Exclusive: Sugar Ray Leonard Talks Boxing, Personal Demons, and Greatest Triumphs

By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Senior Correspondent

The Quintuple Champ, “Sugar” Ray Leonard, has won five world titles in five separate weight divisions, lineal titles (defeating undisputed champions) in three weight divisions, as well as the undisputed welterweight title. Leonard is widely considered one of the greatest boxers of all time. In this writer’s opinion, Sugar Ray is the greatest living boxer.

Now 64, Leonard looks like he could still go to war inside the ring — and emerge triumphant.

The Palmer Park, Maryland, native sat down for an engaging, eye-opening, and candid livestream interview with BlackPressUSA about his life, career, and the vital role that sports has played — and can still play — in bringing our nation together, especially in light of the current pandemic.

Leonard, who won a gold medal in the 1976 Olympic Games, also opened up about a few of his past personal demons.

The interview was streamed live over several of BlackPressUSA’s social media channels, including Facebook and YouTube.

“I called my business partner, Mike Trainer, and told him I wanted to fight (“Marvelous”) Marvin Hagler, and he asked me had I been drinking,” Leonard reminisced about the time leading up to his 1987 bout with Hagler. The then-retired former champion hadn’t competed in several years after having left the ring following discovery of and surgery for a fight-related detached retina in 1982.

Hagler defeated one of Leonard’s other infamous foes, Thomas (Tommy) “The Hit Man” Hearns in what Leonard called the “most violent three rounds I’d ever seen.” Hagler was also a natural middleweight while Leonard achieved most of his success as a boxer fighting in the welterweight division.

“When I told my brothers that I wanted to fight Hagler, they couldn’t believe I would even think of it,” Leonard recalled.

“They asked, ‘Who would be my tune-up (for Hagler)?’ and I told them, ‘Hagler.’ I fought Kevin Howard before fighting Hagler, and he knocked me down, and people thought Hagler would kill me. Back then, I was on the wrong side of the street, doing cocaine and drinking heavily,” Leonard revealed.

Retirement did not sit well with the Champ. “I was sad. I was not myself anymore. I wanted to fight, and the only thing that calmed me down was alcohol and drugs, so that was another reason why my friends didn’t want me to come back, because they knew the other side of me.”

Leonard would come face-to-face with Hagler, who was heavily favored to defeat him for the world middleweight title, at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas on April 6, 1987.

In the months leading up to the fight, Leonard channeled his idol, Muhammad Ali. As Ali had done to opponents many times prior, Leonard began a mind war with Hagler.

“The whole fight was based upon me getting into his head. I wanted to beat him mentally, and we had so many press conferences, and I would say to the media, ‘It’s a shame that you guys don’t see him as a good boxer and not just a slugger,’” said Leonard, sharing his pre-fight strategy for the bout with Hagler.

He counted on getting his opponent out of his comfort zone by getting into Hagler’s psyche. Hagler was regarded as a brawler with incredible power and the sport’s most dominant slugger. Leonard needed Hagler to beleive that he had to prove to the world that he could also box.

“…Hagler told the press, ‘I may surprise all of you, I may outbox Ray,’” Leonard remembered. It was exactly what he wanted to hear. “I said, ‘I got him!’” Leonard went on to win a 12-round decision over Hagler and claim the world middleweight championship.

Leonard couldn’t believe that 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of his famous “No Mas” humiliation (this writer’s words, not Leonard’s) of Roberto Duran in New Orleans.

For any true boxing fan that was alive at that time, Leonard Duran 2 was a pivotal event in sports history. You remember details about that fight:

  • Where you were.
  • Who was with you when you watched the fight.
  • Ray Charles’ rendition of “America the Beautiful.”

Anyone who saw that fight live and tells you that their jaw didn’t fall open when Duran (who was completely unhurt physically at the time) waved his hands and walked away, is straight up lying to you!

In that fight, the rematch following to the duo’s first bout earlier that year in Montreal, where Duran won a 15-round decision.

Similar to Leonard, Roberto Duran is also a boxing legend and a hero in his native Panama. Duran held world championships in four weight classes: lightweight, welterweight, light middleweight and middleweight.

Instead of employing the “toe-to-toe brawler” strategy that likely cost him the first match. Leonard relied on his superior speed — and Duran’s pride — to defeat his opponent. During the bout, Leonard was able to hit Duran at will, employing a strategy of taunting and mocking him.

In the eighth round, Duran stopped fighting altogether, signaling to the ref that he would not continue. Leonard won by technical knockout.

“I knew I had him from Round 1. Ray Charles, my namesake, sang ‘America the Beautiful.’ Afterwards, (he) walked over to me and said, ‘Kick his ass,’” Leonard recalled.

Following Duran, Leonard’s next major battle would take place in Las Vegas against Hearns to unify the welterweight title. The fight was dubbed, “The Showdown at the Palace.”

“It was a war,” Leonard said, recalling his famous trainer Angelo Dundee’s iconic words between rounds 12 and 13. “You’re blowing it, son, you’re blowing it,” Dundee told Leonard, who responded by attacking Hearns in the 13th round, knocking him down, and eventually knocking him out in the 14th round.

While it was clear that Leonard has shared many of the stories several times over the decades that have passed since his heyday, he became somber at one point during the interview, reflecting that boxing, “saved my life.”

“It gave me an opportunity to provide for my parents, help my siblings, help my friends, and help my community,” said Leonard. “I’m a blessed man. I won the Olympics in 1976 and had every intention of going to the University of Maryland to further my education and get a good job.

“I had no intention of turning pro because I heard about fighters getting taken advantage of financially. My father was in the hospital, my mother was crying, my family was crying, and my mentor, Janks Morton, said I should turn pro.

“I made the right decision to take care of my family.”

During the interview, Leonard spoke about his family often, including noting that he is a grandfather. He mentioned that he and his wife have worked to prepare and provide opportunities for their children and, though he never mentioned it specifically, it was clear that the quality of his own strong upbringing by his parents, not only shaped his character but enabled him to regain his center after the dark periods in his life.

“My dad passed away just a couple of years ago, and my mother is (a spry) 91. Life is what you make it,” he said.

It surely has to be noted that “Sugar” Ray Leonard, the first boxer in history to clear $100 million in fight purses, has made the most of his time on earth and, he says, he still has more “great things to do!”