Sugar Ray Leonard: The Final Fight
In 1991 the brilliant career of Sugar Ray Leonard appeared to have finally come to an end. Terry Norris battered Leonard all around the ring in Madison Square Garden on his way to a one-sided decision that convinced Leonard his day in the sun had ended. Picking himself off the canvas twice, Leonard showed courage many choose not to acknowledge he had. He could have quit, but Leonard always had immense fighting heart. A battered, beaten fighter who wanted to go out on his shield. Leonard would have known in the opening few minutes he would be losing a fight for only the second time in his career. Pride and guts got him through the 12 rounds.
Leonard announced his retirement before he had left the ring. Retirement had been coming, another fighter who couldn’t let go. The great champion now the sacrifice to those on the way up.
But his decision to finally retire initially came with relief, Leonard had been clinging on to the past like so many before him. Since he launched his latest comeback in 1987, Leonard had largely stuck to fighters from his own era. When he did step out of the ‘legends tour’ Donny LaLonde dropped him for only the second time in Leonard’s career. Leonard rallied to stop the brave Canadian. But even when he stepped back into his comfort zone he found Thomas Hearns a much tougher opponent than he had imagined. There were two more visits to the canvas, Leonard escaped with a highly controversial draw, the first real signs he was outstaying his welcome.
To add to that narrative, the third fight with Roberto Duran in 1989 was a pale shadow of what came before. The boos rang out, thousands of fans left long before the final bell. Leonard boxed with caution, too much of it. Duran just didn’t fight.
The ‘Sugar Man’ said he wanted a visit to the iconic Garden on his fighting CV. But Leonard said he knew he would lose as he walked to the ring to face Norris, and referenced it like a frightened groom who did not want to go through with a wedding. Norris was too much of everything. This time Leonard had picked the wrong guy. His latest retirement looked a permanent one. Even the cynics would be convinced.
But by 1996, Leonard had formed excuses in his mind for his loss to Norris. A fighter of his quality can rarely accept he can’t do it anymore. Boiling his body back down to light-middleweight, the injury to his ribs, Leonard had ready-made excuses. Or so he thought.
Leonard was ringside when Marvelous Marvin Hagler had struggled with John Mugabi. Seeing Hagler struggle far more than was expected convinced Leonard to announce his shock return, which culminated in his upset win over Hagler in 1987.
The retirement after the Norris fight should have given Leonard the peace he was looking for, and badly needed. But watching fights and doing TV commentary, Leonard often said: ‘I can beat this guy.’ It worked for Hagler. But a different more familiar history repeated itself. Seeing is not always believing. Remembering his past, forgetting the fountain of youth was just an illusion. The man in the mirror was a fighter no more.
Leonard must have watched his old sport with some resentment, missing the spotlight he always craved. Or was it something more.
Watching Hector Camacho win a controversial decision over a Roberto Duran who was now closer to 50 than 40, had Leonard having that old familiar feeling. Camacho sensing another name he could add to his record called out Leonard. The offer was accepted.
Camacho at 34, was seen as a fighter on the decline. A losing battle with the scales, a dwindling commitment to the sport. Camacho enjoyed the high life a little too much, his party-loving lifestyle a thing of legend and career detriment. Leonard liked what he saw. Leonard remembered Camacho’s youth was a long time ago, forgetting his youth was even further in the past.
But Leonard had his own demons, long-standing drug and alcohol abuse had taken away plenty from the clean-cut image of old. Fighting again was to help mask something deep within. There were problems that needed something more. The tortured soul needed no help inside a boxing ring, outside of it, he needed plenty. Leonard should have looked in the mirror of truth. Leonard said one of his best talents was fooling himself, he was doing it again.
Leonard said his training was going well, but then a freak injury in training left Leonard with a torn calf muscle. The damage to his right calf was hidden from view in the hope rest and treatment would solve the problem. He could barely train in the last few weeks, no sparring or running. Leonard again refused to postpone. In many ways, Leonard had run out of time. The similarities to his fight with Norris were too hard to ignore. Sadly for Leonard, he did.
The old team was no more, Angelo Dundee had long since left the inner circle in a row over money, many others also now a part of the past. In different ways, so was Leonard. A new trainer Adrian Davis now at the helm, a new start leading up to the same old ending. The old legend now the opponent, called out for a reason. Camacho saw everything Leonard didn’t.
In March 1997 at the Atlantic City Convention Hall, Leonard made his final walk. The IBC middleweight title was on the line, a title of little or no significance. A sign of where both fighters now sat in the boxing landscape. Every fighter has a time and a place. The moment soon passes.
It was sad, a pitiful but predictable end to a great career. Leonard was never in it, he had very little left but pride. There was no balance or mobility, the injection to hide the pain in his calf rendered him practically defenceless, the calf numb, Leonard practically a one-legged fighter. Camacho had a sitting target in front of him. Leonard was dropped early in the 5th round, and rescued by the referee not long after. Even the defeated fighter said thanks.
Within days Leonard was making the same excuses to himself, the injury beat him not Camacho. Plans were made to fight again, thankfully, they came to nothing. Even Leonard had begrudgingly seen enough. Before the final nail in his career, there had been discussions with Oscar De La Hoya, Camacho did Leonard a favour in many different ways.
Leonard struggled after his boxing life had closed, still heavily drinking, the Camacho fight never far from his mind. Forever tempted to return to erase the pain of that one final entry into his old world. The drink and the cocaine, even his life in boxing hid many things. A failure to fully process the horrors of his early life.
Leonard in his autobiography said he was sexually abused on two different occasions and had been running in different ways ever since. The drink, drugs and boxing were addictions to hide a deeper inner unimaginable pain. At different times they helped, but only temporarily. A more permanent solution was needed.
“I went through real darkness but the ring was my light. That was the one place I felt safe,” he told Donald McCrae in an interview in 2012.
In many ways, ‘Sugar Ray was an alter ego, a character of convenience. Ray Leonard was often hidden away behind the showman.
Leonard with the incredible wealth and fame he had at the peak of his career, had many temptations at hand, very few would be resisted. He found solace in the bottle and elsewhere, but the ring was probably the one place he could forget everything else. Maybe that’s the real reason why the character was brought out so often. The character needed killing off once and for all.
Eventually, albeit belatedly, Leonard admitted he was an alcoholic, and got the help he badly needed. AA meetings were now his saviour, to finally bury his alter ego and his demons. The initial meeting he came in disguise, a familiar part of his life. It took several months before he admitted what he was, the hardest most important words he would ever utter.
Just by saying he was an alcoholic, Leonard had won the most important fight he ever had.