Sugar Ray Leonard turns 62 on Thursday, May 17th. Beginning in 2007, when Floyd Mayweather emerged as an A-lister, Leonard’s name was often in the news. That’s because he was the man that Mayweather was most often measured against historically.
An Olympic gold medalist and five division titlist, Leonard fought consistently between 1977 and 1982 and then sporadically from 1984-97 and had a career record of 36-3-1 (25). He says he is tired of being asked if he could’ve beaten Mayweather and always answers like a politician, stating that he thinks it would’ve turned out okay for him. But it would have come out more than just okay for him because when comparing them as fighters, Leonard was Mayweather’s superior in every conceivable category!
Many like to point out Mayweather was harder to hit and better defensively than Leonard, which is factually correct, but what’s left out is that Leonard was a much greater offensive fighter and put himself in vulnerable situations looking to win by knockout. Anyone who knows boxing knows that a fighter who does that is more likely to get hit than the guy who fights from a defensive posture exclusively. Another difference between them is that Leonard had natural charisma and an overload of it. Mayweather needed to fight superstar Oscar De La Hoya and then adopt the persona of a heel before anyone paid any meaningful attention to him, whereas Leonard (who judging from recent photos of him still looks great) became a star during the 1976 Olympics and never looked back.
Back to Leonard:
Born on May 17, 1956, he was named after singer Ray Charles and even called up the one and only Sugar Ray Robinson to ask if it was OK to borrow his moniker, “Sugar Ray.” Many fighters that came after Sugar Ray Robinson adopted the moniker Sugar Ray, but only one measured up to what the name stood for and represented: Sugar Ray Leonard.
As a fighter Sugar Ray Leonard had it all. He could box and he could punch. Most identified by his blinding hand and foot speed, Leonard was versatile and capable of fighting effectively inside or outside. Along with that, he possessed a great chin and had the heart and courage worthy of an all-time great. Something else that he had was an abundance of ring savvy. Leonard was a ring genius who often implemented Plan B, changing his attack plan during the fight. And forget about it when he had his opponent hurt. Due to his killer-instinct, Leonard never let them off the hook. And he just so happened to fight during one of the best and most competitive non-heavyweight eras in boxing history, which afforded him the chance to measure himself against other great fighters and champions. And his crossover appeal allowed for those fights to be beamed across the world on closed circuit TV for so many to see.
After Sugar Ray Leonard won a gold medal at the 1976 Summer Olympics, he was brought to Hall Of Fame trainer Angelo Dundee to help guide him and teach him the pro game. He was good looking, had a shark for a business manager named Mike Trainer, and was an overall media darling. However, some fans and members of the media found him hard to take; to them, he came across as condescending.
Fighting as a welterweight, Leonard was as close to unbeatable as a fighter could be. Look who gave him his only loss at 147, Roberto Duran, who is on the very short list with Leonard as the best pound-for-pound fighter since Sugar Ray Robinson. It’s been mentioned by some that Leonard fought hand-picked opponents during his career. To the contrary, Leonard faced only two fighters who were under .500 when he fought them, and they were both within his first seven pro fights.
On the way up the welterweight ranks Leonard was matched against fighters who had varying styles and more experience than he did. Leonard fought toughie Rafael Rodriguez, slick and hard punching Floyd Mayweather Sr. who was 16-1, the durable Randy Shields, and a three-time title challenger in veteran Armando Muniz. Before challenging for the welterweight title Leonard stopped 30-3-1 junior middleweight Tony Chiaverini and devastated third-ranked contender Andy “The Hawk” Price in one round.
After destroying Price, Leonard fought 38-0-1 WBC welterweight champ Wilfred Benitez. Wilfred was a master boxer and had radar for defense and made fighters miss him with their punches, including Leonard, without moving his feet. When Leonard and Benitez finally clashed, it was a chess match strategically. The difference was that Leonard was the superior offensive fighter and he captured the title when the fight was stopped with only six seconds remaining in the 15th round. In his first defense of the title, he scored one of the most chilling knockouts ever when he stopped former title challenger 33-2 Dave “Boy” Green with a dynamite left hook to the chin in the fourth round. The KO was so brutal that some thought Leonard killed Green before their very eyes.
In his second title defense, Leonard met former undisputed lightweight champion Roberto Duran who was 71-1 and hadn’t lost in eight years. They met on June 20th 1980 in what was titled “The Brawl For It All” in Montreal. Leading up to this fight, Duran did a number on Leonard psychologically by taunting his wife and making fun of him and challenging his manhood. Leonard already believed he could go through Duran before their fight; by the time they got into the ring he wanted to kill him.
This played right into what Duran wanted. Roberto lured Ray into a toe-to-toe fight which he won by a close unanimous decision. Although Leonard lost, no one ever questioned his toughness again.
Five months later they met in a rematch, only this time Ray won the head game and totally frustrated Duran, making him say “no mas” in the eighth round to regain his WBC title. Leonard may have been the sharpest and fastest he ever was that night. He was totally wired and cat-quick. Seven months after winning the title back from Duran, Leonard stopped 36-0 Ayub Kalule who was making the fifth defense of his WBA junior middleweight title. Shortly after winning this title, Leonard vacated it and went back down to welterweight seeking the ultimate showdown.
Three months prior to Leonard beating Duran in their rematch, Thomas Hearns destroyed Pipino Cuevas in two rounds to capture Cuevas’s WBA title. Hearns was 32-0 (30) and a true killer who looked invincible at welterweight.
On September 16th 1981, Leonard and Hearns met in what was the most highly anticipated welterweight championship fight in history. In “The Showdown,” as it was titled, Hearns started off very fast, scoring with his long hard jab which kept Leonard from getting inside. Hearns clearly had the advantage for the first five rounds and, up until that time, it looked as if he was too big and strong for Ray. But in the sixth round Leonard got inside and landed a stinging right uppercut that shook Hearns and suddenly Hearns became the prey and Leonard the predator. However, Hearns regrouped and maintained his lead in the fight due to his underrated boxing ability. Knowing that he was behind in the scoring, Leonard stormed out of his corner at the start of the 14th round and opened up with a flurry of punches, hurting Hearns. Leonard, being a tremendous finisher, never let Hearns recover, which led to the fight being stopped late in the 14th round.
After making one defense of the unified welterweight title against Bruce Finch, Leonard retired with a detached retina. Leonard came out of retirement 23 months later and stopped ranked Philly welterweight contender Kevin Howard but not before suffering the first knockdown of his career. Leonard retired again shortly after the Howard fight.
After not fighting since May of 1984, Ray was bitten by the urge to fight again and came back to challenge undisputed middleweight champ Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Hagler had been ruling the middleweight division for seven years and was unbeaten over 11 years.
Ray was laughed at when he told everyone that he could take Hagler’s middleweight title. He had never fought above 154 pounds, had fought only once in the previous five years, and entered the ring against Hagler on April 6th 1987 as a 4-1 underdog. A fight with Leonard was a fight Hagler longed for ever since Leonard retired in November of 1982, and Hagler promised to destroy him.
In what was the biggest and supposedly the toughest fight of Leonard’s career, he fought the most brilliant fight of his life, winning a 12-round split decision. The fight was very close and if you were rooting against Leonard, you can say he lost and really believe it in your heart. However, there can be no disputing that Leonard won the first three rounds which, in my opinion, cost Hagler the fight. Hagler had to win seven of the last nine rounds and he didn’t. This was the crowning moment of Ray’s career; hardly anyone thought this fight would be left up to the judges.
After Hagler, Ray scored a ninth round stoppage of Donny Lalonde in a fight in which the vacant WBC super middleweight title and Lalonde’s WBC light heavyweight title were both at stake. After Lalonde, Leonard fought a rematch with Thomas Hearns that ended in a disputed draw (most viewers saw it for Hearns). Hearns even dropped Leonard twice during the bout, but even that doesn’t eclipse the larger than life image of Sugar Ray. Six months after Hearns, Leonard fought Roberto Duran for the third time. This was Duran’s first fight since winning the WBC middleweight title from Iran Barkley 10 months earlier. Although Leonard (and Duran too) was way past his best fighting days, he handled Duran, winning comfortably on the scorecards.
Ray retired after winning the rubber match, only to un-retire a year and a half later to fight Terry Norris. Norris showed Ray that it was time to move on, giving him a one-sided thrashing over 12 rounds. Once again, Ray couldn’t accept that it was over and after a six-year absence from the ring he fought Hector Camacho and was stopped in five rounds. Leonard, now nearly 41 years old, retired for good after the Camacho debacle.
Like him or loathe him, Sugar Ray Leonard at his peak was without question one of the greatest fighters in fistic history, regardless of weight division. Fighting at his natural weight in the welterweight division, only Sugar Ray Robinson, in my opinion, could beat him in a prime vs. prime confrontation.
In less than 40 pro bouts Leonard beat three all-time greats in Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler and a near-great in Wilfred Benitez, along with a plethora of other outstanding fighters. With the possible exceptions of Eder Jofre and Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard is the greatest pound for pound boxer alive.
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Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com