Sugar Ray Leonard: The Prime & The Decline

Sugar Ray Leonard: The Prime & The Decline

Sugar Ray Leonard had many flaws outside of the ring. The demons, the addictions would have left regrets, and many of them. But inside a boxing ring, he had few flaws. Even though his peak was cut short by many things, he is beyond doubt, one of the greatest boxers ever to have graced the sport.

Leonard outstayed his welcome, too many fights we didn’t need to see. He couldn’t let go, the overinflated ego wasn’t the only reason the story wouldn’t end. Leonard had a bigger fight from within. But one he would eventually win.

Despite what he achieved, we were denied seeing Leonard at his absolute peak. When he waved goodbye in 1982 because of eye problems, that would have been Leonard at his best. Leonard did return in 1984 in that uninspiring comeback against Kevin Howard, but enough of the shine had left his body to convince Leonard to retire and abandon his return after just one solitary fight. From 1982 to 1984, they were very much the lost years for Leonard. And for us.

Leonard fought infrequently after the ‘main’ retirement he announced in Baltimore, Maryland, a cocktail of the sublime and the regrettable.

Some labelled the win over Marvelous Marvin Hagler in 1987 an illusion of a victory, it wasn’t. The truth is often lost in boxing. Leonard won, it was close, but even Hagler must have known in those moments of reflection and honesty, that slow start cost him. Pride can deny the reality. In a sport where you can have nothing but the truth, there is still probably a semblance of a lie close to the surface of any statement.

Leonard retired again but returned in a manipulation of many things to fight Donny LaLonde in 1988. He picked himself off the canvas once again before stopping the Canadian to lift the WBC light-heavyweight title, and somehow, the WBC super-middleweight title in the process. A good fight inside the ring, but outside it, it was a fight that was a true illusion. World titles should mean something, they should be everything.

Thomas Hearns finally got his rematch in 1989, Leonard was dropped twice before escaping with a draw. A third fight with Roberto Duran followed, one scribe said it was a night where we saw one fighter who couldn’t fight no more and the other didn’t want to. A sad way to conclude a trilogy and a series of fights between the four finest fighters of their generation. The era of the Fabulous Four faded away in a way it didn’t deserve.

Terry Norris comprehensively beat Leonard in Madison Square Garden on points and Leonard finally called time. But as the memory of his humbling night faded, Leonard returned one final time six years later in 1997. Hector Camacho inflicted the final nail, and the coffin was firmly closed.

But those twilight years of indifference and inconsistency hid plenty. But even when Leonard was fighting erosion and more we still saw glimpses of what he once was. Very much a career of two halves, Leonard was merely a good fighter masquerading as a great fighter. In the early years, Leonard didn’t have to pretend anything.

A legacy is defined and enhanced by who you fight. Leonard had a dance floor of willing and deserving partners.

Wilfred Benitez, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran. Leonard beat and stopped all three. Even when Duran out brawled Leonard on that unforgettable night in Montreal, the ‘Sugar Man’ proved he was anything but just sweetness and light. Revenge was sweet in Montreal, but ‘No Mas’ took away what Leonard did that night.

Leonard showed a little bit of everything in the big unification welterweight showdown with Hearns in 1981. Probably his greatest win. Although the victory over Hagler was in many ways, the performance of his life.

YouTube is saturated with Leonard at his best, the early days of Olympic glory, the rise through the professional ranks and the immense quality of his championship reign. It was short, too short, but it was some ride, a rollercoaster of twists and turns. Leonard ended his career with a 36-3-1 resume and only one win in his last four fights and he signed out with two straight defeats. But the decline shouldn’t dim the prime. Only the rampaging marauding Duran beat Leonard when it meant something. In probably the greatest era in boxing history, that is some statistic.

In his private life Leonard often struggled to find his way, but where he felt most at ease, Leonard, with the Montreal exception, always found a way to win. Was he the greatest fighter to have ever laced on a pair of gloves? Opinions will differ, and arguments will rage, but there is little argument that at the very least, Leonard deserves to be in the conversation.

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