Sugar Ray Leonard
A gregarious, flamboyant technician, Sugar Ray Leonard the former five weight world champion, is possibly one of the greatest ever boxers. Leonard took over the mantle left by Muhammad Ali after his retirement in 1981 and reignited the public’s fascination with boxing, with classic bouts and comebacks that kept fight fans guessing. Speaking about his respect for Ali, he said: “Ali’s belief in himself was something I picked up on, and it’s become my own philosophy.“
He was part of and arguably the best of the ‘fabulous four’ from the 1980’s, which consisted of ‘Marvellous’ Marvin Hagler, Thomas ‘The Hitman’ Hearns and the only man to beat him from the three, Roberto Duran.
A great finisher, Leonard picked fighters apart, working on their weaknesses and exposing any flaw in their technique, whether they were brawlers, boxers or sluggers. Leonard saw his ability to deal with different fighters in a matter of fact way, saying, I fought tall fighters, short fighters, strong fighters, slow fighters, sluggers and boxers. It was either learn or get knocked off.
Leonard was sometimes cruel, taunting his opponents to try and encourage rash punches that he could punish them for, with devastating ripostes. He’d often raise his right hand in a cartoonish motion circling above his head, before delivering a rapid left jab that would stun and embarrass his opponent.
Leonard had a seamless transfer from the amateur ranks, where he had won 155 out of 160 fights, famously saying, Boxing was the only career where I wouldn’t have to start out at the bottom. I had a good resume. After winning gold at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Leonard then won the WBC welterweight title in 1979, defeating the proficient and highly rated Wilfred Benitez in a gripping contest that saw two of the most technical boxers of their time, trade blows and tactics.
After one defence of his title, Leonard faced Roberto Duran in the first of their three highly anticipated fights. Leonard lost the first encounter to a unanimous decision, after 15 rounds of ferocious non-stop action, which made fight fans warm to both fighters. Leonard won the second encounter to regain his title, stopping Duran in the eighth round after Duran said, No Mas (no more in Spanish) and retired to his corner, after receiving no obvious punishment from Leonard.
Making money and taking titles
In 1981 Leonard went up in weight, defeating junior middleweight champion Ayube Kalule, after knocking him out in a convincing victory. Leonard then returned to the welterweight division for a unification clash with the menacing Thomas Hearns. Hearns who had a devastating right hand had obliterated Duran, a fighter that Leonard had had considerable problems with. This made Leonard’s victory all the more dramatic, when, behind on all the score cards, he managed to produce a knockout in the 14th and penultimate round to take the title and a $10million purse.
After the Hearns fight Leonard’s career was disturbed by a recurring eye problem that forced him to retire twice. He retired once in 1981 after a detached retina in his left eye and again in 1984 after knocking out Kevin Howard to regain the welterweight title.
Coming back strong
Then came the moment that Sugar Ray Leonard is most remembered for in the world of boxing. After three years of inactivity in the ring, Leonard staged a comeback in 1987 against the fearsome and brutal Marvin Hagler in Las Vegas, for a purse of $11million, a world record for the largest single payday for an athlete. Hagler who had waged war with Hearns and Duran and defeated both of them was undefeated in eleven years and was a 3/1 favourite to beat Leonard. However, Leonard won the fight after a split decision that Hagler still disputes to this day. It also confirmed Leonard’s position as the best of the ‘fabulous four’ having beaten Duran, Hearns and Hagler.
The Hagler/Leonard fight divided opinions throughout the world of boxing, but no one could deny that Leonard had lost none of his speed, especially in the early rounds where he made Hagler chase him round the ring, picking off his opponent with well timed, economic shots that infuriated and surprised the marvellous one. As the fight continued, Leonard did lose some of his speed but was able to avoid Hagler’s hurtful shots and steal later rounds with late flurries that gained maximum points and had the crowd on their feet. Hagler did not accept the decision and speaking shortly after the bout said, “In some ways that fight gave me more respect around the world and helped me be even more popular because so many people felt my pain and saw that I was robbed.” Hagler vowed never to fight again and he never did: he moved to Italy where he still lives today.
In 1988 Leonard then stepped up in weight to light heavyweight to fight the hard hitting Canadian, Donny Laloude. Despite Leonard’s inferior power and an early knock down, Leonard managed to recover and defeat Laloude, claiming his WBC light heavyweight belt and the vacant WBC super middleweight crown in the process.
The ‘fabulous four’ were then reunited as Leonard made two defences of his super middleweight belt against Hearns and then Duran. Leonard’s fight against Hearns was again controversial as the fight was scored a draw. Leonard retained his title and again showed his ability to win matches he simply should not have won. He then defeated Duran in the final part of their trilogy, beating him on a unanimous decision.
It did not get any better for Leonard. After this he staged two disastrous comebacks, the first against Terry Norris who floored Leonard twice in his first defeat since the first Duran fight. Then in 1997 at Madison Square Garden he was stopped in the fifth by Hector Camacho. It was the first time in Leonard’s career he had been stopped. His career record was won 36 (KO 25) + lost 3 (KO 1) + drawn 1.
After fighting, Leonard has gone on to launch a successful career in television, working on the boxing reality TV show, The Contender, introducing him to a new set of fight fans.
Leonard will go down as one the greatest middleweights and indeed boxers ever, creating sagas against other fighters that he always seemed to win. He saw boxing as more than a sport, “I wanted to do in boxing what Bruce Lee was able to do in karate. Lee was an artist, and, like him, I try to get beyond the fundamentals of my sport. I want my fights to be seen as plays.“