Comparisons to Ali were inevitable and applicable. Famed sportscaster Howard Cosell even called Leonard the "new Muhammad Ali." Like Ali before him, Leonard divided boxing fans into two camps: those who loved him and those that felt he was arrogant. (To some, taking the nickname of "Sugar Ray" seemed the height of hubris.) His followers claimed that Leonard's perceived arrogance was merely confidence because, like Ali before him, Leonard made good on his boasts. He fought in what has been deemed the greatest era in the history of boxing's welter-weight division and emerged as the best.
Won First Boxing Title
Leonard's two-year unbeaten streak of 25 matches (15 by knockout) earned him a title shot against reigning World Boxing Council (WBC) welterweight champion Wilfredo Benitez, who was also undefeated as a pro. On November 30, 1979, at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, Leonard scored a 15-round technical knockout (TKO) with only six seconds left in the fight. It was an impressive win. Benitez, a future boxing Hall of Famer, was one of the great defensive fighters of all time. The following year, Leonard married Wilkinson, the mother of his son.
Roberto Duran's "No Mas"
Leonard held the title less than seven months. He lost the belt in his second title defense, on June 20, 1980, when he went up against the tough Panamanian Roberto Duran in the first of their three classic matches. In front of a large crowd at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, Duran scored a close but unanimous decision, handing Leonard the first loss of his professional career.
The fight, probably the most anticipated non-heavyweight bout in the history of the sport up to that time, was billed as "The Brawl in Montreal," as the fighters disliked each other intensely. Leading up to the match, Duran wickedly taunted Leonard, and boxing observers believed Duran's mental tactics greatly influenced the fight's outcome. Leonard surprised onlookers by abandoning his usually smooth approach and adopting Duran's rough style. The fighters went "toe to toe" in a slugfest, and in the second round Duran stunned Leonard with a left hook that almost dropped the champion. Afterward, the battle went back and forth over the course of 13 rounds, but Duran fought better. Leonard's heroic image was tarnished and his large ego bruised.
"The fight in Montreal was not a boxing match," Leonard later recalled in an interview for ESPN. "It was a street brawl. I didn't utilize my skills there. I was determined to stand my ground and fight Duran his way. I don't like Duran's way. He walks around like he owns the world."
Five months later, Leonard got his revenge in one of the most famous and strangest boxing matches ever fought. In a rematch held November 25, 1980, in the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana—an event even more anticipated than their first battle—Leonard came back determined to fight his own fight. The plan worked. Through the first six rounds, Leonard outboxed the increasingly frustrated Duran. By the seventh round, Leonard was taunting and goading his ineffective opponent. Finally, with 17 seconds to go in the eighth round, Duran turned away from Leonard, walked back to his corner, threw up his hands, and told the referee "no mas" ("no more"). Referee Octavio Meyran, disbelieving, told Duran to continue, but Duran only repeated "no mas, no mas." Duran had given up, and that phrase would be forever linked to his otherwise remarkable boxing career. "I was just as befuddled as everyone else and shocked," Leonard recalled in an interview with ABC's "Wide World of Sports" for the show's fortieth anniversary. "But I thought it was a trick. I thought Duran was trying to get me closer. You know, trying to walk away and say, 'Ah, no,' then punch me. In fact the referee had no idea what was going on. And then Duran said, 'No mas, no mas,' and then the referee ended the fight so I walked away. People remember Duran, not because of his great fights with Hagler, Davey Moore, me, or Benitez. They remember, 'No mas, no mas.'" Technically, the fight was scored a knockout, and Leonard was champion once again.
Second Title, Second Retirement
Leonard retained his title with a tenth-round knockout of Larry Bonds. Then, in June 1981, he moved up to the light-middleweight class and scored a ninth-round knockout over World Boxing Association (WBA) title holder Ayub Kalule in Houston. To celebrate winning his second boxing title, Leonard performed a back flip in the ring.
Leonard immediately relinquished the WBA title and, on September 16, 1981, in Las Vegas, he returned to the welterweight division for a title unification match with WBA champion Thomas Hearns, a man who was both his friend and archrival. The match turned out to be a war, a true boxing classic. Both fighters took turns playing the roles of slugger and technical boxer. Hearns, nicknamed the "Hit Man," was a talented and powerful fighter, and he was beating Leonard through twelve brutal rounds. However, Leonard battled back in the thirteenth and, with one eye all but swelled completely shut, he knocked Hearns to the floor twice. Finally, Leonard won the fight in the fourteenth round by a TKO when the referee was forced to stop the fight as Leonard pounded Hearns on the ropes. With the titles now unified, Leonard became the undisputed world welter-weight champion.
Leonard successfully defended the title twice. In the meantime, a highly talent fighter had risen to the top of the middleweight ranks. "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler, as he was billed, possessed excellent technical skills, a powerful punch, and a rather surly disposition. It seemed inevitable that Leonard and Hagler would meet. However, before Leonard's next scheduled title defense, doctors discovered that he had a detached retina. Leonard underwent surgery in May 1982 and, six months later, he announced that he was retiring from the ring. This disappointed boxing fans who had eagerly awaited a match-up with Hagler. But Leonard did not want to risk possible blindness in his surgically treated eye.
However, like his previous retirement, Leonard's announcement proved premature. After being inactive for 27 months, he returned to the ring in May 1984 and scored a ninth-round TKO over Kevin Howard. Despite the outcome, Leonard was less than impressive as Howard, a journeyman fighter, knocked him to the canvas for the first time in his career. After the match, Leonard announced yet again that he was retiring.
During his periods of inactivity, Leonard took a job as a boxing commentator with the HBO cable TV network and endorsed products. He also started the short-lived Sugar Ray Leonard television network from Maryland, which featured 24-hour boxing news, interviews, and fights.
Returned to Face Hagler
In 1986, the boxing world learned that Leonard was training again and considering a match with Hagler. At last the long-awaited fight was scheduled for April 6, 1987. Many ring observers believed that the up-and-coming Hagler, a ruthless fighter, would easily handle Leonard, who had not fought in three years. However, Leonard scored what Ring magazine called the "Upset of the Decade" when he beat Hagler on points. The outcome was controversial, as the decision was split among the judges. Nevertheless, Leonard had won the WBC middleweight crown, his third title. No fighter had ever won on his first try back at a world title after such a long layoff. Leonard earned about $12 million for one night of work. Once again he announced his retirement.
Retiring and returning was becoming a matter of routine, it seemed. One of the reasons Leonard made so many comebacks is that he could not handle retirement very well. "He had to change his whole life to be Sugar Ray Leonard," his first wife Juanita said during an interview with ESPN Classic's "SportsCentury" television series. "And still today, down inside, it's Ray Leonard. But Sugar Ray Leonard won't let him out."
Later, it was learned that during his several retirements in the 1980s, Leonard missed the action so much that he began using cocaine and alcohol as adrenaline substitutes. Leonard admitted he used cocaine from 1984 to 1989. He would later kick both habits, but not before the substance abuse irreparably damaged his marriage. He and Juanita divorced in 1990.
Another Comeback, More Titles
In November 1988 Leonard once again came out of retirement. Now weighing 167 pounds, he faced the hard-punching Don Lalonde. The solidly built Canadian knocked Leonard down early in their match, but Leonard battled back to score a ninth-round knockout that garnered him both Lalonde's WBC light heavyweight title and the vacated WBC super middleweight title. Now with six world titles at five weights classes, Leonard became the most crowned fighter in boxing history.
Leonard successfully defended the super middleweight title twice against two old rivals, though his skills were starting to diminish. In a June 1989 rematch in Las Vegas, Leonard and Hearns battled to a twelve-round draw. Twice, Hearns knocked the champ to the floor, and observers said Leonard was lucky to come away with a draw. On December 7, 1989, Leonard and Duran faced each other for the third and final time. The match was a disappointment. Both fighters were past their prime, and the bout was rather uneventful. Leonard boxed cautiously and kept his distance while Duran had trouble catching up with his elusive foe. Leonard earned the twelve-round decision on points.
After the match Leonard again retired. But two years later, at age 34, he staged another return, this time in Madison Square Garden in New York City. He should have stayed home. For this comeback, he challenged WBC super welterweight champion Terry Norris and lost in a one-sided fight. Norris not only dominated the match, he knocked Leonard down twice.
That appeared to be the end of the road for Leonard, and it had been a marvelous ride. After he turned pro, Leonard won 35 of his first 36 fights, with 25 knockouts. Throughout his career, he had always managed to rise above most of the troubles that have plagued the sport and other fighters. He never found it necessary to sign on with the two controversial promoters who ruled boxing, Don King and Bob Arum. He remained an independent contractor who carved out his own career, keeping himself clean from the sport's ubiquitous corruption. However, he could not avoid the one mistake that has tarnished the careers of many great fighters: He could not resist the lure of "one more fight." In 1997, the year he was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Leonard, 40 years old, tried one more comeback. The results were even worse than before. He fought Hector Camacho, and the "Macho" man embarrassed him by knocking him out in the fifth round.
Leonard finished his career with 36 wins, 3 losses, and 1 draw, and he earned an estimated $100 million in the ring—the most money ever made by a professional boxer up to that point. Despite the downbeat ending to his fighting career, he is still regarded as the best non-heavyweight boxer since his namesake, Sugar Ray Robinson.
Though he remained retired, Leonard kept involved in the sport, working as a promoter. In 2001, at 47, Leonard launched Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing, LLC. As chairman of the board, he provided overall leadership and worked with fighters, promoters, television executives, venues, and boxing commissioners to plan boxing events.
Outside the ring, during various retirements, Leonard also worked as a broadcaster for NBC, ABC, HBO, and ESPN. In addition, he appeared in movies and television shows and served as a spokesperson for companies such as EA Sports, Vartec Telecom, Track Inc., Ford, Carnation, 7-Up, Nabisco, Coca-Cola, and Revlon. In addition to his promotional activities, Leonard presented motivational speeches to many major Fortune 500 companies in the United States and abroad.
He also was involved in community work, serving for many years as the International Chairman of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation's Walk for a Cure. Leonard had four children and lived in Southern California with his second wife, Bernadette.
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Leonard, Sugar Ray
Leonard, Sugar Ray
May 17, 1956
Named after the musician Ray Charles, boxer Ray Charles "Sugar Ray" Leonard was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, and spent his childhood in Palmer Park, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. Leonard took his nickname from "Sugar Ray" Robinson, the former middleweight champion. By the time he was twenty years old, Leonard had completed one of the most successful amateur boxing careers in modern history. During a tour of Moscow in 1974 with the U.S. National Boxing Team, judges awarded the decision to Leonard's Soviet opponent, who then spontaneously turned around, marched across the canvas, and handed the award to Leonard. Leonard's 145–5 amateur record culminated with his winning the light-welterweight gold medal at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. His lightning-quick punches and charismatic style made Leonard an instant television and crowd favorite.
The following year Leonard turned professional. With Janks Morton as coach and Mike Trainor as promoter, Leonard rose rapidly in the professional ranks by defeating such top-ranked fighters as Rafael Rodriguez, Floyd May-weather, Armando Muniz, and Adolfo Viruet. In 1979 Leonard won both the North American Boxing Federation and World Boxing Council's (WBC) welterweight championships by knocking out Pete Ranzany and Wilfred Benitez.
Leonard's two most famous fights as a welterweight were in 1980. In June he lost his WBC crown by decision to Roberto Duran in Montreal. In November he won it back in New Orleans, in what came to be called the "no mas " (no more) fight, a reference to Duran's cryptic announcement to Leonard when he abruptly quit in the middle of the eighth round for no apparent reason. A year later Leonard took on Tommy Hearns, the undefeated welterweight champion of the World Boxing Association, and knocked him out in fourteen rounds, thereby becoming the undisputed welterweight champion. Leonard was named "Sportsman of the Year" by Sports Illustrated in 1981.
After a three-year retirement because of an eye injury sustained in 1984, Leonard returned to the ring in 1987 as a middleweight, dethroning Marvin Hagler as WBC champion in a controversial twelve-round split decision in Las Vegas. The victory over Hagler increased his career earnings to $53 million. In 1988 Leonard knocked out Canadian Don Lalonde, the WBC light heavyweight champion, which earned him both the WBC light-heavyweight and super middleweight titles, making him the first boxer ever to win at least a share of titles in five different weight classes. His thirty-seven professional bouts over fourteen years included thirty-five wins, twenty-five by knockout.
After retiring again in 1991, Leonard worked as a commentator on boxing broadcasts and appeared in several television commercials. He returned to the ring at the age of forty-one in March 1997, but he was pounded by Hector Camacho and retired again following the loss. Leonard was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame that same year.
In 2001, at the age of 47, Leonard launched Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing, LLC. As chairman of the board, he provided overall leadership and worked with fighters, promoters, television executives, venues, and boxing commissioners to plan boxing events. Leonard dissolved the company in 2004.
See also Ali, Muhammad; Boxing; Foreman, George; Frazier, Joe; Tyson, Mike
Porter, David L., ed. Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Basketball and Other Indoor Sports. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1989.
Raz, Tahl. "Sugar Ray Leonard's Toughest Fight." Inc. (June 2003). Available from <http://www.inc.com/magazine/20030601/25524.html>.
"Sportsman of the Year." Sports Illustrated (December 28, 1981): 34–41.
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Updated by publisher 2005