The great Sugar Ray Leonard, for many fans and experts the greatest living fighter, turns 65 today. A superb welterweight, Leonard’s combination of skill, guile and cunning also saw him to world titles at 154, 160, 168 and 175 pounds. Arguably the ONLY fighter worthy of inheriting the “Sugar” nickname immortalised by the one and only Sugar Ray Robinson, Leonard gave the sport some truly special nights and fights.
As an amateur, Leonard achieved global stardom, his performances at the 1976 Olympics turning him into an instant hero. Already, with his combination of speed, flash and explosiveness, along with his charisma and natural charm, the 20-something Leonard was being called the new Muhammad Ali. Upon turning pro – this after initially wanting to go back to college and forget about boxing as a career, Leonard forced to change his mind when his parents both fell into ill health – Ali’s legendary trainer Angelo Dundee came on board and helped turn Sugar Ray into a great professional.
The big money came quite quickly, as did the big fights. Leonard went pro in February of 1977, and by November of ’79 he was challenging for the WBC and Ring welterweight titles. And Leonard was not facing an ordinary champion, he was facing a wizard in the form of the defensively gifted Wilfred Benitez. Leonard had to dig deep in the fight, his punches often made to miss, but in the end the new golden boy got the victory, via a very late TKO – one that came with a mere six seconds left on the clock.
Leonard managed one retention, a chilling KO win over Dave “Boy” Green, before Sugar met Stone. Mike Tyson’s favourite fight, the Duran-Leonard classic from June of 1980 elevated both men. Famously, Leonard allowed Duran and his trash-talking inside his head, with Sugar Ray opting to fight Duran’s fight in Montreal. Leonard showed he could take it as well as dish it out in style, but he took too much and his belt was gone. Leonard seriously considered retirement. Later, Leonard would say Duran’s heavy punches had loosened some of his teeth.
But Leonard’s first masterstroke in the timing of a fight came just a few months later. Knowing how Roberto loved to party after a big fight, how he would balloon in weight, Leonard demanded the return fight came quickly. Duran, his weight around the 190 pound mark, was persuaded to take the monster payday and the rematch was on. The infamous “No Mas” fight followed; a fight that inspires debate all these years later. Just why did Duran throw up his hands and quit? There are many theories. Leonard was king of the world again.
Leonard’s finest hour came a little under a year after his revenge win over “Hands of Stone.” Facing the equally great Thomas Hearns, Leonard won the welterweight unification showdown. But not before having to dig deeper than at any time in his entire career. “The Hitman,” who boxed under his second nickname of “Motor City Cobra” for long periods in the September 1981 epic, took Sugar Ray to places he had never been before.
Leonard, his eye shut tight, was given just what he needed from Dundee – Angelo’s ‘You’re blowin’ it, son, you’re blowin’ it!’ pep talk in the corner successful in bringing out Leonard’s inner fire. Miles ahead on points, Hearns was stopped in the 14th round of a fight so great many call it the finest welterweight title fight of them all.
No-one could have known it at the time, but Leonard’s career was almost at an end. A damaged retina forced Sugar Ray to retire in 1982, this after just one more victory (over Bruce Finch). Leonard demanded the presence of the world’s media, and the presence of Marvin Hagler, at a November 9, 1982 charity event in Baltimore. Hagler, the middleweight king and a man who so desperately craved a fight with Leonard and the huge payday that would come with it, was certain Leonard would announce the fight before the world. Instead, Sugar Ray dropped the retirement bombshell. Hagler was furious.
Were it not for successful eye surgery performed by brilliant surgeons with the latest technology at their disposal, Leonard’s career would have been over at age 27 (had the retinal injury been inflicted on a fighter from the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s, their career would indeed have been ended). But as we all know, Sugar Ray came back for his most famous, and at the same time most controversial, ring victory.
Leonard pulled another masterstroke in getting Hagler to agree to a 12 round fight, to a bigger ring, while the timing of the fight suited Sugar Ray. Leonard had noticed how Hagler had slowed down and he knew he could beat him. To this day, fans everywhere argue over whether or not Leonard did beat Hagler on the night of April 6, 1987.
But the comeback was a momentous one, some say the greatest in boxing history. And Sugar Ray was truly the king of kings (of “The Four Kings.”)
If only Leonard had left it at that. Instead, lured back again and again, Leonard fought on and, his skills eroding far more so than Hagler’s had, he was knocked down and hurt far more frequently than ever before (by Donny Lalonde and by Hearns, twice, in their eight years in the making return). Then, in 1991, a young Terry Norris pounded Leonard into what we all felt for certain would be permanent retirement. Instead, rolling the dice once more, this despite never needing to prove a darn thing to anyone, Leonard came back one more time.
In the only stoppage loss of his glorious career, a 40 year old Leonard was crushed in five by Hector Camacho, this in March of 1997. Like Ali before him, Leonard went out a loser.
But all these years later, who really remembers the losses to Norris and Camacho? Sugar Ray the master, Sugar Ray the untouchable welterweight and middleweight king, Sugar Ray the finest fighter of his era. This is what we think of whenever Leonard’s name comes up.
Happy 65th birthday to one of the true greats. The greatest living fighter? It’s either Leonard or Duran.