You can’t compare guys like Sugar Ray Leonard to normal human beings. He probably has enough medals, trophies and championship belts to fill three wings in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
The now retired Leonard has new duties that still encompass the world of boxing and he takes it very seriously. You might call him the godfather of boxing. He’s going to make an offer you can’t refuse.
As the voice and soul of The Contender, the television reality show on ESPN every Tuesday at 7 p.m., the extremely successful Leonard has decided to pull the sport he loves into another direction with the help of Hollywood’s Mark Burnett, Sylvester Stallone and a myriad of boxing hopefuls.
“I love boxing,” says Leonard.
Last year The Contender began with mixed reviews from the boxing world. But soon that changed when the likes of Sergio Mora, Peter Manfredo Jr., Alfonso Gomez, Ishe Smith and others began showing what they could do inside the ring.
But first time viewers of boxing found a warmth and humility from the participants that grabbed their attention. Across America, mothers, grandmothers and family members who never watched boxing were captivated by the personalities of the prizefighters.
“My husband and I just love Sergio Mora,” said Catherine Smith, who works at a concession stand in a baseball stadium in Southern California. “We got hooked. Sergio Mora is such a nice kid.”
Millions of others across the nation have followed the show that has moved from NBC to ESPN. It can be viewed several times a week.
“Because people watch the show they sort of care about the boxers. They pick one of those kids they say, ‘He reminds me of my kids or of myself when I was young.’ I hear it all of the time,” said Leonard, who is in his second year with the program.
Mora, who became The Contender’s first champion and is currently ranked as a middleweight, remembers making a casual comment during the taping about loving to read books.
“People mailed me books from all over,” Mora said. “It made me emotional knowing that there were people out there that cared about me, some kid from East L.A.”
Other viewers fawned over the blood and guts of the underdog Gomez who captivated fans with his “never say die” attitude and humility in defeat. He still receives letters and requests for autographs.
Manfredo’s popularity enticed thousands of fans from the East Coast to Las Vegas and Los Angeles when he fought Mora last year.
This year it’s a little different with the television show concentrating more on the fighter’s personalities, histories and mental makeup. No more team sled contests.
“The big difference between last year’s first season was it was more Hollywood. They (the fighters) would run hills, push trash cans, it was pretty funny and animated but it was not boxing,” said Leonard. “Now they rest before a fight which is essential. It’s more boxing specific because we also introduce fighters to the public.”
Leonard, one of the great superstars of the sport, feels today’s boxing promoters concentrate too much on championship belts and big events.
“What promoters do today is promote the fight, they don’t promote the fighters as they did when I was fighting on Wide World of Sports with Howard Cosell,” Leonard said. “Back then the personalities were strong, they were mainstream. People knew the fighters.”
When Leonard fought in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, the nation saw many of his contests on regular network television. Millions saw him win the gold medal against the more favored Cuban fighter in 1976. He soon became the most recognized fighter in the world who attracted millions who loved or hated him.
Leonard wants this for his Contender fighters.
“This particular season the guys are in their 30s. One is a former world champion named Steve Forbes, he’s fighting at welterweight. All of the fighters know this is the last hurrah. They’ve received a lot of exposure and it feels good. More people know the Contender guys than the actual world champions of the world.”
In a show aired two weeks ago a fighter named Walter Wright emerged the winner of a contest with Andre Eason. The resemblance to Tommy “Hit Man” Hearns was stunning.
“The way he threw his jab, the way he looked, I even said it on the air,” said Leonard who fought Hearns in two monumental fights in the 1980s. “It was shocking how much he resembled Hearns. I kind of got nervous.”
A recent guest on the show was Sugar Shane Mosley, a former three-division world champion who sparred with the participants and gave some advice.
“People are going to be surprised. They have some real good fighters,” Mosley said.
It began with 16 participants and now has been whittled down to eleven prizefighters seeking that million-dollar payday and recognition as the season two Contender champion.
“Some of those fighters,” said Leonard, “their careers have changed. They are more recognized. They get the press and adulation from the fans and it’s good to see that. It’s a breath of fresh air for boxing. It shows the decency and determination of these young fighters.”
Leonard’s seen his sport receive a death notice before. When Muhammad Ali no longer could fight and finally retired, many said the sport would die without The Greatest. Then along came Leonard. When Leonard finally retired in the ‘90s, the same death notice was heard, but boxing still commands million dollar gates.
Now the former great helms a boxing show that seems destined for a long run.
“For me it’s déjà vu. I was one of those boys, one of those guys once upon a time,” Leonard said.
It’s personal and it’s business.