Is the Criticism of Sugar Ray Leonard Valid?

15.09.04 Ė By Rev. Marc Axelrod: There can be no question that Sugar Ray Leonard is a pound for pound all time great fighter. He won titles in 5 divisions from Welterweight to Light-Heavyweight. He has victories over some of the brightests stars of the past 30 years: Wilfred Benitez, Roberto Duran (twice), Thomas Hearns, and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. His speed was on display in the second Duran fight and in the Hagler match. He showed raw power in his blistering knockouts of Andy Price and Davey ĎBoyí Green. He showed heart in his toe to toe scrap with Roberto Duran in Montreal. And he displayed his guts and determination in roaring from behind to stop Hearns in the 14th round.

Yet there are critics who after all these years still refer to Leonard as a sissy, a protected fighter who benefited from mass adulation and his boyish good looks, an overrated athlete who was only as popular as he was because of his Olympic Gold Medal and because of his potential to match the box office appeal of Muhammad Ali.

The cynics say, ďHe never gave Benitez a rematch! He waited eight years to give Hearns another fight! And he waited until Marvin Hagler was halfway to his first social security check before stepping into the ring with him. After the fight with Hagler, Leonard chose to go after ďsafeĒ opponents (Donny Lalonde, a faded Hearns, an old Duran) rather than face the elite young fighters of the late Eighties (Mike McCallum, Michael Nunn, James Toney, Sumbu Kalambay, John Mugabi. Lloyd Honeyghan). And when he finally stepped up against a young and talented athlete (Terry Norris), he was given a savage beating over 12 rounds.

Some of these criticisms have more credence than others. It is true that Leonard never fought Benitez again. But several things need to be said about this. Wilfred moved up the next year to the 154 pound weight class. While Benitez was fighting Tony Chiaverini, Pete Ranzany, and Maurice Hope (and so doing, picking up a Junior Middleweight title belt), Leonard was busy fighting Green, Duran twice, Ayub Kalule and Thomas Hearns. This doesnít sound like the resume of a man whoís trying to duck anyone.

If anyone has any lasting reflections on Leonard being a sissy, I need only to refer you to exhibit A: Sugar Rayís fight with the unbeaten middleweight Marcos Geraldo. Sugar Ray was fighting a talented guy who was bigger and stronger. He was also trying to get his vision back after being elbowed in the eye. Yet he passed this first test with flying colors, fighting his way to a ten round decision.

Exhibit B would be his brawl in Montreal with Duran, The Duran fight in particular shows Leonardís fortitude and guts, if not his intelligence. He fought the wrong fight that night. It was unwise to stand flatfooted in front of a vicious tiger like Duran. He should have used the perimeter of the ring that night. He should have utilized the boxing skills that had brought him to that point, the skills that he would use against Roberto in New Orleans five months later. Yet in suffering his first professional loss, he won the respect of boxing fans around the world for bravely standing toe to toe with the fearsome Hands of Stone. Sometimes in life, even when you lose, you come out a winner. That fight with Duran showed me Sugar Rayís heart and determination. Years later, I still consider it his coming out party. The same thing can be said about Aliís first loss against Joe Frazier. Ali also fought the wrong fight that night. He didnít use the ring. He stood flat footed and lay on the ropes with Smokiní Joe. It can even be argued that he took Frazier lightly. Yet he won my heart that night with his guts and with his heart. In the same way, Leonard won my heart with his gutty effort against Duran.

The other criticism from that time in Leonardís career was his decision not to give Thomas Hearns an immediate rematch. But as you may recall, Leonard retired after his next fight due to a detached retina. Moreover, Hearns moved up to middleweight and eventually up to the light heavyweight division.

So far, I would have to say that the criticisms that have been leveled against Sugar Ray Leonard are not convincing. I must confess that I have entertained the post Hagler criticisms. I wish Leonard would have given Hagler a rematch. I wish Leonard would have fought some of the young lions of the late 1980s referenced earlier. I wish Leonard would have been a more active boxer.

But some things need to be said about these wistful reflections. First of all, there was more money to be made in rematches with Hearns and Duran than in matches with the likes of Kalambay, Julian Jackson, Herol Graham, Nunn, Mugabi, Toney, and McCallum. Secondly, Leonard may have felt that because Duran and Hearns were ringworn, that these matches would have been easier as well as more lucrative. Thirdly, Leonard may have thought to himself, ďWhat do I have to gain by fighting these younger guys? They donít have the legacy that I have. If I fight them and defeat them, people will just say I conquered some unproven, untested fighters. The money and the aggravation are just not worth it. Iím not in this business to please the multitude. Iím in it to take care of myself and my family.Ē Iím not siding with this logic. But this may well have been what Leonard was thinking at the time.

A final, darker reason why Leonard didnít fight these other boxers was because he may have suspected that he wasnít the same fighter that he was earlier. His drug addiction problems were escalating. His marriage problems were heightened. Not making any excuses for Ray, in retrospect, avoiding some of these younger, more dangerous fighters may have been a blessing in disguise. The Terry Norris fight is submitted as evidence. Sugar got hammered that night. He bravely went the 12 round distance. He picked himself up off the canvas in the second and seventh rounds. But imagine if Leonard was fighting Julian Jackson that night, or James Toney? Come to think of it, I donít want to imagine it.

In conclusion, it is easy to look back over a fighterís career, nitpicking about why he didnít do this or he didnít do that. But Leonardís greatness as a fighter ought to be confirmed in the mind of even the hardest cynic

Article posted on 15.09.2004

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