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KO Magazine Q&A – Sugar Ray Leonard: I can beat Hagler

Photo by The Ring/ Getty Images
Fighters Network

This feature originally appeared in the October 1986 issue of KO Magazine.

By Jeff Ryan

From the time that Ray Charles Leonard first stood with Howard Cosell in the Olympic Village in Montreal, America has been involved in one long love affair with the kid sporting the Cheshire cat smile. If it’s not a brother, son or a nephew that Leonard reminds you of, then it’s the kid next door or the grocery boy. We’ve watched as “our Ray” has grown from a kid with his girlfriend’s picture taped to his sock to his position as boxing’s unofficial elder statesman. In between there have been two world championships, eye surgery, a retirement, a brief comeback, and another retirement on top of that.

Few figures in the sport command as much respect as he does. That explains why, when Leonard told sportscaster Jim Brown of WDVM-TV in Washington, D.C., that he would consider ending his retirement for one fight against Marvin Hagler, the news flew faster than a Leonard combination to the jaw. One of boxing’s biggest superstars was back, but unfortunately for him, the “Welcome Home” signs didn’t start unfurling immediately.

Because of his age (30) and medical history, Leonard’s decision was met with a bombardment of criticism and a demand for a rational explanation. With that in mind, KO sought out Leonard’s views in the matter, and finally caught up with the former champion on the morning of June 9th, when Leonard explained his decision to Senior Writer Jeff Ryan by phone from his Potomac, Maryland, home. The “Sugar Man” had just returned from Toronto, where his protégé, welterweight Shawn O’Sullivan, had been kayoed in three rounds a day earlier. Leonard’s voice was filled with weariness, the aftereffect of a long talk with O’Sullivan and the strain of flying from Washington to Toronto to Los Angeles to Toronto to Washington, all in the space of a few days.

At times throughout the interview, Leonard seemed impatient, at other times, moody. Perhaps he was just experiencing the flipside of being Ray Leonard, that is having to consent to an interview when you would really rather be doing something else.

KO Magazine: Instead of starting off by asking you why you are coming back, let’s phrase the question differently. Why are you not staying in retirement? Why aren’t you content to continue the peaceful life that you have continually claimed makes you so happy?

Ray Leonard: Well, let’s put it this way, I am content with my life. I’m content with what I’m doing with HBO and I’m content with my endorsements. The contentment is not relaxing and not what I want concerning my boxing career. I mean, every year I look and reflect upon it, and something’s missing. It’s a simple fact that Hagler is missing from it. My birthday’s coming up, I’ll be 30, and I’m still in fine shape. I said, “Hell if Hagler wants to fight, let’s do it now without any tuneup bouts, eliminations, or however they phrase it. I also want to stop the comeback issue. When I’m in the gym, people are constantly asking me if I’m coming back for another career. And my response was always that I had a career. But I said if Hagler wants to fight, we can do that.

KO: You gave serious thought to fighting Hagler after you saw his fight with Roberto Duran. Now you’re calling for him again after seeing him against John Mugabi. Was that because you were able to study his vulnerabilities from your broadcast position at ringside?

RL: Hagler has very few vulnerabilities. I think he was impressive with Duran. He fought a guy who was very slick and crafty, and who nullified him. Against Mugabi, he fought the best way he could. Mugabi is a strong individual. Those fights had no bearing at all on saying, “Let’s do it.” We sat down together in my restaurant a while back, and we left the restaurant to talk more casually. We were not intimidated by each other. They talk about my eyes and this and that, but Hagler knows I’m okay. We both said that a fight between each other would be so so great. When we were saying it there was a gleam in his eyes and a gleam in my eyes, quite naturally.

Prior to facing Leonard, Hagler emerged victorious from a brutal war with John “The Beast” Mugabi. Photo by Focus on Sport/ Getty Images

KO: Tell us about these three secret fights that you supposedly had with light heavyweights in your gym.

RL: It’s nothing. I worked with some guys mainly because of the mistake I made with Kevin Howard. Fighting him was premature, because I was not conditionally ready to face a Kevin Howard. Even mentally I wasn’t ready because I was beyond Kevin Howard to Hagler. When I decided to fight again [in 1984], I just then got back in the gym. It’s a different story this time. You need conditioning to get the body used to being punched on again. I think in an any contact sport, like football, you have to get used to the trauma of being hit. That’s why the guys run around for a period of time with pads on and go through scrimmages. Boxing requires the same thing.

KO: You actually fought them with no headgear and with a referee and a timekeeper present?

RL: Yeah. I did it on my own just to get that feeling again.

KO: What feeling did you get?

RL: I felt something that wasn’t there when I fought Howard. The physical aspect of being in a fight.

KO: You have always been very aware of the power of the media and the tremendous value the public places on your word. Your announcement to Jim Brown on WD-VM sounded as though it was just a casual comment, but we got the feeling it was a calculated way of setting a Leonard-Hagler fight in motion.

RL: Oh yeah. During my career I have always evaluated certain situations. For this, it was perfect timing because of what I’ve seen and what I foresee as far as Hagler is concerned. I know that he doesn’t have that many fights left and I know that I still have one big fight left. He’s not getting any younger and I’m not getting any younger. The timing is perfect.

KO: When you retired for the first time, the public truly believed that you made an intelligent decision and would never return. Then you came back. After you retired following the Howard fight, most people believed that retirement speech was for real. As you return to action once more, do you worry that people will now perceive you as a bullshitter or just another in a long list of ex-champions who didn’t know how to quit the ring?

RL: Well, whatever they say doesn’t matter to me. It’s what I say and what I mean. They can say, “He’s BSing the public. He doesn’t know when to give it up.” You know, the fact is, Ryan, if I was a football player or a basketball player, I wouldn’t receive as much criticism. People would not be as cynical as they are. Because of the nature of my sport and the history of fighters making comebacks, the history of them being injured and punch drunk, they say the same about me. I’m doing what I want to do and it’s time I realized that I must satisfy myself before anyone else. My second retirement was a very emotional decision. I said, “I don’t have it anymore,” and I didn’t have it anymore because look who I was up against. I was up against a guy who was a legitimate contender – no question about it, Kevin Howard was – but he didn’t get me pumped up like Hagler would. People say, “Hagler will kill you.” Fine. That’s their opinion. I know what I’m capable of doing in certain situations. I’ve fought the best – Hearns, Duran, Benitez – and they were very significant fights in my career. But after Hearns, and then a two-year layoff, to come back and fight a Kevin Howard wouldn’t get my adrenalin flowing.

Leonard was dropped for the first time in his career by Kevin Howard. Photo by The Ring Magazine/ Getty Images

KO: You’ve said that you couldn’t get motivated for Kevin Howard but you will for Marvin Hagler. Okay, so you’ve overcome the motivation problem. But after the Howard fight, you also said, “I was very apprehensive about getting hit.” How do you overcome that apprehension? How, through two years of inactivity, have you conquered that demon.

RL: When I fought Kevin Howard I was apprehensive about being hit, but that all goes back to my mental capabilities. I felt that I just didn’t have it then. After checking out the film of the fight I saw what I was doing wrong. Quite naturally, I can judge and critique myself better than anyone else can. I saw that for some reason, I was very reluctant to punch. Then there comes the rebuttal, “What about Hagler? You can’t be reluctant to hit this guy back.” That won’t be the case with him. With Kevin Howard, I was involved in a no-win situation. I had to beat a guy who everyone else had beaten before, a guy with a history of never being in shape. And to have lost to Kevin Howard would have only substantiated everyone’s feeling of “We told you that you didn’t have it.” So I was in a very awkward situation. I was almost like a politician in one of his no-win situations.

KO: You admitted to actually being scared before the Howard fight. What will you be feeling as you sit in the dressing room knowing that you’re about to face a bigger, stronger destroyer like Hagler?

RL: One thing about it, my adrenalin and my energies will be geared toward him. With Howard, my energies were geared toward Hagler anyway because that was my objective, to fight Marvin. And we wanted to go through this guy and that guy and build up some mystique until it was the prime time to fight Hagler. I made a mistake by not going to Hagler first.

KO: Ray, can you really beat Hagler?

RL: I can beat Hagler.

KO: How?

RL: I won’t beat Hagler the man, he’s strong and he’s big. I’ll beat his style. That’s the way I’ve beaten everyone else. I don’t beat the guys, I beat their style. Hearns was physically stronger than I was, but I beat his style. Roberto Duran – I beat him scientifically. Same with Benitez. I beat Benitez with heart.

KO: You’ll beat Marvin, we assume, with boxing.

RL: With boxing.

KO: You, and your brain trust – manager Mike Trainer and trainer Angelo Dundee – have always been a model of intelligent decision-making. You’ve always been wiling to take risks, but not foolish ones. Yet Trainer told KO that he believed your sparring sessions with Shawn O’Sullivan would be sufficient for preparing you to face Hagler, the best fighter in the sport. That statement seems almost insane, especially coming from one of the best managers in the game.

RL: That’s Mike who’s talking, but I see his point. I do what I think is adequate enough for me to go up against a guy the caliber of a Hagler. First of all, I don’t necessarily need a tuneup. I’ve heard the Gil Clancys and the Larry Merchants and every type of broadcaster who knows the sport say, “Ray, why don’t you have a tuneup?” I don’t want a tuneup. I don’t need a tuneup. They say, “In the past, fighters have . . .” I stop them right there. I’m not a fighter of the past. I’ve never done things traditional ways. I do things my way. I will use people like I have in the past to prepare me, people that are somewhat comparable to Hagler. Heavier guys, bigger punchers, and guys that are maybe a lot better than Hagler in the sense of determination. Because you see, you can get a sparring partner with that same tenacity just because he has a very serious approach to sparring sessions.

Photo by The Ring Magazine/ Getty Images

KO: You think you can find a sparring partner who is as tenacious as Marvin Hagler would be on the night that he stared across the ring at Sugar Ray Leonard?

RL: That’s too hypothetical. No, Marvin Hagler is Marvin Hagler. There are no sparring partners like Hagler, there are no fighters like Hagler. But the way I gear myself, I’ll be prepared if he should say, “Yes, we’ll fight.” Thing about it is, what pushes me is that 90 percent of the people don’t think I can do it. That’s why I want to do it and the reason I’m looking forward to this.

KO: You seem to be contradicting yourself. First you say that you’ll find a sparring partner who matches Hagler’s ferocity, then you say there is nobody like Hagler.

RL: There is no contradiction. I’m saying the sparring partners can prepare me physically to get in shape. As far as whatever other elements or factors you guys talk about, I don’t know. All I need to do is get in shape.

KO: And you assume that your natural ability will then take over?

RL: Exactly.

KO: Trainer said that a tuneup is a risk because you could run into another motivation problem, perhaps get knocked down again. But if there is that much concern and trepidation among your brain trust – they seem to be viewing you as a China doll – how confident can they be that you’ll defeat Hagler?

RL: It’s not a matter of their confidence, it’s my confidence that counts. I don’t care what people feel or think. I do what I want to do and I’ve always been my own individual, my own person. That’s what drives me and motivates me. If that was the case, Ronald Regan would never have run for President because they said actors can’t make it. He proved them wrong.

KO: According to USA Today, you mentioned to your wife, Juanita, the possibility of a fight with Donald Curry. That would seem to indicate that you would come back for something other than just a Hagler fight. Your response.

RL: That’s not true. That’s Bob Arum’s bullshit. I mean, hey, he has Donald Curry and he claimed he has interests in Hagler. Quite naturally, he wants to lobby like did the first time around. Arum asked to promote my last fight with Kevin Howard. We didn’t need him and he went through this shindig of trying to stop me mainly because he had no interest in the promotion. If he had an interest, he’d be tickled to death by it.

KO: Would you have to deal with Arum in order to stage a Hagler fight?

RL: No, we don’t need Arum. That’s the problem he has. And when Hagler wakes up and understands that we can do it ourselves, then we’ll get the thing on the road.

Despite Leonard’s views, Bob Arum would make “The Superfight.” Photo by The Ring/ Getty Images

KO: Are you aware of the fact that you’re risking your reputation by fighting Hagler?

RL: What is my reputation?

KO: It’s one of being a great champions who lost only once in 34 fights, one two championships, and whose career was cut short by injury, or else he might have won three.

RL: I feel this way: my reputation is always at stake. Suppose I get divorced. What happens? Where’s that all-American boy? I don’t believe in reputations, unless you’re a bad boy (laughs).

KO: You must have sat and thought, “What if I lose? How will I be remembered years from now?”

RL: I never considered it.

KO: Never?

RL: Never. I’ll be honest with you. I’m always nervous and scared before I get in the ring. Confident, but nervous. I guess it’s anticipation. But I’ve never considered losing. Never have, never will.

KO: Your wife and son have repeatedly said that they don’t want you to fight. What do you say to them to ease their minds at this time?

RL: (Laughs.) Everyone thinks they know my wife better than I do. “Hey, your wife doesn’t want you to fight.” How the hell do they know how my wife honestly feels? I talked to my wife and kid and explained to them what I want to do, and asked them their feelings. One thing about Juanita, she’s a strong-willed woman, a very independent lady. She said, “The first time out I didn’t want you to fight Kevin Howard,” because again, Ryan, it goes right back to what I stated earlier. She didn’t think I could get up for Kevin Howard, that I wouldn’t have the same self-discipline and self-motivation that is a necessity for fighting, period. She was absolutely right. This time around she claims she’s not as afraid. Quite naturally, every woman would be afraid if her man was facing Hagler. No question about that. But she is more at ease now because she sees the same desire in me that made me able to beat a Hearns and a Duran. To Little Ray, I said, “Ray, I’m sure you hear a lot of talk at school about your father getting his block knocked off. What are your feelings?” And he said, “Daddy, I know you want to fight him. I always knew you wanted to fight him. Just go ahead and beat him.” I don’t want to make this a soap opera or a family sit-com, I just want to make it clear that my family is with me no matter what I do.

KO: Would you insist on any specific provisions for this fight, such as thumbless gloves, or a 12-round distance, or meeting at a middle ground like 155 pounds?

RL: That ’55 limit was bullshit. I said that when we first considered fighting a few years ago because, hell, I had nothing else to talk about. We had talked about everything else in the book. It stuck, and now it’s like, “Ray’s afraid to fight him at 160.” There is no significance if he comes down in weight. Hagler is a middleweight. He fights at middleweight. I want to meet him as a middleweight. As far as the thumbless gloves go, he’s the champion, he calls the shots.

KO: How do you prevent Marvin Hagler from racing out, charging across the ring, and simply outmuscling you?

RL: I don’t think he will do that. Hagler’s too smart too just run toward me like a steam engine, like he did with Hearns. He knows that I have more artillery than Hearns, and more intelligence than Tommy. I’m not like a Tommy Hearns who tried macho stuff without being technical in there. He tried to exchange punch for punch. Tommy knocked out Roberto Duran and I don’t think Duran was mentally or physically involved in the fight. Especially because I retired and Duran looked forward to a rubber match with me. So Duran got in there against Tommy with the intention of “Hey, let’s see if we can do something in here.” Tommy won and said, “Hell, I’m back. I’ve redeemed myself. Now I’m strong again.” No. No. No. Tommy was in the wrong time zone fighting Hagler the way he did.

KO: Do you think this fight can be the media spectacle that it would have been five years ago, or even two years ago, when you first came back?

RL: I think the same thing applies mainly because I haven’t been in the ring physically for a couple of years, people look at Hagler and say, well, he’s deteriorating. He’s getting older and wearing down. So that compensates for my inactivity. Although there’s not much logic behind that, people feel how they feel and think how they think. I still think that it has the same amount of anticipation that it had some time ago. The only problem I see is that more people lean toward Hagler now than toward me (laughs). That’s fine with me.

KO: In this same issue of KO, Curry says that you should fight him because a victory over him would make people believe that you could also beat Hagler. His feeling is that you must make people believe you can beat Hagler in order to make the fight bigger.

RL: You know, it’s really strange how somebody can write someone’s script. Arum does a good job. A damn good job.

KO: Do you realize that you are, in a sense, the last link between the sport of boxing and intelligent thought, the last guy who is perceived as being too smart to make mistakes that others have made?

RL: I’m not making mistakes here either, Ryan.  Whatever I do is calculated. I understand everyone’s reason for being somewhat pessimistic, but I’m optimistic so I have no problem.

KO: You do understand how the critics feel.

RL: I do understand it. I would say the same think: “Don’t fight, it’s a risk,” and this and that. But I would be saying that as a person who has never been involved in what Sugar Ray Leonard has been involved in. That’s the difference.

KO: Convince the nonbelievers out there that Leonard-Hagler will be a great fight and not a mismatch. What would you tell a friend in order to make him go to the fight with you?

RL: I won’t try to convince anybody. If a friend didn’t want to go, I’d just go by myself because it’s cheaper to buy one ticket, anyway.








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