Terry Norris vs Sugar Ray Leonard: The End Of An Era
By Lea Worrall
The defending WBC light-middleweight champion won the belt by obliterating the tough Ugandan John Mugabi in a round at the end of March 1990.
Terry Norris, who was ranked number five, wobbled Mugabi with a left hook at the 45 second point, following up the shot with a barrage of punches that put Mugabi down. The champion managed to survive the onslaught for 90 seconds, but towards the end of the round a right to the chin relieved him of his senses and the championship belt.
Born in Lubbock, Texas on 17th June 1967, Terry Norris eventually had to leave his hometown after getting into a brawl at a baseball game, where he was stabbed by a masked assailant in a nightclub and shot at. “If I stayed, I’d probably be in a pine box.”
He went to California and followed his brother Orlin to the KO Corral boxing ranch which was run by Joe Sayatovich, who would eventually become his manager. After an amateur record of 291-4 and four Texas State Golden Gloves Championships to his name, Norris turned professional in August 1986, knocking out fellow debutant Jose Luis Cordova in the first round.
Norris went 12-0 before losing a ten round unanimous decision to Derrick Kelly. He bounced back against Edward Neblett, but lost his discipline in November 1987 getting disqualified for hitting opponent Joe Walker whilst he was down.
With eight more wins under his belt, Norris got his first crack at the light-middleweight championship when he challenged the hard hitting WBA title holder Julian Jackson. The challenger boxed well for the first round, but halfway through the second a wicked right from the champion relieved him of his senses. He was out on his feet as Jackson followed up with a couple more shots to put Norris down headfirst.
Norris made it to his feet, but he had a glazed look in his eyes as referee Joe Cortez waved it off. “Terry got cocky,” Joe Sayatovich would say later. “He didn’t think anyone could knock him out.”
Three more wins would secure his second attempt at the title, this time against Mugabi. Team Mugabi predicted a quick win, unfortunately for them the victory went to Team Norris. In July 1990 the new WBC king travelled to France to make his first defence against Rene Jacquot.
The Frenchman was downed in rounds one, two and twelve and had to fight the majority of the contest with a cut under his left eye, sustained in round three, as he dropped a wide unanimous decision. The victory set up Norris’ biggest opponent to date.
‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard, who had been inactive since his dour points victory against Roberto Duran fourteen months previously was back for a number of reasons. Firstly, there was a history aspect about the contest; Leonard was making his debut at boxing’s Mecca, Madison Square Garden. He also wanted to prove a point to his critics; where in his last three contests he manipulated the scales very much in his favour, this time against the twenty-three-year-old Norris he steps down to the light-middleweight limit, negotiating no such advantages.
The champion, eleven years Leonard’s junior and only six years older than Ray Leonard Junior. Leonard, a 12-5 betting favourite, was taking a huge gamble as Norris was at his natural fighting weight, young, vigorous and dangerous. Plus Leonard was in a no win situation; by beating Norris he’ll only achieve what is expected; a loss would dent his place in ring history.
“I don’t like this fight, Leonard has too much to lose, not enough to gain,” stated Emanuel Steward, who for a time was mooted to be an adviser to Leonard for the contest. “The other kid is fast, can punch and doesn’t respect Leonard’s reputation – he won’t freeze the way Michael Olajide did against Hearns.”
Norris’ confidence was bordering on cockiness as he looked forward to making Leonard’s retirement permanent and at the same time his career would “sky rocket.” He also wished that he could have faced a young prime Leonard as “that would have been a war.” He admits watching the challenger winning regularly on TV as he was growing up made him an idol and that he based his style on him. “But it’s my time now.”
The champion’s brashness resonated with Leonard: “He reminds me of myself when I was his age.” With inactivity and the stress of going through a recent divorce, Leonard was open to vulnerability. The fact that he was floored in sparring by nineteen year old Michael Ward and reports suggesting that it was a genuine knockdown, not just a case of being caught off balance only fuelled such concerns. “My edge is a psychological one. I’ve been there many times before. I have to establish respect from the start and let him know he’s in with a cagey veteran.”
Mike Trainer’s company, Victory Promotions, promoted the contest and the bout was shown live on the American TV giant Showtime. The rival network HBO, who employed Leonard as a ringside commentator since 1978 released him from his contract, as they weren’t given the opportunity to bid for the television rights.
Ross Greenburg, the HBO Sports Executive, stated: “We feel, therefore, if HBO are treated in this fashion, it is inappropriate for Ray to continue as a commentator on World Championship Boxing telecasts.”
“There has never been a linkage between his broadcasting and his fighting,” responded Mike Trainer.
At the weigh-in held the day before the contest, Leonard scaled right on the light-middleweight limit of 154 pounds (69.85 KG) and Norris came in slightly under at 152.5 (69.17 KG).
The supposed big fight nerves never materialised as Norris boxed with purpose from the onset. A right to the body put Leonard to the ropes and it looked like the challenger was in for a long, tough night. As he did with Hagler, Leonard looked to up the tempo in the final 30 seconds of the round to catch the judges eye, but Norris was more than willing to match him.
Things got a lot worse for Leonard in round two. With six seconds remaining Norris caught his man with a long left hook during an exchange of punches and downed the challenger, who propped himself up by his gloves, preventing the seat of his black satin trunks hitting the canvas. Norris rushed in, showing the same ill-discipline that got him disqualified against Roman Nunez, as he landed a right to force Leonard on his back. “I’ll disqualify you if you do that again,” warned referee Arthur Mercante Junior.
Leonard, as with the previous two rounds, came out flatfooted in the third and almost paid the ultimate price when the champion caught him with a left uppercut. The challenger was hurt and on unsteady legs as he covered up on the ropes, swinging wildly with his own hooks, which were way off target. Had Norris upped the tempo he could’ve forced a stoppage, but in the back of his mind he was probably thinking Leonard was feigning being hurt. Finally as the seconds counted down the veteran put some punches together, but it was too little too late to make an impression on the round.
It was a disastrous start for the five-weight champion, but his fans clung on to the hope that he had gotten off the floor before to win, perhaps he could again. He looked to get a foothold of the contest in the fourth as he landed to head and body with his aggressive style. The problem was Norris countered with ease and opened up a cut on Leonard’s lower lip and his eyes were beginning to look puffy.
Leonard started the fifth round aggressively, but the power was with the champion. When the veteran landed it had little effect, but Norris seemed to shake up his opponent whenever he caught him. It was also apparent the speed of hand and foot had deserted the old pro, as he ate up most of the champion’s jabs.
Norris was in total control of the contest, but even though Leonard was falling further behind in the sixth, he was very much still in the fight. He landed some good punches, but at the bell was up against the ropes. He accidentally caught the referee with a left hook as the bell sounded.
Round seven was another strong one for Norris, everything he threw he landed with. Leonard took a right hand counter which put him to the canvas for the second time in the fight. After taking the mandatory eight count late in the round, he found himself pinned on the ropes as the champion looked to overpower him. The ringside doctor checked him over during the intermission with Leonard saying he was all right, but defeat had masked over his handsome features.
Leonard came out for the eighth round spitting blood and spent the first few minutes with his back on the ropes. He fired out a flurry with a minute remaining and tried to fire in some solid blows with 30 seconds left, which gave the 7,495 crowd going, but he also shipped his fair share of punishment. At the bell he raised his hands, gesturing in self-delusion that he had the measure of his younger opponent.
The Texan boxed well within himself in round nine. He scored well with a lead right; a punch that would never have landed in Leonard’s peak, but the truth was evident, the old body couldn’t respond to the still quick brain’s commands. The veteran was looking every bit like an old fighter.
Norris was under pressure at the start of the tenth, but he was able to ride the storm and pick his punches. A good one-two hammered Leonard to the ropes. He was hurt, but looked to fire back, even though the champion was dominating the contest. Leonard even opened his arms at one point as if to say ‘You’ve got the better of me kid!’
Again Leonard started the eleventh with some intent, but it was short lived as Norris had Leonard in trouble once more, as he was coming close to getting stopped for the first time in his career. The ex-champion cut a sad figure as the title holder landed at will. Leonard did come to life at the bell, with the younger man more than matching him.
Norris, a mile ahead on points and knowing Leonard needed a knockout to win simply coasted and picked his punches in the final three minutes. There was no danger of the champion getting knocked out as the challenger didn’t have the energy nor the firepower to reclaim his glory days.
The champion raised his arms aloft at the final bell as Leonard simply touched him on the back of his trunks and shared an embrace. Showing dignity in defeat, Leonard raised Norris’ arm and paraded him around the ring in a changing of the guard ritual -“giving him to the crowd,” as Leonard put it.
The score was predictably a unanimous one with judges Sid Rubenstein and Barbara Perez scoring the fight by wide margins of 119-103 and 120-104 respectively. While Billy Costello had it closer and somehow scored four rounds to Leonard on his card of 116-110. The veteran took the MC’s microphone, stating this would be his final contest and thanked the customers for coming.
“It was a sad victory,” said Norris afterwards. “He’s my idol and I beat him badly. I didn’t want it to be that way. He’s still my idol.”
“He was quick and too smart. He’s a young Sugar Ray Leonard. He’s going to get better. If he maintains the same focus, he’s going to be around a long time.”
Norris did stay around for a long time as he emerged as a dominant champion in his weight category. He stopped the former undisputed welterweight champion Don Curry in eight rounds in his match after Leonard. He also scored stoppage wins over WBA welterweight champion Meldrick Taylor and IBF welterweight title holder Maurice Blocker.
A big money showdown was mooted with Mexican great Julio Cesar Chavez, but in December 1993 he unexpectantly lost his belt to ex IBF and WBC welterweight champion Simon Brown with a fourth round knockout, scuppering any chance of a bout with Chavez.
In the rematch Norris put in a brilliant display as he out pointed Brown to regain the title.
Norris was then disqualified twice, losing his belt to Luis Santana. The first time was for rabbit punching, in the rematch he caught Santana after the bell and lost again by disqualification. In the third meeting Norris finally got things right and stopped his foe in the second round on 19th August 1995, making him a three-time light-middleweight champion.
A month later he defended his belt against David Gonzalez, winning by a ninth round TKO. In December 1995 he won a landslide points decision adding the IBF strap to his WBC bauble by beating Paul Vaden.
He won six more defences in two years, losing his WBC title to Keith Mullins on 06th December 1997. Norris should’ve retired but in November 1998 had his 25th and final world title fight when he challenged WBA light-middleweight champion Laurent Boudouani. Becoming a four time champion wasn’t to be as he lost by a ninth round TKO, in France.
‘Terrible’ Terry Norris retired at the age of thirty-one with a record of 47-9 (31 KO’s) and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2005.
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