Photo Credit: sugarrayleonard.com
Sugar Ray Leonard was an outstanding boxer who came along at a time where televised sports coverage grew rapidly. He was at once an asset to such growth and a beneficiary of the same. He was a precursor to so many athletes who today look to polish a specific public image that works in tandem with their accomplishments in their fields of competition.
Leonard, named after legendary musician Ray Charles, moved with his family to Washington D.C. when he was three years old. A few years later, his family settled in Palmer Park, Maryland. As his amateur career flourished, boxing fans around the country knew of Palmer Park through Leonard’s accomplishments.
Leonard started his boxing career as a teen, following in the footsteps of his older brother Roger. Within five years as an amateur, he won the national Golden Gloves and national Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Light Welterweight championships. In 1975, he captured another AAU Light Welterweight championship and a Pan American Games Light Welterweight championship. His skills got him a lot of attention as an up-and-coming talent.
In 1976, Leonard won a place on the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team as a light welterweight. He was on a roster that included John Tate, Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks and Leo Randolph (among others). Many observers feel this team was the best assemblage the U.S. has ever sent. Competing in the eleven weight classifications, the ’76 team brought home 5 gold medals, one silver medal and one bronze medal.
One enduring image from those Games is Leonard’s habit of taping his son’s picture to his shoe. Between that, his good looks and his eloquence, he soon became a darling of the Games. His winning gold seemed like a coronation. The sporting media embraced him, and identified him as a world-champion-in-the-making.
Boxing fans of the day know the progression of Leonard’s career: his first pro fight in February of 1977, his first world championship fight against Wilfredo Benitez in November of 1979, the two fights against Roberto Duran (June/November 1980), the match against Thomas Hearns in September of 1981.
Leonard’s fights were compelling television. He was a stylish fighter, whose technical skill made for a great contrast against other pre-eminent fighters of the day. That contrast was a ready-made narrative for any Leonard bout. He was invariably cast as the “good guy”, defender of all that was good in boxing. That role garnered him a lot of support, and some impressive paydays.
As he got older, Leonard’s trials made him an even more compelling figure. At the height of his career, he suffered a detached retina in 1982. Later that year, he retired, citing a lack of desire. The passion for the fight game was rekindled, and Leonard started a comeback in May of 1984. Now, Leonard wasn’t the “golden boy”, but a man testing himself and attempting to regain his standing in the boxing world. Maybe that comeback was premature – Leonard announced another retirement after that comeback bout in May of ’84.
This retirement lasted for three years, until an opportunity came to challenge Marvin Hagler for the World Middleweight championship (April 1987). Hagler
Photo Credit: espn.go.com
was known as a tough, physical brawler. Leonard took on the larger man, and scrapped his way to a split decision. Soon after that win, Leonard retired yet again.
The lure of the fight game was too much for Leonard to resist. Over the next ten years, he would attempt another comeback, retire again, attempt yet another retirement, then finally retire for good in 1998. He finished his professional boxing career with a record of 36 wins, 3 losses and 1 draw. He recorded 25 knockouts. He won world titles in five different weight classifications, and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997.
Since his fighting career ended, Leonard has stayed busy. He’s been a network boxing analyst, a product endorser, a cameo actor in various television shows and movies, and a boxing promoter. He’s also active in his foundation, raising funds to aid the fight against juvenile diabetes. He’s an example of an athlete who’s leveraged his fame into a productive “second act” for his life.
In 2011, as part of his promoting his autobiography, Leonard disclosed that he was sexually abused by two persons in positions of trust. In coming forward with this admission, Leonard hoped his public image would give hope to other abuse victims and give them the strength to come forward as well. Leonard wants to be a part of ending this scourge on society.
Sugar Ray Leonard was pound-for-pound one of the best fighters of his era, and in the discussion for one of the best of all time. His photogenic fighting style, his good looks and his easy-going nature made him an easy fighter for which to root. He’ll always be well-regarded among fight fans world-wide.
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