Forty years ago today in Baltimore, in front of 10,000 attendees, most of them not sure what they would witness, Sugar Ray Leonard made a big public announcement. With the true reason for the fundraiser, Leonard had invited many dignitaries to a secret to everyone apart from the good folks at Sports Illustrated, the welterweight champion was to stun millions.
In his prime, with his tools sharper than sharp and his ego and competitive spirit still in search of the biggest challenges, 26-year-old Leonard, a darling of the media and a hero to millions since his sizzling performance at the 1976 Olympic Games, invited luminaries such as Muhammad Ali, Howard Cosell and, most tellingly, Marvelous Marvin Hagler to hear what he had to say.
The news of Leonard’s eye operation was still uppermost in everyone’s mind, yet the retinal surgery was reported to have been a success. Why had Leonard asked for the reigning middleweight champion to attend? Why, to announce a mega-fight with Hagler, of course. This is what Marvin thought; otherwise, why would he have wasted his time being there; this at a time when Hagler was five retentions into his middleweight reign and his spare time, away from his grueling and punishing training regime, was nothing short of precious to him.
Leonard, wearing glasses, kept up the suspense. Standing in a ring inside the Baltimore Civic Center, the unbeaten, some said unbeatable Sugar Ray looked directly at Hagler (who was also donning eyewear), and he cut off any chance of fans seeing the super-fight.
“A fight with this great man, with this great champion, would be one of the greatest fights in history,” Leonard said, knowingly teasing Hagler and enjoying every second of it. “Unfortunately, it’ll never happen.”
And that was it – Sugar Ray had retired. He would not risk his eyesight. Never, not even for millions of dollars the likes of which he had already earned. Hagler hid it well, but he was hugely disappointed. And humiliated for having shown up at Leonard’s retirement party shindig. None of us could have possibly known that Hagler, some five years after being shown up in public, would get the massive fight he always wanted with the Golden Boy.
But Leonard, with his jerking around of Hagler, had scored massive phycological points in this battle of wits. Leonard had shown Hagler how he was the star, the superstar. Leonard had gotten into Hagler’s head in a major way, and he would crank up the mind games when the fight was shockingly signed in late 1986.
But on this night 40 years ago, Leonard had the whole world believing the fight he’d had with Bruce Finch in February of 1982 was his career finale.
It’s worth thinking how different the sport of boxing might have been had Leonard stuck with his retirement. How would Leonard be looked at today as a 32-1 fighter who earned wins over Wilfred Benitez, Thomas Hearns, and Roberto Duran (having lost a decision to Duran in fight one and then making Duran quit in the return)? How might Hagler’s long rule at middleweight have ended had he not fought Leonard in April of 1987?
We will never know.
40 years ago today, we never thought we’d ever see Ray Charles Leonard fight again.