Sugar Ray Leonard: Olympic Gold & The First Retirement
The 1976 Montreal Olympic Games were supposed to be the final chapter in the boxing life of Sugar Ray Leonard.
“I’m finished. I’ve fought my last fight. My journey has ended. My dream is fulfilled. Now I want to go to school.” Leonard would say in his moment of glory.
Leonard had plans to leave boxing behind him, the University of Maryland to study business administration and communications was the supposed next chapter. The hands were brittle and hurting, the pain had started in 1973, and was getting worse. They tried various ways to remedy the pain. They would fail, Leonard had to persevere and accept his sport came with consequences.
But circumstances prevented Leonard from leaving the sport behind. Both of his parents got ill, and with rising medical bills, Leonard needed money and quick. The expected million-dollar endorsements failed to materialise. Boxing was his solution. The only solution.
Sugar Ray Leonard was part of the All American Dream Team. The USA team at those Canadian Games was perhaps the greatest ever team the Americans have ever assembled for an Olympic Games. At the previous Olympics in Munich, only one American, Sugar Ray Seales, came home a winner. Four years later things would be very different.
Louis Curtis, Leo Randolph, Charles Mooney, Davey Lee Armstrong, Howard Davis, Ray Leonard, Clint Jackson, Charles Walker Jr, Michael Spinks, Leon Spinks and John Tate, only the 1984 team could rival that incredible array of talent.
Leonard failed to qualify for the Munich Games four years earlier, he was 16, he had time. Qualification for Montreal was no formality, Ronnie Shields, Bruce Curry and others needed to be dealt with. Leonard obliged impressively and he was on the plane.
The road to Olympic glory was long, he would need six victories. The light-welterweight Gold medal was no formality. Ulf Carlsson from Sweden, Valery Limasov from the Soviet Union, Britain’s Clinton McKenzie all fell to defeat at the hands of Leonard. In the quarter-finals, the East German Ulrich Beyer went the same way and when the Polish fighter Kazimier Szczerba also came up short, Leonard was in the Olympic final.
But he faced a formidable foe in the Cuban Andres Aldama. Leonard had won all his bouts 5-0, but Aldama had stopped all his opponents en-route to the final. Leonard had to defeat a fearsome big punching Cuban and the lingering pain in his hands. The day before the fight Leonard overheard someone say Aldama was going to kill him. The fears fighters have to somehow compress.
Aldama was dangerous, but Leonard was scintillating. He moved, he dazzled, and when he put his opponent down in the second round, Leonard only had to remain upright in the third and final round to claim the Gold medal. The ‘Sugar Man’ would make no mistake.
The American Team won five Gold medals at those Montreal Games, they also brought home a Bronze and a Silver. The 1984 selection would collect more medals in total, but those American hosted Games saw eighteen countries stay away including the Cuban team. Yes, there were boycotts in Canada, but arguably, the medal haul would have been the same. Which team was best, the debate will never likely end.
Leonard looked like a star in the making. But after building a 145-5 resume, Leonard was done with boxing, or so he thought. Leonard said he meant it when he retired in 1976, maybe this was the only time he did really mean it. The retirements were plenty, how much sincerity there was each time, only Leonard truly knows.
That first retirement was short-lived, and despite several more similar announcements, Leonard would carve out a professional career that was beyond special. He would call Montreal his most precious moment, it was supposed to be the end. It was just the start.