Sugar Ray Leonard – Kevin Howard: the failed comeback that came before the ultimate return to glory

Over three decades ago, May 11th 1984, former unified welterweight king Sugar Ray Leonard, boxing as a light-middleweight, fought for the first time since a near two year layoff. Going in with the little-known Kevin Howard, Leonard was returning to the ring having announced his retirement in November of 1982 due to suffering a detached retina in his left eye.

Coming back with an idea of perhaps making a bold challenge for Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s middleweight crown (Hagler acted as co-commentator for HBO), Leonard was thoroughly dissatisfied with his performance against Howard. Not only did Sugar Ray feel rusty, he was also knocked down in the bout, the 4th-round knockdown from a Howard right hand to the head being the 27-year-old’s first-ever trip to the canvas during a largely glorious career.

Rallying to get a TKO win in the 9th-round, Leonard saved the day (he was closely ahead on all three cards: 77-76, 79-74 and 78-74) but the stoppage by referee Dick Flaherty was widely regarded as premature. Immediately after the tougher than expected “tune-up,” Leonard again announced his retirement, stating that, “It’s just not there.” Howard, who complained bitterly about the stoppage – claiming that “he was hurt worse than me” – fought just four more times after being stopped for the first time in his career.

Leonard, as we know, came back out of retirement less than three years later and, in one of boxing’s most astonishing comebacks, dethroned the mighty Hagler via controversial/debatable split decision in April of 1987 – 29 years yesterday; in a fight that still inspires fierce debate. But that night at The DCU Centre in Worcester, Massachusetts against Howard, Leonard looked anything but capable of doing the unthinkable.

Is Leonard’s upset win over Hagler the greatest single-fight comeback in middleweight history, in boxing history? It’s got to be up there (but in terms of greatest-ever comeback in all of boxing, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more special moment than George Foreman’s second climb to the top of the heavyweight mountain, with his stunning KO of Michael Moorer in 1994).

Another question is, how badly was Sugar Ray’s legacy affected by his decision to box on after the Hagler win – when he looked anything but great in rising from the floor to stop Donny Lalonde and then fought to a two-knockdown draw with Tommy Hearns in their return; before finally going out with two losses: to Terry Norris in 1991 and then Hector Camacho, in Sugar’s only stoppage defeat, in ’97. Leonard is still recognised as a true great, despite his final, unneeded bouts, but his career would have been near to perfect had he walked away forever after the astonishing win he scored almost three decades ago yesterday.

But how close Kevin Howard came to making Leonard forget all about making the ultimate challenge of his storied career.