For proof, simply ask the former five-division titleholder himself.
“I never had any say really in who I was going to fight, and I didn’t care. Angelo always had the say,” said Leonard, now 55. “He was the guy who would say, ‘Okay, let’s fight this guy,’ and whenever I did, Angelo Dundee always raised the bar for me and knew that I had what it took to win.”
That was never more apparent than in Leonard’s come-from-behind 14th-round knockout of Thomas Hearns in September of 1981.
“It’s in that Tommy Hearns fight in 1981 that he issued the perfect sound bite where he said, ‘You’re blowing it, son, you’re blowing it.’ Angelo said what needed to be said and he said it the way that it needed to be said,” said Leonard, referring to the one-minute rest-period between the 12th and 13th rounds.
“And he said it without freaking me out. I knew that the fight was close, and how could I not? But Angelo just said something to me that just gave me the ability to go out there and to defeat Tommy.”
Leonard trailed by three points on two judges’ cards and by two on the third at the time of the stoppage.
“When that fight enters my mind, I get tired just thinking about it. But as tired as I was, I got up off of that stool, and I just went at Tommy, and I don’t know how I did it. I wanted to win, without question,” said Leonard.
“But it’s that hidden reservoir of strength that I was able to call upon to hurt him and to throw those kinds of punches to come on and to beat him at that point in the fight. Angelo gave that to me.”
Long before his death on Wednesday in Tampa, Fla., at the age of 90 with his family surrounding him, Dundee served as an equally masterful motivator for 16 other world champions, including Muhammad Ali, Carmen Basilio, George Foreman, Luis Rodriguez and Willie Pastrano.
“I last saw him in Chicago when I was a surprise guest at this gym,” said Leonard, a 1976 Olympic Gold medalist. “When I popped up, he was so happy to see me as I was so very happy to see him. When I heard about his death this morning, you know, it just really hit home.”
After winning his clash of pound-for-pound titans over Hearns, Dundee was, yet again, an overwhelming factor in Leonard’s next major victory.
That would not come until almost six years after the win over Hearns, when Leonard ended a nearly three-year layoff by vanquishing Marvin Hagler as WBC middleweight beltholder by split-decision in April of 1987.
“When I think back to the Hagler fight,” said Leonard, “I think about the training camp.”
For as big as his victory over Hagler was on fight-night, Leonard said that the battle was truly won during the workout leading up to that classic bout.
“Five days before the fight, my sparring partner, Quincy Taylor, nearly knocked me out in training. I mean I was out, man — I mean out on my feet. Now, Quincy saw that I was really hurt and he backed off and gave me time to regroup,” said Leonard.
“But I guarantee you that most people in my camp — probably 98 percent — thought that I was in some real trouble. So they were like, ‘If a sparring partner could hurt him, then oh my God,’ you know? Basically they thought Marvin Hagler was going to kill me.”
Yet again, said Leonard, it was Dundee’s confidence which was a determining role.
“Through it all, Angelo never showed or display any signs of doubt,” said Leonard. “When everybody else was like, ‘Holy s–t, we’re in trouble,’ Angelo was calm. That’s what I saw that day in Angelo’s face. Now that’s a trainer.”
A service will be held for Dundee next Friday, Feb. 10, at the Countryside Christian Center in Clearwater, Fla., according to Dundee’s friend and manager, Mark Grismer, and ESPN.com.
Photos by Jeff Julian, Fightwireimages.com
Lem Satterfield can be reached at [email protected]