By BERNARD FERNANDEZ
In offering his opinion for a 2013 story I did for The Ring magazine on why so many boxers can’t let go of the sport when common sense and diminishing returns dictate that they should, Sugar Ray Leonard, he of the five retirements that didn’t stick, was as blunt in his assessment of others as he occasionally could not be when taking a good, hard look at himself.
“You always think of yourself as the best you ever were,” Leonard said. “That’s human nature. And that’s not just how highly successful people think. Everyone thinks that way. Most (fighters) come back for money. They need another payday, and there are people around them feeding their egos, telling them how good they still are, because they want a piece of the action. Maybe they come back because they really don’t know anything but boxing, and they’re apprehensive about entering the next phase of their lives that doesn’t include it.
“But even if money is not an issue, and you have other options, you never lose that belief in yourself as a fighter, particularly if you’ve been to the very top of the mountain. (Being retired) eats at you. It’s hard to find anything else that can give you that high. Once you accomplish what I did against Marvin (Hagler), you tell yourself, `I did it before, I can do it again.’ I felt that way about Muhammad Ali when he fought Larry Holmes. I had so much belief in Ali because of all the miraculous things he’d done, like going to Africa and beating George Foreman. But that Ali didn’t exist by the time he fought Holmes. The reason I came back those last couple of times was because I was dying inside. The only place I felt truly comfortable and relaxed was in the ring. I needed that safety net.”
It goes without saying that Ali, and his legion of adoring fans, will always cherish the memories of his many watershed victories that certified his claim of being “The Greatest.” Ali partisans with selective memories will choose to overlook his sad beatdown by Holmes, or his way-too-little and far-too-late farewell bout against Trevor Berbick. It’s probably like that with Elvis Presley idolaters, who prefer to remember the youthful, hip-shaking King of Rock ’n’ Roll of the mid-1950s rather than the pudgy, jump-suited late 1970s version.
Leonard, like Ali, gave boxing so many great moments that they can’t help but obscure his final two bouts, comebacks which were launched with an odd mixture of deserved bravado and self-delusion. As was the case with Ali, who somehow convinced himself that the magic of “The Rumble in the Jungle” could be dialed up on demand, Sugar Ray recalled the euphoria he felt when he stunned the world by outpointing the heavily favored Hagler on April 6, 1987, 35 months after his previous bout, in which he was dropped in the fourth round by journeyman Kevin Howard and looked anything but spectacular in scoring a ninth-round technical knockout. Buoyed by his legend-enhancing victory over Hagler, Leonard resembled his old self, for the most part, in his next three fights, a ninth-round stoppage of the much larger Donny Lalonde, a controversial draw with Thomas Hearns and a wide points nod in his rubber match with Roberto Duran.
Then came Feb. 9, 1991, and the fight that everyone thought surely had to be Leonard’s swan song. He not only lost a unanimous decision to WBC super welterweight champion Terry Norris in Madison Square Garden, he won only five of 36 rounds on the judges’ scorecards. Although Leonard, then 35, said there were mitigating factors in his one-sided defeat (a rib-cage injury he had not disclosed and the emotional turmoil of his divorce from his first wife, Juanita), his farewell speech left little doubt that the end had come, and he knew it.
But, as he would later note, it is human nature for everyone to think of themselves as the best they ever were, and at his best Sugar Ray Leonard was a magnificent fighting machine, indisputably an all-time great. And even if he did not totally believe he could recapture all that had been lost to time and rust, there was that other matter, the gnawing emptiness that comes from being out of the sphere in which he had always felt the most alive. So, at the ripe old age of 40 and coming off nearly six years of inactivity, the breakout star of the United States’ legendary 1976 Olympic boxing team announced he was coming back to make the same sort of splash he had made a decade earlier against Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
The opponent selected for Leonard’s March 1, 1997, return – Hector “Macho” Camacho – was no slouch. The slick-boxing Puerto Rican southpaw, who was to defend his lightly regarded IBC middleweight belt in Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall, was 63-3-1 with 31 wins inside the distance at the time, and his career proved good enough for him to be voted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. (His posthumous induction will be on June 12.) But there were reasons why Camacho appeared to be a logical candidate for still another Leonard return: he had an impressive resume, but he was 34, not a particularly damaging sort of puncher, and was as cocky as the man he would be squaring off against, guaranteeing maximum prefight hype.
“I need the attention that boxing brings,” Leonard said when asked why he was coming back yet again. “My ego is what made me who I am.”
Not that mind and body were immediately in sync; Leonard indicated that nothing seemed to be working in his first few weeks in the gym, but, about a month before the fight, “everything started to click. I felt no pressure. I was excited about working out, trying some new moves, some new punches. Then I started throwing combinations, punching with power, with speed. All these things I had naturally were coming back into play.”
A few days before the fight, someone asked Leonard what percentage of his “best” self he had recaptured. What would happen, the questioner wanted to know, if he were only at 50 percent of peak efficiency?
“I’d still win,” Leonard said.
What about 75 percent?
“I’d win comfortably,” he responded.
And at 100 percent?
Leonard smiled, like the cat that had just eaten the canary. “Annihilation,” he said.
Public belief in Sugar Ray’s almost-surrealistic ability to reinvent himself – or maybe simply a widespread hope for such – was reflected in the drastic shift in the odds posted by the Nevada sports books. Although Camacho was an opening-line 7-to-5 favorite, so many from-the-heart wagers came in for Leonard that he went off as a 2-1 favorite. It was a virtual repeat of Norris-Leonard, when Leonard was the 3-1 wagering choice.
But, as was the case with Ali against Holmes, hard evidence would be furnished that there is little place for sentimentality in the ring. To everyone’s surprise, probably including Leonard’s, Camacho did not fall back on his familiar retreat, flurry and clutch tactics; he met his legendary opponent in the center of the ring, determined to give as good, if not better, than he got.
Leonard was cut over his left eye in the fourth round from an inadvertent head-butt, and the sight of his blood may have emboldened Camacho, who was already leading by two points on two of the three official scorecards and was tied on the third, to ratchet up the pressure. He quickly scored with a pair of hard overhand lefts, setting the stage for two left uppercuts that sent Leonard tumbling to the canvas. Ray beat the count, but Camacho stormed in and was teeing off when referee Joe Cortez stepped in and waved the fight to a halt after an elapsed time of one minute, eight seconds.
If Terry Norris had played the role against Leonard that Larry Holmes had against Ali, then Camacho was cast as the Sugar man’s version of Trevor Berbick. It was, finally and irrevocably, over. There would be no more comebacks, inspiring or otherwise.
“He kept his tempo up,” Leonard said of Camacho’s more aggressive strategy. “He kept on top of me. When I was knocked back and staggered, Joe Cortez asked, `Are you OK?’ And I was OK. Then, when I went down, he asked again, `Are you OK?’ I said yes again. But you know what? There was no sense of pushing it. I was in trouble.
“There comes a point in everyone’s life when you just have to accept the fact that you don’t have it anymore.”
But, while praising Camacho as an excellent fighter and the better man that night, Leonard’s sixth retirement speech recalled the words of British poet Dylan Thomas:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
As was the case following his loss to Norris, when he first mentioned the rib-cage injury and divorce concerns that he suggested led to his subpar performance, Leonard could not entirely step away without offering an explanation that to some sounded like another excuse. The five-time world champion, while saying he wanted to be remembered for being as gracious a loser as he always had been as a winner, had hobbled to the podium in the company of his Phoenix-based orthopedist, Dr. Scott Steingard, who revealed that Leonard had fought, against medical advice, with an injury to his right calf that was incurred a month earlier, or around the time that Sugar Ray had claimed that “everything started to click.”
“After two weeks Ray did very well,” Dr. Steingard said. “We were very encouraged. Then he popped some scar tissue, or popped the muscle again. We elected to inject some cortisone into the calf muscle to decrease the inflammation. I thought we had turned the corner.”
Saying he felt a “twinge” in the calf in the first round and it hampered his mobility the rest of the fight, Leonard noted that “I couldn’t get out of the way of Hector’s left hand. I was off-balance.”
However legitimate, or not, the alleged injury was doesn’t seem to matter much now. Those who have been blessed with whatever it is that constitutes greatness do not surrender its last vestiges readily and certainly not without a fight. They rage, rage against the dying of the light because that light is always brightest at the very top of the mountain their talent and drive has enabled them to ascend.
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