Sugar Ray Leonard: Kevin Howard & Yet Another Retirement
Marvelous Marvin Hagler was the specially invited guest to Sugar Ray Leonard’s party of supposed significance. Hagler attended the gala evening in 1982 expecting to have his dream fight finally announced. The fight he always craved.
But his journey would be a wasted one. Leonard made his entrance to the ring at the Baltimore Civic Center and looking straight at Hagler, Leonard said:
”A fight with this great man, with this great champion, would be one of the greatest fights in history. Unfortunately, it’ll never happen.”
It looked like an act of cruelty, Leonard said he changed his mind every day, and didn’t know what he would say until about a week before he stepped foot inside that Baltimore ring. He said he wanted Hagler there just in case he changed his mind.
Leonard continued to have second thoughts even though he had already done an interview with Sports Illustrated saying he would indeed be waving goodbye to boxing. But whatever the truth, after suffering a detached retina, Leonard had made his decision to formally retire from boxing.
Missing the spotlight, Leonard descended into his now normal routine. Without boxing to hide the pain of the sexual abuse he suffered earlier in his life, Leonard hit the bottle with even more intensity and delved deeper even into the world of cocaine. Without boxing, he couldn’t avoid the reminders of the horrors he had suffered or avoid the problems of his home life which were crumbling around him. At home Leonard was no saint, to say the least, there were reasons for his behaviour, but no excuses.
Leonard had his TV work with HBO which to some extent filled the void left by his retirement from the ring, but it was more a reminder to what he was missing. And needed.
In 1983 Leonard was in Las Vegas to work on Hagler’s latest defence of his world middleweight title against Roberto Duran who had recovered his reputation from his ‘No Mas’ shame. Hagler struggled with Duran, and the Panamanian legend told Leonard that he felt Hagler was made for him if he boxed him in a similar manner to the way Duran fought him. The old rivals saw the flaws in Hagler, the old burning flame that was never truly extinguished flickered a little brighter. The initial seeds for the inevitable comeback had been planted.
After a boxing exhibition at the age of 27, Leonard announced he would make his return to the sport he shined so brightly in. Sean Mannion was the original intended first opponent, but he decided to take less money for a fight with Mike McCallum for the world light-middleweight title. A decision that Mannion must surely regret more with each passing day.
Kevin Howard, a Philadelphia journeyman with 4 defeats on his ordinary-looking record, and on the surface a fighter who seemingly posed little threat, was the opponent eventually picked out to take Leonard a little closer to that long-awaited fight with Hagler. Both fighters agreed to wear thumbless gloves to try and avoid the risk of an accidental thumb in the eye, the cause of many detached retinas in the sport.
There had been widespread concern that Leonard was making a comeback having suffered eye problems previously. That concern would be deepened when the fight with Howard was postponed just weeks out from that fight when Leonard yet again had eye problems.
His right eye this time was the problem. In a routine eye examination, it was discovered that there was retinal thinning in the right eye. A relatively quick and minor procedure corrected the issue, but the doubts over his comeback persisted. For many, Leonard was risking his eyesight in chasing something he already had.
The fight with Howard, who had taken a tune-up fight and won, was rescheduled for May of 1984, by that time Leonard had been out of action for twenty-seven months. In a fight billed as ‘The Best is Back, Leonard had to conquer many things in Worcester, Massachusetts. Larry Merchant talked about the risk to his eye and his reputation, a gamble of many things.
Leonard was primed for his return in February, but the extra months of waiting had taken away much of his edge. There was a long wait for the bell to ring as the National Anthem which was sung by his sister, the usual pre-fight introductions, including possible future opponents Aaron Pryor, Donald Curry and Hagler all being introduced to the crowd. Leonard was unusually distracted, the focus wasn’t there.
But he had bigger problems with his opponent. Howard knew this was his big chance. The scouting reports said he rarely came in shape, this time he had. Howard hadn’t read the script. They nicknamed him ‘The Spoiler’ they were right.
Showing signs of ring rust and doubts in his own mind Leonard was struggling to find his old rhythm and timing. In the 4th round, he finally started to loosen up, but he got overconfident and careless, one perfectly timed right hand put Leonard on the canvas for the first time in his career. The likes of Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearn couldn’t knock Leonard off his feet, but the hand-picked journeyman had.
Leonard said he decided to retire again at that precise moment, but he had to win the fight to save even further additional embarrassment on a night that was supposed to be the first steps on the road to Hagler.
There was always a fighter inside Leonard, behind all the flashy combinations and the tassels on his boots, he was in many ways, sugar and spite. Leonard dug deep, Howard’s moment had gone. Showing more willingness to engage from the 5th round on, Leonard got to work, the body punches particularly impressive.
Howard was more than in the fight, but Leonard finally gained the upper hand, and he found a stunning left hook in the 9th round to set up the finish. Howard was badly hurt, Leonard moved in for the kill and was landing more hard punches when the referee waved it off. It looked slightly premature, and Howard bitterly protested, but Leonard was ahead on the cards and was probably only a few punches away from removing any lingering doubt.
Leonard won but it was incredibly tough, Howard fought well above what we had seen before, Leonard looked nothing like the superstar of old. He admitted a worry to engage and get hit, by his standards, it wasn’t good enough.
For Howard the fight with Leonard was a career-high, he had four more fights and lost three of them before hanging up his gloves. For that one right hand, he will always be remembered.
Hagler was ringside for a reason, talks for a Superfight were at an advanced stage. Yet again the dream fight slipped away. “The story of my life,” Hagler would comment with frustration and regret.
“It just wasn’t there, every punch hurt,” Leonard said post-fight, as he walked away into the sunset once more. Leonard seemed to have finally accepted he couldn’t be the fighter he once was, and initially said he left the sport once more with no regrets.
Leonard seemed to have found the peace he needed and looked happy his life had finally moved on from boxing. But with Sugar Ray Leonard, there was always another fight.