Sugar Ray Leonard - Love him or Hate Him, He Was The Fighter He Needed To Be!

sugar ray leonard05.07.06 - By Derek Cowan: I consider myself a fair and objective boxing fan. I have learned to appreciate different styles of fighters over the years. Pure boxers, aggressive brawlers, fighters with immense talent, and the blue-collar types with sheer grit and determination have all impressed me. I think it is the various characteristics of many fighters that makes boxing a special sport. Without such diversity in styles we would not be blessed with the awesome match-ups that we have been treated to over the years. Once in a while, however, a fighter will come along that possesses the ability to change styles and characteristics during single bouts and throughout their careers. This is rare, and in my opinion is a trait that is normally found in boxer's of an elite status.

Having said that, the first boxer that I can remember following was Sugar Ray Leonard. I was 7 years old when I began to watch Leonard. I had vaguely remembered him winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Montreal in 1976. Being young, an not really understanding the art of boxing, I was more drawn in by Leonard's personality, electrifying boxing skills, and of course... the flashy tassels on the boxing boots that he sometimes wore.

He was also one of the most televised fighters at that time, having been broadcasted on ABC, CBS, NBC, and HBO. I did not realize at the time that many people resented this about Leonard, feeling that he did not actually earn his popularity. But I didn't care! He was simply dazzling to watch, always had that appealing smile, and is the reason that I first loved the sport.

Since that time, I have been amazed at how many people simply do not like Sugar Ray, and have seen many articles demeaning his career as overrated. I guess I can understand how his out of the ring troubles, his sometimes over-confident or even arrogant personality, and controversial wins might lead people to choose other fighters as their favorites. I can even understand rooting against a guy that you simply don't like. But how in the world anyone can argue with his talent, accomplishments, and courage is beyond me. Therefore I challenge boxing fans to honestly examine the career of Leonard going forward, and to do so without bias.

First of all, Sugar Ray was an excellent amateur fighter, posting a 145-5 (75) record. He won gold medals at the Pan-American Games in 1975, and the Olympic Games in 1976. Then in February of 1977, he started his professional career, and within 2 and a half years won his first 25 fights with 17 finishing inside the distance. At that point many felt that he had not faced solid competition, an opinion that I happen to agree with. Ray had defeated decent fighters like Floyd Mayweather, Randy Shields, Fernand Marcotte, Daniel Gonzaelz, Tony Chiaverini, Pete Ranzany, and Andy Price, but no one of real championship caliber.

On November 30th, 1979, Ray got his chance to fight best fighter he had faced to date. A world championship bout with Wilfred Benitez. Ray showed guts and ability in this fight, and eventually stopped Benitez in the 15th round. Ray had not only won his first world championship, he had beat an undefeated fighter in his prime. Benitez would go on to defeat Roberto Duran and lose a majority decision to Thomas Hearns in the 1980's.

After a 4th round knockout of Davey "Boy" Green in his first title defense, Ray would link himself with the first real legend of his career in Roberto Duran. At this time, many felt that Duran was one of the best pound for pound fighters on the planet, and to this day still shows up at the top of lists for the greatest lightweight ever. Ray lost that fight in June of 1980, but to me it was one of his most defining moments. To this day many say that Ray fought the wrong fight by choosing to brawl and in fight with one of history's best. I agree, but to his credit, Ray fought pretty well losing a close, although clear decision. This fight showed that Ray was able to mix it up with real aggressive power punchers, take a punch, and endure much punishment. He was not the over-hyped pretty boy that was going to run around the ring and simply survive. The other attribute that Ray would show following this fight against Duran was his willingness to change. Ray had shown heart and toughness, but he had also seen it come up short against Duran. In this sport, competitors many times fall victim to their own egos.

They so desire to be able to prove to everyone that they can win their way, and on their own terms, and therefore simply refuse to do what is necessary.....CHANGE!!! This characteristic leads to losses, and damaged careers many times, but not with Ray. Although he fought a gutsy fight, he understood that he must deploy a different style in order to beat Duran. Five months later, he did just that. Utilizing his quickness, mobility, and boxing skills he defeated Duran in the famous "No mas" bout when Roberto quit in the middle of the 8th round. Leonard was not way ahead on points, or even completely dominating the fight at that point, but the writing was on the wall. Many excuses have been made for Duran, but when it comes right down to it, he new that Ray had discovered the only method for a victory and quit in frustration.

Following the Duran victory, Ray would stop Larry Bonds in a title defense, and then stop undefeated Ayub Kalule to win the WBA Light Middleweight Title. On the horizon was another of Ray's defining fights. Many had been watching the undefeated Tommy Hearns destroy everyone in his path. He brought a 32-0 record with 30 KO's into this match with Leonard, and many thought he would win, including me. Since Ray had shown that his real strength was his boxing ability, how could he beat a hard hitting Hearns who had tremendous reach and a devastating jab? It seemed to be a style nightmare for Leonard. For much of the fight early on, this was true. With the exception of hurting Hearns in the 6th, Ray had no answer for Tommy who had quite simply boxed his ears off.

Despite being aware of the danger of fighting Hearns inside, Ray new that he must in order to have a chance at winning. It is at the midpoint of this fight that Ray again reinvented himself. Completely opposite from the Duran rematch, Leonard became the hunter because he realized the need. He showed heart again, not to mention a solid chin as he played the role of predator, seeming to slowly sap the strength from Hearns until the 14th round. Leonard still way behind on points caught Hearns with a series of punches that first showed us Tommy's weakness....suspect legs when hurt. Ray, being the strong finisher he was began to pummel Hearns until Davey Pearl stopped the contest at 1:45 of the round. Ray had again shown grit and courage, but this time in victory. Leonard was not a flashy performer who relied solely on boxing skill and image. He showed that night that he was a warrior in every sense of the word.

Although Leonard would knockout Bruce Finch in the his following fight, a detached retina would lead to his first retirement in November of 1982. Many including myself believed this to be a good idea. Many years later, my mother eventually lost her eye due to the same diagnosis. It was the right decision. But of course, as fighters do, Ray came back. He defeated Kevin Howard 18 months later in a lackluster performance that had Leonard wondering if he still had the ability to go on. This question led to another retirement that lasted almost three years.

In April of 1987, Ray would again return to the ring. Yes, another comeback. Not only had Ray been off for almost three years, but he had not fought a championship caliber opponent since Hearns in 1981. And to top that off, he was going to fight Marvin Hagler, the absolute nastiest fighter on the planet at that time, middleweight. No one, including me, believed that Ray had any business in the ring at all, let alone against Marvelous Marvin. The only real question: Could Ray make it out a alive? After all, Hagler had knocked out Tommy Hearns almost two years prior, after Hearns has destroyed Duran with a devastating knockout.

Many people thought Leonard must have needed a payday, or simply wanted one more chance in the limelight. Whatever the reason, it was an entertaining fight. Leonard showed that he still had his boxing skills, and mobility. He eluded Hagler, and sprayed him with timely combinations over 12 rounds and won a split-decision victory for the middleweight title. Many to this day argue that Hagler won the fight. First of all, let's be real for one moment. I absolutely love Marvin hagler, as he is one of my top 3 favorite fighters, but this fight was extremely close. If someone wants to have an opinion that Hagler won, so be it. But for anyone to call this match robbery is silly. I have always felt that Ray's goal in this fight was to stay away from Hagler's obvious power advantage and attempt to score from outside. Ray accomplished that goal without question.

On the other hand, Hagler's goal, as in almost all his fights, was to hunt Ray down and put him away. Hagler landed some good shots throughout, but never really had Leonard in real jeopardy. Regardless of who you might think won this fight, it was a great match, and Ray's performance was awesome. To accomplish what Ray accomplished that night was legendary. Again, Leonard was able and willing to fight the type of fight necessary to win. Ego, lack of power (at middleweight), and even time did not get in the way of this feat.

Although Ray would go on to defeat Donny Lalonde over a year and a half later, and collect the super middleweight, and light heavy weight championship belts in the process. His best was behind him. He would fight Tommy Hearns to a very controversial draw in June of 1989, a fight that I and many others believed he lost. Ray would link up with Duran for a third match later that same year, in a bout that was quite frankly.....embarrassing for both legends. A win here would give Leonard just enough confidence to make two more comebacks in humiliating losses to Terry Norris and Hector Camacho in 1991 and 1997 respectively. I choose not to hold these final two losses against Ray, much in the same fashion as not holding Muhammed Ali's final two losses against him, when he fought Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick well past his prime.

In closing, while many of Leonard's detractors will continue to hold him in lower regard than I, hopefully the objective, unbiased fight fan will have taken a look back one of the most interesting boxing careers of our sport a determined that Sugar Ray Leonard deserves to be considered an all-time great. His record of 36-3-1 (25) isn't too shabby when you consider that he lost 4 and a half of his prime years to a serious eye injury. But while he was fighting he managed to defeat 3 boxing legends in Duran, Hearns, and Hagler. He also won world championship titles at six different weight classes. But in my opinion, his greatest accomplishment was being able to become the type of fighter he needed to be in order to win. Many fighters, including great ones do not possess the ability to change their styles mid-fight, much less at any point in their careers.

Ray Leonard did this on several occasions and proved he had the heart, will and warrior spirit necessary to complete the task. This article is not a an attempt to express a belief that Leonard is the best fighter ever, or better than any other past great. It is simply meant to place his career in perspective as one of an all-time legendary fighter who always seemed to rise up and become "the fighter he needed to be".

Article posted on 05.07.2006

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