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Sugar Ray Leonard's Fight 'In And Out Of The Ring'

Welterweight boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, pictured above in August 1979, laughs as he tapes his hands before a workout in the boxing ring at the community center in Capitol Heights, Md.
Welterweight boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, pictured above in August 1979, laughs as he tapes his hands before a workout in the boxing ring at the community center in Capitol Heights, Md.

Sugar Ray Leonard is considered to be one of the best boxers of all time. The first boxer to win more than $100 million in purses, Leonard won world titles in five weight divisions, received a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics and went on to become a successful motivational speaker, actor and commercial endorser.

But the road to the ring wasn't always easy for Leonard. In a new autobiography, The Big Fight, he details his own struggles with rage, addiction, sexual abuse and depression. Leonard talks with Fresh Air's Dave Davies about how he battled these obstacles and went from a shy kid growing up around Washington, D.C., to a hugely successful boxer.

The Making Of A Champ

It was Leonard's shyness as a child, he says, that prompted his brother Roger to first take him to a boxing gym as a young teenager.

"For some reason, I was drawn towards boxing," he says. "Or maybe boxing drew me towards it — because once I put those gloves on, after about six months, boxing was my life."


Yet he was also hiding something: He was the victim of sexual abuse.

"It's like a paradox," said Leonard. "I'm a fighter but yet, I'm so fearful. I don't fight back and I don't tell anyone. I don't confront it. So I lived with those periods for 30-some years but I remember too, that when I drank heavily, when my emotions were not as stable, I would cry, sob and the pain — it felt good. I felt embarrassed but it felt good because I released some of those memories or that poison that was in my stomach."

He started competing in amateur matches, eventually winning the 1973 National Golden Gloves Lightweight Championship. The following year, he won the Golden Gloves title again, along with the National AAU Lightweight Championship. Those early victories, he says, helped him break out of his shell.

"I didn't excel too highly in school but I felt that I was moving ahead — and not just in boxing — but in life," he says. "I watched Muhammad Ali, how when he would speak, how it was such a thing of beauty. It sounded so wonderful. And I wanted to be like him."

Leonard advanced through the amateurs, making the Olympic team in 1976. He beat Cuban champ Andres Aldama in a 5-0 decision that earned him the gold medal. At the time, he says, he had no intention of going professional.

"I wanted to win the goal medal and then go home and further my education in college," he says. "I had no intentions whatsoever to become a professional fighter because I had heard horror stories about former boxers who made money but, in the end, ended up with nothing. I didn't want to be one of those guys."

But Leonard soon changed his mind. When he got back to D.C.'s Maryland suburbs, where his family lived, he realized that his father was extremely sick. His mother had her own health issues and the family needed money — right away. "Janks Morton, who eventually became my trainer and mentor, told me: 'You turn pro, you make money. You can pay your father's hospital bills.' ... I turned professional for that reason."

Leonard's Professional Career

There is no sweeter feeling than when you throw the perfect punch ... You get this little tingling sensation that shoots up and down your arm to let you know that you've hit the jackpot.

After deciding to go pro, Leonard enlisted Morton to bring others onto his team. Morton asked several men, including lawyer Mike Trainer and Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali's trainer, to work with Leonard. Dundee, Morton and Trainer were responsible for managing Leonard's fights and for selecting sparring partners who were similar in height, speed and power to the opponents Leonard was about to face. These sparring partners worked with Leonard for weeks to prepare him for a match.

"I worked on certain moves that would be a factor in the contest — whether I had to bob and weave or constantly be mobile, all those things," he says. "I choreographed my fights in my head before I faced the opponent."

In 1980, Leonard faced Roberto "Hands of Stone" Duran in Montreal. Duran, the former world lightweight champion, indisputably won the match. It was Leonard's first professional loss.

"By the 14th round, I knew the fight was his," he says. "When they announced the decision, I felt like I had given 100 percent, just for the wrong fight. But the devastation — the emotional devastation that went across the board to my family and friends — was unbelievable. I saw them crying. Everyone was crying but me."

Four months later, the two men organized a rematch in Louisiana. To prepare, Leonard chose a sparring partner who idolized Duran.

"He fought like Roberto Duran — he used his head and dirty tactics and what-have-you," he says. "And it made me more aware, from a defensive standpoint, so when I faced Duran, I was prepared."

Leonard won the rematch, which famously ended when Duran went to the referee in the eight round and allegedly said, "No mas" — no more. A short time later, Duran retired from boxing.

But Leonard stayed, besting Thomas "Hitman" Hearns in "The Showdown" in 1981 and winning a split decision against "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler in 1986. He repeatedly retired and returned to the ring, before hanging up his gloves for the last time in 1997.

"Of all the things I miss in boxing, I miss the preparation of a bout, I miss choreographing tactics and moves and things like that," he says. "I miss all of my guys, my entourage being around me and working out with me, getting in better shape. ... It's a gradual progression of getting better and, as weeks go by, you look into the mirror and you see a different person. It evolves. One minute, you look kind of soft and then, within 6-8 weeks, your muscle and all that definition appears. The mirror doesn't lie. It tells you exactly what you are."

Interview Highlights

On a good corner man

"When you're losing, you really don't want to hear what your trainer has to say. He may tell you the right thing, but you're so exhausted, you're so beat up, that your lungs are burning, your legs are tired. And you've given up. Because 90 percent of guys who go back to the corner in a tough fight, they're about to give up. But there are a few, that have that intestinal fortitude, and they want to win at any cost. That's the guy who's listening to whatever his corner has to say. The key is having someone who's composed, someone who has experience. Someone who wants you to get out there and go at the guy but who doesn't sound so desperate or frustrated. And Angelo Dundee was that guy, who was in my corner, who said the right things at the right time."

On recovering from a hit during a fight

"When you get knocked down, the first thing you do is try to compose yourself and not rush up. Don't jump up because of embarrassment because your equilibrium is still off. And if you jump up too fast, you're going to stumble. You're going to fall back. The key is to hopefully be near a rope which you can use as a brace to help you up. While you're doing that, make eye contact with the referee to give him [the] sense that you're OK. It's just little pointers. It's like golf — making those little adjustments. The same thing occurs in boxing. You make adjustments."

On connecting with a punch

"There is no sweeter feeling than when you throw the perfect punch. You get a signal — you get this little tingling sensation that shoots up and down your arm to let you know that you've hit the jackpot. And you know. You know right away that guy's gone."

On the hardships of making money

"I shared the wealth. And I tried to give [my family] a home. I bought homes for most of my family members. And I bought cars. I bought 10 cars, they were Pintos. They were free [for them.] I just tried to help them because they're my brothers and sisters. But things just got out of control. Things became too frequent. There's no book to tell you how to deal with instant success and all of a sudden, you have this fame. It's powerful. It's crazy. ... My accountants said, 'Ray, you can't continue to do this.'"

On recently coming out about being sexually abused as a teenager

"Some people ask why did I reveal that? I saw an episode of Oprah and [former child TV star] Todd Bridges finally came forth and said that he was sexually abused. I hear people always say that when you surrender and admit these things, it's a sense of freedom too."

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