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Sugar Ray Leonard: ‘Beauty, power, greatness, perfection – Robinson was the best’

A peak Leonard (left) takes on top contender Andy Price in 1979. Photo: THE RING Archive
05
Dec

“The term pound-for-pound wasn’t really used in the 80s. The term we used was ‘greatest of all time’.” – Sugar Ray Leonard

It’s Christmas come early, guys.

On November 30, I was on the phone to my older brother when an email came through from former five-weight world champion Sugar Ray Leonard. That might sound glamourous – and it is – but it doesn’t happen every day. Whatever plans I had in place were officially cancelled and arguably the greatest living fighter was now top priority.

I had contacted Leonard’s assistant weeks earlier to request the former champion’s input for our next cover story. The mythical pound-for-pound rankings and unified middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin would be the focus of the conversation, but unfortunately that magazine had already gone to press.

Thankfully, Leonard did agree to speak to RingTV.com about the origins of pound-for-pound, his own career and Golovkin (our next cover star). To give you undiluted “Sugar Ray”, I have split the feature in two and it will be the second part which will revolve around GGG and his pound-for-pound ascent.

Leonard (right) cracks Benitez. Photo: THE RING Archive

First up, however, on the 38th anniversary of his WBC welterweight title triumph over Wilfred Benitez, Leonard ruminated on his pound-for-pound predecessor, Sugar Ray Robinson, as well as his own Hall of Fame career.

“Beauty, power, greatness, perfection – Sugar Ray Robinson was the best,” said Leonard, who was granted permission by Robinson himself to use the most famous moniker in boxing history. “It goes with saying that Sugar Ray Robinson was regarded as the greatest fighter in the world pound-for-pound and rightfully so. If you watch his fights, you can see it.

“With (Muhammad) Ali; he was pretty, he danced, he moved, he was super-fast. Sugar Ray Robinson was just beautiful. I loved (laughs) the way he dressed, his hair, the Cadillac. Sugar Ray Robinson, to my knowledge, was the first fighter to really know the value of himself. He knew what he deserved in terms of money from the gate and money from TV because he was the one selling out arenas. He was so ahead of his time and he paved the road for me.”

And Leonard hit the ground running. After winning light welterweight gold at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, the new “Sugar Man” blitzed his way through the professional ranks and earned himself a world title shot. Between November 1979 and September 1981, Leonard stopped future Hall of Famers in Benitez, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns. Benitez and Hearns were unbeaten world champions and the legendary Duran, who outpointed Leonard in a war in June 1980, hadn’t lost in eight years.

Leonard (left) in his first fight with Roberto Duran. Photo: THE RING Archive

In just 22 months, Leonard had won a world title, avenged his first professional loss to regain it and unified the entire welterweight division when he overcame Hearns. Oh, and in the middle of all that, he knocked out the previously undefeated Ayub Kalule to annex the WBA junior middleweight title in June 1981. They don’t make them like that anymore.

“There were so many great fighters,” said Leonard. “I try to tell boxing fans today, but they don’t really get it. It must be like boxing fans from the 50s and the 60s trying to explain to us what it was like back then. You can never express just how great the fighters were in my era. I guess, that’s the beauty of it.

“I never even thought about legacy until it became a question. Reporters would say, ‘Ray, this is for your legacy’ and ‘This is what you’ll be remembered for’. If you beat Duran, you’ll be this. If you beat (Marvelous Marvin) Hagler, you’ll be that. If you fight this way, you’ll be admired. Okay, you got knocked down, but you got back up. Those comments made me stronger and made me understand what I was fighting for.”

At 61 years old, you still hear the passion in Leonard’s voice when he discusses boxing. Yes, he won multiple world titles. Yes, he was a great fighter. Yes, he’s a hall of famer. But Leonard, just like you and me, is a huge fight fan. He understands the essence of the sport as much as anyone because he risked life and limb against some of the greatest fighters in boxing history.

Leonard (right) under fire from Thomas Hearns. Photo: THE RING Archive

“I often think about when I fought Hagler, Hearns, Duran and Benitez,” revealed Leonard. “I’m sitting in my gym right now – my sanctuary – and I recall reaching down so deep to beat those guys. It’s like what Ali said about it ‘being the closest thing to death’. I understand that now because I did it.

“At the time, there were so many great champions and so many fighters who could have been champions. There was actually too many. I mean, it was a shame that I didn’t get to fight Aaron Pryor. It was a shame that I didn’t get to fight Mike McCallum. Just so much talent. I mean, there were great fights on TV every week.”

Like Ali, Leonard’s prime was cut short due to circumstances out with his control. A detached retina, diagnosed in 1982, led to premature retirement and there was a massive period of inactivity where he fought just once in five years. It’s amazing to think that Leonard could have achieved more than he did and it’s also conceivable that we never seen the very best of him.

However, just like Ali pulled a miracle by dethroning heavyweight champion George Foreman in 1974, Leonard was also obsessed with achieving the impossible. His 12-round split decision win over Hagler in April 1987 earned him THE RING and WBC middleweight titles and an almost mystical quality reserved for only the greatest of prizefighters.

Look out for Part 2 of Tom Gray’s feature on Sugar Ray Leonard.

 

Tom Gray is Associate Editor for THE RING. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing

 

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  • Jody Hanna

    A legendary fighter, one of the greatest of all time, anyone that can’t see that either has an agenda or knows nothing about boxing.

  • ozzy

    Ray Leonard is the best fighter I’ve seen in my lifetime, even I’m not old enough to have seen Robinson live. Although I have to bow to the many who insist that Robinson was the best of
    all-time, pound for pound, – in a one-off fight I do think Leonard had all the skills and attributes to beat him.But that’s irrelevant of course.

    I just feel lucky to have seen a generation of boxers made up of the likes of Benitez, Duran, Hagler, Hearns & Leonard who were all keen to fight each other and produced some superb fights. Leonard being the only one to hold a win over each of the others – which was not bad for someone who had problems with his sight and eventually suffered a detached retina, while time away from the ring led to a cocaine addiction. I believe that Ray was the first pro boxer to have a detached retina re-attached, up until that point any boxer with a detached retina had to retire (not sure my memory is clear about this though!). He eventually came back and after a poor performance against Kevin Howard (KO 9) clearly outboxed Hagler, no matter what Hagler’s bad loser fans say lol. I totally agree with Jody, Ray Leonard is one of the very best of all-time.

    • philoe bedoe

      I agree Leonard is the best boxer I’ve Seen in my lifetime.
      And he had the mixture of skill and the right mindset to beat anyone in history, on his day……..,.

      • Julio

        Leonard was a complete fighter. I think that he definitely would have given any fighter of any era a run for their money.

        • Tom Gray

          Without question. One of the very best of all time.

          • Koninbeor

            How jealous is Doug that you got this interview? Great article, by the way.

          • Tom Gray

            Thanks bro. Doug has worked with Leonard in commentary before, so I’m afraid it’s me that’s jealous lol. I have interviewed Ray face-to-face though. Class act across the board.

  • william ellis

    Excellent story, for all that I’m not sure Leonard actually beat Hagler (I’ve watched the fight twice, and it is a nightmare to score). Have always liked Leonard for having admitted that Hearns won their second fight: classy and rare. And he did clearly beat so many terrific fighters.

    I grew up watching Ray Robinson in the 1950’s, when he fought Hall-of-Famers like Gavilan, Olson, Fullmer, and Basilio. He lost some and won some of those fights, but they amazing thing was that the Robinson I saw was past his peak – and even past his peak he was still the equal of great younger men. Apparently no films exist of his fights in the 1940’s when he was undefeated except for two draws and one loss (which he avenged). He was 129-1-2 in 1951.

    • Tom Gray

      Thank you so much William. Really appreciate the feedback.

      Hagler-Leonard is my second earliest boxing memory (Berbick-Tyson was the first). I’ve always made Ray a narrow winnerin that fight, but it’s down to what you like.

      We can only imagine how good Robinson would have looked against the likes of Tommy Bell, Kid Gavilan and La Motta in their welterweight fights. Incredible fighting machine.

      Thanks again…

  • Big Rav

    I still believe the Tommy Hearns fight was stopped too soon.

    • Tom Gray

      Its all opinion, but I think Tommy was through. Ray was teeing off with snap and there was nothing on Hearns’ shots. Coming in at 145 hurt Tommy badly and he just couldn’t reach the finish line.

    • Julio

      I also believe the same, but the truth is that Tommy at that point was a spent bullet and Leonard was all over him. It is a shame to a degree because Tommy fought a beautiful fight and was ahead on the scorecards at the time of the stoppage.

    • Big Rav

      Yes he came in to light that was Stewart’s fault. I watch this fight every 60 days it seems, I still hate that he loss. Lol

    • David Michael Maez

      No way, I am huge Hearns fan, it was stopped at the right time Tommy was spent and would have taken more shots.

  • Charlie U.

    Tom, I really enjoy all of your features. Every one is informative, well-written and entertaining. Looking forward to part 2 of the greatest I’ve ever seen, even though I missed seeing him in his prime years.

    • Tom Gray

      Thanks a ton Charlie. Interviewing Ray is always a privilege. Had the pleasure of doing so face-to-face a few years ago. You always learn something new when you speak to a fighter of that calibre.

  • Gian Torres

    Leonard vs Hagler and Duran, Robinson vs Lamotta, Ali vs Frazier and Ward vs Kovalev and Froch were like a greyhound fighting a pitbull… but with the greyhound unfairly allowed to bend the rules to compensate for his weaknesses and neutralize the pit bull’s strengths. The faster a fighter(or any animal) is, the less stamina and durability he will have because we can’t evolve in 2 opposite directions. Leonard, Robinson, Ali and Ward(all super fast) used hugs to compensate for their inferior durability and stamina and to neutralize Hagler, Duran, Lamotta, Kovalev, Froch and Frazier’s superior natural fighting ability. The fast fighters were built for *FLIGHT* and the stronger fighters were built to *FIGHT*. Incidentally, I’m rooting for Lomachenko because a win by Rigo is bad for the boxing brand, which means it is bad for the boxing economy. Lastly, the only way to make things fair is to consistently penalize strategic hugs or to allow the Haglers and Kovalevs to also hold the fast fighters in place to be able to land punches.

    • Gian Torres

      It’s to God’s glory that he revealed these fascinating things to me.

    • Dee Money

      Your post seems to presuppose that all boxers are gifted with the exact same amount of athletic ability, and then choose (or evolve) in one direction.-“The faster a fighter is, the less stamina and durability he will have”. The premise that a select group of fighters were faster than the others so by rule they must have less stamina/durability is mistaken.

      It is very much possible for a fighter to be better than his opponent in every physical aspect; or at the very least a fighter can be faster than his opponent and have more stamina.

      • Gian Torres

        This is really, really simple. What this all means, and what seems to be escaping you are 2 things:
        1) the faster boxer in any fight has a much greater chance of winning because hugging is UNFAIRLY allowed.
        2) that doesn’t mean that if hugging was disallowed that the best FIGHTERS wouldn’t have speed.

        Hugging gives an unfair advantage to the fastest boxer in any given fight. Simple. Any more questions?

      • Gian Torres

        “It is very much possible for a fighter to be better than his opponent in
        every physical aspect; or at the very least a fighter can be faster
        than his opponent and have more stamina.”

        Wow! How long did it take you to think of that all by yourself, hyena boy! LOL!

  • Steve

    Great article Tom. Looking forward to part 2. At 43 I’ve only seen highlights of Robinson but Leonard is the greatest fighter I’ve had the pleasure of watching in my lifetime and 20 years after his last fight it’s still a pleasure to read about him.

    • Tom Gray

      I’m with you bro!

  • Black Oracle

    Sugar Ray Robinson was the best hands down. Leonard is second on my all time P4P list

  • James

    Robinson was the greatest Welterweight of all time. The Robinson most of you saw on TV as a MW was way past his prime and still great. No one compared with him at welter. And look at the era in which he fought. He fought middleweights when he was a welterweight. He could have won the LW title but the powers that be would not give him a shot. He had to fight ,what, 6 years before they gave him a shot at the welterweight title. Leonard was great for his era and its a shame he was injured and did not have more fights, however, there was not the competition in Leonards era that their was in Robinson’s era, the Golden Age of boxing. I’m happy Leonard is healthy and prosperous. And Ray Leonard was one of the greatest finishers ever. If he hurt you, you were done. Excellent……