He is the king of “The Four Kings.” He is, in the opinion of many, the greatest living fighter. He is Sugar Ray Leonard, and he was born Ray Charles Leonard on this day 64 years ago. Leonard achieved oh, so much during his 20-year ring career (20 years in total, but Sugar Ray had many months of inactivity; Leonard himself recently telling Harvard Business Review that he was the “champion of retirements”).
A superb amateur who became a genuine superstar in capturing gold in 1976 in Montreal, Leonard, having initially decided against a pro career, instead of wanting to go to college, went on to mine about as much gold as is possible at the pro level. World welterweight champion, a belt at light-middleweight, world middleweight king, belts at both super-middle and light-heavyweight – yes, Sugar won it all.
It is, though, his fights with his fellow “Kings,” Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran that make Leonard as celebrated as he is. And as debated as he is. The only member of “The Four Kings” to have beaten all three rival members, Leonard stopped Hearns in a titanic battle, he made Duran quit in a perplexing moment in boxing history that will never be forgotten, and against Hagler, Leonard was awarded one of the single most argued over split decisions in boxing history.
So is Leonard the king of the kings, the best of “The Fab Four?” On paper, this is undeniable; it’s elementary – Sugar Ray beat the other three. But there is way more to it than that. The Hearns win of 1981 is untouchable (even though Hearns came in drained having over-trained; this, according to the great trainer who never made excuses, Emanuel Steward). But can the same be said of the revenge win over Duran? What version of Duran did Leonard actually defeat that crazy night in November of 1980? By his own admission, Leonard got the rematch as fast as he could, knowing how Duran would “blow up” between fights, partying and eating, eating, and partying as Roberto was want to do after a big victory.
Duran was a weight drained, far from at his best fighter when he stepped into the ring with Leonard for act-two. Compromised severely due to having shed anything from a reported 40 to 50 pounds in weight to make 147, Duran was no match for Leonard. But what if Duran had been given sufficient time to get the weight off to get his eye of the tiger back? Had Leonard-Duran II taken place in, say, February or March of 1981 instead, who knows what might have happened. It’s not Leonard’s fault that Duran ate like a pig and drank like a fish in the weeks following his June victory in Montreal, but at the same time, Leonard did not beat the best version of Duran, and he knows it. When the two men were on a level playing field as far as both of them being in tip-top shape, Duran won.
And Duran was a natural 135 pounder. Who is the greater fighter – Leonard or Duran?
The win Leonard scored over Hagler is even more fiercely debated; many millions of fans to this day refusing to accept Hagler lost fair and square. Leonard, ever astute, got the size of the ring up to his liking, and he got the length of the rounds down to his liking. Sugar Ray also got into Hagler’s head. Leonard went on to win the boxing match, with Hagler winning the fight.
It’s tough to take anything away from as great, as special a fighter as Sugar Ray Leonard. Still, the fact is two of his three greatest, most notable wins have as many fans as they have critics wondering, to this day, who really was the better fighter overall.
Today’s greatest living fighter? Roberto Duran.